Three recent incidents reflect China’s aggressive intent. There was a planned crossing of 250 soldiers of the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) in Arunachal Pradesh in June. Earlier this year, China blocked India’s attempt to have Masood Azhar, the mastermind behind the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, to be put on the UN’s sanctions list. More recently, China scuttled India’s membership application to the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Similar behaviour is evident with other neighbours – for example in its declaration of unilateral sovereignty covering 90 percent of the South China Sea, through its ‘nine dash line’; its dealings with Japan over the Senkaku islands and, more recently, over its defiance of the international arbitration of its occupation of the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, in favour of the Philippines.
China uses the disputed border to ‘put pressure on India as well as limit our role as a regional power’ (Kanwal Sibal), ensuring diversion of resources vital for development. There are two geographical aspects. First, it claims large areas of territory in both J&K and Arunachal Pradesh, calling the latter, ‘South Tibet’, having invested hundreds of billions in dual use infrastructure, military installations, air strips and missile bases in Tibet and other border areas. Second, it occupies Indian territory in J&K through which passes the Karakoram highway from Xinjiang to Hasan Abdal, and which is part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) going down to Baluchistan and the Arabian sea. This territory is situated near water-resource rich Siachen which it hopes to detach from India for the benefit of Pakistan, hell bent on in its obsessive quest for revenge after its humiliating defeat of 1971, and an ever willing ally to contain and constrain India. Their relationship described as ‘higher than the mountains and deeper than the oceans..’ benefits from massive infrastructure investments in the CPEC, making it for Pakistan a ‘game and fate changer’. This activity goes hand in hand with the supply of both conventional and nuclear military hardware and technology. A subordinate Pakistan, which now cannot accept or take initiatives vis-àvis India without China’s tacit approval, is key to the latter’s strategy to encircle India by land and sea. Naval and military complexes similar to Gwadar are being built in Myanmar and Sri Lanka together with a powerful presence in the Indian Ocean. All this is backed by military expenditure which for decades has been a consistent five percent of its impressive GDP, soon to match US levels, giving it both a deterrence capability and coercive power.
Under these circumstances, India’s position is unenviable. Will economic inter-relationships with our major Asian trading partner preclude a deeply antagonistic relationship? Trade figures show that apart from a current account deficit of USD 51.9 billion in China’s favour (data of 2015), there is nothing strategic in our imports or exports that could lead to the kind of relationship to prevent war/ aggressive action at the border. Similar tensions exist with some of China’s other neighbours in spite of trade volumes being higher and strategically more significant!
Could the two countries then actually go to war? Trotsky warned, years ago ‘You may not be interested in war but war is interested in you’. The requirements of the Chinese Communist Party to maintain its preeminent position at a time of rising unemployment, combined with a lingering fear of a Soviet type break-up, has pushed towards chauvinism. Chinese President Xi Jinping has modernised and reformed the military, rationalising the command structure- ‘Ladakh’ and ‘Arunachal’ for example now brought under the single unified command base at Chengdu. This, combined with the perception that India ‘softly’ backs down after initial protests, has encouraged the PLA to brazenly send troops regularly across the border implying also that the LAC is not sacrosanct. Pravin Swamy has argued that the major Daulat Beg Oldi incursion (J&K, 2013) was to discourage any further border build-up. The logical inference is that China feels it can and will try and take territory by force. The shift in bargaining stance is an indication of its intentions. According to Pravin Sawhney, ‘in 1980 Deng Xiaoping had suggested that the western sector could go to China and the eastern sector to India except for the Tawang tract. Today China lays claims to both sectors having unilaterally shrunk the disputed border by half to a mere 2000 km! Not long ago, Xi Jinping asked PLA commanders to sharpen their ability ‘to win a regional war’. What is the way forward? It was Clausewitz who said ‘To secure peace is to prepare for war’, ‘a will to (fully) prepare’ ( Jumo Ikangaa) being eminently useful! Only then can necessary strength be conveyed to ensure restraint. PM Modi is making a heroic effort to strengthen the economy, aiming to increase the manufacturing base from 17 percent to 25 percent of the GDP by 2020. His initiatives include overhauling the entire tax structure commencing with the game changing GST, a national transportation policy and fast tracking military projects. The order books of public sector shipyards- Mazgaon Docks, Garden Reach and Goa Shipyard, for example, are over flowing, with the navy aiming for 200 war and allied ships by 2020. The ‘Strategic Partnership’ model’, 100 percent FDI in the Defence and the now finalised ‘Procurement Procedure’ enables easier and profitable access to the private sector into the defence industry.
