Bottomline | Slogans Are Not Enough

India needs a cogent plan to tackle China at various levels

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

India’ biggest security and foreign policy challenge is to figure out whether China is foe or friend. The issue has assumed criticality as China’s growing geopolitical clout has made India’s stated position on China untenable.

India’s foreign policy narrative that there is space for both nations in a multipolar world and multipolar Asia, and hence competition and cooperation between the two was credible until the turn of the century. China’s expansive centrifugal push through the ambitious Belt and Road economic plan hides an extraordinary geopolitical agenda. While accepting a multipolar world, China has challenged multipolar Asia architecture. When China speaks about Asia for Asians, it assumes itself to be the sole leader.

India is impacted most by China’s determination to create a new Asian geopolitical design because of its ability to understand that economic growth alone would not suffice. India needs an imaginative larger plan to arrest China’s massive footprints in its neighbourhood. Building military power to end China’s bullying on the disputed border would be an essential part of such a plan. However, with confusion galore at the highest level of military leadership, this would not be possible.

Consider the recent statements by the chief of air staff, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, who being the Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee, is also the senior-most service chief. Being a professional soldier, he got mixed up in the two narratives, one for his military and the other for public consumption. Caught off guard earlier this month during a military lecture, he told the media what was meant for his command.

ACM Raha reportedly said that China’s growing influence in the Indian subcontinent is a major security challenge. China’s increasing economic and military ties with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar are all strategic moves to contain India, he added. Nothing wrong with what he said. He could have been hauled up by the government for perhaps having omitted Pakistan which has emerged as a strong military threat and geopolitical challenge to India from his list.

However, in less than two weeks, he made drastic amends to his China story. When asked about China threat, ACM Raha, in a military ceremony attended by the media, said much the opposite. “We are in the same region, we have common interests. It’s time for mature statesmanship from both the countries to reconcile on many issues… and cooperate and coordinate development in the region,” he reportedly said.

Here was the irony. By referring to statesmanship, he trespassed on the Prime Minister’s prerogative. However, being used to black and white appreciations, he spoke about the need to compel China to cooperate and coordinate with India; this needs a plan which is well outside his job profile.

Meanwhile, what would have the military made of ACM Raha’s two contradictory statements in less than a month? Wouldn’t they wonder if the Chairman, Chiefs of Staff committee is serious about the China threat? The Indian Air Force (IAF), after all, has cited China threat to raise its combat strength authorisation from 39.5 squadrons to 42 squadrons; hoping to raise it further to 45 squadrons. The IAF has sought strategic lift C-17 aircraft, Special Operations C-130J aircraft, more stand-off weapons, infrastructure upgrades of airfields and more Advanced Landing Grounds, air defence, network-centricity, air-to air-refuellers and so on for strategic reach, primarily because of China. These capabilities are in addition to those needed against Pakistan, where the threat has increased.

It is hardly a secret that the IAF is building its capabilities with minimal sync with the other two services, who have their own assessments about threats from the two military lines. Then, there is Integrated Defence Headquarters which is responsible for space and cyber domains and even Special Forces for strategic roles and missions.

If compartmentalisation within the military on China threat was not enough, there are central economic planners, who, oblivious of the strategic and military implication of the Belt and Road for India, are jostling for Chinese participation in high-end infrastructure development. For example, NITI Aayog vice-chairman, Arvind Panagariya, has lamented China’s incipient financial offer as compared with Japan’s to build bullet trains in India. India has also sought China’s assistance to increase the speed of existing network as well as modernise some of the railway stations, he said. Since the Prime Minister is the chairman of NITI Aayog, Panagariya would not be speaking without his consent.

The Prime Minister and his office cannot be blamed for dissonance within the military and outside on China since terrorism has been accepted as India’s main threat. While attending his first combined commanders’ conference a year ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had baffled the military leadership by saying ‘the threat is invisible while the enemy is known.’ This was a clear pointer towards terrorism emanating from Pakistan as the main military threat to India. Modi did not stop at that. At all international fora, he has since taken upon himself to advice the world on global terrorism. This is unmindful of the two military lines in India which call for an entirely different approach.

Since there are no top-down instructions from the government, the military leadership continues with its outdated two-front war approach. It is time for the Prime Minister to wake up to the security realities facing India. India needs a plan to tackle China. Time for the rhetoric is over.


Call us