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Kautilyan Perspective on How India Should Sort Out China

India must improve its defense strategy, reform its institutions, improve its economy and adopt new technologies to counter China. The second of this three-part series posits how India could adopt lessons from its ancient philosopher Kautilya, the counterpart of China’s much-heralded Sun Tzu, to deal with its northern neighbor.
India And China

Conflict between India and China, Pakistan. India-China-Pakistan relations. 3d illustration. © Tomasz Makowski/

May 16, 2023 23:33 EDT

[Here are Part 1 and Part 3 of this three-part series.]

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi inherited a Nehruvian defense policy that was flaccid. India did not have a clear strategy against an aggressive China and a hostile Pakistan. Furthermore, there was corruption in defense imports. 

Modi has a chance to change that Nehruvian legacy. He must modernize India’s defense policy. COVID-19 and the Russia-Ukraine War have been expensive to the Indian economy. So, India has to be efficient in its defense expenditure and use modern technology to counter its two nuclear-armed neighbors.

India’s Defense Strategy Has Evolved Since 2020

Post-independence India’s defense policy lacked teeth. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister, declared, “We don’t need a defense policy. Our policy is ahimsa (non-violence). We foresee no military threats. As far as I am concerned, you can scrap the army – the police are good enough to meet our security needs.” 

Nehru had a rude wake-up call in 1947-48 when Pakistan invaded Jammu and Kashmir. Yet he ignored this warning and continued to neglect the military. In fact, Nehru chronically feared a military coup. He kept the military out of the national foreign policy framework and decision-making loop. Nehru’s principle of non-alignment was to have no military alliances with superpowers. The 1962 India-China War destroyed Nehru’s childlike ideas about national security. It appears Nehru was unfamiliar with the great Indian political philosopher Kautilya.

Under Modi, India has changed and is finally letting the military take a central role in driving defense diplomacy. In January 2020, the Modi government created the office of the chief of defense staff (CDS). Its mandate is to unify the military services and improve their effectiveness. Joint theater commands created over three to four years would partly help achieve this. Admiral Arun Prakash called this move “the most significant development in the national security domain since Independence.”

The Modi government seeks to build up the domestic defense industry in its policy of import substitution. It also seeks to improve defense exports through joint ventures with US and Israeli defense companies. A key goal of these ventures is transfer of technology to India. In May 2020, India’s foreign direct investment (FDI) limit rose to 74% under the automatic route in the defense sector. Despite opposition from labor unions, corporatization of India’s state-owned highly inefficient ordnance factories has already begun and indigenization of niche technologies is also underway. The Make in India and AtmaNirbhar Bharat (Self-Reliant India) policies are helping this effort. These include artificial intelligence, blockchain, quantum communications, unmanned systems, and other directed-energy weapons. 

India’s Border Roads Organisation (BRO) has been building critical roads, bridges, and tunnels along the Chinese border. The country is also eliminating fencing gaps in its borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh. It is adopting all available land, water and space technologies, i.e. radar, sonar, laser and drones, to secure the border. It is also emulating Israel’s smart fencing, quick response teams and CCTV control rooms on its borders. Israel now has an airborne laser system to shoot down hostile drones, which India seeks to adopt. 

India’s porous border with Myanmar is also being fenced and sealed to manage northeast insurgents who engage in arms and drug trafficking from the Golden Triangle that includes parts of Burma, China, Laos and Thailand. 

The Modi government is also launching the National Cyber Security Strategy of 2023.

The Times Have Changed and India Must Change Too

India’s supply chain dependency of 85% on a much-weakened Russia is no longer tenable. In the Ukraine war, Russian arms and platforms have been found wanting against NATO’s superior firepower. Russia is also strapped for resources and would be unable to supply spare parts to India, were a conflict to arise. It is true that some Russian arms are effective and they are much cheaper than their Western counterparts. Moscow has also been flexible on technology transfer and royalty waivers. Yet India has no option but to diversify its supply chain. Indigenization and diversification of its military supply chain are the need of the hour. Future defense procurement is likely to come from the US, France, Israel, UK and Italy.

The Ukraine war has also shown how corruption is now a national security issue. Part of the reason the Russians did poorly early in the war was because of rampant corruption in procurement, maintenance and all aspects of their military. India has a history of corruption in defense deals too. Middlemen from four or five important families dominate this space and the defense ministry is trying to sideline them. This is a matter of national importance.

The Ukraine war has also demonstrated the importance of new technologies such as drones, advanced hand-held missiles and cyber warfare. Closer to home, the Ladakh crisis highlighted the importance of such technologies. Artificial intelligence, big data, and autonomous vehicles including aircrafts and ships will play an increasing role in war as will quantum computing.

