Sunday, October 25, 2009

An ostrich before the Dragon’s roar

Brave words and demeanour often cover up for a weak hand and harsh reality. So when the Chief of Army Staff General Deepak Kapoor the other day declared there would be no repetition of 1962, the tocsin should have sounded about precisely such a denouement being round the corner! Indeed, the situation on the ground has worsened so much from the high point of 1986-87 when, for the first and only time the Indian Army took the fight to the Chinese, that a determined push by massed PLA Group Armies across the Tibet front or ingress from southern Yunnan cutting across northern Myanmar into India from a direction the Indian Army does not anticipate and is unprepared for, will see the Indian forward units being stranded in a Chinese sea and the larger units falling back on the Assam plains damn fast.

The Indian Army’s unexpectedly aggressive response to a routine Chinese intrusion on that occasion may be attributed to a no-nonsense Divisional commander, who was not prepared to take guff from the Chinese, rather than to any sudden show of nerve on the Indian government’s or of guts by the army brass in Delhi.

The consequences, however, were salutary.

A chastened Chairman Deng Xiaoping reportedly told the Central Military Commission — the most powerful military body in China — that “We cannot anymore take a chicken knife to a bullock”. Meaning, presumably, that while in 1962 India was a chicken that could be trifled with, some 25 years later it had turned into a much heftier animal requiring lots more to subdue it. It eventuated in Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s state visit to Beijing in December 1988 and his “long handshake” with Deng.

However, instead of learning the lesson that Chinese respect nothing so much as they do military power and parlaying that success into beefed up mountain warfighting strength to push the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army further on the defensive, the Indian government fell back into its accommodationist stance even as the army leadership resumed its familiar activity of making a lot out of little and keying on Pakistan as “primary threat”. The psychological edge vis a vis China was thus frittered away.

The pity is that India’s China policy has ever been made, post-Jawaharlal Nehru, by Indian Foreign Service-wallahs with long stints in Shanghai and Beijing and a proven capacity to be befuddled and mesmerised by all things Chinese. Instead of emulating the Chinese habit of strategic visioning and hard realpolitik, our diplomats learn to kowtow, an attitude that serves as template for official thinking about China. To that mix are now added two other debilitating factors — Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s terminal mushiness and his National Security Adviser M K Narayanan’s patent policeman’s inability to see beyond his nose, and think strategic or even straight.

In the event, their mustering the gumption to permit the Dalai Lama to visit Tawang has come as a surprise at the end of a long series of Chinese insults and provocative behaviour that otherwise went unanswered. But to believe that the Indian government will react to Kashmir’s being shown as an independent country in its maps — the latest Chinese poke in the Indian eye — by representing Tibet in Indian maps in a different colour and, in effect, making the first of many required moves to de-recognise Chinese sovereignty over that benighted land, would be to expect entirely too much of a government that has turned tail more often than it has stood up for the national interest.

The vice-like grip on policy making by Chinese sympathisers in the Ministry of External Affairs is of long standing. It was Sardar K M Pannikar, it may be recalled, who in direct contravention of Nehru’s instructions, paved the way for the abject acquiescence in China’s subjugation of Tibet by replacing the word “sovereignty” for Nehru’s choice of “suzerainty” in describing Beijing’s relationship with Lhasa.

The important thing to note is that Nehru did not pull up the erring diplomat nor correct the text, which understandably met with Beijing’s approval. The reason, as this analyst has shown in his book — Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy, was that Nehru, disillusioned by the Indian Army’s poor, plodding, performance in the minor 1947-48 operations to rid the Srinagar Valley of the “raiders”, simply didn’t think the Indian armed forces had the druthers militarily to oust the battlehardened PLA from Tibet and hence opted pragmatically to placate China.

The Indian military’s role in reinforcing a manifestly passive-defensive, un-agile, and unimaginative foreign-military policy versus China is not talked about much but it is at the core of the country’s strategic limpness.

Before 1962, there were the likes of Chief of General Staff, Lieutenant General L Verma and the Eastern Army Commander Lieutenant General S P P Thorat who worried about the threat posed by China. But the drubbing in that war seemed to leak all the steam out of the military leadership in taking on the Chinese. This was especially glaring after the 1971 Bangladesh War when Pakistan was reduced and there was no remaining excuse not to begin reorienting the military effort primarily towards China.

Indeed, taking an ostrich-like stand — that the adversary you are not prepared to fight is unlikely to emerge as threat — the Indian Army Headquarters single- mindedly pooh-poohed the China threat for over 40 years, refusing to prioritise the acquisition of forces for offensive warfare on the Tibetan plateau. It is only in the last couple of years of incessant prodding by a few strategic analysts that the army has woken up to an aggressively rising China. A belated attempt is now being made to raise two light mountain divisions for offensive operations, but this is too little and bit late. These divisions will become active only around 2018 and will find themselves overmatched by the PLA. Because of the Qinghai-Lhasa railway and the network of nine-tonner roads right up to the Line of Actual Control, China can muster some 22-25 fighting divisions on the Indian front inside of two campaign seasons.

It is imperative the army begins a meaningful build-up against China by raising another seven light mountain divisions for a minimum of nine such formations.

Money for such force upsizing and modernisation can be found, for a start, by consolidating the existing three strike corps into one fully equipped armoured-mechanised corps to deal with Pakistan in any contingency. Otherwise, the country will end up with an absolute incapacity to deter China militarily and Indian army chiefs will have to continue making excuses for increased Chinese violations of LAC in the manner that General Kapoor did recently, saying that the aggressive actions by Chinese paramilitary border guards were not ordered by Beijing.

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