Turbulent periods in history in the mid-20th century saw some major upheavals in the Asiatic region, notably the creation of an independent Pakistan, torn out from a united India and Russia’s withdrawal of dominance and influence over China. Contentious demarcations of land boundaries, left behind as a legacy of British domination of the sub-continent, created unhealthy and uneasy relationships between India and its neighbours. Poor foreign policy implementation and lack of an adequate intelligence apparatus had its consequent effect on the country’s vulnerability to external aggression. Whether the asylum provided to the Dalai Lama was the trigger or not, the humiliating defeat that China inflicted on India in the autumn of 1962 will remain a ‘monkey on its back’. While it was an operation most Indians would want to forget, to the warfighter it must remain a symbol to “pay back” when the opportunity arises.
It was in those years of Mao Zedong’s ascendancy, as Communist China grew in stature, that the Dragon’s future aspirations were taking root. In the subsequent decades under the likes of Deng Xiaoping and Hu Jintao and now Xi Jinping, the Dragon has become a formidable presence, breathing fire when it needs to assert itself. We know historically China and Japan have been adversaries and till recently Japan’s technological and economic superiority, not to mention the US support, maintained a status quo in the eastern region. Amidst a crumbling and unpredictable global order, Japanese efforts to establish economic ties and a favourable environment were cold shouldered by China, who, in the meantime, used the time and space to enhance its military and propel its economy to an astounding advantage. It also nudged and abetted North Korea against Japan, thereby maintaining the ‘pin prick’ that would rankle Japan and keep it occupied.
In the period post the 1962 conflict both China’s economy and military capability have grown in leaps and bounds and far surpassed India’s performance. Its world-wide economic dominance has made it the most powerful player in Asia. China’s assertion as a major power centre in a multi-polar world is but a stone’s throw away. It is certain that this will be the predicted Asian century and China will hold the pre-eminent position. China’s relations with India can best be described as ‘blow hot blow cold’. While offering the olive branch the Dragon’s hot breath can be felt right behind. India’s inclusion in the Quadrilateral Alliance with the US, Australia and Japan has not been seen by China as geo-politically correct. India has steadfastly opposed China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and India took a strong diplomatic and military stand at Doklam. But possibly the biggest issue of concern for China is that India is juxtaposed in the soft underbelly of China, posing a threat like no other nation can.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has met China’s Xi Jinping at Wuhan in a series of dialogues to set about a ‘Reset’. A reset is essentially a restoration of amicable communications and cooperation in multifarious fields with a transparency that is acceptable to both. India today is wiser than it was in 1962, both diplomatically and militarily. We need to take a leaf out of the China-Japan relationship and use the ‘breathing space’ to build capability. We must never forget that China is India’s major strategic threat. The Dragon cannot be trusted unconditionally. The “pay back” symbol must burn bright.
The craggy slopes of the Himalayas, the lack of ground infrastructure and difficulty in mobility of surface troops make it abundantly clear that no real offensive action can be carried out by the Indian Army in the China sector. Operating from airfields close to sea-level elevation, offering optimum load/armament carriage capability, the IAF with its latest array of fighter aircraft, supported by force multipliers can inflict serious damage to Chinese air power assets and also execute crippling damage in the interdiction role, in support of the Army. Patrolling of the Indian Ocean utilising the long range capability of the SU-30 MKI, with support from the Indian Navy, will make China’s energy supply vulnerable. It is abundantly clear that in a future India-China conflict it will be an air war, supported by the Navy in the southern ‘choke,’ with the Army in a purely ‘holding/defensive’ role.
The present ‘reset’ with China gives us time to build up military assets and procure the hardware that will be required on the China front. We need the time to build infrastructure and defences to offset ballistic missiles which, in all likelihood, will be the predominant threat. We need to reset our military posture to be ready if and when the Dragon’s shadow looms large in the future.
An alumnus of NDA and DSSC, Air Mshl Sumit Mukerji has served the IAF as a fighter pilot with distinction He has commanded three units, a MiG-29 Sqn, a MiG-25 SR Sqn and TACDE (considered the ‘Top Gun’ school of the IAF) and also served as the Air Attaché in Washington DC. He retired in 2011 as the AOC-in-C of Southern Air Command.