As of now, India is using  drone jamming technology to counter drone-based smuggling and terrorism in Punjab and Jammu. India must disseminate this technology better to security forces around the country to improve national security. India needs to manage its border with Myanmar better as well. As stated above, insurgents can be a menace in that part of the world and the current porous border has to be monitored better.

It is also time for the Modi government to implement the Agnipath scheme. Most of India’s defense budget goes into salaries, pensions and benefits. This four-year tour of duty scheme frees up resources for weapons, modernization and new technology.

India Needs Institutional Reforms

A two-front war may find India “resource-constrained, overstretched, and vulnerable.” Therefore, India must improve its operational readiness and reform its institutions. The prime minister recognizes the need for reforms. To his credit, Modi advocated for a CDS in 2017 and introduced the post in January 2020. The position of the CDS was first mooted after the 1971 India-Pakistan War. Inter-services rivalry and a fear of domination by the army delayed the introduction of the CDS. Even the 1991 Kargil War did not change things. 

Similarly, joint theater commands have been pending. They are a complicated process and can take a lot of time. The US military took almost 50 years to fine-tune these commands after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet India does not have the luxury of the US with two oceans providing security from foreign threats. Long borders with Pakistan and China make joint theater commands a priority.

It is high time for the government to reform the civilian bureaucracy that acts as the military’s overlord. Unlike the Japanese, French, Israeli or American military bureaucracies, India’s defense ministry is run by generalists. They can be in the ministry of textiles one day and be in charge of India’s navy the next day. India needs domain specialists, not generalists from India’s so-called elite Indian Administrative Service (IAS) running its defense. Nehru established the IAS stranglehold on the military, which Modi must end soon.

India also needs a thorough overhaul of its professional military education. This will help to “meaningfully work [in] the new structures that are taking shape.” India also has to improve its military R&D expenditure, which lags behind that of China and the US. It also has to improve its research institutions, many of which are bureaucratic and sclerotic. Autonomy, accountability and professional management of these institutions would improve India’s national security tremendously.

Improve the Balance of Power and Make a Deal with China

Kautilya teaches us that the enemy of our enemy is a friend. The US fears China’s ascendency. India also needs to enhance its balance of power equation with China. A deeper economic and security arrangement with the US is in India’s national interest. 

India must attract manufacturing away from China. It must compete to be the manufacturing hub of the world. China’s increasing tensions with Taiwan give India a unique opportunity. It must emulate key elements of the Chinese manufacturing model. Improving infrastructure, power generation and labor laws would give Indian manufacturing a great boost. 

Kautilya regards wars as expensive. The key driver of war with China is a boundary dispute. India claims the British boundary as legitimate, while China upholds the Qing dynasty. After 18 rounds of negotiations, both countries have been unable to end the impasse. 

From New Delhi’s point of view, China occupies 38,000 square kilometers of Indian territory in the Union territory of Ladakh. This includes the Shaksgam Valley (5,180 square kilometers) gifted by Pakistan in 1963 and Aksai Chin, which was a part of Jammu and Kashmir, that China occupied in the 1950s. Aksai Chin is a largely uninhabited cold high-altitude (4,200 meters above sea level) desert but it is of strategic value because this plateau links Tibet and Xinjiang. The Chinese have built an all-weather road in Aksai Chin. They have also built another road through Shaksgam Valley connecting China to Pakistan.

For China, militarizing both Aksai Chin and Shaksgam Valley is highly expensive. The same is true for India in the case of the Siachen Glacier. Both countries must accept facts on the ground and move on. In 1959, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai proposed maintaining “the long-existing status quo of the border” and that is what India should propose. Once India and China can define the border, the risks of war will plummet, freeing up valuable resources for both nations.

A creative way forward for India might be to seek compensation for its territory that China occupies. India could ask for 100,000 rupees, i.e. $1,216 per acre. This would amount to $11.59 billion, less than 0.07% of the 2021 Chinese GDP. Of course, the amount of money India claims could be higher and China would bargain hard to lower the price. But India must think creatively and pragmatically to end its border dispute with China. This modern version of the Alaska deal would be a win-win for all parties involved.

India must pay attention to Sun Tzu as well. He states that the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. Besides new military alliances with the US and the West, India must recognize the power of its market. China is currently benefiting from trade with India with its trade surplus surpassing $70 billion in 2021. China accounts for no less than 40% of India’s total trade deficit. This also gives India negotiating power on border disputes. India must threaten to reduce its Chinese imports during negotiations. 

At the same time, India must reduce sensitive Chinese imports such as pharmaceuticals and mobile phones over the longer term. India’s high dependency on China is unacceptable from a security point of view. As a result of the Ladakh conflict, India shut down some foreign investments in April 2020. It banned Chinese apps like TikTok. 

[Here are Part 1 and Part 3 of this three-part series.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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