Joseph Biden takes over as the new US President tomorrow. It won’t be long before the ridiculous South Asian media and, in particular, Indian newspapers, TV channels and the like, begin tom-tomming the appointment on the Biden White House National Security Council staff of former US foreign service officer Sumona Guha as Senior Director, South Asia, and Tarun Chhabra from Georgetown University as Senior Director for Technology and National Security. Elsewhere, Shanthi Kalathil, a journalist, takes over as Coordinator for Democracy and Human Rights and another ex-diplomat who resigned during the Trump tenure — Uzra Zeya is set to be Under-Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights.
Two women of Kashmiri origin too have found a place in the senior ranks of the incoming Democratic party dispensation. Sameera Fazli, who led the Biden-Harris economic transition team will be Deputy Director of the National Economic Council and Aisha Shah will move over from the campaign staff to be Manager Partnerships in the White House Digital Strategy unit.
These appointments will be hailed as a diplomatic boon for India when the record of Indian-origin US admin staffers suggests they are usually more critical of, and severe on, India than other Americans. Realistically what’s in the offing is that this country’s interests are going to get it in the neck!
Here’s why. The Modi dispensation’s greatest vulnerability is that it is tough on India’s Muslim minority community, and that it finally did what previous Indian governments had shied away from doing, namely, ridding the Constitution of Article 370 bestowing special status within the Union for Jammu & Kashmir, thereby finally and fully integrating Kashmir into the country. Moreover, it permits all Indians to enjoy the same reasonable rights of domicile and residentship in Kashmir as Kashmiris who have settled down in other Indian provinces do.
Donald Trump’s Islamophobia that virtually saw the gates to the United States closed to all Muslims was in sync then with the Modi government’s internal political and electoral leanings. This removed the troubling trifecta of issues of human rights, religious freedom and treatment of minorities that Modi’s “Friend Barak” had flagged during his Republic Day foray some five years ago, and which has perenninally been the source of discord between Delhi and Washington, from contention. Because during the Trump presidency these issues were missing from the bilateral agenda, it enabled the kind of personal bonhomie between Modi and Trump. The Modi regime could brush off the occasional embarrassment of, say, the US Commission on Religious Freedoms putting India on the watch list only because the Trump White House didn’t give a fig about Muslims generally and even less about how they were treated in distant India as long as the Modi regime kept placating Washington with its default option of buying more and still more Lockheed C-15s and C-130J transport planes for the Indian Air Force and Boeing P-8Is for the Indian Navy in a series of multi-billion dollar deals that kept the US defence industry humming.
Now the situation has turned over. Consider this: There will now be a laser-focus on human rights issues by the Biden Admin that had so far been ignored. This incidentally gells with Biden’s domestic agenda of catering more fulsomely to his black, Latino and immigrant sections of the American society. Guha at the centre of Biden’s South Asia-related foreign policy initiatives will begin coordinating the separate human rights initiatives that Kalathil in the independent human rights agency and Zeya at State Department and their staffs will in the next four years, at a minimum, put together. These will be measures to pressure the Modi government into backing off from its illiberal stance on minority rights and to go easy on pet Hindutva themes — cow slaughter, love jihad, etc. — the sort of exotic issues that readily catch Washington’s eye.
All the diplomatic tap-dancing by foreign minister S Jaishankar around these sensitive subjects won’t impress these more worldly-wise Indian-origin types in Biden’s advisoriate much.
Biden will stick to Trump’s China policy contours for the nonce if only because the rightwing ‘insurrection’ staged at the Capitol last week has Washington establishment agog. Moreover, his priority to get speedy US Senate approvals for senior appointees to his cabinet, and to undo and reverse a whole slew of Trump’s executive orders will keep the new President preoccupied for the better part of the next six months. So Biden is unlikely to pay India much attention other than as the latter impacts Afghanistan, and here what transpired during NSA Ajit Doval’s recent quick trip to Kabul will evince US interest. This six month window also affords the Modi regime the time to clean up its human rights act.
