By Haris Bilal Malik
Since the last few decades, India is in pursuit of enhancing its global strategic outlook. This is intended at India’s long term aspiration of becoming a regional, and ultimately a global power. To achieve this goal, India has been trying to expand its military, economic and political influence in the region and beyond. However, at the same time, India has been facing a two-front challenge in the region arising mainly from Pakistan and China. To meet this challenge, India has held a desire to fight a two-front war with both countries simultaneously. In this regard, India has been enhancing its conventional and unconventional military capabilities accordingly. These include; increasing its military size, enhancing its conventional military capabilities with the acquisition of advanced weaponry from its strategic partners, and most significantly maintaining an offensive nuclear posture. This preparedness is aimed at fighting and even deterring a full-fledged war or limited conflict with Pakistan and China respectively. Contrary to such hype and notion, India has not yet succeeded in deterring either of its adversaries with its military prowess in recent conflicts. Surprisingly, it is the other way around; as the recent crises have proved India’s inability to overcome a two-front and even a single-front challenge. This has raised serious questions on India’s claim of an overwhelming military preparedness to fight a two-front war.
The security environment of the South Asian region has become more complex since the year 2019. This is primarily because of the Indian military offensive in Kashmir and its unilateral move to politically annex this disputed region. This has further vindicated Kashmir’s potential as a ‘nuclear flash-point’ between India and Pakistan. The latest rounds of tensions in the region include; a deadly clash between India and China in the disputed Ladakh region and the worst exchange of hostilities during the Pulwama-Balakot crisis of 2019 between India and Pakistan. Both crises have considerably changed the strategic balance of South Asia in favour of Pakistan and China respectively. Moreover, in the wake of the humiliating fate for India which has come out of these recent crises, its much-hyped aspiration to fight a two-front war against Pakistan and China has become a nightmare for India. Likewise, it seems like that India’s strategic elite is quite frustrated vis-à-vis this self-proclaimed notion. This frustration is further evident from the recent Indian assertions of keeping the war hysteria alive against both the countries and particularly against Pakistan.
Most recently, in August 2020, India’s first-ever Chief of the Defence Staff; General Bipin Rawat has threatened Pakistan with ‘heavy losses’ in case of any conflict. He further asserted that the Indian military is prepared for the possibility to fight a two-front war against Pakistan and China. To further assert the two-front notion, this has prompted the Indian Army and the Air Force chiefs to visit the conflict zones. In this regard, the Indian Army Chief General MM Naravane has recently visited the Ladakh region along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The visit was aimed at depicting the presence of Indian forces at the strategic heights in Galwan valley as a military advantage against Chinese forces there. Likewise, Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhaduria, the Indian Air Chief has also visited the front line air bases in the region. This was a demonstration to assess the operational readiness and preparedness of the Indian Air Force at these bases as they are supposed to face China. The timing of these assertions and gestures are quite significant given the recent crisis along both the LAC and LOC. Similarly, General Rawat has also warned China that India is capable enough to deal with any aggression led by China. He reiterated that Indian military is in a position to deal with the challenges coming from both frontiers. Nevertheless, the humiliating outcomes of the recent crises show that the notion of a two-front challenge is more of a jingoistic approach rather than a practical and reliable resort to respond. The very fact remains that India did not manage to deter both Pakistan and China against its provocative actions.
It is worth mentioning here that the notion of a two-front challenge is primarily one of the main reasons behind the Indian extensive acquisition of advanced military hardware from countries like the US, Russia, France, and Israel. In this regard, India’s eagerness to acquire the S-400 missile system from Russia and the Rafale jets from France is quite significant. This is evident from the expected deployment of S-400 along the borders with both Pakistan and China once the system becomes operational. Also, India has requested Russia to speed up the delivery of the S-400 system in the wake of the ongoing conflict in Ladakh. It would form a multilayered air defence shield against the two-front aerial threats. Similarly, the need for Rafales in the Indian Air Force inventory was deliberately emphasized after the humiliating aerial defeat received from Pakistan during the Pulwama-Balakot crisis of 2019. This is evident from the statements of Prime Minister Modi and Air Chief Marshal (R) BS Dhanoa, the then Indian Air Chief. Both were obsessed to a level that if India had Rafales during the crisis the results would have been different. In the same vein, quite recently, the way in which the delivery of the first batch of Rafale jets was celebrated, it has shown the politico-strategic significance of these jets for the Indian notion of a two-front war. However, regardless of this preparedness, China is still dominating the battlefield in the Ladakh region as evident from recent media reports. This has further added up to the frustration of India amid a two-front challenge.
As long as India has a troubled relationship with both of its neighbours Pakistan and China, the possibility of a two-front war would remain a ‘Sword of Damocles’ for India. Since India already fears a two-front war; this has become a nightmare for Indian military and political top brass. Similarly, India’s on ground readiness and military preparedness to fight such a war seem to be only a verbal gymnastic. The fact remains that the Indian frustration amid this challenge has notably increased as evident from the recent crisis as well. Last but not the least, Pakistan and China needs to further expand the scope of their strategic partnership with a more focus to counter Indian offensive moves and doctrines.
Haris Bilal Malik works as a Research Associate at Strategic Vision Institute (SVI) Islamabad, Pakistan.