Taming the dragon: What India must do

[ Suresh Mohanty ]

Expectedly, the 16th round of military commanders’ talks between India and China held on 17 July has not yielded any discernible positive outcome towards reducing tensions along the LAC, except a joint statement reiterating maintenance of military and diplomatic communications. It is increasingly evident that the Chinese are unlikely to revert to the April 2022 position along the LAC, given the accelerated infrastructure development and incursions into northern Bhutan to bypass Jampheri Ridge, what India considers vital to its depth to the Siliguri corridor, multiple air intrusions beyond the 10-km buffer from the LAC, plans to construct G695 highway from Lhunze in Tibet to Mazha in Kashgar and the visit of Chinese selected Panchen Lama (Gyaltsen Norbu) to multiple villages close to the LAC insisting on defence of border areas, ostensibly as a response to the Dalai Lama’s visit to Ladakh. As a part grey zone strategy of two steps forward and one step back, the Chinese seldom give up areas under control without significant strategic concessions; the same is true in the militarisation of reclaimed islands in the South China Sea. The recent military exercises around Taiwan following the US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit, involving over 60 frontline aircrafts and 14 combat ships, which included multiple infringement of the median line, exclusive economic zone of not only Taiwan but even Japan and a blockade of sorts, preventing merchant shipping, and commercial aviation traffic is likely to be the new normal in the China-Taiwan escalatory matrix. Besides subdued US response to Chinese military muscle flexing and a divided EU response, the western world or in fact much of the rest are unlikely to rally around Taiwan for two simple reasons: one, most of the developed world recognises the one China policy, and two, antagonising China will accrue significant economic blowback.

In this backdrop, it would be pragmatic for India to undertake an urgent reappraisal of its China policy to gravitate from a persuasive/dissuasive deterrence posture to one of credible deterrence. Historically, our Chinese policy has been one of appeasement, both in the military and diplomatic domains, to avoid a multifront criticality and manage the LoC more aggressively. However, the robust response to Chinese expansionism in Doklam in 2017 and occupation of the Kailash ranges on the south bank of Pangong Tso are refreshingly emerging examples of more confident and assertive response mechanisms. Future contingencies require a calibrated diplomatic and military action plan to size up to relentless Chinese belligerence.

Military preparedness

It is neither desirable nor tactically feasible to hold the entire 3,488 kms of frontage against possible Chinese intrusion. Indeed, the PLA/border defence regiments hold much lesser frontages and are bereft of defensive layout to withstand an offensive in the belief that India would resist a trans-LAC option even in the face of provocations. This false perception must be corrected. With the rebalancing of force levels, we need to identify our critical vulnerabilities along the LAC in consonance with infrastructure development and own strategic mobility across valleys to build up troops and equipment vis-à-vis the PLA and hold only selected areas in strength with adequate reserves. These will have to be reviewed periodically, based on further development of infrastructure and force posturing by the PLA from time to time, often in the garb of exercises. The balance of forces must be constituted into mission-centric task force-oriented reserves with intrinsic firepower resources to take the battle into the enemy territory at multiple locations along the entire front while retaining positive control over escalation. While force modernisation and technological asymmetry will continue to exist, sectoral advantages offered by terrain, expertise in high altitude warfare capability of troops and leadership at cutting edge level will be decisive. Critical voids and intrinsic hollowness at the cutting-edge level to include equipment and ammunition deficiencies, especially those dependent on imports, will have to be made up expeditiously.

Collaboration in infusion of technology

Focus on defence manufacturing through self-reliance, publication of negative lists, enhanced FDI up to 74 percent through automatic route and private sector participation will contribute to self-reliance in military hardware in due course. Meanwhile, it is evident that the PLA will exploit its superior capability in the fields of cyber, EW, space and psychological operations in the run up to and during critical periods. We thus need to invest in capability development, including 5G connectivity and AI-enabled surveillance systems, processes and procedures to insulate our systems against a debilitating attack. We need to concurrently develop offensive capabilities in these fields by invigorating a hugely capable private sector, even if incrementally to display capability for matching retribution. While the West will not join us in the tactical battle along the LAC, it can greatly assist us in technology, especially in the field of intelligence, surveillance, navigation, communication, and precision targeting, besides high-end equipment and logistics.

