A Chinese soldier (left) and an Indian soldier stand guard at the Chinese side of the ancient Nathu La border crossing between India and China. Photo: AFP / Diptendu Dutta

Confucius said: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

Historians have always puzzled over how China and India, two ethnically, linguistically, and racially diverse neighboring countries, were able to co-exist peacefully for thousands of years, while in contrast the Greeks, Romans, Persians, Mongols and Arabs fought one another for centuries.

Much of the credit goes to Confucius and Chanakya. The two greatest philosophers of Asia were known for their views against their rulers despite being part of the regime. Both have made major contributions as well as a deep impact on their respective societies, that is, the Chinese and Indian.

They believed that market failure could result in government failure, which could then result in the moral failure of individuals. Therefore, economic prosperity must be at the core of creating a great society. And to accomplish that, peace on the borders is a must.

Much of the credit behind India’s successful foreign policy with its neighbor up to now has been Chanakya’s principle of “Keeping your friends close but your enemy closer.” India has lived up to this policy for most of its history.

Both philosophers believed that a king should listen to his advisers rather than giving them advice. But today that principle has been challenged in both countries.  

In the past few years, a trend has emerged in both countries: centralization of decision-making power. The grandiosity of the leader persona over the expert’s advice has overshadowed many critical decisions. This has resulted in serious political and economic fallout in China and India, such as in regard to Hong Kong protests and demonetization respectively.

This personalized diplomacy followed by both Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi results in more areas of confrontation rather than cooperation with their neighbors. It also creates new security challenges and an exponential rise in risk for the state.

Xi Jinping Thought and Modi’s Mann Ki Baat radio program are reflections of how that imperial mindset overshadows their respective past legacies and make a base for their political ambitions in Asia. There is no better time than the current one, when the US role in global leadership is at historic low and Asia is rising. 

The rise of the Asian Century

Political scientists, economists, diplomats, and intellectual pundits have been talking for years about the dawn of the Asian Century, which will supposedly mark an inflection point when the continent becomes the new center of the world. But hardly anyone predicted that a pandemic would make a case for the Asian age. 

Today Asia is home to more than half the world’s population, and half of the global middle class, according to purchasing power parity. After the 2008 financial crisis, it has acted as the main growth engine of the world. It was China and India that pulled the world from economic depression. We are now living through what is termed in the West as the “Asian Century.”

It’s not only China and India that are growing but hosts of small and midsize countries. Indonesia is set to overtake Russia by 2023 as the sixth-largest economy by purchasing power parity. Similarly, Vietnam, the Philippines and Bangladesh have shown promising signs. But overall, only China and India have a major responsibility to decide the fate of Asia. There is going to be a stiff rivalry between them in the coming years on which controls Asia. 

The battle to control Asia

The relations between India and China are unique and strange. These two ancient civilizations converge on many issues but at the same time diverge on certain critical issues, such as border disputes, sponsored terrorism and the role of Pakistan in the region, which sometimes results in a geopolitical clash.

China recognizes that it will achieve its goals only if there is an “Asian Century” and proper hierarchy in Asia according to Beijing’s rules. On the other hand, India talks about its model of global order.

The urge to lead Asia is natural. The two countries have the fastest-growing major economies in the world, averaging a growth rate of 7% per year over the past two decades and around 8% per year during the last 10 years.

But no one anticipated that China would betray the trust of the world by lying about the nature and the origin of Covid-19. There is a strong consensus among political analysts that this will result in a significant shift in the global order. China will certainly have the upper hand until the world comes out of this crisis.

The global community is terrified by such a political governance model, especially in Asia. India on the other hand despite its lack of a robust governance model always follows the international rules of engagement and liberal values. This angers the Chinese regime.

The recent Chinese aggression and clash with Indian troops in Ladakh needs to be seen in a wider strategic context and as a message to the rest of the world. China is now working on three strategies at the same time, Mackinder’s theory of Eurasia landmass, Spykman’s theory of the rimland, and American naval officer Alfred Thayer Mahan’s theory on sea power.

Halford Mackinder, an English academician and politician, prophesied that China could one day threaten to upset the global balance of power by organizing the resources of Eurasia and building an invincible sea power. He understood the importance of the Eurasia landmass. Today, China’s Belt and Road Initiative is a reflection of that prophecy to capitalize and increase the Chinese share of influence in the region.

Nicholas J Spykman had another view. He believed that when China became strong, it would become quite possible that one day the seas would be controlled not by the British, Americans or Japanese but by Chinese naval power.

We are already seeing evidence of this in the South China sea. The claims by the Chinese in that body of water are just a small part of a broader strategy. It will not only act as a protective buffer against any belligerent sea power but also helps in projecting their power in the Pacific region and the Indian Ocean. 

Indian asymmetric warfare doctrine

Looking at the current situation, India needs a new grand strategy, because the current one isn’t able to pay dividends in the short, medium, and long terms. A grand strategy is simply securing the state through the use of power intelligently.

India needs to adopt an asymmetric warfare doctrine to secure its territorial integrity and sovereignty. China is the bigger player, so traditional means of warfare will never guarantee an edge for India. Victory against bigger opponents will not be made by matching strength with strength in all areas but by exploiting the giant’s vulnerability. This has been true from the time of David and Goliath. 

The doctrine of asymmetric warfare focuses on a better way of exploiting India’s asymmetrical edge to protect its interest. The Malacca Strait provides an excellent asymmetrical edge to India. China’s strategic vulnerability in the form of the “Malacca dilemma” in the Indian Ocean creates a dynamic of its own.

India needs to capitalize on the substantial advantages provided by its maritime dimension. It needs to employ those advantages to restrict China’s trade in the Indian Ocean in case of any escalation from the land.

It should also influence the parties in the region to allow them to become part of the Malacca Strait patrols. At the same time, it needs to upgrade the infrastructure in the region for the sharing of intelligence information with respective parties. More multilateral exercises with concerned parties in the region will help provide better communication and strategic advantage. 

To enhance its asymmetrical edge over China, India should use its vast pool of skilled IT human resources to build an integrated advanced cyber command. It needs to change its cyber policy from defensive to the offensive in case of any threat to the status quo in the region.

There is an urgent need for more effective coordination among all three armed forces. To meet future challenges and modern methods of warfare, India needs to build a distinct force. A space command would strengthen space operations while also helping to streamline control of time-sensitive operations as well as new methods to fight future wars.

The prime focus should be on leveraging space, electromagnetic, and network capabilities to advance India’s means of warfare from informatized to intelligentized with the help of artificial intelligence. India needs to develop capabilities like laser jamming techniques, electromagnetic pulse systems, and satellite-hardening technologies. This would provide a tremendous edge in any war with China.

Another area where India should look for a tactical edge is the deep sea. A deep-sea command would help in scientific research as well as focus on underwater surveillance through drones and submarines to project India’s power beyond the Indian Ocean and protect its maritime sovereignty.

If China keeps pursuing its assertive policy in Asia, then there must be a counter to it. A clear message must be sent to the Chinese that the Asian Century belongs to all states and the rules of the engagement will be made on mutual consent of all parties rather than one bully.

Ravi Kant is a columnist and correspondent for Asia Times based in New Delhi. He mainly writes on economics, international politics and technology. He has wide experience in the financial world and some of his research and analyses have been quoted by the US Congress and Harvard University. He is also the author of the book Coronavirus: A Pandemic or Plandemic. He tweets @Rk_humour.