Vice Pesident Kamala Harris notwithstanding, what will not happen is that the switch will suddenly be thrown for India to benefit from a gush of high-value US military technologies, etc. Fact is Chhabra, liaising across the corridor with Guha, will be just as stingy on allowing high-technology transactions with India. This has been the US establishment posture since Reagan’s days in the mid-80s when the ice was broken and the then Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger on his trip talked of India being given open access to US military technologies only for Delhi to discover that the promised flood was but a trickle and then India had to jump through the hoops for it. This is still the case.
Indeed, the US may, in fact, demand from Delhi a whole lot more on the human rights front and trade concessions beneficial to America than is politic for Modi to give. Indeed, with Biden echoing Obama’s ‘in-sourcing’ mantra, the likes of Fazli will flesh out incentives to US companies to shift their manufacturing base and capital investments from China, not to India, but back to the US. And because, like in everything else, the Indian government maintained a tardy pace of reforms that has not to-date motivated global investors to move heavy monies into India or to set up their production hubs here, the window of opportunity that was open for awhile during the Trump interregnum has closed.
The aim of the unprecedented declassification and release of a policy paper by the White House only days before Trump’s departure — ‘US Strategic framework for the Indo-Pacific’ laying out the American policy for Asia was, presumably, to lock Biden into China Trump’s policy. Minor details aside, Matt Pottinger, who drafted this document and was Trump’s main in-house adviser on the Indo-Pacific, expects that Guha, et al will, for instance, conceive, as his paper does, India as “a counterbalance to China” and incline towards building the Indian military up just so it is able “to effectively collaborate with the United States”.
Considering Modi has given no indication of letting go of the close relationship developed with Russia over the decades anytime soon, what does this mean? Well, the tension will come to a head sooner than later when the Countering America’s Adversaries Through the Sanctions Act provisions kick in. India will likely be sanctioned for buying the Russian S-400 air defence system in the face of some quite considerable push from the US against it. The Guha-Chhabra team will insist on the Trumpian condition of India needing to ease itself away from that particular contract. That won’t happen, so it will leave bilateral relations up in the air.
Incidentally, for the same wrong reasons there is elation on the other side of the Radcliffe Line. Pakistani media are glowing with reports about Pakistani-origin Americans as Biden appointees. The most significant among them is Salman Ahmed as head of Policy Planning in the US State Department. In policy importance terms, Ahmed outranks Guha and all the other Indians. There’s also Ali Zaidi, who will assume the post of Deputy Adviser on Climate to Biden.
The worst case for the Modi government will be if the Guha-Zeya-Kalathil emphasis on human rights and Kashmir segues with Ahmed’s thinking on the subject, and Aisha Shah from the White House expertly uses the social media possibly to undermine Modi politically. Further, “cross border terrorism” will resonate even less with the Biden government than it did with the Trump Admin for the reason that no one on the US side will be other than reluctant to conflate terrorism with Pakistan. To top it all, Delhi will be pressed to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty — something Obama had continually stressed. With Biden set to continue with so many of Obama-era policies, South Asia will be no exception.
These developments at the America-end combined with the Modi-Amit Shah duo sticking fast to their position at the India end will mean bilateral ties going south fast.
News reports reveal that I Corps, one of the three strike corps, has been redeployed to the eastern Ladakh sector to conform with COAS General MM Naravane’s public declaration that “China is the primary front”. I should feel elated that my nearly 30-year long advocacy of converting the bulk of the three Strike Corps (I, II and XXI) into Mountain Offensive Strike Corps (MOSC) is beginning to be heeded.
