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'Teaching a Lesson' Can Hardly Be Considered a War Aim, Let Alone a Military Strategy 

If India is to live in stable peace with China for the next century, we need a revised grand strategy based on what we deduce is going to be the strategic environment, particularly as regards Chinese hegemony.

In the midst of its brewing border standoff with India in Ladakh at the end of May, China replaced the head of its Western Theatre Command Ground Force, General He Weidong, with a “rising star” of the Peoples’ Liberation Army, General Xu Ziling.

General Xu reports to the long-standing head of the PLA’s Western Theatre Command, General Zhao Zongqi, the commander responsible for overseeing the entire line of actual control with India.

“As tensions with India are escalating over border disputes, the Western Theatre Command needs a younger commander to lead frontier soldiers and officers in this current sensitive period,” the South China Morning Post quoted a “military insider” as saying.

What followed next is well-known. Indian and Chinese soldiers confronted each other at a few locations along the LAC and on June 16 there was a deadly clash between them in the Galwan valley. More than a month later, the promised ‘disengagement’ has still not happened on terms acceptable to India. The current tension is not the product of happenstance but of planning. But planning to what end, that is the question. What was the aim of the stand-off and the clash? Was there an actual strategy? Or was the aim simply to ‘teach India a lesson’?

Military thinking in all countries is taught in staff and war colleges, which generally go back to the late 19th century. Military thinking, however, underwent revolutionary changes during the European Enlightenment. The Enlightenment, which followed the Renaissance, produced a host of brilliant thinkers in the fields of politics, diplomacy, ethics, society, art, literature and technology. 

These changes took place between the early 16th and the late 18th centuries. India and China missed the Enlightenment altogether, and in India’s case explains one of the major causes of the crash in economic wealth – from a country producing 25% of the worlds GDP to 3% during this exact period.

Many ascribe India missing the enlightenment to colonialism, but this subject needs a separate and wider debate. But what of China? It had no colonial yoke and some other reason has to be found for its economic crash along similar lines. 

Army trucks move towards Ladakh amid LAC border tension, at Manali-Leh highway in Kullu, Friday, July 31, 2020. Photo: PTI

One of the great positives of the European Enlightenment was the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, when European powers, fed up with kingly attempts to enlarge territorial boundaries, sought to declare a status quo, as is where is. India’s territorial boundaries had to wait to 1951 to be finalised, till after the adoption of its constitution. So did China after the revolution go on increasing its territories well into the 20th century. Territories cannot expand without the military. 

The military in India, as in most Western countries, turns to Claus Von Clausewitz, a Prussian, and other British, French and Russian strategic writers to back their strategy. Most non-Chinese staff and war colleges teach the Clausewitzian principles of war, of which there are ten, the first being ‘Selection of the Aim or Objective’. In no staff college, except the Chinese one perhaps, would teaching someone a lesson be accepted as a war aim. So clearly, the Chinese are not only denied any of the advantages of the Enlightenment, but their military don’t bother with Clausewitz either. 

The great contribution of Clausewitz was the dictum that ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means’. This is to say that counties attempt to resolve their disputes through diplomacy, and when diplomacy fails, war may be resorted to. Indian officers and diplomats are brought up in this sequential school of thought. China, on the other hand, does not believe in forbearing conflict until all diplomatic efforts fail. China’s leaders believe that ‘teaching a lesson’ militarily is a necessary prelude to the conduct of diplomatic negotiations.

This is the principal explanation for China’s 1962 war with India, its 1979 war with Vietnam and, I believe, the aggression in Galwan. 

Also read: It Is Time to Accept How Badly India Misread Chinese Intentions in 1962 – and 2020

Unfortunately for the Chinese, no lessons were taught in 1979; and in 2020, the Indian army appears to have given as much as it got. 

The 1962 war is well covered in a new book by Bertil Lintner, who proves that Neville Maxwell was wrong to suggest the war was provoked by Nehru’s Forward Policy. The war had its origin in deep internal turmoil in China, caused by agricultural distress, and the collapse of the Great Leap Forward. So, what we must understand is that neither 1962 nor 2020 had any territorial objectives for Beijing. 

The reason we have to reason this out is that the problem with China is not going to go away. China is a permanent neighbor and growing ever more powerful. Its GDP is already more than that of the US in PPP terms. In another two or three decades it will be the strongest military power, and will claim the right to be the world’s hegemon. When it does, its Grand Strategy will remain unchanged – namely, Tianxia or ‘all under Heaven’.

This consists of a view of the world when China, as the Middle Kingdom, is the centre of the world, and all other countries are satellite tributaries. This is an old idea, and if China had had an Enlightenment, some astute political writer there would have made nonsense out of it.

Also read: What China Means When It Says India Needs to ‘Remember the Lessons from History’

But Beijing, in its supreme arrogance, continues with its Middle Kingdom belief, and the modern contributions made by Mao Zedong Thought and now Xi Jinping Thought. Ideas such as the armed forced belonging to the Communist Party, and the party leader and president leading the Central Military Commission. 

If India is to live in stable peace with China for the next century, we need a revised grand strategy based on what we deduce is going to be the strategic environment, particularly as regards Chinese hegemony. So far, we have produced neither a grand strategy nor our idea of the environment. We are only mired in defending boundaries which are sometimes over ambitious, like the infamous Ardagh-Johnson line, which even the British disowned.

True, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, during his 2003 Beijing visit, ‘signalled’ a willingness to resile from this line. But we need to expedite the boundary settlement, to do which, we must choose the best person from any party to negotiate, understanding that it involves both give and take.

Admiral Raja Menon was a career officer and a submarine specialist in the Indian Navy. He commanded seven ships and submarines before retiring in 1994 as assistant chief of naval staff (operations).