By Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)
Ever since the violent faceoffs in Eastern Ladakh, it was pretty clear that India is the greater politico-military priority for China in comparison to Taiwan. However, this viewpoint is an apparent outlier, since the stated priority for China is annexation of Taiwan. Chinese leaders have been trident about reunification especially after Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan when China executed unprecedented military drills to signal its resolve to use force to reunite the island. Even Xi Jinping has stressed on intent and military readiness in this context during the 20th Party Congress in October 2022.
However, it is the law of nature that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Chinese stridency has set off a course of reactionary events which have an equal bearing on the Sino Indian context as much as in the Western Pacific setting. The recent report on the wargaming of a Chinese Invasion of Taiwan in 2026 by CSIS has put the spotlight on a few such issues, which were hitherto vague. The emerging clarity has important ramifications for India.
As per this report, in the most likely “base scenario,” the Chinese amphibious invasion could flounder with the PLA Navy in shambles, the core of its amphibious forces broken, and thousands of PLA soldiers taken prisoners of war. In the end, as per the wargame, Taiwan remains autonomous. USA, Taiwan, Japan and other nations, in all probability, will get involved in the war and in the process suffer significant losses also. Actions which are ‘lesser’ than invasion like a Chinese blockade of Taiwan or massive punitive bombardment of Taiwan to achieve China’s goals without undertaking an amphibious assault has snooker ball effects. The United States could also blockade China to induce long term pain on the Communist government. There could be nuclear sabre rattling also. Reunification of Taiwan, in all probability will remain elusive in all cases. Irrespective of any adopted course of action, failure to occupy Taiwan might spell the end of the road for Xi Jinping and bring down curtains on the Chinese Communist Party rule.
The CSIS wargame is only a scenario. There is a situational reality in the Western Pacific.In August, six missiles fell near Yonaguni (a Japanese island just 110 km from Taiwan) when PLA conducted military exercises following Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. Japan is, therefore, now in the process of deploying a missile unit on Yonaguni island. This is just part of Japan’s huge increase in defence spending. It is the biggest increase since the second world war. It will make Japan the third highest military spender, after the US and China.In fact, Japan now sees China as ‘coercive’ and posing ‘existential threats’. The deteriorating relations between China and Japan could be at a point of no return as per SCMP.
US China relations are unlikely to improve in 2023 and beyond. In fact, when the USA passed legislation to increase security cooperation with Taiwan, the PLA organised joint combat-readiness patrols and joint firepower strike drills in airspace and waters around Taiwan on 25 December. Taiwan will remain a flashpoint in the China-US relationship. Even more significant is that the US presence at Subic Bay (Philippines) might be a reality again soon. Besides the USA and Japan, most of China’s neighbours are increasing their own security apparatus and linkages with other nations in the region. Western Pacific is getting crowded with a network of alliances to hem China in. South Korea, Vietnam, Philippines and Australia are all part of this build up.
The highlights of the scenario specific CSIS wargame conflated with the reality of military build-up in the region indicates that USA , Japan and Philippines will invariably be in the ‘fight’, if and when China invades Taiwan. Other countries will also get drawn, in some form or the other. Escalation into a wider conflict seems an inevitability for China to face. The net result is that China will be at the receiving end of a lot of military stick and economic misery if it undertakes any kind of military adventure against Taiwan. Overall, it might mark the termination of the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and the Chinese Dream could turn into a reality far from what Xi Jinping has been outlining. Seen through the prism of the wargame report and the hard reality of the regional tensions, it is a huge moot point if China will undertake any military action at all beyond posturing to do so. Further, China is acutely aware that it does not want to get ‘Ukrained’ in Taiwan.
However, loss of face is a major issue in China. Currently, it is taking retaliatory steps against many countries including the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, South Korea, Japan and India merely over Covid-19 travel curbs. Not taking any action against Taiwan or being seen as militarily incapable to annex Taiwan represents a massive loss of face. That will be totally unacceptable to China in general and communists in particular. Hence it must do something.
Let us change tack. Xi Jinping’s bristling message to the international community during the 20th Party Congress was that ‘Security’ will be the main focus in China. While rejuvenation of the China Dream was outlined as the highest priority, winning local and regional wars was equally important. China has to “stand tall and firm in the East” since “China’s international influence, appeal, and power to shape have risen markedly.” Xi Jinping also anticipated that “external attempts to suppress and contain China may escalate at any time.” Therefore China “will become more adept at deploying our military forces on a regular basis and in diversified ways.” He also wanted the PLA to enhance readiness and gain experience in conducting operations. Overall his tone and tenor was quite explicit.
