China will make India pay for its neglect
At a recent EADS’ function in New Delhi to announce the fielding of its Eurofighter aircraft for the over US10 billion dollars (Rs 40,000 crore) Indian Air Force’s requirement of a Medium Range Combat Aircraft, a seasoned defence journalist working with the Janes’ Information Group since over two decades expressed dismay over why India should spend so much on procurements when there is little possibility of a war. His remark threw me off-balance for three reasons: that he could think only of India going to war with Pakistan; that a hands-on man had been overwhelmed by the think-tank wisdom which did not understand that conventional deterrence both prevents a war, and if it became inevitable, it would help end the war in least time with advantage to our own side; and most importantly, he thought a war with China was in the realm of fantasy.
This exactly is the problem. Without exception, all experts in India are completely dismissive about a likely border war with China. The regular chant is that there is enough space for both India and China to grow in stature; the bilateral annual trade will soon hit USD40 billion; both countries are co-operating on climate change; and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, like his predecessors, on the recent China visit was told that China wants peace and stability. The uncomfortable facts of the relationship are underplayed and few people put them together to read the unambiguous writing on the wall.
Here are a few facts: China continues to proliferate strategic and conventional weapons capabilities to Pakistan; it has befriended India’s estranged neighbourhood countries; it refuses to settle the disputed border and does not agree to a mutually acceptable Line of Actual Control; it has formally not said that Sikkim is a part of India; the Chinese ambassador in New Delhi has repeatedly laid China’s claim on the state of Arunachal Pradesh, which they call ‘lower Tibet’; it has developed excellent border management on the LAC, and has substantially increased its rail, airlift and road capabilities to speedily bring troops into Tibetan Autonomous Region (facing the LAC with India); Chinese troops’ incursions across the LAC into India have become regular, deep and belligerent, creating more pockets of disputes; its stated conventional war doctrine is ‘forward defence’, implying that it will take the war into enemy land; and China is a non-status quo power that is determined to fully integrate all areas it claims as it own. In short, China has tested India’s weak political resolve and decrepit military preparedness including border management through regular incursions across the LAC since 1998. It has also positioned a credible and robust military might in TAR. Have we asked ourselves what do these facts mean?
Peeved at being constantly compared with India as two rising Asian nations, China, after the August 2008 Olympics which will firmly announce its arrival as a world power, may decide to expose the hollowness of India’s risen stature. Beijing is greatly relieved that the Indo-US nuclear deal, that would have brought India into US’ strategic embrace, is as good as dead. The geo-political implication of this is that the US will not speak in favour of India against China at the United Nations should a situation so arise. The operational fall-out is that in case of a crisis between China and India, where Beijing asks Burma for air and naval basing rights and the PLA sends a few guided missile frigates and submarines into the Bay of Bengal as ‘forces-in-being’, the US fleet from its Pacific Command will not show up to boost the morale of the Indian Navy. Major European nations will guard their national interests and will remain neutral. Considering that China has a good reason to show India down, what can it do? It may decide that initially a few intrusions, up to 20km inside Arunachal Pradesh, into ‘disputed pockets’ be converted into permanent PLA camps. As the LAC is neither agreed on the maps nor mutually accepted on the ground, and the PLA since 1998 has been doing these intrusions without much resistance from New Delhi, China will explain these transgressions as its patrolling camps within its own territory. What can India possible do about this? It cannot do a 1986 Somdurong Chu, when India’s border management infrastructure was better that China’s, and the PLA had limited capability for troops’ build-up in TAR. If like the pre-1962 war, India’s political leadership under domestic pressure, orders dismantlement of PLA camps, China will label this as aggression and act in self-defence to fight according to its ‘forward defence’ doctrine inside India’s territory. India also cannot do a 2001 Operation Parakram as it does not have a matching military capability to coerce the PLA. New Delhi will have little option but to pay for the neglect of the Chinese front. India will pretend that nothing has happened, just as it does in case of regular PLA aggression. While it may succeed in silencing its army and ITBP chiefs into submission, there will be an enormous strategic price to pay. India’s neighbours and world powers will know the reality that New Delhi counts for little.