New Delhi: For all purposes, there will neither be war nor peace with China. You could likely add Pakistan to this uneasy equation. If India has to make its way in geopolitics, it has to get a measure of this intermediate state of no war, no peace. It would definitely be assisted by the army chief and his commanders refraining from warmongering. War is unlikely to happen anytime soon unless India provokes it. And history will tell you that the state that fires the first shot does not always get to fire the last.

China, India and Pakistan are nuclear powers. To boot, China is also a Great Power. China has more experience of total war than independent India and Pakistan put together. Neither country has suffered a civil war, and the Partition, although deeply scarring, does not come close. The Chinese civil war was total war. Total wars harden you in a manner that countries that have providentially escaped that calamity cannot conceive.

China’s aim and objective in the present is to be a universal power. It is no longer content to be a Great Power sharing the crumbling high table with the United States and Russia. China is acutely aware of the malady of overextension that unfailingly afflicts Great Powers. Napoleonic France, Imperial and Nazi Germany, the British Empire, and post-Cold War United States and Russia provide ready examples of the limits to military imperialism. Chinese strategists study world history with a diligence uncommon in most other parts of the globe.

As this writer has previously analyzed, Chinese expansion is a product of post-Mao goals set by Deng Xiaoping. In many ways, Deng exemplifies today’s China. Having witnessed and personally suffered the horrors that ideological extremism brought to China, Deng became a pragmatist in all important matters except perhaps two. There would be enduring single party rule by the Chinese Communist Party. And Chinese central rule would not only be authoritarian but civilizational as well, tracing its roots dynamically to the farthest mythical past of the Yellow Emperor.

On this neo-foundational cornerstone laid by Deng, China has hurtled ahead. Its expansion in southern Asia and to the edges of the Indian Ocean is the outcome of Dengist strategy. India unhappily falls in the path of its expansion. If there was a method to skirt India, China would, but alas there isn’t any. Courting India would be impossible in the current state of relations, because India sees itself as a strategic competitor. At the same time, war in the nuclear age, and especially with China’s global ambitions, would be messy and unpredictable. China wants to establish a post-modern Pax Sinica with a capacity to impose its idea of peace on the world. India looms large in its mental image of the pacified world.

War with India, therefore, is China’s very last option, unless India initiates it, in which case all bets are off. On the other hand, the status quo represented even by India’s erratic rise does not suit China’s long term plans. The problem centrally has to do with China’s core suspicions about India in respect of the future of Tibet and the Dalai Lama’s residency in India and his political activities. If the Tibet/ Dalai Lama portion of the tangle was somehow resolved to China’s satisfaction, the outstanding Sino-Indian territorial disputes could be managed marginally to India’s advantage. But India’s sovereign commitments to the Dalai Lama cannot be forsaken. And so Sino-Indian relations have receded to a place of no war, no peace. It may be an improvement on 1962 but further progress is impossible unless India makes a concerted attempt to understand and unscramble this uncertain intermediate state and involves the Chinese in the process.

The Pakistan dimension has also acquired new features. With Donald Trump’s America retrenching from Asia in light of its overextension and contrary to its war rhetoric on Afghanistan, North Korea, and so forth, China has emerged as the biggest player in the region and a potential peacemaker. Sometimes, states do not realize the new roles coming their way, but China soon will. Today, you have the extraordinary situation where India is hopefully looking to China to contain Pakistani militancy against India. The tilt is more pronounced than ever before. Without anybody’s mindfulness, a day will dawn when China will take the United States’ place in the India-Pakistan equation. If China is at all aware of this drift of circumstances, the last thing it would desire is an India-Pakistan war. For other reasons, Pakistan has reached the same understanding about the undesirability of war with India. It is now up to India to preserve whatever peace that exists, or destabilize the uncertain but hopeful future with war rhetoric and nationalism.

It is by no means easy for India to balance the present and look for solutions that lie ahead but are obscured, but that is what exemplary statesmanship and brilliant strategizing are about. A good starting point is to accept the uncertain state of no war, no peace with China and Pakistan, and work towards limiting and eliminating the conflict aspect gradually and conclusively. There is no certainty that peace with Pakistan is possible through the good offices of China, but their absence indubitably will block a rapprochement. At all events, peace and friendship with China are India’s priority. India has to cultivate a different class and order of diplomacy to engage and settle with China. In this context, overenthusiastic generals sully the little common grounds that survive. Since independence, India has followed a noble tradition of civilian control of the armed forces. Like most things noble and nice, this precept appears also to have been cast to the wind.