Mr Pravin Sawhney is the editor Force Magazine, an ex-Indian army officer and author of two books, the most recent being ‘Dragon on our Doorstep’, He spoke with Najma Minhas, Editor Global Village Space on the tensions between India and China, and why the strategic outlook of the Chinese makes them likely to see winning and losing over a bigger picture and is not tied to the immediate situation on hand.
Rajnath Singh, Indian union defense minister, made a statement that there are sizeable Chinese troops on the border. Can you tell me what the latest is on the border?
Pravin Sawhney: Two parallel things are happening. There is a diplomatic talk, which is going on from where not much information is coming out, but we generally know what it is about. I’ll just tell you a bit about that also. And the second thing is what is happening on the ground. So these are two parallel things which are on-going. So far as the diplomatic talks are concerned, I believe what China is saying is that after the 2017 Doklam incident, Prime Minister Modi had gone to Wuhan to meet Chinese President Xi.
This was in April of 2018. And what they agreed upon came to be known as the ‘Wuhan Consensus.’ This basically meant that both the countries would cooperate, and they will not be rivals to one another. So far as the diplomatic level talks are concerned, China wants India to adhere to the Wuhan Consensus. China believes that, whereas it has been cooperative with India, it is not getting cooperation from India and that India sees it more as a rival.
Is this skirmish then about China reminding India on the Wuhan agreement that was made?
Pravin Sawhney: Let me just step back to say something peculiar about China. To my mind, China is the only country that can talk and flex muscle at the same time. Most of the states would see it like this: you either talk or go to war. In the case of China, flexing muscle is supposed to support and supplement the talks. So what the Chinese have done is that PLA has come in in a very sizable number. According to the media reports, their main target is Ladakh. There the Chinese have come in three places. They have numbers like 3500 through 4,000 at each location, which essentially, in military parlance, is a brigade.
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So you are saying there are approximately 10,000 Chinese soldiers on the border right now?
Pravin Sawhney: What I am saying is that the Line of Actual Control that came into being in 1993, between India and China in the Ladakh sector, has been penetrated. Three thousand five hundred troops have come inside that line. That line is the perception that we say it is our area. So, they [Chinese] have come in our area, and whatever number is there, is backing the people who are already in; that is a considerable number.
Since they have come in with their building equipment, they are making permanent defenses, which is not a good thing for India. That’s the line that we have been defending since 1993. We suddenly find that these people come in, and we do nothing about it, and they start building up the defenses there. So there was complete silence in India for a while, and then we got to know that the diplomatic talks have started. The whole idea, in my assessment, is that the Chinese flexed its muscle to get India to the talks.
Do you see these as usual Chinese incursions you have had over the past several years? Indian media has cited that over thousands of incursions have happened, or do you think this may lead to a full escalation of war?
Pravin Sawhney: First of all, war is ruled out.
Pravin Sawhney: Firstly, China does not want to go to war with India. Secondly, the war that China is preparing for – is not the war that India is working on. Let me explain in two sentences so that this thinking that there can be a war should be set aside. You see, there is something called a cyberwar. It’s a silent killer; it involves the whole of the nation.
What it means is that today China has a capability, in our power grids, in our communication grids, in our defense grids. Because we have used their equipment in all these grids over the years; they were always the cheapest. Now, they have the capability that they can put their malware in the machines because the manufacturer knows where to put it. And they have cyberweapons today. So today they have a capability, if they want perhaps, to shut half the country down.
Is China more likely to engage in cyber warfare rather than actual conventional war?
Pravin Sawhney: Exactly. It need not do the latter. Why should it get into a killing game?
Aren’t you contradicting yourself, as you earlier said that the Chinese government uses the PLA as part of its foreign policy? So then why do you say that it doesn’t need to engage in a conventional war?
Pravin Sawhney: There is something called ‘war,’ and there is something called ‘military coercion,’ where you coerce an adversary, and he doesn’t actually want to go to war. Why do you go to war? The idea of war is because the talks have failed. So, you need to go to war to get the adversary, to sit on the table and start the negotiations again. If you can get the adversary without fighting a war through military coercion, what is the need to go to war?
You mentioned that China’s upset that India’s going against the Wuhan spirit. What is that spirit India is going against? Or is it the role it is playing in the Indo-Pacific region with the United States?
Pravin Sawhney: Firstly, the most important thing for China is trade. India has recently revised its FDI limits, and the Chinese have been kept out of it and out of certain companies. That means that Chinese entry has been prohibited. What they [China] realize is that because of this pandemic, which is going on, America and a few Western countries are putting a lot of pressure on their domestic companies to get out of China permanently.
The government of India has announced that we are happy to give you so much space if you come out of China. China sees all these things against itself and against the interest of China; this does not amount to cooperation as envisaged under the Wuhan spirit.
Then we had 5th August 2019, where India declared Ladakh as a Union territory. The Chinese objected to that because the reality is that Ladakh and China never had a border.
What their [Chinese] argument is that by saying that it is a union territory, even if you have not drawn the border on the ground, constitutionally and legally, you have created a border, and we don’t accept that. Furthermore, India’s participation in the Indo-Pacific strategy, such as the Quadrilateral Dialogue, is also a significant concern. So, it’s a combination of so many things.
