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The 50th Anniversary of the Border Conflict With China: A Strategic Analysis

Mukul Sanwal is Ex civil servant and diplomat.
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  • October 19, 2012

    The 1962 border conflict moulded our security and strategic thinking into a defensive mindset, and its 50th anniversary is an appropriate time to review those lessons as we seek our place in the new multi-polar world, even as managing the competition and cooperation inherent in our relationship with China continues to be our major foreign policy challenge.

    The first strategic question is whether we have drawn the right lessons from a conflict over un-demarcated borders between two rising powers.

    In the Cuban Missile Crisis, that occurred at the same time, despite a U2 reconnaissance aircraft being shot down by a Soviet battery, President Kennedy overruled the insistence of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to authorise retaliation and used back-room diplomacy for a deal, including the removal of nuclear missiles from Cuba. The lesson is that while capabilities are apparent, intentions are subject to interpretation, and under some circumstances group members reinforce one another’s faulty reasoning, leading to disastrous decisions.

    Unfortunately, the reasoning, decisions and circumstances leading to the disintegration of the 4th infantry division in the NEFA Sector remain top-secret; the ‘fighting fourth’ were described by Field Marshal Lord Wavell as “one of the greatest fighting formations in military history”. The result of the cover-up, by the army and the civilian leadership, is that strategists, mostly from the United States and our own military and security agencies, continue to have confrontational ideas about China. Only in recent years is a long term strategy emerging that does not see China as an aggressive, expansionist power, as individual memory gives way to new driving forces.

    A government confident of its economic strength has no reason to fear encirclement, and with our successful test-firing of an ICBM both countries have the military capacity to cause each other harm. Our focus should shift from seeking to balance the rise of China to direct engagement beyond the current common approaches in the climate negotiations.

    The second strategic question is how to win recognition in the new global equilibrium of power, with the United States accepting a larger role for China in the multilateral regimes but largely ignoring India. The size and dynamism of our population, growing share in world trade, national interests in different parts of the world as we acquire natural resources and seek markets and the need to influence international organisations increasingly requires securing the national interest through defining a global role.

    Influence, foreign policy goals and threat perceptions are shaped by a combination of military strength, technological leadership and diplomatic influence. In each of these areas we need to take new strategic decisions in light of global trends and developments.

    Should we continue to see military strength in terms of conventional capabilities of tanks, artillery, ships and aircraft that armed forces traditionally prefer or in terms of space – missiles and cyber warfare – where alone we have strong endogenous capabilities? For example, China is focusing on building asymmetric capabilities with accurate, inexpensive cruise missiles and anti-satellite weapons, and we could leverage our world class software industry and focus on cyber warfare, which has both defensive and offensive capabilities.

    Similarly, we have the capacity for global leadership in pharmaceuticals and new crop varieties, as we are the only country with both extensive endemic biodiversity and a world class endogenous biotechnology capacity. Along with global leadership in software development, we should influence the related intellectual property regimes to secure our national interest and use the technological advances to develop treatments and solutions for other developing countries that are suited to their situation, to gain their respect.

    This will support a new model of sustainable development, that is different from the finance-led US consumption and Chinese manufacturing based models, for sharing technology and scarce natural resources, where removal of poverty is not a “special circumstance” or “special consideration” but a key global policy objective. Positive mobilisation of the Least Developed Countries will require a results-oriented approach to balance the earlier presence of the US-led Bretton Woods Institutions and Chinese infrastructure thrust in these countries. A vision of shared prosperity of two billion people will also secure our place in the future global order.

    The third strategic question before us is to be selective in both shaping the new global rules for continued economic growth, by ensuring that we do not challenge the multilateral system itself which has enabled our rise as well as that of China, and simultaneously develop cooperative relations. As a laggard among the BRICS in terms of per capita GDP, the new global rules, for example, for the use of natural resources within global ecological limits, will be vital for our growth. In these areas there is already a close collaboration with China but a divergence of interests with the United States. This can be balanced, for example, with the continuing friction between the United States and China over human rights, where we should take sides in the US effort to transform China into a liberal democracy and bring it within its ambit of shared values.

    With China emerging as our major trade partner we have the opportunity, as we build our infrastructure, to make our two countries increasingly interdependent economically, to allay future concerns as we will continue to grow, because of demographics and our knowledge economy, long after China’s growth stabilises. It is now universally acknowledged that countries gain in influence more because of the size of the economy than the strength of their military.

    Our worldview remains one of balancing relations between the United States and China; but strategic autonomy is not a strategy for an emerging power. To act strategically we should engage actively to reconstruct global governance and policy in the interests of half of humanity which has not benefited from globalisation. Espousing a new global vision will create strategic space for global leadership within the United Nations, separate from the economic and military spheres, and open options for engaging China and the United States; some friction with the United States can be expected because it has so far kept issues of redistribution out of the UN system.

    Mukul Sanwal is a former Indian civil servant and Director in the United Nations.

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