Are Chinese Misreading Indian Strategic Culture?

 By Maj Gen. Mandip Singh SM, VSM
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Studying the strategic culture of a nation is a recent phenomenon. Many strategists have attempted to define strategic culture as relevant to a nation’s culture, heritage, history and tradition. Most definitions converge on two key deductions: first; how nations make strategic decisions in crisis and adversity, and second; these decisions are a consequence of the nation’s evolutionary history, ideology, culture and tradition. Understanding the strategic culture of a nation enables planners and military thinkers to predict the behaviour of nation-states. Lt Gen Li Jijun, the former Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences believes “Culture is the root and foundation of strategy. Strategic thinking, is the process of its evolutionary history, flows into the mainstreams of a country or a nation’s strategic culture. Each country or nations strategic culture cannot but bear the imprint of the cultural traditions, which, in a subconscious and complex way, prescribes and defines strategy making”.[1]  One can easily predict the behaviour of certain nation-states by their actions. Israel for e.g. is known to be aggressive and offensive in any crisis. Israel has limited resources, lacks strategic depth and space thereby imbibing a military strategy of pre-emptive action should deterrence fail or even show indications of failure. It becomes imperative for Israel to ‘carry the fight’ to the enemy’s territory to achieve a quick victory.[2]

Pakistan on the other hand has a strategic culture that is defined by the insecurity of its geography, ideology and an overarching fear of India as an existential threat. According to Christine Fair, Pakistan has an enduring belief that it was born an insecure and incomplete state; that control over Afghanistan is critical for strategic space as Afghanistan is a source of instability; that India is opposed to its very existence and undermines the ideological moorings of Pakistan, and; India is a regional hegemon and must be opposed at each opportunity.[3] Thus, Pakistan’s strategic culture is fundamentally anti-India.

Many in China believe that India earned her independence from Britain without shedding blood. On the contrary, they argue that Mao’s Long March and the war against the Japanese occupation was bloody and that they earned their freedom at a huge price of life and sacrifice. That is not entirely true, even by comparison. The partition of India uprooted as many as 10 million people and thousands were killed on both sides of the newly created Pakistan and India. Just barely in infancy, the Indian Army was blooded into battle in 1947-48, a conflict that in no way reflected a  defensive mind-set, as is the popular misconception.  In fact, barely had India begun to settle her teeming millions and stitch together a union, that war and conflict were again necessitated in the subjugation of the Portuguese in Goa in 1960-61, as well as the revolt by the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1961.  Surprising as it may sound, the Indian polity did not hesitate to use force when it was necessary.   The two wars with Pakistan in quick succession thereafter, in 1965 and 1971, bear testimony to the decisive and aggressive policy of the government of the day, never hesitating to use force as an instrument of state policy in pursuance of national interest. It is often said the Indira Gandhi’s attitude towards neighbours in South Asia was assertive and her neighbourhood policy has been sometimes called ‘hegemonic interventionism’ in complete contrast to the image of a leader of the non – aligned world.[4]

After 1971, there was a period of peace because while Pakistan was decimated, China and India were still poor, weak and underdeveloped nations. There were no diplomatic relations with China till Rajiv Gandhi took the initiative to mend fences and undertook a historic visit to Beijing in 1988. Even so, it must be appreciated that India did not hesitate to come to the support of her regional allies in Maldives (1986) and Sri Lanka (1987). Aside from expeditionary wars during that period, a confident and aggressive Indian Army was preparing for Op BRASS TACKS against Pakistan while simultaneously taking on the Chinese in a bold and aggressive confrontation in Sumdorong Chu (1986-93). Analysts seem to forget that the use of force by the Indian Army was an inherent instrument of its strategic culture. While non-alignment and strategic autonomy continued to govern foreign policy, the strategic culture in India never inhibited the just and timely use of the military in support of its foreign policy.

