Will Xi, won’t Xi? - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 31 July 2017

Will Xi, won’t Xi?

Leni Riefenstahl filming "Triumph of the Will" at Nuremberg in 1934

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 1st Aug 17

Those wishing to sense the contemporary public mood in China should watch the classic propaganda documentary, Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will), made on Adolf Hitler’s orders by German actress-turned-filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl. This enduring record of the euphoric 1934 Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg is on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GHs2coAzLJ8. It starts dramatically, referencing a resurgent Germany shrugging off the humiliation of World War I. In successive screens, set to a Wagnerian score, German angst plays out: “On 5th September 1934… 20 years after the outbreak of the World War… 16 years after the start of German suffering (the Treaty of Versailles)… 19 months after the start of Germany’s rebirth (Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor)… Adolf Hitler flew once again to Nuremberg to hold a military display.”

A similar Chinese Communist Party propaganda film, were one to be made about General Secretary Xi Jinping’s review on Sunday of a massive People’s Liberation Army (PLA) display at the Zhurihe training base, would echo a similar mood of historical grievance: “On 30th July, 2017… 177 years after the start of China’s ‘Century of Humiliation” (the First Opium War)… 68 years after China’s rebirth (the capture of power by the Chinese Communist Party)… five years after he began realising the “Chinese Dream”… Xi Jinping flew to Zhurihe to hold a military display.”

Riefenstahl’s films, and the cheering German throngs they capture, convey the same giddy ambiance of vindication, renaissance and unstoppable rise that pervades China today. Just as a uniformed Hitler snapped off Nazi Party salutes to jackbooted German soldiers, paramilitaries and an adoring public in 1934; a camouflage-clad Xi Jinping yelled out “Hello Comrades” and “Comrades, you are working hard”, through a portable microphone on the open vehicle in which he reviewed troops in Zhurihe. And just as the euphoric Germans roared back “Sieg Hail”, the serried ranks of the PLA chorused: “Serve the People!”, “Follow the Party!” and “Fight to Win!”

Just as Hitler subordinated Germany’s military to the Nazi Party, Mr Xi exhorted the PLA on Sunday to “always listen to and follow the Party's orders, and march to wherever the Party points to.” This faithfully echoed Mao Zedong’s 1938 dictum: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. Our principle is that the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party.”

Beyond similarities in the political symbolism and vocabularies of the Chinese and German dictators lies the crucial question: Will their views on military power also inevitably align? Hitler had famously declared: “Armies do not exist for peace. They exist solely for triumphant exertion in war”. On Sunday, a bellicose Mr Xi declared: “The world is not all at peace and peace must be safeguarded… Today we are closer to the goal of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation than any other time in history, and we need to build a strong people’s military more than any other time in history.” The moth-eaten narrative of “China’s peaceful rise” is receding into the mist, but will Beijing’s growing sense of its power also demand the PLA be put to triumphal use?

On Sunday, Xi threatened that the PLA would strike down “all invading enemies” – a careful choice of words that apparently urges only defensive use against external aggression. In fact, China’s maximalist definition of its security interests allows it to mask even blatant aggression as legitimate defence – such as its military occupation of disputed islands in the South China Sea. As it has done in Doklam, Beijing is adept at dressing up one-sided rationales to claim “indisputable ownership” of disputed territory, and them treating competing claims as territorial aggression. With Indian troops facing off against Chinese border guards on Bhutanese-claimed territory at the border tri-junction where India, China and Bhutan come together, what can New Delhi anticipate?

Until China escalates, India must proceed on the assumption that Beijing has triggered the Doklam crisis not to create a flashpoint for armed confrontation at a time of deteriorating relations; but calculating that India would not retaliate as decisively as it has done – interceding on behalf of a third country and creating a new normal. Under way now is a contest in coercive diplomacy – which is the simultaneous employment of threats or limited military action and diplomatic efforts designed to persuade a target state to change its policies or behaviour. The aggressive use of media and displays of nationalistic fervour are an essential part of this. India must not back down.

Sensible Indian military planners would not be unduly rattled by Chinese threats of war and menacing reminders of the 1962 debacle – mainly from the state-controlled Chinese media, but also from government spokespersons. The pitfalls of drawing parallels from that war should be obvious, given that 1962 was a highly limited operation. Barely two Indian divisions fought the Chinese, while more than 80 per cent of the army sat out the war. Today, 12 Indian divisions would come into action from Day One of a war, while another 25 divisions guard the western and northern borders with Pakistan. Depending upon the operational situation there, at least five of those could be switched to Ladakh, Sikkim or Arunachal Pradesh, becoming effective in 10-15 days. Adding to India’s advantage would be the Indian Air Force, which was inexplicably left out of combat in 1962. With Indian military aircraft operating from bases in Assam and helicopter operations mounted from a string of advanced landing grounds in the hills, the air force would be a significant force multiplier. Meanwhile, China’s air force would be constrained by having to operate from high-altitude bases in Tibet.

