Not a time to whip up India-China war hysteria: The Statesman columnist

A Chinese soldier stands next to an Indian soldier at the Nathu La border crossing between India and China.
A Chinese soldier stands next to an Indian soldier at the Nathu La border crossing between India and China.PHOTO: AFP

Harsha Kaker

NEW DELHI (THE STATESMAN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The speculation about a possible India-China conflict is gaining ground with the Doklam stand-off that has destroyed the fragile Sino-Indian cooperation on the border.

Whenever there is a terror strike by militants from across the border, Indian media discussions immediately hinge on war as a means of retaliation. With increase in ceasefire violations, media speculation only increases. After the Pathankot and Uri incidents, cries for waging war increased in tempo.

The Doklam standoff, which is now into its second month, has resulted in increased speculation in every form of media about a Indo-China conflict. Many strategic thinkers have also commented about a possible Chinese offensive. Some media houses even began comparing force levels of the two countries and the options in case war breaks out. The present Indian media hype has its genesis in articles published in state-controlled Chinese media, which threatens war almost daily.

From the commencement of the standoff, China has attempted psychological warfare by playing on war hype but to no avail. The Indian government has rightly down played the threat and issued conciliatory statements seeking to cool down temperatures, while always suggesting a diplomatic solution.

Indian media, however, fell for the Chinese bait and commenced playing its own war games. This surge in war hype in our media has impacted the common man. Such has been the doubt created amongst people that those unaware of military strategy and the nature of operations, and who had planned to visit Gangtok with confirmed reservations are cancelling fearing war. For the common man to understand the nature and complexities of war is difficult, but if the media continues playing the war card, it would affect the local economy, as Sikkim banks on tourism.

China has begun talking of local action to remove Indian soldiers. It takes two to tango and the Chinese are aware of this. Local action implies moving in troops to capture Indian soldiers in the standoff. Opening fire is not an easy decision and could easily escalate, which neither desires. India could either bring in more troops if it continues to seek a diplomatic solution or could mirror the Chinese action if it seeks to display strength, either of which would end in a stalemate.

Both options would be games of pressure with neither signalling an escalation. A war has other connotations, which need to be understood. War can never happen overnight, irrespective of how powerful a country is. The only action which a country can adopt without warning is employing air power, missile strikes or a nuclear strike.

This can only happen when a nation, like the USA or Russia in West Asia, strikes an adversary in an area where it has no desire to employ its own ground troops or hold ground. The strikes are aimed at supporting an ally and are normally resorted to when the intention is to degrade military capabilities of an adversary.

Between countries which share a common border and have troops deployed, employing such actions without forces readily available to occupy defences which have been struck are unlikely to produce any worthwhile results.

When both nations possess near parity in capabilities, there is bound to be an immediate retaliation, escalating the situation. Thus for India and China to even contemplate war, there are certain indicators which would be visible, enabling both nations to seek options for immediate de-escalation, as war would harm both almost equally.

For war to occur, one nation would need to launch an offensive, in this case it would be China. This would imply movement of sufficient forces close to the area of operations. Soldiers moving forward alone is not enough. Supporting elements including guns, ammunition and war stores have also to be deployed.

This movement is time-consuming and even if conducted piecemeal or at night, is electronically visible to the adversary. If the Chinese aim is to launch localised operations, it would need to secure the border in the near vicinity to deny India from taking advantage of the situation elsewhere as the border is termed as the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

This is akin to mobilisation which India resorted to after the Parliament attack in 2001, termed Operation Parakram, where it took time, permitting world powers and Pakistan to react. In the Sikkim sector due to altitude issues, troops would also need to be acclimatised to low temperatures, hence there would be additional time penalty in the preparatory phase.

Neither nation has sufficient air power deployed in the region but the same can be deployed rapidly, due to its inherent mobility. However, preparation of air bases and movement of stores and ammunition would definitely be giveaways.

While the emphasis of both nations is on land, the navies would also move into their areas of operation in case hostilities are imminent. Thus, while the nation seeking to take offensive action would first activate its naval power the other would soon follow.

The world is watching this standoff with rapt attention as escalation could be disastrous for the region and both nations. International satellites are monitoring. In case excessive movement indicating imminent hostilities is observed, the world would immediately commence applying pressure for de-escalation.

Both nations have their own surveillance equipment concentrated on monitoring the adversary, watching for any build-up or war-like deployment. In case any movement hinting towards war is visible to one, the other would immediately begin taking counter measures. India has no offensive designs, hence would only enhance its defences as a counter measure.

Thus far, despite the rhetoric, engagement by diplomacy is continuing as neither nation seeks escalation. War hysteria is part of Chinese psychological warfare aimed at application of pressure through internal sources, including a dip in the stock market and opposition political parties compelling the government to withdraw unilaterally.

This strategy flows from Sun Tzu's teaching which states, 'supreme art of war is not to subdue the enemy by winning the battle, it is to subdue the enemy without fighting the battle'.

A war would have multiple impacts, including its effect on the Chinese economy stemming from its positive balance of payments and investments in India, international support to India etc. Further, there are other issues including the BRICS summit in September and the Chinese Communist Party Congress in October/November which would impact Chinese decision making.

Thus, war is still miles away. Hence the media should refrain from continuing to build war hysteria. It should rather echo the Indian government line of diplomatic resolution. Negative war hysteria adversely affects the common Indian and in the bargain impacts the economy of Sikkim.