To subdue the enemy without fighting is the pinnacle of strategy, said Sun Tzu in The Art of War. Centuries later, China’s Xi Jinping hopes to do much the same with India—defeat it with its words. For a change, though, South Block has chosen the path of quiet dialogue over rhetoric, stressing a peaceful diplomatic resolution to the standoff. The Indian and Chinese armies last fired in anger 50 years ago, in 1967. Every aggressive move the two sides have made along the 4,057kmlong Line of Actual Control since 1967 has essentially been posturing, each side warning the other against altering the situation on the ground. In its July 17, 2017, cover story (Face Off ), india today explained the genesis of the current conflict—a dispute over Doklam that brings China even closer to the vulnerable 27kmlong Siliguri corridor that links the northeastern states to the rest of India.
But what if there is a war? How do the two nations compare? Xi’s reforms have modernised China’s military and enabled greater integration through a newly setup joint operations command system—something India itself has long debated but failed to implement. In the first year of Xi’s term, defence spending was hiked 10.7 per cent to $114.3 billion. By last year, it crossed $150 billion, though independent estimates peg it as high as $215 billion, more than five times what India spends.
In contrast, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not even had a fulltime defence minister in his cabinet since March. In the cover story this week, Executive Editor Sandeep Unnithan reports that the Indian army’s modernisation drive—its plan to replace its ageing helicopters, missiles and infantry equipment after the 1999 Kargil War—is yet to deliver results. Its first howitzer buys in three decades will enter service only next year. Its Mountain Strike Corps—an offensive high altitude warfighting force comprising over 90,000 soldiers—will be combatready only by 2020. The IAF’s dip in combat aircraft—32 instead of the sanctioned 39 fighter squadrons—is perilous. The navy is short on both submarines and anti submarine warfare helicopters. India’s defence budget for 2017 was just 1.5 per cent of the GDP, among the lowest in recent years. But of greater concern is the tardy pace of border infrastructure. Only 22 of the 73 allweather roads along the LAC have been completed a decade after they were sanctioned and the 14 strategic railway lines to rush troops and supplies to the border remain paperbound. China, in comparison, has completed its road network in border areas, and is powering ahead with its railways.
Beijing appears to be in no mood for compromise. One reason is the current domestic political climate, with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) set to hold massive war games for its 90th anniversary on August 1 and a onceinfiveyears party congress—all important for Xi—in November. Any sign of weakness could boost his rivals. The Chinese consider this dispute more serious than past faceoffs. “From the PLA to every diplomat, I’m hearing the same message every day: this time it’s different,” says Ananth Krishnan, india today’s Beijing correspondent. The Chinese are saying the dispute is not about Doklam but about India crossing a settled border into what they see as their territory, so the message is unless we withdraw, there’s no room for deescalation. India is saying let both sides withdraw and then talk. The deadlock will not be easy to break with tension likely for quite some time.
Yet a conflict with India would be disastrous for China. The key to Xi’s ambitions—including his pet One Belt, One Road project—is a peaceful environment and preserving the global image of a responsible, rising China. Also, despite all our failings in defence acquisition, in this instance the terrain favours India. The Chinese would suffer heavy casualties in case of an assault. That said, both sides should again recall Sun Tzu: There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare.