How New Delhi Must Counter Beijing’s Hybrid War Strategy

India’s pushback has to simultaneously address multiple fronts and domains with a clear aim in view.

How New Delhi Must Counter Beijing’s Hybrid War Strategy

The Sino-Indian strategic equation at present is one of the most complex security challenges India has ever faced. In it, the importance of getting assessments right is the key to optimum response.

A fortnight ago, I wrote that after progressive analysis, it seemed that the Chinese intent (the most difficult thing to assess) and strategy harped on limited military coercion combined with activities in other domains such as diplomatic, cyber, information and influence to keep India under pressure; force levels did not portray a war-fighting intent, more a deception towards it.

The entire strategy appeared to aim at diluting India’s strategic confidence, preventing it from playing its legitimate regional and international role in the context of the Indo-Pacific and use potential success in this to message other key anti-China detractors.

So how does India break free of this hybrid war situation and counter China’s aim and intent? India’s policy has all along ensured that it worked towards mutuality of interests with China; keeping borders stable, economic cooperation and trade, and treading a careful diplomatic path so as not to irk it.

It has also shunned targeted partnerships aimed at China, stepping back from sensitive issues such as Tibet, Taiwan or Uyghurs and not responded strongly enough even on physical Chinese transgressions. India therefore has to first make up its mind whether it wishes to treat China as a friend, competitor, rival or adversary.

On this depends the concept of response. A single description from the above would go against the principle of pragmatism and the saying—‘no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, only permanent interests’.

Thus India has to work considering China to be part of all four descriptions. Assuming the Indian establishment accepts the assessment that India is being subjected to short- to mid-term hybrid war, its pushback has to simultaneously address multiple fronts and domains with a clear aim in view; its responses must ‘neutralise and not exacerbate’.

The terminal aim needs to consider the projection of military capability, which is clearly a priority. Pushover nations that cannot respond in the military domain will always stand to be hurt. India’s military response thus far has been balanced.

"The Sino-Indian strategic equation at present is one of the most complex security challenges India has ever faced."
Indian troops at the Karakoram pass; File Photo

The partial mobilisation has of course played to China’s intent to force Indian expenditure but the flip side is that such military focus to the northern border hasn’t taken place in years and so is a blessing towards better preparedness. This time, India must not hesitate to spend and optimise through long-term investment.

Rhetoric over two-front war needs to convert to actual capability; else, it is Pakistan’s instigation that might lead us into such situations relatively unprepared. In the military domain, it’s a difficult call between assuming a proactive or responsive stance.

This is where risk assessment needs to be wargamed at the national level. The responsive stance should be bigger than what China ever expects but being proactive also needs to remain an option. Let China subtly realise that initiation may many times lie in its hands but the termination would always prove expensive to it in terms of terminal state and reputation. Also in the military domain, it’s the maritime one that can no longer be ignored.

In another decade, the PLA Navy would commence playing a more active role in the Indian Ocean beyond just the Western Arabian Sea. India has to play its assigned role in the Indo-Pacific in all future strategic partnerships such as the Quad and the Navy has to have far better capability to play to China’s worst fears.

Half the game in counter hybrid war strategy is contingent upon credible communication even when the intent is deceptive. A fairly good beginning on the seriousness of intent has been made with the recent missile tests to include Nirbhaya, Shaurya and the extended range Brahmos.

The Rafale jet has made a great splash and the arrival of more must continue finding media space, but with a non-rhetorical projection. Television channels should actually commence shows on Defence Atmanirbhar on prime time to convey the seriousness of resolve to China.

"In the military domain, it’s a difficult call between assuming a proactive or responsive stance."
Glimpses of Air Force Day Parade-2020 at Air Force Station Hindan on 8 Oct 20; File Photo

There is an ongoing debate on the handling of the ‘One China’ issue, our relationship with Taiwan and the Tibet issue. The Chinese are extremely sensitive to these. They are also fully aware of the potential that India carries of raising these issues to a much higher pitch across the world. A taste of this without going overboard needs to be given to China.

A friend on social media opined quite appropriately—“important for India to support Tibetan freedom and create the buffer zone between our borders and mainland. If CCP thinks it’s their right to support separatists in North East and Myanmar, the Government of India needs to unwind itself from the One China policy with due recognition of Taiwan and Tibet as nations”. It’s the subtlety and not the brazenness of the messaging that is important.

China’s fifth generation warfare effort includes information distortion, deception and deflection. However, unlike Deng Xiaoping who believed in hiding the strength, Xi Jinping as China’s strongman and apparent President for life is impatient and unsubtle; this is a weakness that needs to be intently studied academically to determine opportunities and domains which can hurt China’s interests without an over-the-top approach.

What we need is an institutional approach to countering and then launching our own fifth generation campaign. This was always the need in J&K too against Pakistan and we never adopted it adequately; let us not be found languishing this time against the Chinese.

On the diplomatic front, a reasonable beginning appears to be underway with the Quad. Equally important are strong bilateral ties with Japan, the cyber cooperation part in particular, since to reach anywhere near Chinese cyber capability, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan would be our ideal partners.

The Indo-US 2+2 in the middle of the pandemic and the willingness to sign the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for geo-spatial cooperation is an important precursor to India acquiring armed drones such as the MQ-9B from the US.

The willingness to be a part of the global pushback against China’s unsubtle bullying must be adequately projected. The economic domain, about which much has been written, is an area where care has to be exercised; the limits of decoupling have to be recognised even as we exercise our right to choose our business partners.

Countering China’s hybrid approach will need flexibility, proactiveness, deep monitoring and the ability to wade through complexity. At the end of the day, our concept must recall that neutralisation and not exacerbation remains the key to success.

(Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain (retd), PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM is one of India's most respected commentators on national security and a notable member at 'Mission Victory India' The general commanded the Indian Army's 15 Army Corps in Kashmir and was known as the 'People's General' in the Kashmir Valley.)

(This article was first published in the 'New Indian Express' and has been reproduced with due permission from the author in the larger interest of the Indian military fraternity. Views expressed are the authors own, and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')

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