The former National Security Advisor,  Shiv Shankar Menon in his powerful response to  George K Tanham’s book titled ‘India Strategic Thought: An Interpretive Essay’ completely refutes the argument that India lacks a strategic culture. Shiv Shankar Menon drives home a powerful point that the Indian defensive mindset is a huge misconception[5]. George K Tanham concluded that “India has developed a predominantly defensive strategic orientation. Its large ground forces remain defensive and protective, although some leaders now seek a more offensively oriented strategy”.[6] Shiv Shankar Menon and indeed many Indian military strategists have since challenged and disproved George K Tanham’s theory. More recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy has demonstrated a more muscular and strident approach, particularly in the Indian Ocean region. Some term it as a shift from ‘defensive realism to offensive realism’ a notable departure from the  ‘nonalignment’ framework.[7]

China would know better. Ever since transgressions and standoffs have become an increasingly common phenomenon, the PLA has had to contend with a bold, aggressive and combat-ready Indian Army. This was evident in Depsang (2013), Chumar (2014) and Doklam (2017). The Doklam incident was a clear message that India is ready to meet its commitments to her allies, stand up for them and contest any attempt to undermine her sovereignty or that of her allies irrespective of the consequences. The 73 days standoff was a shock to the PLA who appear to have been used to reading George K Tanham. India’s mature and measured response to Chinese blatant violation of the rules of the international law in the South China Sea (INS Airawat incident and ONGC Videsh Oil incident)[8] appears to have misled China to believe that India is weak and inherently defensive.   India’s aggressive response to Pakistan’s support to terror in Uri (2016) and Pulwama (2019) by way of ‘surgical strikes’ has been consistent with her earlier policies. During the BJP national executive at Bengaluru in 2015, a new form of ‘Panchsheel’ called ‘Panchamrit’ was inaugurated. Essentially comprising of five ‘S’- Samman (dignity and honour), Samvad (greater engagement and dialogue), Samriddhi (shared prosperity), Suraksha (regional and global security), and Sanskriti evam Sabhyata (cultural and civilizational linkages)[9], these new pillars of foreign policy have been interpreted by many as more firm in resolve and intent. They have manifested in an outreach to our maritime neighbourhood in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) as well as our Asian neighbours. ‘Neighbourhood First’, ‘Act East’, ‘SAGAR’, ‘International Solar Alliance’, etc are some initiatives that demonstrate our aspirations to become a regional power.

Therefore, when the present government decided to make a shift in its policy of Panchsheel to Panchamrit, it would be prudent to note that it is reflective of a culture that has been nurtured over decades. Naysayers who believe that India lacks a strategic culture because it hasn’t formally articulated a national strategy need to reflect on the recent events, actions and articulations of our security and foreign policy to join the dots. The signals are unambiguous and the intent clear – India is a responsible, developing nation marching towards its goal of becoming a regional power and net security provider in the IOR. It cannot be shrugged off as much as it cannot be excluded from any initiative that seeks peace and prosperity in the IOR. In the context of the ongoing standoff in Ladakh, China is misreading the tea leaves.

End-Notes

[1] Thomas G Mahnken, ‘Secrecy & Stratagem Understanding Chinese Strategic Culture’, Lowy Institute, Feb 2011, pp3.

[2] Gregory Miles, ‘Continuity and Change in Israel’s Strategic Culture’, US Government sponsored report prepared for Defence Threat Reduction Agency, 18-06-02, pp2.

[3]  See for e.g. Christine Fair, “Pakistan’s Strategic Culture Implications for How Pakistan Perceives and Counters Threat”, NBR Special Report *61, December 2016.

[4] Dr. Mohanan Bhaskaran Pillai “Indian Strategic Culture: The debates in perspective” Department of Politics & International Studies Pondicherry University, India, 16 March 2016, available at

File:///C:/Users/lenovo/AppData/Local/Temp/SSRN-id3555343.pdf, accessed on 02 October 2020.

[5] Address by NSA Shiv Shankar Menon on Strategic Culture and IR Studies Convention held at JNU Convention centre, New Delhi on 11 Dec 2013 .

[6] George K Tanham, “Indian Strategic Thought: An interpretive Essay” Rand Group, 1992, pp(viii).

[7]  Dr. Mohanan Bhaskaran Pillai “Indian Strategic Culture: The debates in perspective” Department of Politics & International Studies Pondicherry University, India, 16 March 2016, available at

File:///C:/Users/lenovo/AppData/Local/Temp/SSRN-id3555343.pdf, accessed on 02 October 2020.

[8] The INS Airawat while on a visit to SE Asia was hailed by Chinese to leave the South China Sea (SCS) in 2011. Similarly, ONGC Videsh while on contract to Vietnam for prospecting oil in SCS was harassed by Chinese Coast Guard and asked to leave SCS in 2011.

[9] Ravish Tiwari, “BJP calls for a muscular foreign policy: Panchamrit to replace Panchsheel”, India Today, 4 April 2015 available at https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/bjp-foreign-policy-national-executive-247104-2015-04-04, accessed on 30 Sep 2020.