Is war an inevitability? How prepared should India be?

The author’s prognosis of a major contestation in the not-so-distant future is situated in the South China Sea. The compelling logic portends China’s proclivity to fight one or possibly two major wars before 2035, either with Taiwan or India before the major US-China war.

War Time: Rajiv Dogra

This is a meticulously researched and compellingly narrated journey across the future battlefields of the world. The author. Rajiv Dogra, a former Indian ambassador, examines hotspots around the world through the prism of the principal stakeholders in Wartime: The World in Danger (Rupa), and concludes: “Whichever path the world chooses in the difficult decade ahead, it should keep reminding itself that history is the consequence of its choices”.

What the author does is similar to Hegelian dialectics: he turns the much touted present-day foreign policy dictums on their heads. He questions, after analysis and logic, the following:
-Is the US a reliable strategic partner for India or is the relationship only transactional?
-Will the US let us down when the final moment of war confronts us?
-Should India have worked harder on maintaining its relations with Russia?
-How useful is the Quad in checkmating China’s rise?
-Have India’s Quad partners overestimated India’s strength to the arrangement or underestimated China’s strength?
-Should India have focussed on multipolarity instead of alliances to checkmate China?
-Since the Western alliance led by the US is in decline, militarily, politically and economically, should not the proposed containment of China be accompanied by measures to accommodate some of its concerns?
- Should not soft power be given another chance? The retreat of ‘universal civilisation’ and ‘multiculturalism’, based on the concept of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ is happening at a time when the world is fully interlocked.  

The theme is stark: Is the apocalypse finally upon us? Is the nuclear “war” that Mao spoke of, finally upon us? Dogra reminds us of what Mao said: "If imperialists unleash a (nuclear) war on us, we may lose more than three hundred million people. So what? War is war...’

The author’s views on the challenges facing us today are refreshingly frank. The rise of China owes much to the US policy of appeasement towards China, which it sought to use as a counterweight to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In doing so, the West led itself into the Thucydides trap, quite oblivious to China’s strategy of ‘biding its time and hiding its strength’, designed to restore the glory of the Middle Kingdom.

The author dispassionately analyses the challenges of India’s neighbourhood.  A “serious and growing asymmetrical relationship” with China, which has indulged in four instances of “salami slicing” along the undemarcated border since 2012, and an increasingly bellicose and belligerent Pakistan means that India has to be prepared for a “single continuous war” along two fronts and not a two-front war — sans any assistance from the US or Russia.

As he says: “Since India no longer faces just unidirectional threats, it has to take a 360-degree view and prepare accordingly. Making the challenge dire is the fact that it is not a mere two-front war that India faces, but more likely a ‘single continuous war’ along two fronts. This war, when it happens, might stretch from one extremity of the Indo-Pak boundary to the other end of the Indo-China border”.

He adds: “In that case, India will have to contend with a ‘collaborative war’ that involves interoperability between China and Pakistan across the entire military spectrum. Such a war will be fought both in the deep seas and on the high Himalayas”.

“Till then, China would like to undermine India, relegate it to regional identity, keep it economically under slung and, most of all, keep it engaged by all other means short of war. But it’ll also be prepared for the next war (pp.32)”.

In the emerging scenario, India would have to reckon with the unacceptable risks of having to fight two adversaries simultaneously on either side.

Dogra is sceptical about the US being a reliable strategic partner. Any willingness on India’s part to respond forcefully to China might be “welcomed” in the US, where successive administrations have sought to integrate India into America’s Indo-Pacific strategy.  He adds a caveat. “This does not mean that the US will promptly jump into the fray”, adding: “When this war breaks out, India could well be reminded that the US has 47 treaty allies and it is not one of them.”

Noting that the nascent Quad partnership “has yet to create its Charter” and “languishes uncertainly”, he  writes that President Biden’s promise to transfer advanced technology, including submarine nuclear-propulsion to Australia under the AUKUS alliance “throws into stark relief India’s failure to acquire any significant high technology” from the US. In fact, “All that India has to show for its ‘strategic partnership’ is the nearly $22 billion worth of military hardware purchased from US companies”.

Dogra is also harsh on the US for its “mercantile” manner of dealing with India. “Even if the US wishes to pursue a transactional relationship with India, it has to recognise the basic rule of transaction – that there are two parties to it. A relationship where only one side is expected to place high-value purchase order cannot, by definition, be termed transactional.'