Exploitation of the other elements of national power

Synergistic employment of other elements of state power in the fields of economy, diplomacy and strategic communication must continue to be exploited not only in response to a crisis but as a national philosophy. Despite banning over 200 Chinese apps, enforcing over 300 percent import duty on Chinese toys, restricting bidding in 5G technology, withdrawal of Li Ning as the official apparel sponsorer for the Tokyo Olympics and the recent move to block Chinese mobile phones priced below $150, the balance of trade has only grown in favour of China. In the first half of 2022, Chinese export to India has gone up by $57.5bn, up by 34.5 percent, while Indian export fell to $9.57bn, a decline by 35.3 percent, and a trade deficit of whopping $47.94bn. The economic embrace and enabling policies over several decades can’t be undone without significant adverse economic fallouts. However, diversification of supply chain, reduction of non-essentials and crackdown on illegal trade practices, as is being executed needs to be more intense and robust.

If Taiwan can be part of One China policy without China ever being in occupation of the island, notwithstanding wider international recognition, so can be Jammu & Kashmir, having formally acceded to the Indian union, and Arunachal Pradesh, which has always been part of India. Both the union territory and the state have had multiple democratic elections over decades. Geopolitical concessions to China in the past, including recognition of the PRC in 1949, championing its entry into the UN, generosity with respect to Tibet (though 17-point agreement was signed under duress in 1951), soft engagement in QUAD despite locational advantage of the Indian Navy, silence in well-documented human right violations in Xinjiang and militarisation of islands in the South China Sea have not extracted reciprocal recognition of India’s core sensitivities. While not wanting to escalate tension, the refreshingly assertive foreign policy articulation of late needs to be taken to the next level as was evident during recent avoidance of reference to the One China policy in response to the Taiwan crisis.

Neighbourhood policy

India’s foreign policy as part of ‘neighbours first’ has been recognised and appreciated worldwide; whether it is in free distribution of Covid-19 vaccines or over $ 3.8 bn financial assistance to Sri Lanka during its worst economic crisis. The Sri Lankan government dissuading the PLA surveillance ship from berthing at Hambantota port in addition to construction of three wind farms off Jaffna, western container terminal with Japan and the visit of the Maldivian president against a domestic ‘India Out’ movement is a reflection of dominating Indian influence. Despite overt Chinese influence in Nepal politics, KP Sharma Oli was replaced by more acceptable Sher Bahadur Deuba, though undoing parliamentary resolution on cartographic aggression on Limpiyadura, Lipulekh and Kalapani will take time. Kathmandu has to realise that the Himalayan barrier is still formidable and access to four Chinese sea ports and three land ports some 3,000 kms away under the protocol on implementing agreement on transit and transport signed during the visit of President Bidya Devi Bhandarito China in the first week of August this year is easily said than done. Territorial incursions by China in the Humla district of Nepal could not be swept under the carpet for too long. International isolation of Myanmar and more specifically by the ASEAN in the recently concluded ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting at Phnom Penh is unlikely to affect Myanmar till it has the support of China. India must therefore regulate its engagement with the military junta to contain insurgency in the Northeast while condemning execution of political prisoners on the lines of what it has progressively done with even Taliban.

Bangladesh is gradually slipping into an economic crisis and Bhutan needs to appreciate the danger of the expansionist agenda of the dragon, especially in the evolving regional security dynamics. Indian foreign policy articulation must emphasise on inclusiveness, collective growth and security.

Nuclear strategy

The self-imposed moratorium on nuclear weapon testing since 1998 needs review in light of discovery of three vast missile silos (nearly 300) near Yumen, Hami and Ordos in north central China, in conjunction with upgrading and augmentation of nuclear assets. Pakistan on the other hand continues to add to its arsenal (now nearly 200), exceeding that of India, including counter force tactical nuclear weapons. As against achieving complete nuclear disarmament as per provisions of the NPT, as per report published by SIPRI in June 2022, Russia, US, UK and France are actively pursuing upgrading and increasing the number of warheads. The evolving regional security dynamics necessitates review of India’s nuclear posture to maintain credibility and assurance as brought out by Dr Ashley Tellis in his recent publication ‘Striking Asymmetries: Nuclear Transition in South Asia’.

It has emerged that the Chinese can never be trusted either with the existing confidence building mechanisms or with the additional protocols, as is being contemplated in the form of a ‘code of conduct’, a similar one languishing since the turn of the century with the ASEAN. Hence, we must not fail to prepare for the Chinese contingency or be prepared to fail, especially as some analysts indicate possibility of Chinese Taiwan frustration manifesting along the LAC. (The writer is security adviser to the GoAP.)