In the wake of the Doklam border standoff, India’s top-ranking army officer has shattered the illusion of rapprochement with Beijing. Speaking at a think tank in New Delhi, General Bipin Rawat warned that China is “flexing its muscles” along the border and that India should prepare for a possible two-front war with China and Pakistan. From The Guardian:
General Bipin Rawat referred to a recent 10-week standoff with the Chinese army in the Himalayas that ended last week. He said the situation could gradually snowball into a larger conflict on India’s northern border. Rawat said Pakistan on the western front could take advantage of such a situation.
Rawat said credible deterrence did not take away the threat of war. “Nuclear weapons are weapons of deterrence. Yes, they are. But to say that they can deter war or they will not allow nations to go to war, in our context that may also not be true,” the news agency quoted him as saying. […]
“We have to be prepared. In our context, therefore, warfare lies within the realm of reality,” Rawat said.
Rawat’s remarks come at an inopportune moment: at this past week’s BRICS summit, Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi made a public show of burying the hatchet, and on Tuesday they pledged a return to “peaceful cooperation” after the Doklam crisis. Yesterday, optimistic editorials were already praising Xi and Modi for finding common ground at BRICS and getting relations “back on track.” Rawat’s candor has thrown a wrench into all this positivity, and China is predictably furious.
But the General’s remarks, however undiplomatic, do serve as a helpful reminder: the carefully worded communiqués and pleasant photo ops that characterize gabfests like the BRICS summit shed little light on the true state of play between rival powers. The more important developments happen on the ground and behind the scenes—and in both cases, signs confirm Rawat’s assessment that India and China are headed for confrontation rather than cooperation.
Take the recent border crisis, for instance: after the two countries reached a disengagement agreement to end the stand-off, it was publicly touted by both sides as a serious diplomatic achievement. But the details that have emerged about the deal suggest it was more a face-saving pretense than a lasting resolution. According to the Indian Express, both sides remain on the plateau and have merely withdrawn 150 meters each, a tentative retreat that has not changed the fundamental disagreement. India still expects China to continue its periodic incursions (in a “salami slicing” strategy to gradually gobble up land, per Rawat), and has moved artillery and surveillance equipment closer to the border to keep a watchful eye on it. This is hardly a picture of two countries who are learning to trust each other.
Meanwhile, the Indian government continues to make strategic overtures to China’s other rivals, in particular Japan. This week, Tokyo and New Delhi agreed to step up military cooperation on several fronts, including exchanges of maritime patrol aircraft and joint training on anti-submarine warfare. Those moves are not so subtly aimed at containing the growing Chinese navy, whose expanding network of ships and submarines has spooked both India and Japan, and drawn them closer together.
And China, for its part, continues to support and subsidize India’s greatest nemesis, Pakistan. Much ink has been spilled recently about China’s supposed “betrayal” of Pakistan at the BRICS summit, when Beijing joined with New Delhi to condemn Pakistani terrorist groups in an official declaration. But that rhetorical slight is insignificant next to China’s growing role as Pakistan’s prime lifeline and patron. Beijing’s immense investments in Pakistan, its complex web of infrastructure projects in the country, and its growing military alliance with Islamabad all ensure a confrontational course with India in the future. And as the United States seeks to nudge India into a larger role in Afghanistan, Pakistan could well drag China into that country to contain its arch-rival.
When General Rawat says that India should prepare for conflict on two fronts, in other words, he may even be underestimating the challenge. India is not doomed to all-out war with Pakistan or China, but its strategic rivalry with those countries shows no signs of subsiding in the years to come. Admitting such things publicly is not the polite or diplomatic thing to do, but the ancient adage still applies: “If you want peace, prepare for war.”