Nature and Character of Warfare in the Indian Environment

 By Maj. Gen. (Dr.) P K Chakravorty

What is Nature and Character of War?

 In the opening page of the book On War, Clausewitz  remarks- “War, therefore is an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfill our will”[1].” The Chapter deals with the Nature of war. War could be seen as a ‘chameleon’, as it changes its nature, to some degree, in relation to each particular case. The three predominant tendencies that influence this change are – original violence of its elements, hatred as also animosity, and the political instrument. Further, War involves people, the General and his Army, and finally the Government. However, In military circles is the nature of war is assumed to be constant.

In the article  The Nature of War Today,  Ove Pappila defines the nature of War as the unchanging essence of moral and physical characteristics that war comprises- the first is the imposition of one’s will on the enemy thereby, each side tries to force its will on the other. Although in theory, war is simple, in practice, a number of factors make war difficult. Clausewitz termed these factors as “friction”- danger, exertion, uncertainty, and chance are the factors that comprise friction.

Character, as applicable to War, is the aggregate of distinctive qualities, as per the Merriam Webster Dictionary.   According to Clausewitz, the character of war changes and there are three aspects by which wars can be categorised:-

  • On the basis of the actors of war.
  • On the basis of the intensity of War.
  • On the basis of methods used in War.

These categorisations have their own weaknesses. There are contradictions that are difficult to resolve. Yet issues raised by Clausewitz remained applicable on the entire spectrum of Warfare till new domains of warfare emerged. The first issue that has stuck a dissent chord is the term state. Post 9/11 non- state actors have gained prominence. There are many states where non -state actors play an important role.[2] Similarly, it is extremely difficult to describe the intensity of war. It all depends on how you view the case. Wars are fought by soldiers at the lowest level and by political leaders at the highest level. To a soldier it makes little difference whether it is high or low, while it makes a different impact on the leader. It would be interesting to observe its impact on the Indian environment.

Applicability to India’s Area of Interest

India has two adversaries China and Pakistan who are adept at Asymmetric Warfare. It is interesting to observe China with regards to the Nature of War. While Clausewitz states that the Nature of Warfare normally does not change, the People’s Republic of China follows a new normal. In 1963, China signed the Sino -Pakistan Frontier Agreement with Pakistan. China ceded 750 square miles to Pakistan and Pakistan recognised the Shaksgam Tract (an area of more than 2700 square miles). This is the Northern region of Kashmir which is a disputed territory and China had no right to acquire this territory claimed by India without firing a single shot thus enabling the strengthening of the North-Western flank of Aksai Chin which China captured and stabilised during the 1962 War. Thus without any violence, China has secured the Shaksgam Valley.[3]It indicates a change in the Nature of War as the entire area has been taken over without any violence and the will of China is fulfilled against India.

 The second area is the occupation of the Paracel and Spratly islands in the South China Sea. Here again, the Nature of War has changed as it was a silent occupation. In 1974 China occupied the Paracel Islands, which was then occupied by radio detachments of South Vietnamese forces, and then gradually crept into the Spratly Islands. There were contesting claims by Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, Philippines. Indonesia and Vietnam. Gradually, China has occupied the bulk of the islands of the region with practically no violence.[4]China has trashed the ruling of the International Court of Justice and used her Comprehensive National Power to bully the other claimants. In the beginning of April 2020, a Vietnamese fishing boat was sunk in the South China Sea by a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel. China currently dominates this region and is working out a Code of Conduct for the region. China has captured the entire region surreptitiously with practically no violence. Accordingly, the nature of war has changed in this particular case. It is therefore, important for India to protect its own oil fields in the Region.

 The next area which China has practically taken over is the port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka.  The first phase of the port was constructed by China and this was completed by November 2010. Sri Lanka was not able to pay the debt resulting in the port being leased to China on 29 July 2017 for a period of 99 years, thereby extending China’s hold in the Indian Ocean.[5]  This again is a case where China has used ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ for capturing a port in the Indian Ocean. Again we see a silent occupation which is a change in the Nature of War where violence has not been used.

Current Perspective

 China is undertaking Research and Development in three main fields- Artificial Intelligence, Information Warfare, and Biological Warfare. [6]The recent COVID – 19 pandemic, which originated in Wuhan (China), has disturbed the normal functioning of the world and China is not permitting any enquiry on the issue, India has to be very careful and be prepared for a cyber attack from China, which would be prolonged as also for attack by swarms and combat robots. China has its new paradigm; it strategises to change the nature of war along with the character of War. This is something we are not prepared, as our minds are set on the Clausewitzian theory of ‘no change in the nature of war and changes only in the character of War.  We are always on the back foot as far as surveillance is concerned.

The current COVID-19 case has seen a domestic dissent in China. To calm the Chinese people, the Chinese Armed Forces has been assertive in the South China Sea, the Straits of Taiwan, and the Sino -Indian Border where standoffs have been taking place since the first week of May 2020. The Chinese would like to prolong the issue until the domestic issue is under control. Indrani Bagchi, a diplomatic editor with the Times of India, in her editorial of the paper, published on 04 June 2020, quotes Bertil Lintner, who wrote in his book China’s India War, that the 1962 War was China’s way of diverting attention from the failure of the Great Leap Forward programme. Currently, China has a credibility problem with regard to COVID 19. It has been rightfully concluded that India must follow two practical steps – ’pre-empt’ and ‘prevent’.[7] Therefore, it is essential for India to look at issues in the correct perspective, before dealing with China.


[1] Gen Carl von Clausewitz, On the Nature of War (Book 1), Chp 1, translated by  Col JJ Graham, 1873

[2] Perez, Luis Ricardo, “Threat Perception, Non-State Actors and US Military Intervention after 9/11”, Virginia Tech, 19 October 2016, www. Accessed on 04 June 2020.

[3] Why did Pakistan give the Shaksgam Valley to China? What was India’s reaction? “Defence Update,, Accessed on 04 June 2020.

[4] Teh Kuang Chang,” China’s claim of sovereignty over Spratly and Paracel Islands, A Historical and Legal Perspective”, Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, Volume 23, Issue 3,1991,,  Accessed on 04 June 2020.

[5] Maria Abi-Habib, “How China Got Sri Lanka to Cough Up a Port”, The New York Times, 25 June 2018,, 25 June 2018. Accessed on 04 June 2020.

[6] Pk Chakravorty,” Assessment of Chinese Military Modernisation and its implications for India”, Vivekananda International Foundation, Pentagon Press New Delhi, 2019.

[7] Indrani Bagchi, “What’s behind Chinese intrusions?” Times of India, 04 June 2020. .Accessed on 07 June 2020.