Unlike the earlier generations of warfare, which relied on the might of military, speed, stealth and surprise, in the latest, the fifth generation, the lines between war and politics, military and civilian are blurred. The lives of common citizens might be more directly and intricately linked compared to even the forces at ground zero.
In fact, new age wars might not even look like one, since they are more about shaping perceptions than about combat. And, as the borders of two ancient civilizations, China and India, are in a flux, it is important to bear in mind that present wars could be won without even firing a bullet, through information distortion, deception and deflection.
In War 5.0, which is won without a battle, the Chinese starts with an inherent advantage. Through generations, their emperors, generals and leaders have been guided by the Sun Tzu strategy, where a leader’s real skill is assessed not on his victory, but on how he subdues his enemy without a direct confrontation. Without laying siege, without long operations and without losing a man, how a war can be won was the challenge. As Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz defined it, war is bending your opponent to your will, not in a limited way but by using all means.
In the fifth generation wars, patience and time emerge as powerful weapons. Fortified from the din and dust of democracy, Chinese leaders have an edge, facing no pressures of multi-party-politics, messy democratic processes, or stressful elections.
With no compulsion to prove anything in the short term, they can choose to invest time and resources in distorting opinions and deflecting conversations: nationally and globally. For them, time is not a luxury, but a given, and they can afford to wait endlessly until their enemy slips up.
And, Chinese leaders also have the willingness to wait; a rare trait in the present quick-tempered world. Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader from 1978 to 1989, even after turning his country around from social conflict, disenchantment and institutional disorder, to an era of unprecedented growth, refused to tom-tom his achievements globally. His dictum of hiding all strengths and biding time, baked into Chinese minds the importance of patience and self-control.
While the Chinese play a muted game, we Indians tend to wear our emotions on the sleeves, accentuating and exaggerating everything. There is a tendency not to wait for anything, even traffic lights or lining up to pay homage to a bereaved. Yet, democracy complemented by economic growth has made India more appealing to a global audience, especially the liberal West. However, the recent years of adverse economics and simmering internal tensions exposed many fault-lines, not just internally, but also with certain neighbours, many of whom previously considered India a big brother. Sort of playing into China’s hands.
As the Middle Kingdom engaged India in formal and informal summits, and as companies injected capital into Indian businesses, they were decking the tree with false blossoms. Even as Indians basked in the Chinese acknowledgement of their new-found power and economic prowess, their vulnerabilities were being carefully noted. Social media campaigns of Chinese border guards enjoying hot meals as their Indian counterparts endure hardships and global endorsements on how Pakistan is a role model in handling Covid-19, seem disparate and innocuous actions with no command or purpose. However, in reality, these are right out of the textbooks of the fifth generation warfare, where pressures are applied below a certain threshold, at multiple points, including the military, politics, business, media and civil society; discrediting the opponent’s government, demoralising its armies, and sowing seeds of distrust among the citizens.
China has territorial disputes with over 20 countries, more than anyone else in the world. However, it has almost always played by the Sun Tzu way of winning battles without losing a man. Hence, it is reasonable to assume that it will not let this border dispute with India escalate to a full-fledged war.
Rather, it will continue focussing on breaking India’s spirit by ultimatums, disrupting economic activity, undermining institutions and even inciting social discords.
Probably, the only way out for India is to get its bearings straight by reclaiming a unity of purpose, restarting its growth engine and redeeming peace with neighbours. If India does not get all its internal distractions out of the way, it will risk falling to the fifth generation warfare of China.
The writer is the founder of LeadCap, a strategy consulting firm