It is worthwhile to reflect as to what China will do with its great military build-up if it cannot capture Taiwan. Global domination through the greatest military on earth and an alternate Sino-centric world order seems in recession due to multiple factors. Decoupling has gathered steam. The population is clearly declining. The country is resource deficient. The BRI despite great hype has not reaped economic or geopolitical dividends. The crisis in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Angola and other African countries indicate a loose belt and an increasingly bumpy road. China is beleaguered with Covid whose political, social and economic fallout appears toxic. Overall the economy is sputtering. China seems to be entering a period of prolonged flatness in spite of remaining a huge economy. However, despite these circumstances, Xi Jinping and his cohorts will not give up their unrealistic Chinese dream.
So what do they do? In my considered opinion, they are likely to use their outsized military to achieve a politico-military victory to reaffirm China’s comprehensive national power. That victory should be significant enough to re-establish Chinese credentials, force nations to enhance trade with it, show its competitors in poor light and then resume business from where it was left off. In doing so, it will endeavour to keep the Taiwan dream and threat alive through the halo effect of the victory so achieved. In any assessment, India alone satisfies these conditions. The 3500 km LAC offers great scope for a politico-military victory which can show China in great light. Such a victory over a strong Indian Army will enhance China’s prestige and also show the USA in poor light for not being able to counter it. It will also put India, a peer competitor, in place. Most importantly it gives China the time and space to divert attention from Taiwan and give it the politico-military latitude for a return on another day. In the meanwhile the entire situation as it exists has perfectly set up the game for China. It is feinting towards Taiwan while it has India in its sights.
The theoretical framework for an offensive against India is provided in the wargame report, which states : International relations scholars have long highlighted the dangerous dynamics between a rising power and an existing hegemon. In 1958, AbramoOrganski first developed the notion that war becomes more likely as the capabilities of weaker, dissatisfied states approach those of the established, advantaged states.This theory provides the basis for a natural cycle of the rise and fall of hegemonic powers as unsatisfied and rising challengers defeat them.While this framework is relevant to the Sino-US context, it can be equally applied to the Sino-Indian context. It is increasingly clear that China views India as doing to it what it does to the US. Whether we in India believe it or not, China has been believing it for a long time now. In fact ever since Xi Jinping has assumed power, China has not missed a trick to put India in place lest it becomes too big to handle. The evidence is that Sino Indian competition has only increased and sharpened in the past decade in all spheres – economic, diplomatic and military.
If all issues are put in their perspective, the current period is a window when India is most vulnerable for Chinese predation. Beyond that, India will be too big for China to trifle with. Therefore, India needs to put in place a strategy to head any Chinese military adventure off while managing its own rise. The important point to understand is that at present the Indian Armed Forces are just strong enough to guard the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the nation. Even in this situation, Indiamust be prepared to put up with salami slicing and incremental gray zone operations which China will undertake to reassert itself. This was evident in its failed attempt at Yangtse recently. However, beyond that,the Indian Armed Forces are not yet ready to anchor India’s rise as a global power or deter China effectively.
India might be politically stable, the fastest growing economy in the foreseeable future and its diplomatic heft might have increased. However, in the overall analysis its military remains the weakest link in its rise.The current debate on the lack of a national security strategy and theatrisation indicates that where we have the wherewithal, we have been unable to put in requisite structures in place. On the other hand, we are prepared to put in place a Rocket Force structure without adequate wherewithal based on unrefined logic. This is a strange national predicament. Despite all the hype in Atmanirbharta, our fundamentals remain shaky. The need for a tank to operate in High Altitude was identified three years back. Its necessity is now. However, we have just started a pedantic process which might give us a tank in about ten years. If all goes well. It won’t , given our track record. Further, news reports keep appearing that India still searches for artillery guns despite indigenous options being available. Very clearly, our unique and unparalleled politico-bureaucratic-military structure needs a revamp and must get its act together. If it doesn’t happen in a hurry, we are staring at a crisis. China will exploit the opportunity being provided by us. The clear and present Chinese threat is staring at our face and time might not be on our side.
The author is PVSM, AVSM, VSM, and a retired Director General of Artillery. He is currently a Professor in the Aerospace Department of IIT Madras. He writes extensively on defence and strategic affairs at www.gunnersshot.com
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