PM Modi has fashioned an energetic, pragmatic and focused foreign policy. Through a charm offensive using India’s soft power and fast growing economy, he has encouraged direct investment in infrastructure and manufacturing particularly in defence with his Make in India’ initiative. His relationship with the diaspora, thrilled at someone who might finally ensure India’s rightful place in the world, has accelerated the flow of funds into India. He decoupled India’s relationship with Israel from Palestine to our advantage and has strengthened our position in the neighbourhood by settling border issues with Bangladesh. He has changed the ‘Look East’ to an ‘Act East’ policy further transforming our relationships with nations such as Australia, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines etc., with whom we have a commonality of interests concerning China. More spectacularly, he has achieved closer ties with the US, now on the road to become an ally. There is an increase in bilateral trade and investments and strengthened defence co-operation. India is now a major buyer of US defence equipment; recent approvals include Chinook heavy lift helicopters, Apache combat helicopters, M-777 Ultra Light Howitzers and maritime spy planes, all of which will add to India’s strength quotient. As Ambassador JN Misra has argued ‘With the resetting of relations with the US, Modi has created more space for manoeuvre in dealing with China.’ However, in spite of this strategic relationship, it is unlikely that either ‘world opinion’ or an overextended US, in an adversarial relationship with both Russia and China, would be able and willing to give unconditional, effective help either in a war or a situation of coercive diplomacy. Further, economic considerations apart, any conflict could well be timed to take place when the US is distracted elsewhere resulting in a likely cautious ‘wait and see’ policy!
Clearly, out-of-the-box solutions are required. ‘Fifth generation’ weapons and technology transfer from the US, following from our elevation to ‘defence partner’, to be made one of our main foreign policy goals, would protect our sovereignty. Another initiative- to persuade the US to abrogate its anti- Russia stand, part of the cold war baggage, which subsequent to hurtful sanctions has pushed Russia into an unusual closeness with China and so neutralised a dependable, proven and useful ally. Whilst military strategy is the concern of the armed forces alone, our short term objectives of blunting any Chinese attack on the ground, can indeed be achieved with the military resources at hand. In such a scenario, the Indian army, perhaps fighting in territory of its choosing, may well use reliable and incredibly accurate IT based, precision strike ‘smart’ weapons, to halt an invasion. These- anti-tank (and anti-gunship) Stringer missiles for example, are now cost effective – even used successfully by ISIS! Nuclear tipped conventional missiles for limited targets is another area for further development. Suggestions of ‘Rapid Reaction’, ‘Air Assault’ facilities and assets for ‘information’ warfare have already been made. For these together with maritime considerations, an increase in the defence budget from 3 percent (actually 1.8 percent) to a consistent 5 percent of GDP over the next 20 years would be helpful! Perhaps we could use the savings from the reduction of flab in the Ministry of Defence and the DRDO, DODP etc. so that the entire increase may not be wholly necessary? Companies in the defence field would profit from embracing the concept, developed by Professor Rajan Suri of ‘Quick Response Manufacturing’ for greater operational ability, which has benefited the US military and industry generally. Finally, a new comprehensive look at Kashmir and the North East with supreme efforts at economic, cultural and emotional integration would preclude any real threat or their use as bargaining counters. Some of the increases in defence expenditure could well be used for dual use infrastructure in these areas.
Efficient preparation requires quick decisions and crisp implementation. Three recent examples of our predilection for prevarication and delay come to mind. The first was in the aftermath of the successful Nuclear Agreement with President Bush in 2008 when parliament passed the retrogressive Nuclear Liability Act. This came in the way of our civil nuclear power programme, only recently revived, requiring a general election and a new PM to do so! Ditto with GST. The lag between intention and implementation is more evident in our decision to buy jet fighters under the MMRCA programme, key to defence preparedness. It is well known that there has been a decade long ‘immediate’ requirement for such jets to replace our ageing fleet. After lengthy delays, the government finally settled on the French Rafale. Protracted negotiations, with an indifference to security concerns (and cost overruns) followed. The requirement is still not met and the subject of competing pressure group activity, leading to further delays! The Gripen merits a second look, standing out as a solid and reliable aircraft and considerably lighter on the exchequer in terms of life cycle/operational costs. It further meets the PM’s ‘Make in India’ objectives with the parent company, SAAB, agreeing, according to MK Shukla, to shift its entire manufacturing facility to India with 100 percent technology transfer and with ‘aerospace capability’-setting up a ‘complete ecosystem’ (GFiles 10th issue), with exports to third countries! The economic backward and forward linkages would be enormous. Importantly and conveniently, it can use US made GE 4000’s, the very engines proposed to be imported/ manufactured by HAL for the Tejas fighter. A win-win for India! One can only hope that, given the security implications, an early decision is taken on the basis of viability and usefulness alone, really best left to the Air Force!
