New Delhi: Like the United States and Russia, China is capable of waging acute psychological warfare, but it has entered the post-Cold War world with such reputation more duly preserved than the other two great powers. The United States has been sullied by the defeat in Vietnam and stalemates in Iraq and Afghanistan, from where it will withdraw all or most of its troops by the end of 2014. Russia, on the other hand, lost the Cold War to America, and has been struggling to stabilize under Vladimir Putin. But China has had nearly unbroken success relative to its aims and objectives in the big and small wars it has prosecuted since it counter-intuitively confronted the United States in 1950 in Korea, no more than a year after becoming a communist country after a long and bitter civil war. It is this history and China’s success with psychological conflict that India must keep in mind when understanding and dealing with the repeated Chinese incursions in Ladakh, which have grown into a pattern since the dramatic three weeks’ long standoff in April. Not to forget that India lost the short and brutal war that China provoked in 1962 in which Indian Army casualties numbered 1,383 killed, 1,047 wounded, 1,696 missing, and 3,968 captured. Militaries with centralized command and under civilian control do not launch incursions without reason, and China has always been singularly purposive in all its latter-day armed campaigns.

So what is behind China’s Ladakh incursions, and what must India do?

The purpose of determining Chinese motives is not so much to understand if China is serious and resolute about these military provocations (which it most certainly is) but to gauge to what proportions it may enlarge the conflict with India, because it is indubitably headed towards there. The Chinese economy is in crisis. Economists who have crunched even China’s dodgy numbers accept that the country has hit a wall trying to rebalance between investment and consumption and is headed towards a slump from where recovery in the short term is ruled out. This has grave implications for the world economy already faced with stagnation in the West but it should provoke other fears among China’s neighbours.

Throughout its history, China has been fearful of “encirclement” by perceived near and far enemies. It has often too encouraged its population to intimidatory and sometimes violent nationalism on the false bogie of encirclement, and this has been perfected into a fine art by successive post-1949 Chinese leaders and governments. Jingoism is manufactured to divert attention from grave and pressing domestic problems, and in China’s case now, these will multiply if its economy fails. The restive Tiananmen Square generation was promised an unceasing economic miracle provided it eschewed demands for political reform or, to borrow a Russian word, Glasnost. Provoked hostilities with India could generate hysteric levels of nationalism in which the tougher questions about China’s downturn would be submerged. But even having this intelligence is ultimately of little value to India unless it can manipulate the political discourse in the Chinese communist party and the moderate leadership elements in power provided they exist in numbers, but there can be scarce optimism in this direction.

The second aspect is the United States’ rebalancing towards Asia-Pacific once it shrugs off its Afghanistan commitment, and this presents both an opportunity and a problem for China, which may seek to use India as a punching bag to advance multiple objectives. Whilst not an ally of the United States, India and America are undoubtedly friends, and China may wish to test the limits of this friendship in terms of American intervention on the Indian side should there be a Sino-Indian war. In the 1962 war, American assistance to India came too late, partly because India was enmeshed by Non-Alignment sentiments, and also since the United States was locked in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the Soviet Union in the Cuban Missile Crisis, which indeed provided a window for the Chinese action. On the Sino-Indian border dispute thereafter, the United States has not chosen explicitly to back India, even though this would advance the secondary Tibetan cause, which is dear to it, and in a situation of armed conflict between the two Asian giants, the role of America would be closely watched by its Asia-Pacific allies to determine its overall trustworthiness. But the bottom-line is that India should not expect any United States’ assistance and must have to rebuff Chinese aggression on its own strength and resolve.

The third aim of a Chinese aggression would be to fill the vacuum in the west created by the prospective American departure from Afghanistan. China has been duplicitous about the presence of the forces of the United States-North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Afghanistan. The stability this gave encouraged its own financial and particularly extractive investments in the country and the United States’ war against the Al-Qaeda in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan provided some respite from its own Uighur militancy. But at the same time, it has opposed long-term American presence on its western border and sees an opportunity with the United States’ exit to have a decisive say in Afghan affairs with the assistance of Pakistan’s military and Inter-Services Intelligence which are close to the Al-Qaeda and the various Taliban groups and factions. A powerful thrust against India in Ladakh would have a shock effect on Delhi, improve its tactical military superiority in the region, and resolve key strategic aims in Afghanistan. Pakistan would be more than grateful for any action that militarily diminishes India.

The problem with India is that it is not sufficiently combative with China. India baulked from evicting the occupying Chinese soldiers in April and they withdrew only after some of their preconditions were met. The Indian defence minister, Arackaparambil Kurien Antony’s recent visit to China went apace despite an earlier provocation, and he was faced in the host country with the hostility of a prominent section of the Peoples’ Liberation Army, which has continued with the incursions since. The situation, today, is not like in 1962 when the army was unprepared but fought bravely. The political will, however, is missing in confronting China on its own terms, and this will carry a huge cost. China solely understands and respects the language of force.

If India were to show enough political and military will to counter the Chinese threat, it would impact on Pakistan too. In Nawaz Sharief, there is a prime minister (and putative president) who is opposed to the machinations of the Pakistan army, and playing on those differences would be enormously beneficial to India. Nawaz Sharief is sure to know the damage to Pakistan if its military and intelligence services become deeply involved and implicated with the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the regaining of Afghanistan. The terrorism blowback would destabilize Nawaz Sharief’s regime whilst returning the nightmare of Pakistani nukes falling into wrong hands. China is cynical in its exploitation of Pakistan to serve its narrow ends in Afghanistan and its success would hurt India. India has no option but to stand up to China and play the Nawaz Sharief card. The stakes are simply too high.

Rating the contestants -3, the last part of the series on the dramatis personae of the 2014 election, will appear on Wednesday, 24 July.