Countering Coercion in The Indo-Pacific
Vice Admiral Girish Luthra (retd.)

Deliberate and pre-meditated intrusions by China, along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India, and consequent Indian responses, have raised concerns globally about the potential of escalation. Diplomatic, economic, military, informational, and technological options available to each side, for posturing and execution, have been and continue to be under analysis and assessment. Discussions and commentary in India, on preparations and readiness for a Two-front war, dormant for some time-have also resurfaced, with renewed emphasis and conviction. It is also widely agreed that the concept and framework of LAC is flawed, notwithstanding the original intent and efforts to evolve the same. It may have served well for a limited period, but unilateral departure by China to uphold some basic tenets have made it look archaic.

Agreements, mechanisms and protocols worked out between 1993 and 2013, to manage the boundary in a peaceful manner, started showing fissures in 2013, as Depsang became a friction point, though later that year a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) was signed between India and China. The need to revisit these agreements with the aim to define the LAC has been highlighted by many analysts, although creation of a conducive environment for the same seems very distant. Increased number of friction points due to Chinese actions along the LAC in the current standoff, in all three sectors, has led to mobilization and buildup on both sides, with a high probability of sustained readiness and maintenance till this winter.

A series of aggressive actions by China in the last three months or so, in different areas in its land and maritime neighbourhood, are possibly driven by specific objectives in each case, with both internal and external considerations. But there is a common thread. It includes sending a clear and unambiguous message that China’s lead and pole position in the region has to be accepted, with attendant adaptation and acquiescence at policy levels; which in the case of India implies that any notions to seek parity or equivalence with China are both misplaced and futile.

It also includes the message that collective ‘pushback’ strategy of some nations; with eagerness to strengthen the same on the basis of heightened aversion towards China due to the rapid spread of the Coronavirus epidemic, is an illusion and doomed to fail. It is also meant to display the new Chinese capabilities of ‘escalation dominance’, which are presumably perceived by China to have received a fillip in recent months, due to the relative prevailing situation and circumstances emanating from the epidemic. Enhanced all round capabilities to pursue coercion, coupled with this window of opportunity could have prompted a series of actions by China, to make some tactical gains, in support of the larger ‘China Dream’.

Coercion as a tool is as old as diplomacy and has been observed to be a common practice since historical times in managing inter-state relations, though with clear imprint of different cultural approaches. The Chinese concepts and methods of coercion have however, traditionally been distinctive, and substantially different from those adopted by some other countries. Moral ascendancy, outlining specific demands with or without sanctions, and public discourse are invariably accorded little or no importance. In recent times, China has moved to employ direct coercion as against subtle coercion. Success in conduct of this form of coercion against some of its neighbours have emboldened China; with the temptation to look for an opportunity to address unresolved issues through military instruments. The frequency and intensity of such efforts has seen an increase in the last decade, though there have been periods of relative lull in between.

China’s clear move, from being assertive to being aggressive, has been supported by the rapid growth of its all-round capabilities. An old cliché describes this growing tendency aptly: if all you have is a hammer, then every problem begins to look like a nail. A handful of countries have, on few occasions, chosen to ‘stand up’ to the Chinese actions, though instances of strong responses have been limited. Counter-coercion too can be subtle or direct and is almost certain to play out in the next few weeks and months, as India begins implementation of a calibrated response, in different spheres.

Unless major breakthrough is achieved through diplomatic parleys to restore the status-quo ante, India’s counter-coercion strategies would almost certainly take shape under a very high level of operational readiness, which may need to be sustained for a prolonged period. As per reports, along the LAC, a strong posture has been taken up by the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force in all three sectors, in response to the substantial buildup by the PLA.

