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Border crisis ends: Why China picked a fight with India

From 264BCE to 146BCE, the greatest war the world had until then known raged across the Mediterranean rim, as the imperial armies of Rome and Carthage battled for supremacy. Flanked by the sea and the Alps, Liguria resisted Rome’s legions—protected, the chronicler Julius Frontinus recorded, "not only by its location and siege-works, but also by the superiority of its defenders". Faced with this insurmountable challenge, the Roman commander took to "marching frequently round the walls with all his forces, and then back to camp".

His actions were a ruse. "When the townspeople had been induced by this routine to believe that the Roman commander did this for the purpose of drill," Frontius wrote, "he transformed this practice of parading into a sudden attack, and gaining possession of the walls, forced the inhabitants to surrender."

A Chinese naval warship. AFP

A Chinese naval warship. AFP

Liguria’s fateful deception casts light on the dilemmas that confront India’s strategic establishment, as it debates the lessons of the face-off on Daulat Beg Oldi. The crisis ended on Sunday evening, as suddenly as it had begun, with troops from both countries agreeing to fall back to the positions they earlier held. National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon argues that the genesis of the crisis lies in India's display of muscle: new fortifications, border airstrips and force-expansion. India’s military insists China’s own growth has left it no choice.

China’s People’s Liberation Army has sent out a simple message by its occupation of territory lying inside India: in return for quiet on the border, it wants India to back off its ongoing borders build-up. India fears the quiet could precede an unpleasant awakening. There’s no actual evidence, muttering notwithstanding, that a deal on this larger question defused the Daulat Beg Oldi crisis. There’s no doubt, either, that the question will acquire a key role in China-India talks to come.

India's fundamental problem is this: ever since 1997, China’s military modernisation has been dramatic, with budgets increasing over 10% year-on-year. Last year, the New Delhi-based Institute of Defence and Strategic Analysis’ Namrata Goswami flagged the PLA’s growing rapid-deployment capacities in Tibet. She noted new airfields had been built, and $325 billion invested in roads.

This is just part of China’s growing capacities. In the 1990s, China’s indigenous defence industry consistently produced low-quality equipment technologically 15-20 years behind the state-of-the-art. Now, China's military industries produces the J10 fighter, similar or superior to the United States-made F-16C/D; the Yuan-class diesel-electric submarine, the Type-052C destroyer—all pretty much in the same quality bracket as similar western equipment. Perhaps China’s most impressive achievement has been the Dong Feng-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, which threatens the United States’ historic supremacy in the Western Pacific.

Even for the United States, these are significant challenges. In its latest annual report on China’s naval capacities, the Congressional Research Service notes that the United States’ 2014-2043 plans do "not include enough ships to fully support all elements of the Navy’s 306-ship goal". This, it observes, could "make it harder for the United States to defend its interests in the region".

This said, it's important to keep Chinese military modernisation in perspective. The United States estimates barely 25 percent of the PLA’s fighter aircraft, 25 percent of its surface combatants, 40 percent of its surface-to- air missiles, and 55 percent of its submarines are modern. Even the J-10 fighter jet or the Yuan-class submarines represent 1980s technologies. PLA ground forces are still equipped with old or obsolete weaponry; only about a third of its 7,500 main battle tanks, for example, are relatively modern Type-96s and Type-99s. Expert Richard Blitzinger notes China still possesses "western armaments producers continue to outpace China".

In the grand scheme of things, moreover, United States still remains the world’s military powerhouse. China’s budget is a small fraction of the superpower’s spending, hovering moreover at just over 2 percent of GDP. The United States has spent higher than 4 percent of GDP for the past five years. China's fears of India also seem overblown. India's military expenditure has grown, but, it spent just $44.28 billion in 2011-2012, against China’s $129.27 billion. India’s military expenditure has actually declined from a peak of 3.1 percent of GDP in 1999, to 2.7 percent in 2010.

Making sense of this spending needs understanding of what's actually driving it. There's one strategic reason China arming itself, and it isn't love of mountain air. China's self-sufficiency in oil ended back in 1993, and the country relies on imports for 50 percent of its needs. In 2015, that figure will be 60-70 percent.

Like all great powers, China fears other great powers—and is preparing itself for the prospect it might have to fight them for its share. Energy analyst Chris Nedler recently warned that the "net energy available to society has been declining radically". For years now, China used national oil companies to stitch up oil reserves where it can find them—and each of those assets, along with the routes linking them to China's ports, may need defending. Even though experts like John Lee have argued global commodities markets can serve China’s energy security ends better than geostrategic coercion, paranoia drives nations just as it does individuals.

China sees India as a competitor for oil, and a potential ally of other adversaries, like the United States, Japan and Australia. Though war doesn't serve China's economic interests, any more than it does India, its growing western neighbour is thus part of a nightmare mosaic.

Is the nightmare likely? In a seminal lecture delivered in 2011, the scholar Kanti Bajpai suggested this military competition wouldn’t end in war. He pointed to the difficulties in destroying the Indian air force, necessary to secure China's logistics; the robust defensive positions occupied by India’s army in the Himalayas; China's limited naval capacities; its internal conflicts—and, above all, the risk of a nuclear conflagration. Bajpai concluded by asserting that war "is not very likely unless one or the other engages in highly provocative, ill-judged behaviour".

There's no doubt, though that ill-judged provocation does happen—and that's just what China, India, and every other country on the planet has militaries for.

Ever since 2010, when former Army Chief Deepak Kapoor spoke of preparing for a potential two-front war, the question is just what the likely contours of a conflict might be. Last year, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute stated that India had become the world's largest importer of arms in 2007-2011; China held top position in 2002-2006. Military strategists argue that armies need to prepare for possible wars, not just predictable ones. This proposition isn’t as robust as it seems: no nation has infinite resources—and almost any kind of war is imaginable.

In 266 BCE, the armies of Emperor Antigonus II Gonatas laid siege to Megara, hoping to seize the small, but wealthy, city's harbours. The contest was, at first glance, hopeless: Antigonus's armies were much larger and backed, moreover, by phalanxes of battle-elephants. Faced with certain defeat, the ancient historian Polyaenus recorded, the Megarans hit upon a tactic of considerable genius. The city’s pigs were doused in resin and set on fire as they were pushed out of the gates. Panicked by the sight of the burning, squealing pigs, the elephants broke ranks and fled, trampling many of Antigonus' army. The lesson is simple: in war, the big guy doesn’t always win.

The challenge for India today is to find ways to fight smart, faced as it is with an enemy with more battle elephants that it can conceivably outnumber. Rolling belly-up in surrender won't cut it—but neither will bombast, or mindless belligerence.