August - 2012 Issue
Force Magazine
The Way Forward
India needs a strategic defence review

Premiers Manmohan Singh and Wen Jiabao

The celebrated author, international diplomat, India’s former minister of state for external affairs and now an elected member of Parliament, Shashi Tharoor, in his latest book ‘Pax Indica’ has written about the need for India to do a strategic defence review (SDR). He writes that: ‘As a democracy, India needs to undertake a strategic defence review that brings in all elements of the security services, the public at large and elected representatives in Parliament, to produce a national security strategy. But such an exercise has not even been attempted.’ I cannot agree with him more especially after reading in the same book that: ‘Nearly six and a half decades after independence and Partition, Pakistan remains India’s biggest foreign policy challenge.’

This exactly is India’s problem. As a nation which aspires for a strategic role beyond its geographical boundaries, India continues to keep its sights low. Its political leadership, the armed forces, external affairs ministry, most strategic experts, and the media are all obsessed with Pakistan, leaving only a little time and energy to look East at the nation which the US is anxious about. Only a SDR can set our national template, which is diametrically out, correct. At present, India’s biggest national security and foreign policy challenge is China, and not Pakistan. Fearing that this would be highlighted in a SDR and may displease China, the government is hesitant to order a second SDR. (The first SDR written by the National Security Advisory Board in 1999 was quietly buried by the then
dispensation as China and Pakistan were mentioned as threats to national security. This was not unusual as China threat was the prime reason given by Prime Minister Vajpayee to the US for India’s 1998 nuclear tests.)

What will a SDR do? It will help prioritise India’s defence and security; inform Delhi that it is important to keep the home-base secure (called defence), before it aspires for a larger security role in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). If India is undecided about its defence, it cannot be certain about its security. Delhi conveniently complains about China’s support to Pakistan to keep India boxed in the sub-continent, or that the US by hyphenating India-Pakistan relations is insensitive to Delhi, or why did President Bill Clinton and recently President Obama while commencing their terms in office tell China to play a stabilising role in South Asia, India’s supposed backyard. Remember Cassius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: ‘The fault dear Brutus is not in our stars but ourselves that we are underlings.’

Consider this: India’s defence service chiefs dismiss Pakistan as a mere irritant while committing maximum energy and finances against it; and the Defence Research and Development Organisation produced (actually still struggling) INS Arihant (nuclear-powered and armed, SSBN) submarine after decades of effort with Pakistan in mind. It is useless against China. While China is working assiduously to build its hard power (economic and military power) to take on the US in the western Pacific and later the IOR, India is undecided on three critical counts: which is the bigger threat, China or Pakistan? Should India move vertically (Afghanistan and Central Asia Republics) and horizontally (from the Horn of Africa to Malacca Straits and eastwards) at the same time, or is there a need to prioritise? And, can India undertake the desired strategic reach all alone (following strategic autonomy mantra), or its needs other friendly nations?
It is universally acknowledged that the western Pacific and IOR will be the global pivots this century. Given this, India cannot treat the two major powers, China and US, destined to play big roles here with the board brush it uses for other bilateral relationships. Both countries have two distinctive characteristics: the US is fond of chess game (checkmate), while China prefers Wei qi (strategic encirclement and strategic patience); and none has experience or stomach for equal partnerships. All this will find an echo in a grand strategy that India lacks and a SDR will help it formulate.

Let us dwell on these relationships starting with China. India wants to resolve the border dispute which China has ruled out. For the first time in centuries, China, that build the Great Wall, has its land borders completely secure. It has resolved its land border disputes with 10 nations, notably Russia and Vietnam, and is expected to do so with Bhutan soon; India being the sole exception. Not resolving the border dispute with India helps China in three ways. One, through good border management, it has put enormous psychological pressure on the Indian armed forces, especially the army and air force. Two, the disputed border is China’s pressure point to keep India’s strategic reach ambitions in check. And three, by keeping India’s conventional capabilities distributed and thereby weak, it helps Pakistan to continue with its proxy war against India. While Delhi has accepted the Chinese formulation that it is enough to keep the disputed border peaceful, the worry is its independent media. For this reason, China regularly advises India to keep its media restrained. At the Chinese ministry of national defence, PLA Maj. General Yao Yunzhu made this point to me. She said, “Both sides have subtle agreements on the Line of Actual Control. Patience is needed for stability in border areas, and I am sure the joint working groups can sort out these problems.” A more direct message was given to me by Ma Jisheng of the Chinese ministry of external affairs. He said that, “For better results, border peace talks should be conducted away from media attention.”