During the period, China has also undertaken military drills in diverse and distant locations, on land and at sea, in a move to demonstrate its capabilities and reach. It can also be safely assumed that the Indian security establishment would have factored the western front appropriately, to be prepared for a two-front challenge. The Indian Navy too has been deployed in the Indian Ocean Region, to provide additional options. As per reports, surveillance has been stepped up, to locate and track vessels of interest, and closely monitor maritime activities in the region. These deployments by the navy and its readiness are over and above the ongoing Operation Samudra Setu, wherein nearly 4000 Indian nationals have been brought back home so far.

Here, it bears mention that a two-front scenario is radically different at sea. Since naval operations are not limited by any physical borders, naval forces can operate in different areas, close to own shores or far from them, depending upon capabilities. It is not just possible, but highly likely, that two potential adversaries must be dealt with in a single theatre. The size of the theatre would invariably be larger, as compared to operations against a single adversary. A different set of challenges need to be factored in if one of the adversaries has bases and/or access facilities in the theatre, and the other adversary has a coastline proximal to the theatre. And for two potential adversaries, collusion is simpler to implement in the maritime domain, due to its very nature. This is particularly relevant when collusive support is provided without openly joining the conflict, till circumstances so permit.

Such collusion can be deterred through a strong posture at sea (in addition to other measures), by forces that are combat ready, which can signal prohibitive costs to both. The option to convert this posture into calibrated action can be an important factor in the escalation dynamics on land borders, in addition to technology, trade, market access, cross investments, and appropriate positioning on pressure points at global and regional fora.

Many maritime countries justifiably emphasize their respective maritime interests. In case of India, these interests are elaborated upon in the Indian Maritime Doctrine and Indian Maritime Security Strategy. China, on the other hand, has been consistent with its focus on maritime rights and interests. This position was clearly articulated in its Defence White Paper of 2015, which stated that “….great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans, and protecting maritime rights and interests.” The emphasis on ‘rights’ has been projected by the Chinese as non-negotiable territorial claims, at sea and over land. The growth and employment of a large maritime militia, Coast Guard, and regular naval units have been indicative of this approach, which in turn have further shaped China’s maritime outlook and actions. Reactions and counteractions have been witnessed, with major and middle powers seeking to reorient their strategies. To manage perceptions, Beijing has regularly downplayed the security dimension of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It has also avoided using terms like overseas bases, calling them Strategic Strong Points instead, to steer clear of any imperialistic interpretations.

The evolving maritime balance in the Indo-Pacific is likely to witness a new momentum, in the light of Chinese actions along the LAC with India, and with other neighbours. Higher levels of naval activities, exercises, mutual agreements, and cooperation may be seen, to address the threat to stability, due to Chinese actions. There have been strong reactions to China’s approval and promulgation of the new Security Law for Hong Kong, particularly by the United Kingdom, United States, Australia, and Japan, all key maritime players in the region. European Union countries (with a handful of exceptions), having attempted a middle path strategy in dealing with China, primarily due to economic considerations, may become more receptive to the concerns emanating from threats and challenges posed by China.

Some partnerships in the Indo-Pacific may be strengthened, and some new ones may be evolved in the near-term. Security dimension could be added in the framework of some of these partnerships. Further, more countries may feel encouraged and confident, to call out aggressive actions that defy norms and accepted protocols, as witnessed by Myanmar’s recent implied reference to China, with regard to interference, support, and supply of arms to rebels (Arakan Army and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army). A new trend is clearly discernible.

There is always a thin line between sensing a strategic opportunity and making a strategic error. And belligerence can often give a misplaced perception of the former. The cost of attempting change through direct coercion, with military action, must be assessed in all domains and compared with the benefits that are expected to accrue. While India and China continue military buildup on their respective sides, to a scale not witnessed in the last five decades between the two neighbours, it is probable that reorientation of the strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific may run counter to the objectives of the intrusions. Alignment of counter-coercion strategies by key players, because of near concurrent actions by China in different geographical locations, can play a major role in ensuring security and stability in the region. At the same time, India is likely to continue with its measured responses to deal with an expansionist neighbour, in multiple domains and fronts.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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