Bottomline | Sleeping With the Enemy

Allowing Chinese military officers at our military academies would have serious ramifications

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

In a predictable development, India appears to have accepted China’s recent offer of exchanging military officers in each other’s military academies. The idea was floated by China, and defence secretary, R.K. Mathur, is expected to discuss this further at the bilateral Annual Defence Dialogue in Beijing soon.

‘Great idea’ is what some officials have reportedly called it; as it will build upon the four rounds of bilateral low-level Hand-in-Hand counter-terrorism exercises already done by the two armies. As an advocate of confidence building measures (CBMs), India might be sorry that it allowed China to propose what should have been its idea. India, after all, does this all the time with Pakistan, which is never too enthusiastic about CBMs. It, instead, wants to move towards border resolution talks rather than remain stuck forever in building the right ambience. India wants more trade, more people-to-people exchanges, more cultural exchanges, more of everything (what Pakistan considers as peripherals), but feels that border resolution should be placed on the backburner until the proxy war stops (which never will until India shows sincerity towards Pakistan’s core concern).

Take the case of China. It regularly intrudes into India’s territory; it has little intention of resolving the border dispute or even agreeing to how the Line of Actual Control (LAC) runs on ground; it protests every time Indian leaders visit Arunachal Pradesh; it says it has no border with India in Ladakh through which it is developing the economic-cum-military corridor with Pakistan; it protests when India decides to build infrastructure in Arunachal Pradesh which it calls disputed and so on. India gets bullied by China all the time because the bright sparks in the government believe that non-cooperation with China might lead to conflict. India does not want that, since it is a peace loving nation, a conflict would retard economic growth, and stymie India’s rise. As Pakistan and China are not allowing India to rise northwards, it will do so across the Indian Ocean, where it has launched its Act East policy.

With this mindset, India is readying itself to have Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) officials in its military academies including the Army War College at Mhow where the art of war is taught to officials expected to assume general officer ranks. Not wanting to displease own political and bureaucratic leadership, military headquarters, when asked for advice, might suggest that Chinese officials, while allowed entry to military academies of higher learning, may be disallowed from attending certain classes dealing with operational stuff.

Never mind, that such segregation might generate ill-will and, more to the point, is unnecessary. Once PLA officers are in Indian Army’s academies of higher learning and mingle with fellow Indians, can intellectual proliferation be halted?

How difficult will it be for PLA to know that, for example, at the Army War College, the focus is on counter-insurgency operations (CI ops), which the generals are comfortable with, rather than conventional war? The PLA in little time would have learnt about Indian Army’s training, tactics, and that army officers make little distinction between the two operations (war and CI ops), and that they believe that combating CI ops is hands-on training for war. The knowledge gained by them would be much more than they can hope to get from Hand-in-Hand exercises. So, China will start with the army, and then ask for officers’ exchanges at India’s air force and navy academies. Before India takes the first step, it should assess the ramification of what it is getting into.

China has evolved from a nation with low profile under Deng Xiaoping to an assertive nation under President Xi Jinping. Always an important component of Communist China, the PLA, hitherto, is at the vanguard of China’s foreign policy. As the Chairman of China’s highest military body, the Central Military Commission, Xi conveyed this to China’s defence advisors posted worldwide when, in an unprecedented move, they were called back home to Beijing in January to get the message directly from the supreme leader. According to Colonel Yang Yujun, the official spokesperson of the ministry of national defence, the PLA today interacts with 31 nations and has ‘expanded its role from non-traditional security to traditional security, which is more real combat-oriented.’ Yujun, who has been the PLA’s face since the inception of the defence spokesperson system in 2008, did not elaborate much.

China-watchers call this ‘military diplomacy’ which is a part of China’s military power. Since China’s risen defence budgets, military capabilities, and an assertive foreign policy are troubling much of the world, Beijing decided to calm their nerves. It was decided that this could best be done by the PLA through military diplomacy with Chinese characteristics, which has, at least, three prominent facets.

The first is selective openness about own defence policy, capabilities and higher defence organization — the idea being to showcase just enough to generate deterrence by what is visible and spurring the adversary to guesstimate about the invisible. For example, conscious that it cannot challenge the US (premier military power in Asia-Pacific region) in conventional battles, the PLA has concentrated on building asymmetrical capabilities like missiles which can destroy aircraft carriers or cyber-offensive wherewithal, what the US refers to as anti-access and area-denial capabilities. Such PLA capabilities has had a psychological impact on its wary neighbours, who while wooing the US, hesitate to either openly challenge China or turn a deaf ear towards it.

Sleeping With the Enemy

Having created the right atmosphere where it cannot be ignored, the second task of PLA’s military diplomacy is agenda-setting. For example, taking cue from the London based International Institute of Strategic Studies-sponsored annual Shangri La dialogue (backed by the US and western nations), China has started a parallel Xianghan Forum which since last three years has become an annual affair. The PLA forum provides it the opportunity to introduce the world thinking community to the unparalleled Chinese cooperation and confrontation strategy. Unlike the western Cold War thought which is generally a zero-sum game, China believes that no single battle is decisive, and the war itself is about psychological victory. This helps China’s adversaries getting assured that China is not building military capabilities to wage war. Moreover, the Chinese Forum provides the opportunity to Chinese thinkers to interpret global and regional issues in a favourable light.

The third task of PLA’s military diplomacy is reassurance by bilateral engagements — what Colonel Yujun referred to as interaction with 31 nations including the US, Japan and India. China and the US are reportedly working on a bilateral ‘Code of Conduct’ and China has devised ‘Maritime Consultative Mechanism’ with Japan. The idea probably at these two forums is to have maximum possible transparency in each other’s military thinking and budgets, and to seek areas of military cooperation.

The PLA’s agenda for bilateral engagements varies with each country. For instance, with India, it has numerous reasons. Top of the list is the need to reassure India that it is not a military adversary (the PLA makes it a point to impress upon its Indian interlocutors that its enemy is the US which comes in the way of its peaceful rise). For instance, during this writer’s August 2012 visit to China, the PLA officials went out of their way to emphasise that India should forget the 1962 war.

Another reason is to assure India that its close relations with Pakistan are not a zero sum game; that they are not meant to harm India’s interests. For this reason, China is keen that India joins its economic groupings like the maritime silk route and the proposed infrastructure bank, and that bilateral trade and commerce increases. Aware of Indian peoples’ propensity to pitch for monetary gains over national security issues, China is hoping to do a US on India. In short, to tie India down with massive imbalanced trade in its favour so that India feels compelled to give in to China’s diktats on territorial integrity. So far, China has done well in this sphere.

Yet another reason would be to garner military intelligence. This is precisely what China seeks by infiltrating into India’s military academies. The PLA officers, through regular interactions with Indian military officers, would learn a lot about bilateral Defence Forum between India and the United States which has been cleared for a decade’s extension. How is the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative progressing, what is the update on bilateral defence agreements which are coming in the way of achieving operability between Indian military and US’ Pacific Command are issues which are just the tip of the iceberg. A Pandora box of insiders’ view would open with adverse effect on India’s national security. India would do well to understand that China is not India’s long lost friend which needs to be hugged.


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