There are two more issues at the bilateral level. Top Indian army officers, who cannot be identified, have told me that China continues with a low level support to insurgents in the Northeast. This probably explains the recent setting up of the new Assam Rifles (India’s only paramilitary force headed by army officers but reporting to the ministry of home affairs) command headquarters in Silchar with jurisdiction over border states of Mizoram, Tripura and southern Assam. The other issue is the galloping bilateral trade towards USD 100 billion, heavily tilted against India. It already stands at a whopping USD 73.9 billion; India’s trade deficit with China at USD 27.1billion. When I raised this issue with Ma Jiasheng at the Chinese ministry of external affairs, he sounded optimist and said, “You will soon see this matter resolved to mutual satisfaction.” His premise was based on the fact that both sides have agreed that boosting mutual investment would be the answer to deepen trade ties. This has its own accompanying risks as evident from trends where Chinese companies are keen to enter India’s national security sensitive telecom and power sectors.

Probably the most sensitive bilateral issue for China is the question of the Dalai Lama and the future of Tibetan government-in-exile in India. While the Dalai Lama has been completely defanged by India in its appeasement policy towards China, the charismatic
 spiritual leader still stands like a colossus. It is a catch-22 situation for Beijing: they can denounce him but cannot wish him away. The 44 Tibetans self-immolation bids in a year in China are proof, if one was needed, that spirituality overrides materialism for Tibetans living under Beijing’s rule. The Dalai Lama has stymied China’s move by declaring that his re-incarnation will be born outside Chinese-controlled Tibet. The million dollar question now is: will the Dalai Lama identify his successor during his lifetime? If he does it, the Tibetan government-in-exile would get the breather. If he fails to do this, the Chinese may pressurise Delhi to banish the Tibetan government-in-exile from India after the passing away of the Dalai Lama.

Major General Yao Yunzhu, Senior Colonel Geng Yansheng, Colonel Yang Yujun, Senior Colonel Ouyang Wei and Senior Colonel Xu Weidi holding the FORCE 100th issue

From India’s perspective this would be a serious matter. Delhi needs to remember that Tibet is one of China’s identified core area of interest, while the border dispute is not. Notwithstanding Indian armed forces assessment, China is unlikely to go to war with India over the border dispute; at worst, it will use its non-kinetic capabilities (space, cyber, terrorist proxy in Northeast India, and both covert and overt support in operational logistics to Pakistan) to keep India in check. But, Tibet issue is a different ballgame which requires to be handled deftly; Delhi should prepare to face this challenge in consultations with the Dalai Lama.

At the regional level, two issues deserve attention. The first is China’s all-out support, bypassing global restrictive regimes to which it is committed, to Pakistan. Well documented, this matter requires no elaboration. The second issue is Chinese military’s string-of-pearl strategy (strategic encirclement) for the Indian Ocean which covers Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Coco Islands and maybe Bhutan (once the bilateral dispute is resolved); all these nations (except Bhutan) freely use the China card
in dealings with India. Now it depends, how one assesses this matter. It could be argued that China has not sought military bases but only access at these countries’ ports, something it needs for its burgeoning sea-trade. PLAN’s Senior Captain (Commodore) Zhang Wei, of Chinese naval military studies institute told me during an interaction in Beijing that: “PLAN does not have nor intends to have military bases outside China. So it is incorrect to say that PLAN or China is expansionist.”

Yet it can be said that China is inching (wei qi) towards expansionism. Two instances lend support to this argument. Since 2010, China has been making regular sea forays into the Gulf of Aden. To my question, PLA Colonel Yang Yujun said that: “PLAN has sent 11 flotillas until now to the Gulf of Aden. It should be noted that more than the Chinese vessels, these have been for the protection of other countries’ commercial vessels against piracy.” What he did not say is that these opportunities would have given PLAN sailors a hands-on experience of long voyages and would enlist China’s future claim to the India Ocean being its legitimate area of naval operations. Isn’t this what China is doing in the South China Sea, which to the surprise of the world it suddenly declared its core area of interest in 2010? This trigger created panic amongst the ASEAN nations, and prompted the US to announce this century as its Pacific century; the US will move 60 per cent of its naval assets in the western Pacific by 2020.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with President Barack Obama
When I brought up this subject with Jia Xiudong, a senior fellow-in-residence at the state-run China Institute of International Studies in Beijing, his reply was astounding. He said: “Remember no Chinese official has said that South China Sea is China’s core area of interest. This has been suggested in Chinese newspapers only.” Well, can Chinese prominent newspapers write such sensitive commentaries without clearance from the government? Moreover, how does this square up with the recent Chinese announcements establishing a military garrison at Sansha in the Paracel Islands (South China Sea), also claimed by Vietnam? On the face of it, China, lacking a military capability to take on the US, has welcomed (strategic patience) the US’ new grand strategy. Ma Jisheng told me that: “We understand the US presence in Asia-Pacific due to historic reasons. We hope the US presence would be for peace, stability and prosperity of the region.” Yet, China has rebuffed US’ recent calls to quickly complete a code of conduct for the seas as the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton warned clashes were likely without a region-wide deal.