Much is rightly made of China’s road and rail infrastructure in Tibet, but it remains to be seen how much of that survives the Indian Air Force’s attentions. Despite India’s deplorable lag in building forward road infrastructure – only 22 border roads have been completed out of 73 planned – the army enjoys far greater battlefield mobility today than in 1962. Equipment shortages remain a worry, but the military is far better poised today – a pre-deployed, fully acclimatised, operationally inoculated military -- than it was when China last came knocking.

Since China knows this, large-scale military retaliation to Doklam appears unlikely, at least for now. What India should anticipate is small-to-medium retaliatory incursions by Chinese troops, perhaps in tri-junction areas for political messaging, aimed at building pressure on India. In dealing with these, army planners would do well to seal and localise Chinese incursions and retaliate in kind elsewhere on the border, escalating horizontally rather than vertically.

Leni Riefenstahl lived to be 101 and her films will survive far longer. But a decade on from Nuremberg, the Third Reich lay in ruins. As Beijing ratchets up tension with its East and Southeast Asian neighbours, and now with India, it would do well to remember that grievance-based nationalism is a double-edged sword.


  1. Ver well written! Chinese war fighting is executed after the operational plan is made at the highest level and is rehearsed to perfection to the minutest detail. They also factor missiles in a big way for degradation. Notwithstanding, we as a Nation should stand up for what is right and should not be bullied.

  2. The author makes the point that, this time, India is far better pitted against China than it was in 1962. That is right. However, the unlikelihood of a definite defeat is hardly a good enough reason to risk war. The reason always has to be in terms of likely gains, in relation to likely losses. What are the likely gains here?
    If one is itching to go to war (which would be ludicrous, as also highly irresponsible bordering on the criminal), why not start with Pak? Coercive diplomacy is fine but only if played on paper with word, not on a battlefield with blood.

  3. Very well said. One of the best articles/summations on this issue.

  4. I just knew you'd catch the similarity with Leni's propaganda films!

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Given the Chinese dis-advantage at Chumbi valley, they might attack at other locations. However this a propaganda victory for India, as it can be label as invasion, rather than retaliation for Doklam/Dolam. If China was to retaliate for Doklam, it should have been doklam.

    If they do attack at other location, then we need to light up every location where the Chinese are in a valley. A belief that India can do this, will force the Chinese to deploy forces all along LAC to cater to this scenario. Localising the fight would let China get away with it's biggest drawback on LAC: Numbers!

    Our response should be disproportionate. This is the only way to deter an Chinese attack.

  7. Indian ground force is ill-equipped and trained. It is not fully mechanized. So, 1 Chinese soldier is probably equal to 3 Indian soldiers. PLA has better infrastructure to bring in more equipments. China can create its own weapons. India can't even do that. So, In a real war, India won't be able to replace the destroyed weapons but China can. Any real war will be a huge loss by India.

    In a short term war, India won't be able to mobilize fast enough because of poor training. Remember how it took many months in 2002 standoff? So all of these divisions are meaningless if it takes months to even make them ready for fighting.

    China has 1000+ 4th gen fighters. How many does India have? 230.

    5 times difference. China can take out Indian air force easily. And if it really comes to air force. China can use its longer range cruise missile to destroy most air fields any way. All the Indian air fields are close to Chinese border and within range of cruize missiles.

    India will whether its a short war or long. Its time for China to give India a good lesson

    1. Like they gave to Vietnam in 1979 amassing 33 armies in response to mere 50000 vietnamese militia got a bloody nose and a tight slap as vietnamese continued with thier operations in camobodia.wishful thinking mate!! And as Chinese think they have got a moral obligation of teaching everyone a lesson around the world. Territorial Disputes with 14 countries.. Yet it is olways China which tries to teach everyone a lesson.. No other country ever attacked China.. And ya don't start with your Japanese invasion bullshit in 1940s...you have been continuing it for too long! And yea one more thing...cruise missiles.. Seriously! And you think that you will get flowers in return.. How childish! Wake and smell the coffee.. Else you will be forced to taste the bitter taste in a different way altogether!!

  8. Vinay Joshi- News Bharati- Excellent, Chinese knows futility in fighting with Indians highly depending on pressurised cabin railways of Tibet under incessantly raining Indian missiles n bomber raid. Hope they won't do that!

  9. More of my views on this --- https://thewire.in/162114/india-china-war-consequences-doklam/

  10. Brilliant article...one of the best I read in last couple of years...has lessons for us...hypernationalism is dangerous everywhere and moderation is a must..I Shudder at the comparison of Third Reich with Chinese communist party...Is History repeating itself again ?? We have to be alert.Are we poised to be what Britain was during WW2 to face the onslaught of chinese ?? I hope not for world peace sake..because it will be much bloodier this time around.

  11. Great one Col Shukla! Thanks!

  12. Good Article Col.

  13. Very nice ! Enjoyed reading the article.

  14. Very well written. One of your best article till date.


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