Why India cannot win wars against its neighbours (and why that doesn’t even matter)

A new book argues that peace and stability through an understanding of military power, and not military force, is far more valuable than winning wars.

Let alone China, India cannot even win a war against Pakistan. And this has nothing to do with the possession of nuclear weapons – the roles of nuclear and conventional weapons are separate in the war planning of India, China and Pakistan.

The reason India would be at a disadvantage in a war with Pakistan is because while Pakistan has built military power, India focused on building military force. In this difference lies the capability to win wars.

Military force involves the mere collection of “war-withal”, that is, building up of troops and war-waging materiel; military power is about optimal utilisation of military force. It entails an understanding of the adversaries and the quantum of threat from each, the nature of warfare, domains of war, how it would be fought, and structural military reforms at various levels to meet these challenges. All this comes under the rubric of defence policy (also called political directive) and higher defence management, which in India’s case is either absent or anachronistic and in urgent need of transformation.

A measure of this can be gauged from the (then) Defence Minister Arun Jaitley’s comment on Pakistan in October 2014. He said, “Our [India’s] conventional strength is far more than theirs [Pakistan’s]. If they persist with this [cross-border terrorism], they’ll feel the pain of this adventurism.” Given that the Pakistan Army unabashedly continues its proxy war against India, Jaitley and his successors should wonder why the mere 6 lakh strong Pakistan Army is not deterred by the 13 lakh strong Indian Army.

Even after 26 years of proxy war, the Indian leadership continues to confuse military force with military power and, consequently, dismisses Pakistan as an irritant, based on number-crunching.

If India were to undertake military reforms, the army alone could reduce 300,000 troops over three to five years, and the defence services would be able to provide optimal value without an increase in annual defence allocations.

Military power has geopolitical implications. Pakistan today is sought after by the United States, China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, the Central Asian Republics and the littoral countries of South Asia. It has emerged as a critical geopolitical pivot on the Eurasian chessboard. India, on the other hand, remains an important but certainly not geostrategic player. While geostrategic players have the capacity, capability and national will to exercise influence beyond their borders to impact geopolitical affairs, geopolitical pivots are nations whose importance is directly proportional to the number of geostrategic players that seek them out.

US strategist Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in his book The Grand Chessboard, “It should also be noted at the outset that although all geostrategic players tend to be important and powerful countries, not all important and powerful countries are automatically geostrategic players.”

India’s northern frontiers, both on the east and the west, are not what Indian policymakers imagine them to be. Since 1963, China has supported Pakistan with war-withal – conventional and nuclear – to keep India boxed in on the subcontinent. This has ensured that India’s foreign policy remains shackled by the two military lines with Pakistan and China. Understanding the dynamics of these military lines in peace and wartime is not a mere defence matter. It is critical to India’s relations with major powers and will help India think strategically through a top-down approach – something it has never done because of lack of understanding.

Authors Ghazala Wahab (left) and Pravin Sawhney
Authors Ghazala Wahab (left) and Pravin Sawhney

Today the partnership between China and Pakistan – where both need the other equally – has two serious implications for India.

First, since the military power of both has achieved interoperability, which far exceeds that of the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces at the height of the Cold War, India’s military strategy of a two-front war is no longer relevant.

Interoperability is the ability of two armed forces to operate with ease as one whole in a combat environment. This helps strengthen deterrence, manage crises, shape battlefields and win wars. The invigorated Pakistan military – which would be supported by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in all conventional war domains (land, sea, air, space, electromagnetic and cyber) without showing its hand – is the new military threat facing India.

The other implication is geopolitical. From the time China supplied Pakistan with war-waging equipment (nuclear and conventional) to keep its strategic rival India imbalanced in South Asia, Beijing’s strategy, since 2013, has evolved in keeping with its global ambitions. China, set on replacing the US as the foremost geostrategic player in this century, has forged a deep, all-encompassing relationship with Pakistan. As a result, from being a lackey, Pakistan has emerged as China’s most trusted and crucial partner for its geostrategic designs, which are unfolding through the wide-sweeping One Belt One Road (OBOR) project.

The OBOR project seeks economic connectivity both on the Eurasian continent and in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. China has deduced that the viability and success of its OBOR project hinges on the flagship China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which will link Kashgar in China to the Gwadar Port in Pakistan. China believes, and with reason, that the triumph of the CPEC will convince the world that its OBOR is not an amorphous concept but a result-oriented venture which will change the balance of power in the world.

This is the reason China now desires that India and Pakistan have peace. After Pakistan, China wants India to become part of the OBOR project, which President Xi Jinping has been marketing as a win-win mechanism for China and the region. As more Asian countries, and Russia, jump on China’s OBOR bandwagon, they recognise that the unsettled India-Pakistan relationship – with Kashmir as the millstone – is preventing the region from realising its economic and political potential. Speaking at the first session of the Indian External Affairs Ministry-supported Raisina Dialogue in March 2016, former Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga said as much: “The conflict between India and Pakistan has prevented South Asian integration for a long time. There have been disastrous consequences because of Indo-Pak mistrust. The need is for cooperating more than making security concerns an excuse for not cooperating.”

Kumaratunga was clearly speaking for other Asian countries, too, which have no issues with Pakistan and hence cannot empathise with repeated Indian attempts to turn Pakistan into an international pariah. Even Afghanistan, which has suffered Pakistani machinations as much as India, if not more, understands the importance of Islamabad for regional stability and economic prosperity as China unleashes its ambitious connectivity plans with Pakistan’s help.

India cannot look forward if its neck is arched backward.

Instead of viewing China and Pakistan as two separate adversaries bound by an unholy nexus, India needs to understand that the road to managing an assertive China runs through Pakistan – both strategically and militarily. Only this will ensure space for India in Eurasia. For this reason, an Indian study about managing China should begin with an understanding of Pakistan’s security policy and military power. Whether we like it or not, the path to India becoming a leading power is through Pakistan. Without optimal regional integration through the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which has not happened since its inception, India cannot claim its rightful place in Asia and the world – a void which China has been stepping into boldly for several years now.

If India can grasp this reality, it will be able to understand China’s grand strategy for global domination.

Excerpted with permission from Dragon On Our Doorstep: Managing China Through Military Power, Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab, Aleph Book Company.

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