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Countering China’s Hybrid War

During the continued India-China standoff along the LAC, China made considerable gains in Ladakh in 2020. Still, due to India’s pusillanimity, China has become India’s largest trading partner, profiting $100 billion annually through bilateral trade, which helps modernise the PLA. Beijing views all this as appeasement by India to avoid conflict. Although India is upgrading its military’s firepower, intelligence, and reconnaissance capabilities, India’s defence policy lacks adequate deterrence. India must pragmatically chalk out a strategy to counter China

By Lt Gen Prakash Katoch

SPECIAL FEATURE

The Paradox: India’s paradox in countering China is multifaceted in the backdrop of the continuing standoff along the 4,057-km LAC. In 2020, China gained considerably in Ladakh notwithstanding our denials. With our inability to disassociate from China, it has become India’s largest trading partner, profiting $100 billion annually through bilateral trade, which helps modernise the PLA. Beijing views all this as appeasement by India to avoid conflict, although some ‘yes men’ question why China is cosying up to India – covering India’s pusillanimity.

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A cross-section in India says we should ‘catch up’ with China before taking it on; without saying how many decades that would take, and why China would wait for India to become powerful enough. Ironically, we don’t have a national security policy, but we must pragmatically chalk out a strategy to counter China.

Imponderables

Imponderables facing India in countering China include:

  • Contours of China-Pakistan anti-India nexus and PLA presence in Pakistan.
  • The US-UK nurtured Pakistan as a counter to India.
  • The American focus on the Indo-Pacific and the US wanting an India-China war to divert Beijing’s Taiwan focus – synonymous with Robert Kaplan writing “pressure on land can help the US thwart China at sea”.
  • China’s influence in India’s neighbourhood to facilitate the opening of multiple fronts.
  • China’s technological advances in military fields – space, cyber, electromagnetic, nuclear, hypersonic, unmanned platforms and the like.
  • India’s asymmetric deficit vis-à-vis China. China employs ‘Unrestricted Warfare’ against all adversaries including India. The finesse with which China masterminded the Hamas attack on Israel in October 2023, demonstrates China’s asymmetric prowess.

Multiple strategy options are available to India, with some advocating stronger bonds with the United States. However, a deeper analysis indicates the best option is to establish and employ multiple ‘deep coalitions’ against China while retaining strategic autonomy. This would best serve the aim of balancing global players while keeping India’s national interests first

China’s Hybrid Warfare

China’s hybrid warfare expands from military to both military and non-military means since such conceptual change increases the capacity for violence in other dimensions such as politics, economics, and information networks, and this rise in violence-capacity is precipitated by the increase in technologies. It also advocates that warfare constitutes an independent sphere of action in which ethical standards are not applicable. Its key issues are: combining conventional, irregular and cyber; advancements in technology, weaponry and communications have enhanced its lethality; ambiguous and complex employment of multiple kinetic and non-kinetic means simultaneously, adapting to changing situations, using advanced weaponry and disruptive technologies, optimising propaganda through mass communications; special operations, information warfare and psychological operations are vitally important; application revolves around geostrategic Interests and exploiting traits, fault-lines and weaknesses of an adversary.

China’s strategy of ‘Deep Coalitions’ could consist of multiple nation-states, civil society organisations, narcotic-mafias, private corporations whose interests are at stake, individual speculator (s), and other components. Deep Coalition involves players at many levels of the system; it is multi-dimensional with all groups operating all the time, in a continuous flow – multiplying, fissioning, then fusing into others, and so on.

big bang

India aims for a US$7 trillion economy by 2030, including technology, finance, integrated domestic market and inclusive growth. But our development must be comprehensive, including addressing the galloping unemployment, home to the world’s largest poor population, the Maoists belt and the northeast. We must also remember how Southeast Asian economies were artificially inflated in the past and then deflated

Strategy Required

  • Aim. The aim of India’s grand strategy should include: unhindered economic growth maintaining territorial integrity; establish deterrence against and weaken the China-Pak nexus – avoiding conventional conflict, as possible; protect SLOCs and freedom of Global Commons; cripple China’s aggressive moves by forcing it to look inwards; open land access to Afghanistan-Central Asia, generate an effective global response to nuclear terrorism; become a global economic and militarily strong nation.
  • Options. Multiple strategy options are available to India, with some advocating stronger bonds with the US. However, a deeper analysis of all options indicates the best option for India is to establish and employ multiple ‘deep coalitions’ against China while retaining strategic autonomy. This would best serve the aim of balancing global players while keeping India’s national interests first.
  • Economy and National Development. India’s MCap has crossed US$5 trillion for the first time – 5th biggest equity market after the US, China, Japan and Hong Kong. The journey from US$4 trillion to US$5 trillion took less than six months. India aims for a US$7 trillion economy by 2030, including technology, finance, integrated domestic market and inclusive growth. But our development must be comprehensive, including addressing the galloping unemployment, home to the world’s largest poor population, the Maoists belt and the northeast. We must also keep in mind how the economies of Southeast Asia were artificially inflated in the past and then deflated.

