Lt Gen (Dr) Rakesh Sharma (Retd.), Distinguished Fellow, VIF
It is said that Mandarin is a nuanced language, where multiple meanings can be drawn and where even the tone in which it is spoken can completely change the meaning. What Deng Xiaoping said in 1989-90 has had many versions, the commonest being, ‘hide you strength, bide your time.’ There are many other meanings like, Keep a low profile/Don’t draw attention to yourself or Put a shade over the light/brightness, nurture (ourselves) in dimmed space/obscurity. What he certainly meant was to observe the changes in the international situation calmly and stabilize domestic economic construction and political situation. China commenced its journey by being good at maintaining a low profile, and never claimed global or regional leadership, till it commenced testing the waters, initially after the 2008 economic meltdown and accelerated from 2013 (on taking over by President Xi Jinping) and more so after the 19th Party Congress in 2017. As world stands on the threshold of the CCP’s 20th Party Congress, in the coinage of ‘new era,’ ‘Hide Your Strength, Bide your time’ is indeed Finito! For today’s China the new adage is – show your strength, it’s your time!
Presidents Xi’s enunciated core positions are the realization of the “Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation” and the “Chinese Dream,” new “centenary goals”; building of a “moderately prosperous society” and the establishment of a “great modern socialist country” by 2049, the 100th anniversary of modern China. The CCP passed a “historical resolution”, cementing President Xi Jinping’s status in political history. Consequently, PRC’s new Global Security Initiative (GSI), introduced in April 2022 is to uphold “common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security concept.” It is obvious that new agenda is being set for domestic affairs, foreign and security policies and new international security architecture is being planned to China’s advantage. The assurances to the global audience that China is a peaceful power, aspiring for “community of common destiny for humanity”, has been put to rest.
China’s periphery in the ‘new era’ has witnessed expansionism in South and East China Seas, in Eastern Ladakh, Nepal, Bhutan and Taiwan indicating that China is attempting to establish global influence by first establishing regional hegemony. China has been increasingly speaking of sovereignty issues. In early 2013, President Xi linked sovereignty with the accomplishment of his “China dream,” proclaiming that “no foreign country should expect us to trade away our core interests” or expect China “to swallow the bitter fruit” of encroachments on its “sovereignty.” In 2018, President Xi had proclaimed that China “cannot lose even one inch of the territory left behind by our ancestors.” In practice, President Xi’s renewed emphasis on sovereignty is evident in China’s actions in its periphery. The image of China that emerges is of an ambitious revanchist power, one determined to make China whole again by “reuniting” Taiwan with the mainland, turning the East and South China Seas into Chinese lakes, and grabbing regional primacy as a stepping-stone to global power.
China is hence making itself the dominant player in its territorial frontier and Indo Pacific, up to the first island chain and with ambitions in Indian Ocean and beyond. China is, indeed, uneasy about America’s alliances in the region, and the increasing push to QUAD and AUKUS. As long as the US retains a strong military position along the first island chain, China suspects that regional powers—from India to Vietnam, Taiwan and Japan—will resist China’s rise. Put simply, China cannot be a true global power, and reach its Dream, if it remains surrounded by inimical land territories, US allies and security partners, military bases, and other outposts of a hostile superpower.
Simultaneously, there have also been very significant changes in the strategic Tibetan and Xinjiang geography. The incursions in Eastern Ladakh clearly indicated coercion and intimidation being integral to Chinese methodology for realising geopolitical ambitions. The Chinese stance in negotiations with India for the last two years has been of belligerence, revanchist and expansionist policies. New strategic assets include underground silos, blast pens in airfields, missile sites, positioning of PLAAF aircraft, new infrastructure like road-rail structures (including the proposed G695) and attempts to change the demographics of border areas. These speedy and militarily focussed infrastructural upgradations cannot be without motivation and are all challenging the notions of peace on the border.
It is not that China internally does not have serious issues. China is undergoing a major heat wave which is seriously affecting its economy. A dangerously dry Yangtze River basin has forced shutdowns of hydro-powered factories, including Toyota, lithium battery-maker CATL and raw material companies. China in July-August 2022 experienced a wave of bank runs in Henan and Ansui Provinces, triggered by frozen deposits in online accounts worth 40 billion Yuan ($6 billion) and affecting 400,000 depositors. Internally China has major concerns of financial insecurity, external and internal debt, dubious online investment schemes and ongoing property crisis. Attempts are being made to prevent potential financial contagion and social instability and unrest. There will be retardation in Chinese growth due to negative demographics and reduced productivity. Having mentioned that, it is also imperative to acknowledge that China has created fair amount of global influence, by extensive investments, which have tied over hundred nations to its economic coat-tails.
