It is a mystery why we don’t imitate the Chinese: act nice, talk peace, trade and challenge China when it steps on our toes
Gen. Bikram Singh, Chief of the Army Staff, is bringing in as his Principal Staff Officers (PSOs) colleagues from his time at the Eastern Command in Kolkata, and others who have served with and under him. This is normal and reasonable practice because a COAS is ultimately judged by what he accomplishes, and who best to advise him and implement his agenda than the people he has confidence in.
Gen. Bikram Singh’s tenure began under a cloud — the Army he leads is divided over whether or not he deserves his post and how much favouritism, stratagem and intrigue by his predecessors, Gen. J.J. Singh and Gen. Deepak Kapoor, and a complicit government, played a part in his elevation. The controversy surrounding his appointment because of their alleged “plan of succession” is history, but the bad blood it may have created should not lead to the discarding of the good schemes former Army Chief Gen. V.K. Singh initiated, the most notable being the Army’s China thrust. Gen. Bikram Singh would be well advised to push that slant as well. It is a particularly awful habit the Armed Services have fallen into, of allowing every new Chief of Staff to inaugurate and nurse his own pet projects. Whatever Gen. Bikram Singh’s take on his predecessor’s focus, unfortunately, the desperately needed China tilt is already endangered. With the government instructing the three service chiefs to come up with a “joint plan” to deal with the China threat, the concept of the Mountain Strike Corps (MSC) is possibly being readied for burial.
While a joint military plan to counter China militarily is an imperative, shelving the embryonic idea of a Mountain Strike Corps does not make any sense unless that old sentiment from Jawaharlal Nehru’s days is returning, this time dressed up by the China Study Group (CSG) as a pragmatic posture. Since the 1970s, the CSG has been the fount of advice resulting in pusillanimous actions and policies related to our northern neighbour. And it is now proposing that India and China rise peacefully together. Admirable outlook, except we better also have a strike capability to hit back in case they pick a fight.
It is a mystery why we don’t imitate the Chinese — act nice, talk peace, trade as much as the traffic can bear, build up the military for offensive action and challenge China when it steps on our toes. If the overarching concern with not provoking China — India’s main threat, economic competitor, geopolitical rival and military adversary — is to take precedence over acquiring strike forces, then we might as well mentally prepare ourselves for a pummelling.
An Army capability to attack Chinese targets within Tibet has been sorely missing from the start. As envisaged, the MSC comprises several brigades, each able, after being detached from the main force, of mounting independent offensive action across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) on the Tibetan plateau, a capability required to keep the massed Chinese group armies honest. These brigades are conceived as having integral logistics, heli-lift and attack helicopters under their command. Some nine Indian Army divisions are at present arrayed defensively in the eastern sector, and one and half divisions each in the northern and central sectors with an armoured brigade as a divisional component in both cases (to debouch from the Demchok Triangle and the northern Sikkim plains respectively). These two brigades worth of T-72 tanks divided between the central and northern sectors is a daunting mobile military force and it may be tested soon. The pre-positioned stock of shells for the tank guns in those areas cannot last more than a couple of days and recent military field intelligence suggests that the Chinese may be concentrating on an incursion into northeastern Sikkim in the next few months. If logistics support is strengthened, and to this mix is added the independently-operable brigades with T-90 tanks aided by the full aviation complement of the MSC for deployment anywhere along the 4,700 km border and able to affect a breach or two for meaningful ingress into Tibet, then the People’s Liberation Army of China will have reason to sweat a bit.
Is such an option to be left to the mercy of a military talk-shop? One thing is certain, had Gen. Bikram Singh stood firmly behind the MSC concept, it is unlikely the defence ministry, even less the finance ministry, would have written finis to it. A.K. Antony’s defence ministry is, like the rest of the Manmohan Singh caboodle, known for indecision and inaction. That finance ministry has suddenly asserted its fiduciary responsibility and questioned investment in the MSC based on its belief that China poses no threat and that even if it does the threat won’t last long into the future, is laughable.
Could it be that Gen. Bikram Singh is influenced by one of his benefactors, Gen. J.J. Singh who, as governor of Arunachal Pradesh, put out that the Indian Army needs to concentrate its efforts on the western front, while the government goes about cultivating China’s friendship? Gen. J.J. Singh, rather than ensuring that the road and other infrastructure projects are speeded up on the border east of the Kameng sector where Army forward posts are still serviced by mule packs, is busy shooting off his mouth. It is the sort of unenlightened advice that needs to be trashed publicly, except, tragically, it seems to be in sync with this government’s thinking.
As it is, the Manmohan Singh regime has tried to marginalise the Army by making the Navy and the Air Force the main elements in tackling the Chinese threat. In war, the Navy should interdict China’s energy and trade traffic transiting the Indian Ocean. But in short, intense conflicts, when territory will be at stake, naval actions cannot replace a land attack option, which will be at a premium for a riposte for immediate effect. In this context, jettisoning the MSC is to not take the fight to the Chinese. Gen. Bikram Singh would be responsible for ditching a potential capability that any self-respecting Army would want to have.
[Published as "Delhi is in a China daze, again. Beware!" on August 30, 2012 in the 'Asian Age' at www.asianage.com/columnists/delhi-china-daze-again-beware-869 and in the 'Deccan Chronicle' at www.deccanchronicle.com/columnists/bharat-karnad/delhi-china-daze-again-beware ]