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South Asia and the Unexpected Offensive

April 6, 2011

Much of the popular image, and indeed, the analytical content, of thinking about the next potential great power war relies on some questionable assumption. One is that the war will most likely break out between China and the United States, the two greatest powers (excluding nuclear arms)  in the Asia-Pacific. The second assumption is that the Chinese will probably begin the war, because they are a “revisionist” state aiming to tear down the international system. So most scenarios involve a Chinese aggression or provocation in the maritime sphere of operations, such as Taiwan, the South China Sea, or Korea.

John Mearsheimer, in his many warnings about the probable war with China looming in the future, has tried to address the second point, by noting the US has launched a large number of wars in the past few decades, and harbors generally revisionist international ideas about spreading democracy even when the material – and institutional – distribution of power indicates the US should be a status quo state.

Nevertheless, it is important to understand the roots of aggression, or to put it in more objective terms, offensive actions, do not necessarily lie in revisionist perspectives and ideologies. The tendency to introduce morality and normative judgement – however subtle and nuanced – can cloud perceptions of which states are likely to adopt offensive strategies, and why. The impulse to take to the offensive emerges as often out of fears of decline and troubled strategic circumstances as it does from revisionist ideologies. Particularly when revisionist interest groups exist concomitantly with such circumstances, we can lose sight of which sort of attitudes are driving a country’s geopolitical and strategic behavior.

Consider the case of India, which, by association with Gandhi, Nehru, and the globalized economy in the Western world, seems a relatively pacific nation. Whatever bright political trends commentators associate with India, it is also a country sincerely concerned about its security. The problem of Kashmir still festers, and despite India’s enormous size and military power compared to Pakistan, the presence of radical terrorist groups and a nuclear standoff means that low-intensity, low-technology terrorist attacks can quickly shift to the opposite end of the conflict spectrum and result in full-blown conventional and nuclear war.

India has large land borders with Pakistan, China, and Burma, where it contests China for influence and resources. Despite India’s superiority over Pakistani conventional forces, the fear of terrorist attacks and uprising in Kashmir, along with nuclear war, remains strong. In the meantime, Chinese growth has outpaced India’s and their programs of military modernization and strategically-relevant infrastructure seems to be continuing apace.

The presence of Chinese troops along the Line of Control and in China’s claimed territory in Kashmir, along with Tibet, is causing alarm amongst the Indian Northern Army Command. The only thing worse for Indian planners than going to war with Pakistan is going to war with Pakistan and China simultaneously. Since terrorist attacks at the Lok Sabha brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war in late 2001 and 2002, India has already been gearing its military forces for more rapid mobilization and offensive action – this is the infamous “Cold Start” doctrine. However, Cold Start is really designed for limited actions with punitive aims – but as any student of war or history should know, countries far too often find their “limited” actions, through political confusion and friction, become something else entirely.

Walter C. Ladwig, in International Security, provided an astute analysis of “Cold Start” in the context of an Indo-Pakistani war. Major obstacles still include joint operations and civil-military command. As a project of the Indian Army, Cold Start’s organizational changes have made limited progress, but inter-service tension and guidance from political leadership remains shaky.

The increasingly dangerous proposition of a two-front war with China, however, may increase the doctrine’s appeal. As this RUSI article notes, Cold Start is far from ready for a battlefield test, but the need to quickly defeat Pakistan may spur stronger effort towards reform and increased readiness. Although China has built up railroads to Tibet and other hinterlands, in part to bring further force to bear on its Indian border, Pakistan has little “strategic depth,” and so might seem more appetizing for Indian Army commanders to engage in a militarily or politically decisive offensive action, buying India space and time to turn to a confrontation with China, which humiliated India in their 1962 war.

Does India harbor a radical revisionist world view? Do Indian ultra-nationalists control the organs of state power, and do these bodies harbor goals of extensive territorial aggrandizement? No, they do not. Indeed, as a pluralistic democracy and economically integrated country, some observers might be ideologically inclined to write off India, rather than its neighbors Pakistan or China, as the likely offensive actor in a new Asian war. This hypothetical, but increasingly troubling scenario, should remind analysts that regime type and ideology cannot always serve as reliable predictors for military behavior in international policy. Geography, strategic culture, and military technology still shape a country’s war plans and foreign policy in important ways. Only in hindsight are some of the most catastrophic wars so obvious in their origins, character, and participants.

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