He notes:  “It becomes difficult to nurture such a relationship. But even if the US wishes to pursue a transactional relationship with India, it has to recognize the basic rule of the transaction – that there are two parties to it”. (pp 34-38)”.

As a result, doubts crop up and questions are raised: why did the US act so generously by transferring high technology and making huge investments in China? Why did the US lavish money and arms on Pakistan? In stark contrast, the author asks: “Why is it so mercantile and demanding when it comes to dealing with India”.

He concludes: “So, can India ever be an equal friend with the US? It seems unlikely as long as America’s approach to relationships is transactional”.

He notes: “Russia has continued to feel threatened by the West as it had been during the Cold War and in the centuries before that. As a consequence, it has chosen to walk into the willing arms of China”. Even today, there continue to be many in Russia who consider the Indian relationship to be precious, “yet, the last few years, India has let it slide,

 “One indication that Russians are miffed about it is (President Vladimir) Putin’s steadily briefer visits during Indo-Russian summits. Indo-Russian strategic linkages demand that these concerns should be quickly addressed, but India has been busy wooing the US”.

In such a situation, with “no longer the assurance of a 1971-type of treaty with the Soviet Union to turn to in the time of need”, and with Russia and China “locked in an anti-America embrace, it leaves India in an uneasy position”.

Russia may be China’s “current brother but it has been India’s friend over decades. In war, it might steer clear of taking sides. Therefore, it may pass on a few critical items to India and intelligence information to China. Whatever the ultimate alliances and partnerships, the consequences of an Indo-China war will be bad enough, but with Pakistan joining in, it will be the stuff of nightmares for India”.

Dogra hopes that the gap in the strategic parity between the two powers will be filled in by a multi-polar world constituted by emerging economies that will play a stabilising role on vital issues.

What then, are India’s options?  A nine-point plan of action is spelt out:
* India needs to upgrade military technology with the latest in AI, drones and electronic warfare.
* It needs to move away from its traditionally defensive approach because it is physically impossible for it to guard every inch of the over 6,800 km stretch of borders it shares with China and Pakistan.
* It must invest in gray zone operations in the enemy areas.
* It must adopt a whole of Government approach in countering threats to its security.
* Increasingly, India will have to find responses to the ‘cognitive war’ tactics of its enemies in addition to the possibility of ‘no contact’ warfare and the use of unmanned platforms in war.
* There is no reason to expect that, in any future war with China and/or Pakistan, India will understand their nuclear Rubicon or that the Indian armed forces will not inadvertently cross one or more.
* India must lessen its economic dependence on China in critical sectors.
* The US has become an increasingly critical partner for India. But this dependence raises serious questions as to whether it actually enhances India’s strategic imperatives or if it opens up new vulnerabilities.
* India’s effort should be to create issue-based coalitions. It will have to work with other countries who feel threatened by the overwhelming preponderance of the two great powers and who fear their marginalisation in a world of contention and strife.

The author’s prognosis of a major contestation in the not-so-distant future is situated in the South China Sea. The compelling logic portends China’s proclivity to fight one or possibly two major wars before 2035, either with Taiwan or India before the major US-China war.

The ongoing crisis in Ukraine presents an ominous picture where much is at stake for the West.
Not defending Taiwan or Japan is not an option, for it could run the risk of undermining the US global hegemony, and a retreat from there could alter permanently the geostrategic balance.

The author concludes that preparation for war might be necessary to avoid it. Diplomacy should be able to manage conflicts through compromise and conciliation. The world needs to keep reminding itself that history is a consequence of its choice and also responsibility.

One could add that Hegel said: “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history”. History has taught us that appeasement leads to war. In that sense, one could argue that containment is the only option.

As for multipolarity, one could, like Hegel, put it on its head and argue that the definition of multipolarity depends on which region one comes from; The EU will use it to checkmate Russia and India would imagine that it is a superior form of nonalignment.

Multipolarity cannot be achieved now. The world is aligned and containment is at the core of the continued existence of the world order. For that, one must prepare for war and hope it will not come.

So I leave the last word to the Bhagavad Gita 2-38-39.
“Prepare for war with peace in thy soul”.

(The author is a retired Indian ambassador. Views are personal)

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