Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attend the group photo session during the BRICS Summit at the Xiamen International Conference and Exhibition Center in Xiamen, southeastern China's Fujian province on September 4, 2017. File Photo: Reuters / Kenzaburo Fukuhara / Pool
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The countries' ports will be neighbors in Sri Lanka. Photo: AFP

There is considerable commotion about a statement by India’s Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Bipin Rawat, that India must be prepared for a two-front war and Western Army Commander Lieutenant-General Surinder Singh saying a two-front war is not such a good idea.

An impression is being created that the western army commander has contradicted the army chief. But a closer examination will reveal there is no contradiction, considering the contexts in which these statements were made.

Speaking at a seminar called “Future Contours and Trends in Warfare,” General Rawat had indicated the possibility of a two-front war, highlighting that differences with Pakistan appear irreconcilable because of its continuing “proxy war.” China, he said, will continue to nibble at India’s territorial claims, testing its threshold of tolerance – situations that could develop into conflicts. Pakistan could take advantage of such a situation and while nuclear weapons are for deterrence, they may not deter war in India’s context.

Whether such conflicts will be confined or limited or whether these could expand into an all-out war along the entire front remains to be seen. But war is very much in realm of reality, and India must be prepared to fight and can ill afford to let its guard down on either the Pakistani or the Chinese front.

War is very much in realm of reality, and India must be prepared to fight and can ill afford to let its guard down on either the Pakistani or the Chinese front

In effect, what Rawat said refers to a heightened proxy war by Pakistan and China’s expansionist status that threatens Indian territory. This is likely to result in a confrontation and possible escalation between the two Asia giants.

This is no different from what Dr Subhash Bhamre, India’s minister of state for defense, said earlier: “At the Line of Actual Control [with China] the situation is sensitive as incidents of patrolling, transgression and standoffs have a potential of escalation,” coupled with Pakistan’s cross-border support to hundreds of terrorists waiting to infiltrate into the Kashmir Valley.

As a result, keeping this reality in mind, can any COAS say anything otherwise? There is a very real possibility that war could be thrust upon India, initiated through a proxy war by Pakistan and/or the “territorial salami-slicing” by China.

General Surinder Singh was speaking at a conference held at Panjab University, arguing for a greater role of military in diplomacy. His mention of a two-front war implied full-scale conventional war, which no one, including the present army chief would consider a smart proposition.

Singh also spoke of the need to improve relations with China to gain leverage over Pakistan, which is desirable. But whether it is feasible or not, and to what extent, remains to be seen given the China-Pakistan relationship.

But Singh’s focus was on military diplomacy, which India has not optimized beyond joint exercises with any country. Joint India-China military exercises have also been conducted in the past. As for Sino-Indian bilateral relations, Home Minister Rajnath Singh recently stated that the two countries shared good relations and if there were any differences on border issues, then talks would be held.

But 20 rounds of talks on the India-China boundary have yielded little and there is a need to address questions of an escalation by Pakistan at China’s behest. This also raises questions about whether Pakistan’s foreign and defense policies are influenced by China. Has Pakistan become a de facto Chinese province with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and Belt and Road Initiative? Dispassionate analyses would conclude that this is a real possibility.

Reports in the Chinese media threaten that the People’s Liberation Army could enter the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and China could destabilize India’s northeast and separate it from India.

In sum, China and Pakistan are one entity threatening India on multiple fronts.

To believe that China will not seek a conflict because of its economic relations is naive because it doesn’t relate these to strategic and territorial ambitions. Some think India may end its economic relations with China in case of a conflict. But India has not even withdrawn its “Most Favored Nation” status from Pakistan.

China is adept at nibbling territory, and going by the experience of the Doklam crisis, it never seeks direct conflict. It calls an area “disputed,” and then occupies it by proclaiming it as Chinese territory. That is what China is likely to do with India, particularly its northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is called “Southern Tibet” by China. If there is a confrontation by India, which would be natural, Beijing is likely to blame the escalation on New Delhi.

Why would China do so? Having virtually anointed himself as an emperor for life, Xi Jinping is in a hurry to realize the “China Dream.” The US response to North Korea and China’s militarization of the South China Sea have buoyed Chinese ambitions. A conflagration with India would test the Indo-US strategic partnership, draw India’s neighbors into China’s orbit, and contribute to Beijing’s aim for a China-centric Asia.

Chances are that China is planning to make such a move in between now and 2019 before the general elections in India are due. China and Pakistan have never been very happy about the ascent of the Narendra Modi government. A strategic confrontation aimed at embarrassing it could be a real possibility.

The initial Indian response at Doklam was an unacceptable snub for China that hurt Xi’s aura. The recent jingoism in the Chinese media over Chinese vessels being forced back from Maldives on account of India’s naval presence seems to have hurt the Chinese psyche.

Xi Jinping was a secretary in China’s Defense Ministry when China invaded Vietnam in 1979. He is likely to embarrass India by escalating tensions on multiple fronts. India’s junior defense minister, Dr Bhamre, indicated a likely escalation this summer but it is likely to run through next winter considering the fact that the Chinese PLA intruded in the Tuting area despite a meter of snow.

India must prepare for a two-and-a-half-front war. Its deployments must cover areas where it has traditionally maintained a low presence. It urgently needs to develop its border infrastructure, engaging multiple civil entities through the relevant army commanders, and not only through the Border Roads Organization.

It also needs to establish a comprehensive surveillance grid, and launch multiple small satellites by the Indian Space Research Organization to monitor the Line of Actual Control with China on a 24/7 basis. This means it also needs to centralize its border control of the LAC and put in place systemic measures to control fault lines of its adversaries. This is the biggest strategic challenge the Indian government faces.

The author retired as lieutenant general from the Indian Army's Special Forces.

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