Tucydides: Ancient Lessons in the 2020 Indo-China Stand Off



Thucydides, is widely regarded as the father and founder of History. He was an ancient Greek historian and his History of The Peloponnesian War from 431 to 404 BC is considered an epic. This was the war between Sparta and a rising Athens that devastated both city states and destroyed classical Greece.How are the patterns of behavior between ancient states relevant to us in today’s nuclear and technologically advanced age?

He stated, and this has been talked about in great detail by Graham Allison in ‘Destined For Warwhich was published in 2017, his belief that “when one great power threatens to displace another, war is almost inevitable.”

Indo – China relations are now under the global spotlight after the barbaric clashes at Galwan Valley. Both sides have mobilized a large number of troops and while talks are being held the situation on ground remains tense. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that in the event this escalates the geo political implications will be far reaching. The timing has been unfortunate since this has also coincided with the world facing its most widespread global pandemic coupled with a massive economic recession. The 1962 War, incidentally took place when the world was facing by far its most defining event then; the Cuban Missile Crisis.

India and China, the two most populous countries are nuclear powers with large and modern conventional forces. Both countries have a professed no first usepolicy, consequently they are unable to use these weapons but need to show a willingness to do so even at the risk of a war with devastating consequences. It is also true that the nuclear deterrence may force the more responsible power to yield. Hence to preserve our vital and core interests, our leaders need to walk the tightrope and select paths that may risk further escalation but will resolve the issues.

Incidentally, President Xi Jing Ping during a visit to the US in 2015 stated that


“there is no such thing as a Thucydides trap in the world but should major countries time and again make the mistake of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves.

The central question today is whether, India and China can coexist as peaceful neighbours with tranquility on their borders and prosperity for their people.

There is no doubt that China doesn’t seem happy with the current situation and has long term strategic intentions. China feels that her dominance is being challenged and that she needs to assert herself. Historically, the alignment of the borders has never been accepted by China .Tibet is now firmly in her control, yet Indias support for Tibetan Independence and the Dalai Lama continues to rankle her. The Chinese are focused towards containing India’s rise, in the past they supported insurgency in the North East but with that being a failure the means employed have varied.

These include backing Pakistan, its all- weather friend, in all forums and helping it develop its military capability including its nuclear arsenal. Economic aid to Pakistan has increased tremendously in the recent past both by developing Gwadar Port and by the CPEC, a network of roads, railways,pipelines,power plants , industrial parks and of course the port. The potential impact of this has been compared to the Marshall Plan.

It is also rapidly developing alliances with countries that surround us, which are being referred to as a string of pearls. The latest being Nepal, whose present Government is displaying a very pro China stance. It has developed Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka and blocked our entry to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).

The current issue with India stems mainly from the fact that we are developing our infrastructure in the border regions (which has security implications)and did not join China by being part of the Belt and Road Initiative. China also feels that we support Vietnam as in its dispute with China in the South China Sea, are increasingly leaning towards the US while furthering our cooperation with Japan and Australia which are all part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (also known as Quad).Australia did request India to join joint naval drills (with the US and Japan) in the past but we rejected it in an effort not to strain our ties with China.


The recent tensions may have brought more flexibility into this decision making process .The Quad is increasingly being viewedas a latent potential threat by countries which share concerns about China’s “aggressive” rise in the world order. So far, India’s conflicts with China have not been in the maritime space but on the land borders and more specifically in remote mountainous regions where we have always fought our battles alone. With the Chinese construction of ports in Pakistan and Sri Lanka , the maritime status quo will change.

In our context, China has been used to getting its way in the past;the pointers are the development and building of roads, capabilities andinfrastructure in the Himalayas,and controlling the process of escalation and de-escalation over the years. Our confidence, proactive approach and development of capabilities have led to this impasse.Misunderstandings about each other’s intentions and actions can propel countries towards what has been identified by Thucydides.

“China’s rise has been so swift that we haven’t yet had time to be astonishedVaclav Haval once stated. Their growth has been in many dimensions of power,today they are the prime drivers of global growth and their focus by 2049 is on being the dominant power in the world but recent events and particularly the clash at Galwan has indicated that this rise is not going to be peaceful.Currently, the continuity and longevity of their political system seems to be one of their biggest strengths.

Deng Xiaoping had a policy of “Hide and Bide” which he stated in 1978, that is to hide ones capacity and bide ones time. Today that has changed; President Xi Jing Ping is consolidating power in his own hands, reasserting party control and has an aggressive foreign policy. Multiple fronts have been opened up with various countries including Taiwan and Hong Kong.China’s aim is to be powerful.

China has a view that one of the prime reasons that led to the implosion of the USSR was its unsustainable Defense expenditure. Does the short term belligerence it is displaying now have the aim of containing our developmentalgoals by keeping our troops committed and engaged forcing us to upgrade our capabilities and increase our defense spending?


Actions always speak louder than words and the bravery and ferocity of our men on the icy heights in the middle of June have demonstrated our resolve.We have the ability and capability to handle our border disputes without compromising on our national interests.Just South of Galwan, in 1962 at Rezang La, our troops in the finest traditions of last man and last round inflicted unprecedented casualties on the Chinese. Closer to date we stood up to territorial revisionism at Doklam. We therefore need to negotiate from a position of strength. We also need to keep in mind that this expansionism by China is beginning to lead to its isolation within the community of nations.

At times when violent clashes seem certain, strategic imagination to resolve issues is a sensible way forward for both sides without having a catastrophic conflict.Today, we don’t need to predict the outcome of a clash between forces but we need to prevent it.

There is no doubt that our leadership is in firm hands and will continue to guide our country safe guarding our sovereignty and keeping our national core interests in mind. Our Armed Forces are courageous, professional, capable and ready to face any challenge. The spirit of our people is high .The reality however is that there are many more means available to resolve the current situation and we need to engage at all three levels, that is military, diplomatic and political.

Archidamus,the Spartan King tells the Spartan people in the famous Sparta Debate in 432 BCnot to underestimate the power of Athens and not to be hurried into deciding in a days brief space a question which concerns many fates and fortunes and cities in which honour is deeply involved, but we must decide calmly.

The current trajectory of events points towards rising tensions, which need to be contained to defuse this crisis .We need not follow the path of history but should be informed by history and with a combination of all the tools at our disposal and the depth of mutual understanding need to manage this situation in a calm and focused manner with a reasoned debate backed by our comprehensive national power.