Our deterrence in conventional conflict was found wanting in 2020 facing the PLA in eastern Ladakh because we failed to execute an ‘offensive defence’.  Kailash Range in our territory should have been completely occupied as a deterrence to invading PLA motorised divisions. Vacating it without PLA withdrawal from Depsang and Demchok was a strategic blunder

National Defence and Military Power

  • China’s 2024 defence budget is US$231 billion (increased 7.2 per cent from 2023) compared to India’s Rs 6.21 lakh crore (approx US$75 billion). Our defence allocation is continuously below 2 per cent of GDP – less than the 1962 allocation. Also, China allocates some US$70 billion for border infrastructure compared to India allotting US$16 billion. With a US$5 trillion economy, a defence budget of 4-5 per cent of GDP (separate from defence pensions) should be allocated in the next decade if we are serious about catching up/overtaking China. Similarly, we should shed political obduracy and revert to regular recruitment, shelving the ‘Agnipath’ concept, because outright discarding the possibility of a protracted war with China is naïve.
  • We must define a national security strategy and undertake a comprehensive defence review. A clear policy to deal with the China-Pakistan nexus must be evolved. All-inclusive military jointness must be achieved at the earliest. The nuclear policy should be revisited, and effective mitigation of internal security challenges, foolproof border control and credible deterrence against collusive hybrid threats developed. Our influence in the strategic neighbourhood must be maximised using diplomatic, military, economic and hybrid means.
  • The ‘Make in India’ should learn from ongoing wars; Houthi shooting down six MQ-9 Reaper drones, Iran’s hypersonic missiles targeting Israel despite an advance warning, degradation of US weapons in Ukraine due to Russian electromagnetic interference, Ukraine losing 10,000 drones every month, drone wall (Norway to Poland) planned by six NATO countries and the like. Our continued dependence on imports is suicidal.
  • We must: bridge hollowness in defence; enhance ISR and strategic targeting capability; perpetuate a two-front dilemma for Pakistan calling its nuclear bluff; perpetuate A2AD in Tibet and IOR and establish strategic springboard in Andaman and Nicobar; create quid-pro-quo capability up the escalatory ladder at theatre level and project tailor-made offensive accretion forces along the LAC.
  • Special focus must be given to developing surface and sub-surface offensive and defensive capabilities in the IOR, including building underwater barriers and mass employment of drones.
  • We should develop the Indian version of ‘Assassin’s Mace’ (disruptive stealth) weapons, refocus on EW, cyber warfare and information warfare, form a ‘National Information Warfare Department, integrate military into cyber warfare and establish a ‘National Coordination Centre for Information Sharing and Analysis’. A single-point responsibility of C4I2SR within the Army is essential.
  • Our deterrence in conventional conflict was found wanting in 2020 facing the PLA in eastern Ladakh because we failed to execute an ‘offensive defence’. Kailash Range in our territory should have been completely occupied as a deterrence to invading PLA motorised divisions. Vacating it without PLA withdrawal from Depsang and Demchok was a strategic blunder, especially since we were holding Black Top and Base of Magar Hill – both overlooking the PLA’s Moldo Garrison and the northwest bank of Spanggur Lake. With the PLA refusing to pull back, what stops us now from reoccupying the Kailash Range again? Similarly, we must plan to occupy the Karakoram Pass, before China occupies it to threaten DBO and our defences in the Siachen Glacier
  • Special Forces have a prominent role in shaping the environment in India’s favour. We continue to mainly use them within our borders despite Pakistan’s continuing proxy war, which portrays us as a ‘soft state’. This must change.

Developing Deep Coalitions

As mentioned above, India should establish multiple ‘Deep Coalitions’ without disturbing or building upon existing strategic partnerships in order to address the China-Pakistan anti-India nexus. Depending on the aim of the individual ‘deep coalition’ India will need to decide the nation/group of nations that need to be co-opted in the particular deep coalition, covering aims like: one, isolate Pakistan as terror exporting country; two, deter and weaken China-Pak nexus; three, open India’s land access to Afghanistan-CAR; four, help stabilise Afghanistan and protect Indian interests abroad; five, deter Chinese naval bases in IOR and protect SLOCs; six, cripple China’s aggressive moves by forcing it to look inwards; seven, weaken China’s gravitational pull in the strategic neighbourhood; eight, generate declared global response to nuclear terrorism, and; nine, enable progressing own Comprehensive National Defence (CND).

Conclusion

India is upgrading its military’s firepower, intelligence, and reconnaissance capabilities, as well as border infrastructure, both civilian and military. India is also diversifying defence imports and zeroing on new trade partners although China has overtaken the US as India’s top trading partner. However, our defensive policy lacks adequate deterrence. The requirement is to chalk out a holistic strategy to counter China through the next decade.

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The writer is an Indian Army veteran. The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda