Bottomline | Dragon Moves

With growing Chinese belligerence, India should reassess its relations with the US

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

Big power rivalry between the US and China, with security implications for India, for supremacy in Asia-Pacific is expected to intensify with the unusual elevation of the new Chinese supremo, Xi Jinping. Unlike his two predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, the transfer of power to Xi after the recent 18th National Congress was complete; Xi is both the general secretary of the Communist Party of China and chairman of the Central Military Commission at once.

As head of the reduced Politburo Standing Committee (from nine to seven members), and the Commander-in-Chief of the People’s Liberation Army, Xi from day one in office has brought politics, diplomacy and military under, what in military parlance is called, the unity of command (to match the US system), needed to react befittingly and swiftly to evolving geo-political and geo-strategic challenges. This move shows Chinese determination to face uncertain times — the US decision to shift its pivot to the Asia-Pacific — with necessary strength and strategy. China under Xi will be a militarily assertive power, poised to further Hu’s aggressive policies, and this should spur India to reassess its relations with both China and the US.

Things between the US and China came to a head in May 2010, when Chinese top foreign affairs official, Dai Bingguo (who represented China in 15 rounds of special representative talks on border resolution with India) told an unbelieving US secretary of state, Hillarry Clinton that Beijing regarded the South China Sea, which it shares with the Philippines, Vietnam and other nations, as its territory. Two months later, speaking in Hanoi, Clinton declared that the US would take an interest in resolving disputes over the sea. In spectacularly swift moves, the US shored up its alliances with Japan and South Korea, opened up to Myanmar, sent marines to Australia, and announced that its strategic and military pivot had shifted from Europe to the Pacific.

On India, Clinton made the call for New Delhi to take on responsibilities of a major power, and President Barack Obama, on commencement of his second term in office, told Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that India is a part of his plan for Asia. Both the US and China have concluded that given its size, economy, military and aspirations, India would play a strategic role in its area of interest, well beyond its area of territorial responsibility. This inference is at the heart of bilateral relations that the US and China wish to develop with India.

China, as is its wont, is playing hot and cold with India. It desires increased military ties (to keep abreast of growing India-US ties), but has taken a series of steps to constrain India’s strategic and military options, to ensure that it does not become a serious competitor for strategic space in Asia. All Chinese engagements with India since 2010 have to be assessed in totality against the backdrop of Chinese machinations to keep India down, and Sino-US zero-sum manoeuvres.

On the day when the recent Chinese provocation of issuing e-passports (evidence of Xi’s assertiveness) showing Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai China as part of China came to light, India’s national security advisor, Shivshankar Menon harped on the old line that both sides have differences regarding the boundary and progress on its resolution was on. This is no longer correct. By publicly saying that China has only a 2,000km disputed border with India (which believes it is 4,056km), Beijing has made it clear that border resolution talks are over. Not for nothing, during the latest 15th round of bilateral talks in New Delhi, the two sides diminished the mandate of talks; instead of border resolution, the two special representatives signed an agreement for mechanism of border peace and stability, something that exists between the two security forces along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Menon is travelling to China in the first week of December to discuss a range of bilateral issues, from investments to trade imbalances with the new Chinese leadership; border resolution, his mandate, does not figure in the agenda. With border resolution no longer on the anvil, a fresh look at India-China relations become necessary.

A good starting point is Pakistan, where Chinese strategic partnership with India’s belligerent neighbour is fast transforming from a covert to an overt relationship. Pakistan’s ambassador to Beijing, Masood Khan confirmed in August this year that pre-feasibility studies on the proposed bilateral rail link passing through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) were over and work would commence soon. The planned railway line will run from Kashgar, the old Silk Road town in China’s Xinjiang region, through the Khunjerab pass in POK and on to Havelian, where it will join Pakistan’s railway network. This is not all. China is furtively widening and re-paving the Karakoram highway, which runs from Kashgar to POK in Pakistan. This will be made into an all-weather road, unlike at present when the highway is closed during winter months because of heavy snow. In a related development, China is set to take over the management of Pakistan’s Gwadar port, after the Singapore Port Authority pulled out (or were made to pull out) from the project. This land and rail route from China across POK to the warm water Gwadar port is meant to create a special economic zone in Kashgar to uplift the backward Xinjiang province. In the wider context, what stops the PLA from maintaining round-the-year presence in POK, and Pakistan’s Gwadar port becoming the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) pivot of maritime manoeuvre in the Indian Ocean? These two military issues will be discussed later.

Now look at Bhutan, traditionally a comfort nation for India, and the only nation other than India with a disputed border with China. In a surprise move in June 2012, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told the Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley that China was willing to complete border demarcation with Bhutan at an early date. Losing no time, Beijing offered an attractive border resolution package to Thimpu. While conceding Bhutanese claims of 900sqkm in north Bhutan (good grazing ground), China asked for 400sqkm of territory in west Bhutan. The recently formed democratic government (from monarchy) in Bhutan will find the Chinese offer difficult to refuse. With Chinese military threat gone, Thimpu will be hard-pressed to ask India to close down its India Military Training Team (IMTRAT) headquarters (it both trains the Bhutanese Army and keeps a watch on PLA activities nearby) located in Ha district adjoining the strategic Chumbi Valley. What does this mean for India?

Xi-JinpingChumbi Valley in Tibet (China), which forms a narrow wedge between India (Sikkim) and Bhutan, leads to India’s Siliguri corridor, a vital tri-junction between Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal, which is a narrow (30km in width) hub of rail, road and air passage called the ‘Chicken neck.’ The latter being the only land route to India’s north-eastern states is strategically and militarily important for India. Once China acquired 400sqkm in west Bhutan, it will widen the shoulders of its Chumbi Valley to facilitate military manoeuvres, and with IMTRAT gone from Bhutan, the Chinese threat to the Siliguri corridor would enhance. China, which has a rail link from Shigatse, a major town in Tibet till Yatung (located at the mouth of Chumbi Valley), would take its rail line south into the Chumbi Valley, threatening both India’s north-eastern states and neighbouring West Bengal.

This is not all. Chinese diplomacy in Nepal, neighbouring the Siliguri corridor, has entered an interventionist phase. China, not known to interfere with politics of a friendly nation, has made an exception in Nepal. Through high level visits to and fro, the Chinese have sent an unambiguous message to Nepal’s constituent assembly responsible for framing the nation’s constitution to disfavour federalism. Beijing would prefer dealing with a strong centre rather than numerous power centres spread across Nepal. Experts have suggested two reasons for this Chinese desire. Beijing fears that ethnic states in north Nepal could become bases for Tibetan unrest. And, federalism would translate into more political power for Madhesis, who are identified as being close to India. In a calibrated approach, China wants to wean Nepal away from the Indian sphere of influence.

What do Chinese simultaneous moves in Pakistan, Bhutan and Nepal mean for India’s security? Increased military (land) threat when viewed in totality. When asked about Chinese presence in POK, Indian army’s northern army commander, Lt General T.K. Parnaik, responsible for Jammu and Kashmir theatre, recently told the media that the government is monitoring the situation. “We (Indian Army) are keeping watch and taking suitable measures in terms of improving existing infrastructure and reviewing deployment in border areas.” What he did not say is that Indian Army’s operational advantage in his theatre has become its Achilles Heel. And the army has itself to blame for this. Obsessive counter-insurgency operations, where nearly 80,000 troops under five field (divisional) headquarters have been committed round the clock, continue to reinforce a defensive mind-set amongst troops. The fence and dual-tasked forces on the Line of Control (LoC) have added to the operational woes. Unmindful of the enhanced threat from northern Ladakh, the army, refusing to learn from the 1999 Kargil conflict when it was found with grave equipment and ammunition deficiencies to fight a conventional war, continues with business as usual. The army’s 14 corps for Ladakh, formed after the Kargil conflict, is highly vulnerable and requires a thorough operational review to assess forces-in-being.