China is an authoritarian political system, with an assertion of CCP’s absolute power. President Xi has greatly consolidated power with the constitutional changes of open-ended term of Presidency, jettisoning the age limit of 68 and the great purge in CCP/PLA, ostensibly on grounds of corruption. President Xi will be a leader for a long time into the future. However, as an authoritarian leader desirous of cementing his place in PRC history, 2049 for completion of Chinese Dream seems yet too far. Hence, completion of major missions for the ‘rejuvenation’ may demand preponement to say the 22nd Party Congress that is within the next 10 odd years. Therefore, understanding CCP’s particular view of the role of the party, the role of the country within the South Asian and Indo-Pacific region, and what China seeks to do in the world at large, demands concrete understanding. Any nation that acquires such comprehensive national power in a short duration could well be tempted to use it, to achieve its Dream!
For China, India is the geopolitical challenger with her global legitimacy as a democracy, her attractiveness to the world and her geopolitical location in the Indo-Pacific. China has grave concerns of access to and dependence on Indian Ocean, with its choke point configuration, and of the Indian peninsula that abuts it. There is an ancient Chinese proverb that states, “two tigers cannot share the same mountain.” It may then be necessary for China to hold back or distract India form reaching her potential – economically, politically and militarily!
Addressing the nation on its 76th Independence Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to turn India into a developed nation in 25 years, by 2047. Contextually, India’s economy should expand to become the world’s third-largest, after the United States and China, in nominal GDP. Naturally India will need gen-next reforms, an iron will and determination, to turbo-charge her economic growth. A developed India would depend on steady growth of economy, socio-economic development and human resource development indicators, social harmony and indeed, hard power to reach Indian aspirations in the comity of nations.
Traditionally, India has banked on hard military power for creating deterrence by denial and/or punishment to safeguard the nation from coercion, nuclear or conventional military threat. Deterrence for the two adversaries has encompassed two broad approaches – deterrence by the imposition of costs (‘deterrence by punishment’) and deterrence by making it very difficult and expensive for aggressor to achieve its aims (‘deterrence by denial). It simply implied to any potential adversary that any benefits that they may seek by harming India will be outweighed by the costs that can be imposed. This deterrence is not so apparent in the ongoing contestation in the large arena (dubbed ‘grey zone’) between peace and war. There is optimal need for modern capabilities for modern deterrence and resilience. Essentially, it is to maximise the potential of the full range of government’s capabilities, ranging from non-kinetic to kinetic effects, fused in one holistic whole.
The strategic community in India needs to candidly debate on what will be deterrence to produce fear in the mind of the adversary. Deterrence to be credible threat of force must successfully be communicated to the adversaries to retain status quo. It is not the actual use of force. Contextually, nuclear arsenal may not provide for strategic deterrent, except against nuclear weapons. Hence to judge the effectiveness of modern conventional deterrence, Indian posture must demonstrate capabilities, and credibility of national will, and effectively communicate these to the adversary. Case in point is that an adversary can only be deterred from launching ballistic and cruise (or hypersonic) missiles if India has a robust and effective missile defence system. And India has an assured, strong response that will deter the adversary from undertaking such offensive actions.
Deterrence by denial must not only be series of defensive lines, or offensive riposte, even if credible and effective in causing immense attrition on the aggressor. If the adversary has credible capabilities in multiple domains against limited resilience and deterrence, and can achieve political objectives/ end-state, then defensive-lines “deterrence by denial” may not fully work. In the same context, there is need to enhancing resilience by strengthening the capacity of society at large and institutions to absorb the full range of threats and hazards.
Though the subject of cross-domain deterrence is yet nascent, India must examine the scope of multi-domain prospective responses to unfriendly acts, like say cyber attack on power or banking sector. These need not be symmetrical, or be in the same domain.
There is also need to examine prospective modern military capabilities, from non-siloed perspective. Our prospective doctrinal structure and capabilities MUST be such that it ensures that India does not face a two-front war – even if collusion exists. Indian politico-military establishment must hence adjudicate of the serious dichotomy between ‘desirables’ and ‘possibles’ of modernisation among the Services. The Integrated Capability Development Plan must indicate the resolution between ‘ways’ of capability development and ‘means’ available (or likely to be). Prioritisation between Services is a crying need, and ought to reflect on conceptualisation of future, modern warfighting!
India is also on the throes of cognitive warfare and malicious disinformation campaign from inimical elements that target the society at large. Need is to build civil society capacities, trust with local communities for fact-checking, identifying disinformation narratives and coordinated inauthentic behaviour. This demands concerted digital and media literacy, networking and coalition building, and may be even international cooperation. India needs to evolve a potent apex level organization for offensive and defensive cognitive operations. The Armed Forces could also raise a separate Defence Cognitive Operations Agency under the DMA.
In sum, can India become a developed country by 2047? This should be no brainer. India can and must strive towards becoming developed nation by 2047. There would be many inimical powers attempting to retard India’s aspirations, by all means. Majorly, indeed it depends on the performance of the national economy. However, hard power is imperative and must be based on modern doctrines on multiple domains of future war fighting, and a well conceptualised and developed integrated capability development matrix.
(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct).