Context: An obsession about Pakistan and a degree of complacency about China since the 1950s, is putting India into a two-front conundrum with its two geopolitical adversaries.

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Recently, India’s Chief of the Army Staff said that the Indian Army remains alive to a two-front war.

Lessons from history: Whenever India has forgotten that it has two enemies China and Pakistan, it has paid dearly for it. But, whenever India has accounted for them,it has done well. 

The lessons of 1962:

  • In1962, the People’s Liberation Army struck simultaneously, all along the India-China frontier - a move which depicts long preparation. 
    • In the western sector, the Indian posts from Galwan Valley up to north of Daulat Beg Oldi were attacked. 
    • In the eastern sector, they launched an attack on Indian forces deployed along the Namka Chu river and at Khinzemane, eventually enveloping four out of the five frontier Divisions of the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA), namely Kameng, Subansiri, Siang, and Lohit Divisions.
  • In 1962, India had believed that the threat to India’s security came principally from Pakistan.
  • In the India-China interactions leading up to the 1962 China-India war, India had demonstrated friendliness without reciprocity and firmness without force
  • Despite deteriorating India-China relations in the late-1950s, Indian government was unable to contemplate a war between the two countries.
  • The then Prime Minister of India had acknowledged in parliament soon after the 1962 war, India’s defence dispositions “were based on our unfortunate position vis-à-vis Pakistan.”

Lessons from 1971 war: In 1971, on the other hand, India took account of a possible Chinese move in support of Pakistan. 

  • India, therefore, took out an insurance policy in the form of the Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation between the Government of India and the Government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Repetition of Mistakes:

  • Obsession with Pakistan: There has been an obsession concerning the threat from Pakistan, together with a degree of complacency vis-à-vis China, because the recent stand-offs in Depsang, Chumar, and Doklam were defused. 
  • Personal bonhomie blind-sided policy makers: The interactions between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping at Wuhan (April 2018) and Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu (October 2019) further blind-sided those involved in foreign and security policy planning in New Delhi.

Reason for China’s aggression::

  • China’s dream to become world leader: Chinese acted the way they did principally as they wanted to make a  bid for leadership, not just of Asia, but as a first step in their bid for world leadership. 
  • Forcing India to accept Chinese leadership: As far as India was concerned, China’s aim was not to acquire territory, but to force on India a political settlement which will involve India re-orienting its policies to suit the pattern of Chinese global policies. This is done by -
    • Warning India not to actively oppose Chinese designs to dominate the Indo-Pacific region by aligning with the U.S. and its allies - Japan and Australia, in an attempt to contain China. 
    • Keeping India preoccupied with problems in its immediate neighbourhood so that it cannot act as an alternative pole of power to China in the broader Asian region.
    • Supporting Pakistan economically and militarily, including the sharing of nuclear weapons designs, to neutralise India’s conventional power superiority vis-à-vis that country. 

What India should do:

  • An understanding of these objectives is essential to fashioning a realistic Indian response to China’s aggressive policies in Ladakh and elsewhere along the LAC. 
  • Pakistan can be managed with the use of diplomatic tools: In fact, the Pakistani challenge to India has become magnified because of its nexus with China.
  • Adoption of carefully calculated policies that neutralise China’s diplomatic and military clout in the Asia-Pacific region without making India appear as a surrogate for other powers and without sacrificing India’s autonomy of decision-making in foreign policy.

Although circumstances are different today, India continues to face the two-front conundrum. India must meanwhile assess its options in a balanced way. 

While remaining clear-eyed about Chinese intentions, India must resist the temptation to remedy past errors by taking actions that are quick and sudden. These need a long-term vision, executed with patience and perseverance.


Image Source: TH