Opinion Columnists 13 Jul 2020 Pavan K. Varma | To ...
The writer, an author, former diplomat and is in politics.

Pavan K. Varma | To take on China, India needs strategic clarity

Published Jul 13, 2020, 7:17 pm IST
Updated Jul 13, 2020, 7:17 pm IST
Chanakyan politics should have made us understand long ago that China’s ambitions to emerge as a world power
Representational imagr (AFP)
 Representational imagr (AFP)

In Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas there is a beautiful passage about how to defeat a more powerful military enemy. Vibhishana, the younger brother of Ravan, who is pious and ethical, has joined forces with Shri Ram.

He is aware of Ravan’s superior military might and asks Shri Ram how he would defeat such a formidable enemy. “My lord, you have no chariot, nor any protection either for your body (in the shape of armour) or for your feet (in the shape of shoes).


How, then, can you expect to conquer this enemy?”
“Listen, friend”, replied the all-merciful, “the chariot which leads one to victory is quite another. Valour and fortitude are the wheels of that chariot, while truthfulness and good conduct are its enduring banner and standard.  Strength, discretion, self-control and benevolence are its four horses, that are joined to the chariot with the cords of forgiveness, compassion and evenness of mind.

Adoration of God is the expert driver; dispassion, the shield, and contentment the sword. Charity is the axe; reason, the fierce lance, and the highest wisdom, the relentless bow. A pure and steady mind is like a quiver; while quietude and the various forms of abstinence (yamas) and religious observances (niyamas) are a sheaf of arrows. Homage to one’s preceptor is an impenetrable coat of mail; there is no other equipment for victory as efficacious as this”.


I can almost hear our hard-nosed strategists exclaiming in indignation over how such a passage is relevant to the situation that we face with China today. To them I would say that the sole purpose of quoting this dialogue is to emphasise that in calculating the relative strengths of two adversaries in modern conflicts, certain intangibles can make all the difference.

Geopolitical experts focus on the realities of military hardware: who has more troops, tanks, armoured vehicles, aircraft, submarines, missiles, roads and airfields? The chroniclers of history take these into account, but also look at other factors, such as human resilience, troop morale, democratic legitimacy, collective unity, strategic clarity, tactical agility and national resolve.


The last three are particularly important in assessing our strength against China.  China has played the bullying neighbor now for decades, starting from 1962. In responding to it we have lacked strategic clarity.

Chanakyan politics should have made us understand long ago that China’s ambitions to emerge as a world power, the proverbial middle kingdom surrounded by barbarians, would compel it to see India as a challenge.

Indeed, in Asia, India, as the world’s largest democracy, a rising economic power, a nation of 130 crore people, and a civilisational power, does pose a real challenge to China. China cannot but engage with such a power.


But its consistent strategic goal is to contain India.  So long as India does not have the strategic clarity to understand this, it will continue to be on the backfoot in dealing with the Dragon.

In conventional terms, there is no doubt about the defence and economic asymmetry between the two countries.  China’s economy is five times the size of India.  Its defence budget ($225 billion) is roughly four times that of India ($55 billion). China has two million troops; we have 1.3 million. 

It has 13,000 tanks; we have some 4,000.  China is way ahead of us in armoured fighting vehicles: it has 40,000 against our 2,800.


  The Dragon has over 2,000 rocket launchers; we have below 300.  Its submarine strength is almost five times that of ours. And, on the border, the Chinese road and rail infrastructure is far superior to ours.

However, it is important to understand that overall military superiority has its limitations in limited theatre operations. In an outright war, China has more nuclear warheads and launchers, but India too is a nuclear weapons power, with a triad of delivery systems, missiles, bombers and launchers, and China is well aware of this. Its strategic purpose, therefore, is to contain us by intimidation all along the Line of Actual Control.


But here too, it knows that in spite of its overall military edge, India also has enough military hardware to inflict damage and casualties. In fact, many defence experts rightly believe that India’s military forces are more experienced and battle ready, having fought a series of low intensity conflicts with Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir.

The Belfer Centre at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government has done a study which concludes that India has an edge in high-altitude mountainous environments.

China has no experience of actual warfare since its invasion of Vietnam in 1979, where too it received a bloody nose by the outnumbered forces of Vietnam.   Although China has more aircraft, India’s Mirage 2000 and Su-30 jets – all-weather, multi-role aircraft -- are mean fighting machines.


Therefore, it finally comes down to the intangibles that, in a different context, Shri Ram had outlined to Vibhishana. India must develop strategic clarity that leads us to upgrade our defence infrastructure along the Line of Actual Control and beef up our military hardware. It must have tactical agility, so that for every vulnerable point along the LAC where China has the edge, it can retaliate at a different point.

And, it must have the national resolve to convey to China that its aggression will no longer meet with a confused or unprepared response. An India that is not seduced by China’s carefully choreographed engagement overtures, and is prepared to look at the Dragon in the eye, is the unerring quiver of “a pure and steady mind” that India needs.