New Delhi: The Chinese intrusion in Ladakh is not a local incident but part of a tactic to test India’s response, which at least on the military side so far has not been pusillanimous and defensive. But politically and economically, India is at its weakest under Manmohan Singh, and this is what China’s new leadership is exploiting.

The Chinese are great believers in psychological warfare. They provoked war with the United States (1950, Korea), India (1962), the Soviet Union (1969) and Vietnam (1979) on a more psychological level than most nations -- and especially great powers -- are wont to do. They squarely defeated India and scarred it for nearly half a century but the Americans, the Soviets and the Vietnamese couldn’t be rolled over. India in China’s eyes, therefore, is the weakest of its strategic and civilizational rivals that is lead by the US followed by Russia and Japan. The new Chinese leadership will do everything to teach India a “second lesson” after the bitter 1962 defeat to serve as an instruction and a warning to the others.

India is indubitably encircled by China but China has its own encirclement fears that were pronounced during imperial times and became rabid under Mao Zedong. Civilizational states such as China follow continuity in strategic-military policies and it would be no surprise to find that Mao and Deng Xiaoping’s successors are as paranoid about encirclement as they were. The new fears of encirclement are provoked by the United States’ Asia pivot which has, among other things, made the South China Sea a potential battle zone and put China on notice about its preeminence in Asia. With its national economy in decline, the Chinese communist party is bound to find itself under pressure, and when squeezed, China plays its nationalism card. China has a variety of ways of being jingoistic, of which border action is one. In this context, the Ladakh intrusion becomes critical.

The trouble with Indian strategic analysis is that it almost never takes into account the country’s political economic health at climacteric points which India’s rival powers most certainly do. It is only commonsense to do so. India is used to Western democracies engaging the country’s ruling and opposition political leaderships, but China does this as well, obtrusively and unobtrusively. China is, of course, close to the Left parties but has engaged the two national mainstream parties too and prominently hosted Narendra Modi in Beijing. It is intimately aware of the internal political dynamics and must find the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, as powerless as the rest of the country does. Internationally, powerless leaders are held in contempt (South Africa snubbed India in more than one way during the Durban BRICS summit), contrasted with the marked respect that is shown to strong personages, such as Indira Gandhi in the past. Being a totalitarian state, China puts great premium on powerful leaders, and so Manmohan Singh would count for little in this calculus. But over and above this is India’s lack of political will, which has infected administration after administration, and come to a particular tragic denouement under Manmohan Singh. All this emboldens China to make moves against India.

So it would be a gross blunder to play down the Chinese intrusion in Ladakh. A disproportionate response is what China will never expect from India, and India must do the unexpected. The Indian military knows just exactly what that disproportionate response is, and the political leadership should give it a free hand. India’s stakes have grown enormously in its strategic enmity with China, and if it can hold firm in the west, it would have made a decisive contribution to the containment of Chinese expansionism all over Asia. This would be the way to excise the ghost of 1962 and achieve that all-important psychological parity with China.

China is a nation that can neither be at peace with itself nor coexist amiably with its neighbours. In its self-image as a middle kingdom, all the others are tributaries. Morality and rationality influence its strategic vision negligibly and it undeniably represents the dark forces, as its military-nuclear support to Pakistan advertizes. It would always be an outlier to any peaceful world order. The strategy of engaging China, consequently, must be of a wholly different order to diplomacy with others and must robustly counter its growing imperialism. As of now, we are politically and psychologically ill-equipped to stand up to China. This must be immediately repaired.