New Delhi: What defines a great power, what makes China a strange and brutal one, and how must India deal with its incursion in Ladakh? Not the way of Manmohan Singh and his joke United Progressive Alliance government, whose clownish foreign minister, Salman Khursheed, compares India to Mohammed Ali the boxer. This looks like the buildup to the tragedy of 1962 all over again, the year the country lost its first war with China, thanks to the colossal blunders of Jawaharlal Nehru.

Great powers have overwhelming strategic political and military strength. They also command vast strategic resources. But what really puts them apart from others is their ability and capacity to take independent decisions about peace and war. What marks them out is the possession of extraordinary political will to bring triumph to their strategic vision. Till ideology played a role, it joined with national aims to advance strategic designs, but this is less the case in a post-Cold War world. But for the rest, the defining characteristics of a great power haven’t changed very much.

Throughout the Cold War, the warring United States and the Soviet Union engaged one another directly. There was no question of third countries playing a seminal role. This is a set and standard great-power dynamic. With Europe and to a smaller extent Japan, China was the third player in the Cold War. But of this group, the first two parties had been exhausted by the Second World War, and decided to play second fiddle to the United States. So even if they had considerable military and economic power amongst themselves, they lost the appetite for world leadership, and so did not qualify for great power status. To China’s particular satisfaction, Japan didn’t seek or get that status, which showed the worst burn-out after the defeat in the world war, further aggravated by the horrific consequences of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

China should also have been recuperating after World War II and the victory of the communists in the long-drawn civil war but for Mao Zedong. He forced China into “continuous revolution” which ended only at his death. But by that time, he had put China’s unity and integrity on rock-solid foundations, and he gave the country the identifiable will and sinews of a great power. Within a year of the constitution of communist China, the country was at war with the United States in Korea. Militarily incomparably weaker, it still sought to give a psychological buffeting to the United States, as a warning to stay off its sphere of interest and influence. Similarly inferior to the Soviet Union in war-fighting, it did not prevent China from prosecuting a border conflict with its giant neighbour, taking considerable punishment in the process, but unwilling to give up its self-perceived psychological first-strike advantage. The 1962 and 1979 wars with India and Vietnam were also psychological in nature. The aim of it all was to tell the world that regardless of whether it was in a position of strength or weakness, it would not hesitate to seek to alter the military balance on its borders to its advantage. Such historic display of will and capacity for independent action, regardless of the consequences, supplemented by other more traditional requisites, makes China a great power.

This willingness to act independently is not a trait unique to communist China or its later pragmatic avatar. In imperial times, China showed like independent and indomitable spirit, but its outward manifestation may have been unorthodox. All of China’s imperial conquerors were absorbed within Chinese culture. The European powers, the US and Japan could not be so assimilated, but China retained its centrality throughout their imperialism, keeping intact the core psyche of the Middle Kingdom, which permitted it to overcome its vicissitudes in time, and against great odds. You could say that China practiced a sort of strategic introversion or retreat when the inimical external situation was beyond remedy. This happened in lesser or greater degree during imperial times, and even the Long March, where Mao won his leadership spurs, was a variety of it. From similar stock came Mao’s appalling idea of nuclear war-fighting, entailing a strategic withdrawal to the interiors, leaving an empty periphery for the invaders, who would then be put to flight. That this involved the fate of millions of people meant nothing to him, having consigned equal numbers to the fires of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

All of this and more makes China a bizarre and horrid great power, and the Indian response to the Ladakh incursion must take this into full account. China is not Pakistan that India can seek the good offices of an outside power to bring to its senses. China does not tolerate mediation in its disputes with its neighbours because of its Middle Kingdom mindset that visualizes other states as tributaries or vassals. For the Ladakh crisis, therefore, India has to deal bluntly and squarely with China, and it won’t assist to be circumlocutory and unserious. Diplomacy will not resolve the matter. Salman Khursheed’s tom-tommed 9 May visit to Beijing is in jeopardy from the Chinese side. What is there any way to negotiate except an unconditional Chinese withdrawal? India, instead, must pay special attention to the military options and embrace its consequences in its entirety.

The first option is to evict the incursive Chinese soldiers, the second is to cut off their logistic support, and the third is to do copycat incursions in Chinese territory. In all cases, whether with promptness or delay, there will be a Chinese response, which the Indian Army is supremely confident of containing. Contrary to the media commentaries, the army is absolutely certain of being able to repulse the Chinese, and the military as a whole is prepared for a war on all fronts. The officer corps is more than eager to avenge 1962. The trouble comes from the political leadership. Manmohan Singh is not prepared for military risks. The government has set about reining in media coverage of the incursion and the aim appears to avoid proaction and hope that the Chinese go away, which they won’t. The prime minister may be procrastinating so that his successor inherits the crisis. Knowing China, it will not stop at eastern Ladakh, and every hour of delay becomes too late to expel the intruders.

In November of last year, to the deep chagrin of the dynastic Congress party, Manmohan Singh compared himself to Jawaharlal Nehru. That comparison will come to haunt him. Nehru died a broken man after the 1962 Chinese aggression. Such a fate stares Manmohan Singh in the face, and for his pusillanimity, the nation pays.