Don’t you think by China threatening India in this particular fashion will make Indians even closer and want to work on the Quad group?
Pravin Sawhney: The Chinese believe in strategic patience. Unlike India and Pakistan, which want instant results – for example, you had Balakot: show me the results – China doesn’t believe in all this. So, what they are saying is they have got India to the negotiating table. Because of that muscle-flexing, the talks have started at the diplomatic level.
They have already said that we are unhappy, they must have given a list of fifteen things, and now want India to walk halfway. The Chinese are not saying tomorrow you revoke Ladakh’s Union territory status. What they are saying is that India committed to cooperation with China at Wuhan, after Dokhlam. Now the Chinese realize that Indians are not cooperating at all. They are acting as rivals. So, this whole thing has started.
It is also essential to understand how China got so many numbers in North India and why Indians were so surprised. One of the significant outcomes of Dokhlam was that India started building up the troops in the area. Chinese also started building up forces in the Tibet autonomous region.
After the Wuhan consensus, however, India pulled back as its army does not have a permanent ecosystem to accommodate so many forces in that region. The PLA created a habitat in one year. So today, they are all over the plateau. They are training there. So, to move them to any place along the line of control, it’s like saying Jack Robinson and they are there. Hence the threat level has gone up for India.
Is this part of China’s strategy that they have so many PLA in the Tibet autonomous region?
Pravin Sawhney: China is a unique country where when they talk, they flex muscles simultaneously. This is what we have seen in ASEAN also. China is not looking at some sort of gain. On 6th June, they are having military talks. What I expect to happen is that in certain areas where the Chinese have come in saying that this is our territory, but the Indian saying, no, you have come inside a line of actual control, they will be drawing a grey zone, a grey area.
That means that they will first tell Indians that you remove all your bunkers, everything from there. And then they will also remove it. So that will help the Indian government declare victory. But the real success is at the negotiating table.
See, this is called thinking strategically. The important thing is what is not visible. Why did they do this? They want cooperation from India. The Chinese are firm on the ground and will be quite happy to concede some ground – they don’t see that as a loss. Like they did in Doklam. It doesn’t make them weak. It is when we talk of India and Pakistan, we consider ourselves vulnerable if we are negotiating. We think of tactical gains and losses they don’t – they think strategically.
Recently Trump spoke to Modi. They discussed the China, India conflict, and more importantly, Trump tweeted last week, offering mediation. Is this a sign of neutrality on the issue for the United States? How do Indians perceive this?
Pravin Sawhney: Indians are more or less clear except for our elite – that your territorial integrity is your business, and no-one is going to help you. All we expect from America is that they can help us only in two things. Number one, they can help us diplomatically at the United Nations and all other forums. The other place they can help us by giving the correct picture, the ISR picture. Intelligence surveillance can help India on the ground, what is the troop movement situation, and what equipment is on the Chinese side. I, however, do anticipate the Modi government to get closer to Trump administration.
If we look at the current Indian policy, Modi has become very close to the Americans. India is getting in trouble again and again, from different countries, whether it is Pakistani retaliation on Balakot or currently what’s happening in China right now, or earlier in Dokhlam. Does India need to go towards a more ‘non-alignment policy’ type again?
Pravin Sawhney: India has a contradiction in its foreign policy. Given our size and our potential, Indian governments believe that we should have an autonomous foreign policy. Which means we decide everything about our foreign policy. We determine what we want to do and what we don’t want to do.
Right now, we are in a world where there is so much geopolitical churning going on, and three major powers, China, Russia, and America have the capability to influence events beyond their geography. So, when all this is happening, now, we know that we have a border dispute with China. We understand that the Chinese military is much stronger than us. We know that their defense budget is three times ours.
We know that they’ve been spending 10% of their GDP for the last decade. We know it is difficult for us to stand up to them militarily. So that is where we are looking for some sort of comfort in closeness with America. Usually, the belief here is that if we are close to them, then it sorts of gives us some kind of a levy in standing up to China. Okay? So, this is the contradiction. On the one hand, you talk about independent foreign policy. And on the other side, you are aligning.
Our foreign minister and the government says that our policy is to align with everybody, but this is precisely the policy of Pakistan. But Pakistan is not saying that we are autonomous. Pakistan is saying that we are happy to engage anybody who wants to engage with us.
So, in essence, India is doing the same thing?
Pravin Sawhney: Exactly.
You told us that China would probably give up some territory and show that India has got a tactical win by doing that. Do you see this happening on 6th June? Or do you think there’s some time yet?
Pravin Sawhney: Let me put it right. I didn’t say that China will give up territory. All I said is that after these talks on 6th June, these talks are only happening because of substantive progress, to my assessment, which has been made at the negotiating table. So, as a consequence of that, the defense minister of India spoke with three channels. He gave out this news that these talks will happen.
Chinese, henceforth, if they are happy that India has walked at least halfway, coming back to the Wuhan consensus, and India has committed to cooperating in certain areas. It will not give up territory – it is already claiming our territory – there is a possibility that the Chinese will say – in this area, remove all your structures and they will also remove some of their structures- to come back a second time whenever they want. It’s a question of power.