No churning on China

Situation awareness is a prime tactical, operational and strategic level military attribute and also, one assumes, a quality equally prized by politicians who need to be sensitive about every fold in an unravelling situation. In the military sphere, situation awareness has hardware and software components. Sensors of all kinds on land, sea and air-borne platforms and satellites, such as radars, infra-red and high resolution photo-imagery, etc. comprise the hardware. Common sense accounts for the basic software and demands nothing more than an awareness of the world around us. The year 2012 ended with evidence of the different levels of this awareness at which the Indian government and the individual armed services find themselves.
But first let’s set the context. In 2009, the defence minister issued an operational directive to the three services headquarters stating, reasonably, that China was the country’s main security threat. The directive thus issued required the military to now wheel their big guns, ships and aircraft China-ward. Three years on this hasn’t happened. The Army and the Air Force continue to concentrate their effort on the Western border; the Navy likewise, but less conspicuously, justifies its “North Arabian Sea” tilt, except it now touts piracy as an operational consideration. In effect, the Indian military’s effort and capabilities are majorly tuned to dealing with the inconvenience posed by Pakistan, which in reality is more a nuisance than a genuine military threat. (True, a militarily inferior adversary can effectively utilise terrorism, but to squash a pestiferous fly an elephant gun may be inappropriate, given the potential collateral damage, when a rolled-up newspaper — targeted intelligence operations — may serve the purpose better.)
It means that the military is willfully ignoring a straightforward order from the government perhaps because it finds it hard to tear away from the rationale that the Pakistan threat provides for the plains warfare-heavy weapons profile — in particular, vast armoured and mechanised formations and an inventory full of short-legged and medium-range aircraft — of the services. But also because when the armed forces look around, they see a government that, far from walking the talk, seeks desperately to placate Beijing, striving at every turn to remove from the official Chinese mind even smidgeons of doubt about New Delhi’s “peaceful” intentions. Zhongnanhai (the complex of building in central Beijing housing the Chinese policy establishment) has only to raise its eyebrow for the Indian government to fall to its knees, ready to kowtow to China. But reality has to be faced and, much as everybody would like to keep bashing the Pakistanis, there’s China to be reckoned with. Rapidly enlarging itself, its political role, its military capabilities, its presence in the extended areas far from its home shores, China now demands attention.
The question is not whether or not to appease China because its record in the last few years is damning enough. Going back in history, reacting to the first calls by Hitler for amalgamation of Czech Sudentenland into Germany — a brazen grab at lebensraum (territorial space for the natural expansion of a vigorous nation) — was deemed prudent politics in the mid-1930s but tipped over into unacceptable appeasement at Munich in 1939 by Neville Chamberlain, who promised “peace in our time”. Nobody now contends that Munich was anything else than abject surrender. Historical parallels are often loosely discerned, but the similarities between the Sudentenland crisis and the Chinese claims on almost all of the free seas off the southern Chinese coast, a pitch for a maritime lebensraum no less, cannot be missed. The best spin one can put on New Delhi’s China policy is that the Congress Party is too scared to spell out India’s strategic stakes, and too blinded by its desire to buy time with an authoritarian-state capitalist system in Beijing to consider the costs of doing so.
It is in this setting that the year-ending incident involving the two service Chiefs makes for stark evidence of appeasement at work. Naval Chief Adm. D.K. Joshi’s warning that any attempt by Chinese vessels to board Indian warships would be thwarted with counter-actions that the Indian Navy has been practising was instantly negated by New Delhi attempting to first compel Adm. Joshi to backtrack, failing which for national security adviser Shivshankar Menon, in Beijing at the time, to emphasise cravenly the need to respect Chinese “sensitivities” and to issue a curious statement saying Adm. Joshi was “misled” by the press. Predictably, the ministry of external affairs piled on, urging “restraint” on the Indian military. The Army Chief, Gen. Bikram Singh, then stepped in helpfully with the kind of statement the government presumably welcomes. Disregarding geostrategics and the 450-odd trans-border military “incidents” that took place on the disputed India-China border last year, he pronounced Sino-Indian relations to be “absolutely perfect”, thereby revealing the senior service’s alarming lack of situation awareness.
Gen. Singh seemingly bought into the government line, which is content with pointing faintly at the foe but not keen for the armed services to follow up with appropriate measures, like taking their main bearings from a manifestly more dangerous and challenging enemy, China, and moving away from the near-idiotic military preoccupation with Pakistan, an idée fixe that has over the years reduced the regional and international reputation and standing of the Indian armed forces.
Governments come and go, but the great Indian military is the nation’s constant guardian and in lieu of a strategic mindset of the government, it is the armed forces that need to develop one and order their priorities accordingly. Because when push comes to shove with China, the Indian politicians and bureaucrats will not be there to take the blame.

The writer is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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