But all these critical initiatives become almost meaningless unless we have the heart and mind to go to war and the will to win. This idea is reflected in Napoleon’s comment that there were ‘two powers in the world-the sword and the mind. In the long run, the sword is always beaten by the mind’. The political establishment in India, following the army’s defeat in 1962 and the remarkable economic development of our neighbour since the 1990’s, is awed by China creating a mindset of passivity. This is made worse by a very endearing aspect of Indian character, that of usually appreciating the other’s point of view! The raisond’être for our China policy cannot simply be one of accommodation-governed by our concern not to give offence. This is pathetically weakening. We know that appeasement only makes for a bolder adversary. China is regarded, correctly, as a country that is powerful and efficient with an ability to get things done but incorrectly that it is invincible. Fortunately, the fighting arms of our armed forces are quietly confident. Perhaps it is not widely understood that ‘victory’ in a war with China really only requires a stalemate following a robust defence. This is an area that the leadership needs to educate others. But to be successful in a protracted ‘conflict’ situation with a relentless foe, leadership of quite another dimension is required. As Clausewitz describes this quality… ‘As the moral forces in one individual after another become prostrated, the whole inertia of the mass rests on the Will of the Commander; by the spark in his breast, by the light of his spirit, the spark of purpose, the light of hope, must be kindled afresh in others’ (Barnett: Introduction). This kind of leadership is required – to an appreciation of its own strengths and destiny.
Happily, there is a fine example of awe-inspiring grit and resoluteness from our own history that may be profitably emulated. Inspired by Guru Gobind Singh, the charismatic Jassa Singh Ahluwalia (1718-83), rallied the people of Punjab when a fatalistic pessimism had become the order of the day. Fighting against insurmountable odds, he combined a self-belief with a sound military organisation, a bold and unconventional strategy and quick witted opportunism, to defeat Ahmad Shah Abdali, the effective ruler of north India and the greatest conqueror of his time. As a consequence, he won freedom and sovereignty for Punjab after centuries of subjugation, in the process conquering Lahore, Sirhind and Delhi.
What are the lessons for India? Jassa Singh’s life teaches us to remove the psychological barriers that weaken us and remove any residual awe felt for any country and people. We learn that success comes with a clear vision, focus on key goals, equanimity in the face of crisis, dogged and determined action and a ruthless will. We also learn not to take short cuts. Both the Mughals and Abdali had offered him the ruler-ship of Punjab, nominally under them. Jassa Singh, unhesitatingly refused and defeated them subsequently. Finally we learn, that for grand success, one factor is essential- a deep love and respect for the motherland against which any threat is unacceptable and any pain inflicted dealt with in the severest possible manner.
It has been said that engaging China is like trying to wake someone pretending to be asleep. Certainly it involves trying to be neighbourly with a country that does not desire friendship. But friendship is not impossible. Developing conditions for harmony takes time and patience -to take advantage of opportunities which present themselves or are created, the latter more likely when one is strong. Of course, much caution is required- to ensure larger conflicts are avoided. But India has to prove to itself just as it has to prove to China and others that it is capable of taking tough decisions and strong action when required. The costs of not doing so are too high to comprehend. Clausewitz said ‘The trauma of a military defeat can only be overcome by a military victory over the same opponent.’ India can triumph over this trauma by developing an invincible confidence, a strong case for a belief in ‘chardian kala’ – exuberance, optimism and high spiritedness resulting from economic and militarily strength, a belief in oneself leading to a conviction of success.
Sumant Dhamija was educated at Mayo College, Ajmer; Kings School, Canterbury and Cambridge University. He now works for ‘Tree Delhi’, after a corporate career followed by business ventures. He is the author of ‘Jassa Singh Ahluwalia 1718-83, Forgotten Hero of Punjab’.