What does all this mean for India? The answer probably is in the brilliant must-read book, ‘Monsoon: The India Ocean and the Future of American Power’ by Robert D. Kaplan (the book is recommended reading by US Chairman, Joint Chiefs
of Staff Committee, General Martin Dempsey). He writes that: ‘A one-ocean navy in the western Pacific makes China a regional power; a two-ocean navy in both the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean makes China a great power, able to project force around the whole navigable Eurasia rim-land.’ Delhi may recall that Chinese officials have often been scornful of calling the India Ocean by this name as it suggests affinity towards India. No one is, however, saying that China plans to make claims over the Indian Ocean anytime soon; it is in the distant future (strategic patience). For the present, China will be locked with the US in the western Pacific, with enormous lessons and opportunities for India.

The operational concept supporting the US pivot in Asia-Pacific, called the Air Sea Battle Concept (ASBC) is meant to allow freedom of access and manoeuvre by destroying the networks and weapon platforms that might deny that freedom at the start of any conflict. The Pentagon has said that the concept affects all five domains, namely, land, sea, air, space and cyberspace. Considering that the US administration has declared no budget cuts for development of the needed ASBC capabilities, US defence companies are already embarked on major projects; a shift from technologies used on land for conventional wars and counter-terrorism, to technologies for anti-access and denial asymmetric capabilities being developed by the PLA. Isn’t this a good enough reason for India to seek greater partnership with the US?

Let’s look at India’s strategic relations with the US. The singular important thing that India has been seeking from the US since 1984 is dual-use and gradually high-end technologies. Bilateral talks commenced in March 2001 coinciding with the US’ Bush administration lifting of the sanctions imposed on India after the 1998 nuclear tests. The formal talks were held at two forums, the High Technology Cooperation Group (HTCG) and the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP). The HTCG established in November 2002 had two tasks: to encourage free talks between the US and Indian private sector industries, and to devise a road map for strategic talks by the two governments. The NSSP came into being in February 2003, building on the success of the HTCG, to expand bilateral cooperation in three areas: civilian space programmes, civilian nuclear activities, and high technology trade. In addition, as part of the NSSP, the two countries agreed to dialogue on ballistic missile defence (BMD). Nine years later, the results accrued can best be termed as modest with enormous unlocked potential. The civil nuclear deal which has not taken off, the geo-political and geo-strategic differences, US’ arrogance about its technology, Indian DRDO’s penchant to bluff its own people on indigenous strategic capabilities especially BMD programme, and India’s reluctance to compromise on its strategic autonomy have all been responsible for the tardy bilateral cooperation. The historical political distrust of one another has been and still remains the biggest road-block to unleashing the potential of this relationship.

The good news is that both sides have not given up, which is why both never tire to describe the relationship as a strategic partnership. And this is what worries China. Beijing, which is poised to challenge the US with three advantages (its geography, economic might and growing asymmetrical military capabilities) in Asia Pacific, is anxious about the India-US relationship. If anything, this could restrict China’s free naval operations in the Indian Ocean region. The US has already strengthened relationships with its allies and partners in East Asia and western Pacific region, and has provided a boost to them with its new Pacific pivot. For the Indian Ocean Region, India is the US’ natural partnership choice for stability and free navigation of the seas; India straddles the IOR, has a growing navy, is democratic and abides by international rules.

Amongst such geo-political realities, India, with some clear and bold thinking, must seize opportunities knocking at its doors. Regarding the border dispute, India, like China, should make its perception of the Line of Actual Control public; this is after all subject to mutually acceptable border resolution. Such transparency could include identification of areas of disputes as well. This will ensure that while India strengths its border management, both sides, under the new Special Representatives talks, maintain stability amidst transparency. On bilateral trade, India needs to be vigilant on two counts: Chinese investments steer clear of sensitive sectors, and ways are found to keep trade deficit minimal. While Delhi appears to have exhausted the Dalai Lama card, it could still gain by advising the spiritual leader to identify his successor in his lifetime.

The other issue the needs immediate attention is India’s relations with the US. The truth is that India and the US could and should do more. India has had the largest number of bilateral military exercises with the US than any other friendly country. The US’ purpose in doing this was to familiarise the Indian armed forces to its equipment to eventually develop commonality of equipment for inter-operability. The US is also keen to enter the Indian defence industry in a big way, going beyond a seller’s relationship, and so it has repeatedly sought reforms in Indian defence procurement policy in two areas of Foreign Direct Investment and offsets for meaningful mutual gains. India is hesitant to do this as it does not want to hand over its strategic sector to private ownership; unfortunately, it continues to treat the defence sector as strategic rather than a national industry. Given this deadlock, there is and will be little progress on US giving its dual-use and may be high-end technology to India.

Two recent examples will make this point. The Indian Army is keen to purchase large numbers of US Javelin missiles, but the US has drastically slashed down the sought numbers saying this would destabilise the region. The US, on the other hand, it keen for a deeper relationship on BMD including sales of Patriot missile, but the DRDO has stymied talks by offering indigenous platforms of doubtful integrity. Both sides must find ways to break the deadlock on deeper defence industrial partnership. This probably holds the key to a mutually beneficial relationship; from partnership to maybe a strategic one.

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