Bottomline | Neighbour’s Interest

China’s desire for enhanced bilateral military cooperation should be taken seriously

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

Why does China want increased military cooperation with India? President Xi Jinping in his first meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently on the sidelines of BRICS summit in Durban said that both sides should have more joint exercises, training, and maritime cooperation.

The issue assumes significance for three reasons: One, unlike his two predecessors, Xi is closer to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). He became head of the Central Military Commission (CMC) the same day he took over as the party’s general secretary, and is the sole Central Politburo member to be part of the CMC. Two, enhanced military cooperation had been the swan song of the Hu Jintao’s generation since 2010 which has now been carried forward vigorously, and hence would be the Chinese theme for next 10 years. By 2010, the Chinese had settled the Kashmir issue in its favour by announcing that it has a mere 2,000km (India believes it to be 4,056km) disputed border (in Arunachal Pradesh) with India. And three, since 2009, China has followed an activist foreign policy by adding South China Sea as its new core concern.

Happy with a tamed India, the next step for China is to understand India’s developing military relationship with the US, and continuously assess Indian armed forces’ capabilities, especially of its navy. This has been necessitated by the US declaration of shifting its military pivot to Asia, and the determination of the PLA Navy to break out of its ‘First Island Chain’ in Western Pacific Ocean to enter the Indian Ocean, preliminary work — the ‘string of pearls’ policy — which began during the term of the Chinese fourth generation leadership led by Hu. The Chinese naval strategy for mastery of the two-Oceans has been explained in Robert Kaplan’s book ‘Monsoon’, which I have reviewed in this issue.

The US, meanwhile, has not given up on India and is amenable to allow it more time to appreciate the usefulness of closer bilateral naval cooperation for formalised joint security of the Indian Ocean from the Malacca Strait to the Horn of Africa. India has a good navy; what it lacks is strategic direction. Once, and if that comes, it will show in the Indian Navy’s priorities, commitment, training standards, and capabilities. To be sure, the Indian Navy has done maximum number of bilateral exercises with the US Navy as compared with other friendly navies. Like China, the US Pacific Command (PACCOM) has urgent work to do in the Western Pacific Ocean than the Indian Ocean. In military terms, the Western Pacific has emerged as a region of military threats, while the Indian Ocean is still about ensuring security of the sea lanes from piracy, to trafficking and natural disasters.

What does the emerging naval scenario in the Indian Ocean mean for India? It is a wake-up call for India to not let the Indian Ocean region go the Himalayan way. India at present is hemmed in between two disputed borders in the north with little space for manoeuvre. China is working on doing the same in the Indian Ocean in the decades ahead. Simultaneously, the noose around India’s neck is being tightened by other means including massive trade imbalances and heavy Chinese investments in sensitive Indian infrastructure.

So, what should India do? Not treat China as any other foreign policy issue to be handled by bureaucrats. When I asked a former Indian foreign secretary to explain how India runs its foreign policy, he said with a smile that things were flexible. An emerging issue with a country could be initiated by India’s head of mission there or the other way around, and reach the concerned joint secretary in the ministry of external affairs (MEA), or the joint secretary could raise the matter on his own. Notes to concerned ministries were then sent by the MEA keeping the Prime Minister Office (PMO) in the loop. Once done, the MEA or the concerned ministry would seek political clearance and go ahead with the necessary action. This, of course, is about day-to-day functioning. When the Prime Minister goes on visits abroad, especially important ones, there is always pressure from the PMO on the MEA to show results.

What about drastic foreign policy changes like should India continue with its strategic autonomy mantra? “This (strategic autonomy) is in the DNA of the MEA and not easy to change,” he said. The reality is that it is beyond the MEA to change it, as the issue concerns policy-making and not policy-running. Here then is the rub. India does not have strategic thinking because its political leadership usually follows rather than leads. The exception to this has been equally disastrous. For example, the Vajpayee government did the nuclear tests without any analysis, and did not take it to its logical end by having necessary military reforms.

Specific to China, India’s foremost strategic concern and unstoppable military threat, the Prime Minister should call an expanded cabinet committee on security to include commerce and industry ministers amongst others. The need is for a holistic review of India’s China policy from disputed border, to trade, to bilateral military relations, to cyber, to clandestine support to Pakistan, to Kashmir and Tibet, and to its strategy of keeping India boxed in the region. China’s desire for enhanced bilateral military cooperation should be taken seriously.


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