What is the increased threat? Former COAS, General V.K. Singh is on record saying that nearly 3,500 to 4,000 PLA soldiers are in POK. Chinese defence minister, Liang Guanglie, in a written interview, during his September 2012 visit to India had contested this claim. He said that: “As minister of national defence of China, I’d like to clarify once again that the PLA has never deployed a single soldier in the Pakistan-controlled-Kashmir.” The minister is right. What is the need for PLA to ‘deploy’ troops in POK? All the PLA needs to do is to reconnoitre areas in civilian clothes to concretise their operational options. The options could be increased operational logistics support to the Pakistan Army through the new rail and all-weather road links. Considering Pakistani media reports that portions of Northern Areas have been leased to China, and the fact that Beijing has disowned having a disputed border with India in Kashmir, PLA forces would have legitimate and legal reasons to reinforce Pakistan Army’s numbers in POK. How vulnerable does Ladakh and even the Siachen glacier, which forms the wedge between POK and China now appear, is what the Indian Army, and not the government in Delhi, has to ask itself?

The shape of things to come is evident from regular Chinese security forces intrusions in Ladakh, since the 1999 Kargil conflict, which New Delhi continues to down-play. The Indo-Tibetan Border Police, IG, M.S. Bhurji, responsible for the first line of defence against China in Ladakh, recently told the media of three People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) air violations this year. This should be a wake-up call for the Indian Air Force, which organisationally has divided responsibilities, between its western and eastern air commands, for what is a single Tibetan theatre (Tibetan Autonomous Region) of the PLA. While aplenty can be written on this subject, the crux of the matter is that the PLA without even opening its war front against India, has capabilities and is building capacities to assist the Pakistan military in a conventional war, not to speak of help in cyber and space arenas.

Alongside increased military threat to the Kashmir theatre from Pakistan, even the placid Sikkim theatre has been made vulnerable by Chinese moves for border resolution with Bhutan. The Sikkim border with Tibet has two peculiarities: it is not part of the disputed border resolution between India and China, and Beijing in June 2003 had indicated (not formally though) that it has accepted Sikkim as a part of India. Following this, it was felt that substantive troops in Sikkim, which has the highest density of troops anywhere in the world (Indian Army’s entire 33 corps is responsible for what is a less than 200km border with Tibet), could be pulled out. With increased military threat to Chumbi Valley on the cards, this will not be possible. If anything, the IA will require to provision more reserves for this theatre in case of war with Pakistan. In short, Pakistan has not only closed its vulnerabilities or operational gaps, it has, with Chinese help, increased India’s military burden in a land conflict.

Now, let’s review the maritime domain. The outgoing Chinese President Hu Jintao’s policy remarks at the opening of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party are significant. He said that: “China will resolutely safeguard its maritime rights and interests, and build China into a maritime power.” To do what? Two things: defend its core interests of Taiwan and now the entire South China Sea, to eventually safeguard its sea-lanes from the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of the African continent, through its Malacca dilemma, and into the Western Pacific Ocean. To quote Robert D. Kaplan’s famous book, Monsoon, ‘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.’ Isn’t this what China becoming a maritime power means?

While doing this, China says it will not seek naval bases outside the country. The recently retired Chinese defence minister, Liang Guanglie, who spoke with the Indian media, needs to be quoted on this. According to him: “The PLA has never established a military base overseas. The PLA navy ships, while conducting long distance voyages, often went to close ports of littoral countries for logistics support. Since the beginning of their escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia at the end of 2008, the PLA navy ships have conducted logistic supply from the ports of Djibouti, Oman, Yemen, etc. According to the need of escort missions and other long-distance voyages, we would also consider having logistic supply or short rest at appropriate ports of other countries. Such logistic supply activities do not have any connection with established military bases overseas.”

All this is correct for today. But, what about tomorrow, let’s say in 2020, when PLAN is expected to have at least 73 principal combatant ships and 78 submarines, 12 of them nuclear-powered. Its first aircraft carrier began sea-trials last year, with more to be built in China; its first indigenous naval aircraft landed safely on the carrier deck last week. China has mastered nuclear propulsion, it is investing 10 billion Renminbi for indigenous jet engine development over next three years, and it has a flourishing indigenous shipbuilding capability, which will soon overtake South Korea as number one in Asia. China already has formidable sea denial capabilities and is focussed on acquiring awesome sea control capabilities. In what India calls ‘string of pearls’, China has naval facilities across the Indian Ocean. These include ports China has built in Gwadar in Pakistan, at Hambantota in Sri Lanka, at Kyaukphyu in Myanmar, and at Chittagong in Bangladesh. With the Chinese focus on building maritime power, it will not be surprising if China, by 2020, has two naval bases rather than mere logistic ports at Gwadar and maybe Hambantota. PLAN, by then, would have accumulated enough experience in long voyages through anti-piracy operations across the Indian Ocean.

How would the Indian Navy (IN) look in 2020? Measly, when compared with PLAN, to say the least. Even if the navy’s Maritime Capability Perspective Plan (MCPP) for 2025 stays on course, which is unlikely given the major slippages already underway, its capability building is too loosely knit to be a whole. At the heart of the IN’s woes are two critical shortcomings: India’s inadequate shipbuilding capability; and absence of a maritime strategy: what exactly is the navy’s purpose? The navy, like the other two defence services, the army and the air force, with little direction from the political leadership, has its individual war doctrine to follow. A case in point is the tri-service Andaman and Nicobar Command, which is nothing more than a giant operation gone wrong. Meant to be developed into an offensive outpost close to the Malacca Strait, it is a modest surveillance post. The IN which is expanding defence ties in Chinese backyard with South-East Asian countries, South Korea and Japan, is not fully confident of defending hundreds of Indian small islands scattered in the Indian Ocean Region.

Why is this so? Rather than move together, India’s diplomacy, unfortunately, gallops miles ahead of its military power. Thus, few take it seriously. Experts, who say that Indian and Chinese navies will bump into one another in the Pacific and Indian Oceans in the foreseeable future, miss this vital point.

All this, of course, has not discouraged Indian admirals. They admit in private that the IN is nowhere near the desired 70:30/blue:brown water capability; it is too heavily committed on coastal security tasks; and that senior naval officers’ usually attempt to punch much above their weight. Never at a loss for scenario building, a cerebral admiral told me that once the navy acquires the desired capabilities in a decade or two, it will be able to threaten China at a place of its own choosing. How? In the event of a land conflict in the Himalayas, the IN need not conduct operations in the Bay of Bengal where PLAN has an edge. The IN, instead, could disrupt and threaten Chinese commercial vessels in the Indian Ocean Region sea lanes where it is strong. This would lead to a loss of face and embarrassment for the Chinese, something that they care about intensely. We will shape our own battlefield, is what the admiral told me with a smile.

This scenario, if not incredible, speaks volumes about each service being on its own sans jointmanship. In a decade or two, to use the admiral’s point regarding the IN, PLAN will surely be in the Indian Ocean Region. The pace at which the Chinese are moving, its military will not maintain the present lead over Indian military capabilities, as most Indian experts believe. It will simply outpace India because the latter lacks a military strategy to show desired results. Military strategy demands planning in five mediums together: air, land, sea, space, and cyber; something that requires firm political direction. India simply lacks the intellectual and organisational capability to do so. Moreover, unlike the US and China, there is little connect in India between diplomacy and military power. A case in point is the 2002 Operation Parakram, the military stand-off by India against Pakistan. Calling it an exercise in coercive diplomacy, India, and not Pakistan, blinked first. This failed conventional deterrence blunted India’s conventional war capabilities as well. Pakistan assessed this right, as when they launched 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November 2008 that killed 160 people, India decided to do nothing, labelling its inaction as ‘strategic restraint.’

The problem with ‘strategic restraint’ is that it does not push away threats. Rather, with time, as US-China rivalry intensifies in Asia-Pacific, threats to India, which has disputed borders with Pakistan and China, will increase. What should India do? Maintain its policy of ‘strategic autonomy’ or equidistance with all major powers is what New Delhi tells us. This would be a good policy if India was indeed a major power and thought like one. This is neither the case, nor is there hope that Indian political leadership will endeavour to understand what constitutes national power and military strategy. This awesome task needs strategists and not mandarins from the external affairs ministry or generals, admirals and air marshals, who all, at best, are operational-level players.

A recent example will illustrate why ‘strategic restraint’ is not a good policy for India today. The Chinese e-passports that showed Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai China as Chinese territory showed the South China Sea belonging to it as well. The US, given its engagement with ASEAN nations, termed the Chinese action regarding South China Sea as ‘unfortunate and unacceptable.’ Not a word has been uttered by the US on what China and Pakistan are doing on Indian territories (on land). For this reason, it is necessary that President Obama’s statement that India is a part of his plan for Asia ought to be taken seriously by New Delhi.


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