India needs to act on war that 
is more than armed conflict

India needs to act on war that is more than armed conflict

These disruptive elements have on occasion been coordinated with low-grade violence along the border.

India is engaged in an unseen war, and it is losing without a single shot being fired. Indeed, policymakers fail even to acknowledge many aspects of the sustained assault Indian sovereignty is currently under.

The idea of war, today, goes far beyond armed conflict, to comprehend a wide range ‘non-violent’ instrumentalities which can sometimes be more effective than military measures, and do not attract the international odium that the former would. Even in the absence of kinetic operations—including disruptive operations by proxies—there are continuous efforts targeting the economic, political and social domains, including cyberspace.

These disruptive elements have on occasion been coordinated with low-grade violence along the border. Thus, in June 2020, when the Galwan clashes occurred between Chinese and Indian troops, there were nearly 40,300 attempts to inject malware into Indian networks. There have been multiple other cyber attacks targeting Indian infrastructure, including the October 12, 2020, attack that disrupted Mumbai’s power supply. While the damage is limited, it is useful to recognise these as tentative probes—a kind of weapon-testing—to assess capabilities to engineer future disruptions. In the interim, China’s People’s Liberation Army is believed to have established a Cyberspace Force with an estimated strength of 50,000-60,000 and also harnesses significant numbers of civilian hackers to its geopolitical goals.

Far more insidious and injurious, however, is the economic dimension that is seldom factored into the security calculus. It is useful to recall that, in the wake of the Galwan clashes, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a boycott of Chinese goods. Between 2019-20 and 2023-24, however, Indian imports from China have grown 45 per cent, and China is now India’s largest trading partner.

However, of the USD 118.4 billion trade between the two in 2023-24, Indian exports, overwhelmingly from the primary sector, are a meagre USD 16.67 billion, while imports, principally manufactured goods, totalled USD 101.7 billion. By comparison, trade with the US totalled USD 118.3 billion, but its composition in 2023-24 was USD 77.5 billion in exports, and imports at USD 40.8 billion, giving India a significant trade surplus.

It is useful, here, to recall Walter Lippman’s warning, “A nation has security when it does not have to sacrifice its legitimate interests to avoid war, and is able, if challenged, to maintain them by war.” It is evident that India’s failure to pursue the economic policies—the declared boycott of Chinese goods—deemed best in the national interest, has compromised both national security and sovereignty.

This is a process of gradual colonisation, without occupation of territories. The British colonisers used extreme measures to de-industrialise India, and secure an assured market for their own outputs. Today, physical occupation and violence are no longer necessary. The essence of economic colonisation is the export of raw materials to, and the import of manufactured goods from, the colonisers.

With high profit margins and lower risks entrepreneurs in the target country eagerly become mere traders. Indian manufacturing, today, accounts for a long-stagnant and meagre 17 per cent of GDP, and is dominated by ‘screwdriver technology’, with, as a Parliamentary Committee report noted in 2018, “limited capabilities across various processes of manufacturing value chain… resulting primarily in last mile assembly.” Enormous costs are inflicted by this process on the long-term prospects of Indian state power.

Indian leaderships have failed consistently to understand the source and sinews of state power—the military industrial complex—which, in turn, is based on science and technology, underpinned by an infrastructure of the highest levels of research and education. Every link in this chain is weak, and is weakening further.

To take a single and critical index, in 2023, China accounted for 18.5 per cent of global R&D spending, at USD 465 billion, 2.56 per cent of its USD 18.1-trillion GDP. India spent a minuscule USD 65.2 billion, 0.019 per cent of its USD 3.39-trillion GDP, and 0.026 per cent of global R&D spending. The technology gap between the two countries can only grow exponentially, with inevitable consequences on growth, defence spending and national security.

While this process does not appear, on first sight, to be as bloody and gruesome as war, its impact is no less devastating and brutal. As defence, economic and technology gaps widen, India will be brought progressively into a relationship of subordination—either to China or to some other ‘great power’—even as growing proportions of the population sink into poverty. We are at a critical juncture in history, and if these realities are not clearly recognised and urgently countered by India’s leaderships, the outcomes are already being decided by others.

Ajai Sahni

Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management, South Asia Terrorism Portal

The New Indian Express