War is a highly disruptive and devastating business, causing heavy loss of life and limb, ruining economies and setting back progress and development by decades. Governments therefore do everything they can to resolve disputes peacefully and avoid armed conflicts. But a defiant China has leveraged lessons learnt from bitter battles waged with South Korea, Japan and India into enormous strategic advantages, employing large-scale duplicity and dissimulation to threaten a fragile global order.
What is the secret of a country that evokes such universal fear today, browbeating middle and small countries into submission, without ever firing a single bullet? It is a master stroke of perception management, backed by an overwhelming military might, practically untested since 1984, not long after its shattering defeat at the hands of Vietnam in 1979. The Dragon must have realized that it does not pay to trifle with a country which had humbled the mighty US and compelled it to withdraw from its soil.
The battle of Kasserine Pass in North Africa (1943), for instance, is a stark reminder of how even well trained and equipped armies with an abundance of supplies can face a certain defeat if they are tactically raw. Conversely, a week or two on the actual battlefield teaches soldiers much more than months of training and preparation would. This inexperience, which has somehow escaped the scrutiny of the hawk eyed spy agencies, strategic experts and even the Pentagon, appears to be Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) biggest handicap, but masked with enough muscle-flexing and theatrics on the high seas and elsewhere to browbeat lesser powers.
In February 1943, the retreating Afrika Korps, completely exhausted by years of an unrelenting desert campaign against the British, still routed the much superior US 2nd Corps, under Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s exemplary leadership. The Desert Fox’s lightning assault on the 30,000 strong American force destroyed 200 of his tanks, capturing 60 of the steel monsters and much needed supplies, besides taking 4,000 US soldiers prisoners and killing 300.
The colossal Chinese charade, virtually without precedent in modern world history, has assumed dimensions of the gospel truth, even intimidating a superpower like the US and many powerful countries into virtual acquiescence, if not surrender. This approach is driven by the teachings of Sun Tzu, a Chinese general, which he formalized in ‘The Art of War’. He postulated that winning a war without arms, even employing deception and chicanery as tools, should be the highest goal of every commander.
This policy, pursued aggressively by China, systematically wears down an opponent’s resistance through arms twisting, intimidation, diplomatic doublespeak or promises of munificence, cleverly bypassing the necessity of war. Accordingly, Beijing mounts a sustained psychological campaign against neutral or not so friendly states in support its strategic goals, such as acquiring more favorable balance of trade and commerce, appropriating ports, sea lanes, natural resources and annexing territories not its own. A number of littoral states in India’s neighborhood and elsewhere have practically caved in to Beijing’s dictates, only to draw bitter lessons about being trapped.
India’s own case is quite illustrative of the ways in which it has been subjected to the Middle Kingdom’s coercive tactics in trade and boundary disputes and policy matters. The PLA encroaches upon Indian territories with impunity, laying claims to vast swathes of land on spurious grounds. It engages in a war of nerves but backs down when there is any danger of real conflict, a la Doklam. The PLA chose to avoid confrontation with the world’s most battle-hardened army, perhaps fearing that it could have been extremely counter-productive to do so.
In 1987 too, Gen Krishnaswamy Sundarji, then Army chief, flew an entire brigade of the 5th Mountain Division to Sumdorong Chu in Arunachal Pradesh (erstwhile NEFA) to stare down the massed Chinese hordes, committing provocative acts of incursion in the area. They blinked and withdrew, vindicating his stand. Sundarji had brushed aside the objections of then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, wary of antagonizing Beijing. Sundarji made it clear he wanted a free hand to deal with the PLA’s muscle flexing, else he would resign. The political establishment backed down.
It may be pointed out that in a period spanning nearly 60 years since 1962, China has only fought with two countries, India and Vietnam. It suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the latter in 1979 and made some headway there in 1984. In 1962 the PLA invaded India, overrunning our forward positions. The act of hostility ripped apart the façade of fraternal relations, promoted by the then political establishment. However, Beijing paid dearly for the second misadventure in Nathu La in 1967.Wise after these events China did make a couple of attempts to probe New Delhi’s nerve in 1987 at Sumdorong Chu and very recently at Dokalam. They withdrew when their muscle-flexing and posturing failed to overawe a determined Indian Army.
In the 35 years following the last engagement with Vietnam in 1984, a new generation of PLA soldiers has replaced the veterans, who have never been exposed to the horrors of war. So there is still less reason why China would want to wage war and risk the raw cadres. Experience is a decisive factor in winning wars, acquired in scores of battles. Some analysts still maintain that the PLA is better poised to fight India at low cost. China might rely on massive airpower to subdue India, but then it is armed with the father of all cruise missiles, the Brahmos, virtually unmatched by any counter measures.
(The author is a science and strategic affairs writer. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)