As Adviser, Defence Expenditure, to the (Tenth) Finance Commission (1992-1995) chaired by former Defence Minister, the late K.C. Pant, I had proposed, in a classified report, that the three strike corps be reconfigured, in the main, into a single “composite corps” of armoured, mechanized, mobile air defence and self-propelled artillery units with several independent armoured brigades as army reserve, which’d be more than adequate for any conceivable Pakistan contingency. The usable war materiel and manpower resources thus freed up, it was suggested, be shifted to raising three MOSCs for the overlong, thinly-manned, China front. I had pitched this as both an economy and force optimization measure, enabling the otherwise defensively arrayed Indian Army to, for the first time, actually take the fight to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on the Tibetan Plateau. It is a theme I have been plugging away in my books and other writings ever since.
As presently constituted, the three strike corps are way in excess of need because, realistically, they can only be fielded and then only for shallow, meaningless, penetration in the desert sector because the west Punjab plains in Pakistan are too built-up and criss-crossed with irrigation canals and ditch-cum-bund defences — tank traps — to permit Indian armoured and mechanized formations easy or rapid ingress. The only justification for even two strike corps is if their exclusive focus is on ‘Sialkot grab’-kind of operations that I originally envisaged (in my 2002 book — Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security) and which the armoured forces have reportedly adopted — whether as principal objective or not, is unclear.
Obviously, the troops from the Mathura-based I Corps presently pulling duty in counter-insurgency Rashtriya Rifles units in J&K — as the first scheduled for conversion — have come in handy speedily to increase the force strength in eastern Ladakh. They haven’t arrived in theatre from the plains, so acclimating to a higher altitude is a bit less onerous. Behind this move possibly is the concern to forestall PLA’s offensive action, if not in the dead of winter, then as soon as the snow melts starting in April. Transporting the jawans from their J&K sites is the easy part; they’d still have to go through, albeit shortened, acclimatization procedures to be able to handle operational tasks. The time it takes to acclimate the average soldier from the plains, in a phased manner, to fight at high altitudes is some three months without the use of thermal chambers, etc.
I Corps undergoing conversion to an MOSC for permanent deployment in Ladakh will permit the newly raised XVII MOSC based in Panagarh to become a fixture on the Sikkim-Arunchal front. [So why were the Corps HQrs located in Panagarh? Perhaps because the considerate army brass decided the senior staff of that MOSC needed to be near the comforts of Kolkatta than far away in the desolate expanse of Sikkim, Bhutan, and Arunachal the formation is meant offensively to defend!] While this is better than not having a second MOSC at all, it still leaves the Central Sector with high passes and more difficult mountainous terrain bereft of meaningful forces to counter the PLA should it choose to make a breach there. A Third MOSC will not only fill this gap but also provide offensive-ready forces to back up I Corps in Ladakh and XVII Corps in the east. Considering how quickly China is enveloping Nepal with Chinese railways prospectively connecting Kathmandu to the Lhasa-Qinghai mainline, with a feeder track already extended to Xigatse on the border, this may in any case be the prudent thing for the army to do.
The Central sector is largely manned by the paramilitary Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP). Hardy in many respects and originally trained as Special Forces by the US Army Ranger teams in the wake of the 1962 War, the nature of the ITBP led by Indian Police Service officers, has over the years been blunted. It is treated by the Home Ministry as yet another paramilitary — a’la Central Reserve Police Force, and assigned jobs like quelling the Naxal rebels in the “red corridor”. In the event, the ITBP simply lacks the military grit and resilence and, even more the fighting motivation of, say, the frontline Special Frontier Force filled with Tibetans from the exile community, who preempted the PLA from occupying the Chushul heights in the Kailash Range last summer, by getting there first and thereafter held off the Chinese from dislodging them.
I Corps as MOSC is a good development. Hopefully, Naravane will formally begin the process of rationalizing the existing, entirely skewed and inappropriate Pakistan-front heavy force structure in right earnest. A third MOSC is desperately needed. Going in for an entirely new raising, however, is a prohibitively expensive course of action. Far more economical would be to, say, convert XXI Corps as well.
Writing this at three in the morning, January 6, 2020, I see rednecks from all over the United States streaming onto the Capitol Hill in Washington DC, intent on having the November election results reversed! Wilfully incited by the outgoing knucklehead of a President, Donald J Trump, they stormed the Capitol building housing the two houses of the American legislature which are involved in the formal certification of Joe Biden’s election victory. They streamed past paralyzed police and the paramilitary, National Guard, et al, who by and large are standing around doing nothing, perhaps, because the 30,000-strong mob was doing Trump’s bidding. So much for American democracy, a supposedly liberal system, in action!
Having witnessed such instances of breakdown of democratic norms on numerous occasions during my some 14 odd years spent in that country, I have long maintained that, while democracy as a system is inherently delicate and fragile everywhere, American democracy more than most others is always teetering on the brink of breakdown, hanging on for its dear life by its fingernails. And that US’ over-zealous profession of democratic values should, therefore, not be taken seriously. And I am not saying anything about institionalized racism in the US, most conspicuously targeting the black population in that country.
There is never any shortage of political drama in the US. It is rivetting reality television! Have been up all night watching what is deemed an “insurrection” unfold on CNN. In all my writings, I have always urged the Indian government to show US interlocuters the proverbial finger anytime they bring up the matter of India needing to up its game where the integrity of the democratic process and respect for human rights is concerned. As first order of business this morning, the External Affairs Ministry should wag a finger at Washington, as the latter does when there are riots and other disturbances in India. The MEA spokesperson should unctuously demand that the US government protect the democratic verdict and improve its democratic system. This’d be the appropriate thing to do considering how American agencies routinely meddle in the internal affairs of developing countries, including India, lecturing them on how a good demcracy ought to work. The US Commission on Religious Freedom, it may be recalled, recently put India on notice for violations.
Indeed, watching the mayhem in Washington on TV the former US President George W Bush likened America to a “banana republic”. Let India never again be lectured then on freedom and democratic functioning by a banana republic without the Indian government asking it formally, and diplomatically, of course, to shutup! Erdogan’s Turkey — an autocracy if there’s one — has already stuck a knife in Washington’s side by asking it to protect its democratic tradition!
To see the rule of law sidelined by security officers shrugging their shoulders and letting these crazed yahoos try and exert their will on the US Congress is to be reminded of Indian state and central police, time and again, standing aside and allowing rioters to do their thing undisturbed, simply because the law breaking is orchestrated by minions of the concerned Prime Minister or Chief Minister. Rajiv Gandhi let murderous mobs kill Sikh citizens at will on the streets of Delhi in 1984. And state police in Gujarat, Maharashtra, UP and in other states have frequently acted as bystanders as the Chief Minister’s supporters ran riot.
My initial experience of law & order breakdown in the US was during my first summer there (1968). I saw on TV Chicago Police go absolutely berserk, literally smashing the heads of young people protesting America’s involvement in the war against Vietnam. The scenes were so bloody and heartrending, it shocked my then fairly innocent sensibilities. Nine years later, I found myself on Ground Zero, as it were. It was during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. I was on a sidewalk just outside the UCLA campus early one Fall evening and found an Iranian on the ground being mercilessly kicked in the stomach and head by two young goons. I was still about 20 feet away when I came upon them. They stopped, turned and started walking threateningly towards me. Two feet away, one of them asked angrily if I was an “I-RANEAN”. I responded that I wasn’t whereupon they turned and left!
As I tried to help the bloodied Iranian on the ground to sit up I saw not 8 feet away an LA Police patrol car parked with 2 policeman inside it. They hadn’t moved to prevent the beating of this grad student. I shouted out to them to help me get this grievously hurt person to the UCLA medical school hospital down the road. The dismissive response from one of them was: “Do it yourself!” before they drove off. I somehow managed to do that with the help of two other students. It occurred to me in a flash then just how gossamer thin the law & order pretensions of the US really are; and have been skeptical ever since. My eyes glaze over and I instinctively stop listening when Americans, high and low, talk of their “democracy” as a beacon of anything, least of all hope, in the world.
In the last 40-odd years of attending international seminars and conferences I have been struck by a trend that’s hard to miss. It involves Indian-origin academics, retired Indian diplomats and military officers, and India-based academics and thinktankers, who have the opportunity to speak their mind untrammelled by official Indian Government restrictions and to convey to Western, especially US, audiences India’s core national interests and why these often clash with Washington’s preferred policy, but don’t do any of this. Instead, they usually say things soothing to American ears.
Often times, I have found myself over the last three decades to be the lone Indian voice, airing views contrary to what’s being said, by all the other participants, Indians who have in their careers held high government positions included. Initially I was perplexed. Now it gets my goat.
If the image is consistently projected in US policy circles and among the Western intelligentsia by these Indians and NRIs that India is sympatico with whatever the US is doing in the international arena, then it roots certain expectations in the American policy milieu. As a result, not unreasonably Americans, even those who ought know better, end up believing that Delhi is departing from the mutually accepted script and working against US interests even if India is acting in its own best interests. When US policymakers find Delhi not acting as is expected they slide over to the punishment mode. Whence the sanctions that India has often faced in the past. Most recently in the period post-1998 nuclear tests. In the soon-to-end Trump presidency, for instance, it congealed into an attitude that was more punitive than transactional. In the Biden Administration US foreign policy is likely to revert to America’s liberal do-gooding instincts, albeit in a muted form after two decades of military activism and interventions, which in the George W Bush years led to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and the start of the unending cycles of extremist violence and instability in West Asia and turmoil world-wide sourced to militant Islam that the world has experienced ever since. Talk of good intentions breeding evil.
But why do Indian-origin types feel the need to suck up to Americans? The IT software techies, engineers, doctors and other ‘professionals’, are happy beavering away at their jobs and are not really in the policy swim. The bulk of the Indian community limits itself, when convenient, to attending ‘Bollywood nights’ and “Howdy Modi” sort of political circuses should these come to town as a way of keeping engaged with the ‘old country’ in which, otherwise, they have neither interest nor stake. Their sole focus is on keeping the ‘family reunion’ provisions in their resident visas open to enable them to cart more of their relatives to America. They look to the the Indian government to be helpful in this regard.
Then there’s the growing lot of NRIs on liberal arts faculties in various American universities/colleges, the more conspicuous among them lecturing Delhi, in line with Washington’s commitment to nuclear nonproliferation, human rights, containing China, etc. on the perils of nuclear proliferation, the non-desirability of India building up a strong thermonuclear deterrent, and of fielding intercontinental ballistic missiles, and going with nuclear first use, on the benefits of strategically partnering the US in the Indo-Pacific, and the virtues of respecting minority rights, the special status of J&K, and of retaining a liberal social order. Individuals in a sub-section in this group involved in security studies strive to make a reputation for themselves by replicating concepts and ideas developed by Indian civilian strategists and passing them off as their own in US academic quarters, secure in the belief that no American analysts reads books by Indian strategists anyway! All these academics adhere closely to the offcial US policy line on the issues they advise Indian governments on because not doing so would stunt their careers. Ironically, their writings are then quoted by Indian analysts and media to make the case for a small, inoffensive, nuclear deterrent, for India becoming a cog, in effect, in the US military machine in the Indo-Pacific, etc.
Then there are the US-born and reared Americans of Indian ethnic origin — such as Richard Verma, the sometime US ambassador in Delhi, who are Indian only in their looks but otherwise, unsurprisingly, entirely American in their outlook. The shared Indian looks frequently leads Indian government officials mistakenly to expect a more empathetic hearing than they get. Indeed, I have found in semi-formal interactions with US officials that the US-born Indians among them are the loudest in decrying India’s policies and in challenging Indian policy predicates. The reverse is just as true. The Washington policy circles expect these ethnic Indians placed in South Asia -related positions to have some special insight into India’s foreign and other policies when actually they are no better clued into what’s happening in Delhi and in the states than their average white counterparts. I recall a conference hosted several years ago by the National Defence University in Washington DC on the sidelines of which the hosts arranged for me to meet with the US National Security Council Staff. At this meeting in the Excecutive Office Building adjoining the White House, the head of the South Asia section, Nisha Agarwal, who was later elevated in the Obama Administration to be Assistant Secretary of State for Southern Asia, was the most vocal in slamming the Indian government for not delivering on the 2005 civilian nuclear deal, on not being as receptive to US’ strategic initiatives in Asia, etc. She put on this show possibly to show her colleagues how hard she could be on India — apparently a litmus test that Americans of Indian origin in the US government have to pass!
A more dangerous lot comprises retired Indian diplomats, especially ambassadors posted to the US, who while in service “cultivate connections” and, after retirement, ease into numerous thinktanks and university faculties around Washington, DC. They produce little of any intellectual or even policy worth but remain in circulation spouting innocuous stuff except on occasions when they have to “sing for their supper” and come out strongly against India’s nuclear buildup or some move by Delhi on the domestic harmony & peace front. These persons are problematic because they are taken seriously by the US policy establishment as having their fingers on the pulse of Delhi (or at least the MEA) and what they say is used by those critical of India for their own purposes. Not to name and shame anyone, but one such diplomat was successively a Fellow at Brown University, “practitioner-in-residence” — whatever that means — at the Rockefeller Foundation-run Bellagio Centre in Italy, Global Fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, and professer offering a course in Sino-Indian relations at Columbia University in New York city, all this without producing a single research paper or any other policy-relevant writing of note, leave alone a book!
More intriguing still is a new stream — of retired Indian military officers who seek a place in the American sun! Many, many, moons ago at a conference called by the then US Pacific Command in Hawaii, the person who was the most vociferous in rejecting India’s nuclear assertiveness was a retired Vice Chief of the Army Staff. To my dismay, he put on a similar show at a conference called by Wilton Park — a thinktank of the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Wilton Park is a vast estate in Buckinghamshire that was used in 1946-48 to “re-educate” World War Two German officers who were prisoners of war! Such “exposure” was parlayed by this Indian General into a year-long stint at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. Since then many more ex-Indian military officers have climbed aboard this gravy train, translating one-off appearances at academic conferences into consultancies with various US agencies, etc.
The more intellectually inclined among them hanker for placement in thinktanks and at universities. I remember some 20 years ago a one-star officer approaching me for advice about what to do and how to go about securing a sinecure at an American institution. By then he had written a book and I suggested he could become a strong proponent for a meaningful Indian military aggressively championing India’s national interest. He knew better. He did the exact opposite and it worked! He spent time at leading security thinktanks in the US run by the Pentagon by essentially tailoring his message to suit his American audiences. More recently, a retired army colonel whom I had respect for has found a second career as a reporter covering Ministry of Defence for an Indian newspaper on which he has piggybagged a third career as lecturer at a US university. Without at all considering the downside of India losing its leverage with Russia and Iran, its role as balancer of power in the international system, US’ record of unreliability as strategic partner, or the better geostrategic options that are available he now argues, as do others within and outside the government, for India to link up militarily with the US in the Indo-Pacific as a means of ringfencing China.
The reason why so many retired and serving Indian government and military officials canoodle with Americans is simplicity itself . It is the same reason why young Indians try desperately hard to somehow find their future in America — it is a damned nice place to live in with none of the daily aggravations of life even in Indian metros! There’s material plenty, life is good, the universities provide unmatched education, the work place ethos is easy even as it is stressful because there are no time-grade promotions (as enjoyed by the civil services here) and only peformance in the job counts, and entrepreneurship and innovative thinking are rewarded. Of course, there’s a glass ceiling but this is melting away for Indians who with their technical expertise and English language proficiency, by and large, find it easier to get along and go along (in comparison to, say, students from China) and are elbowing their way to the top in corporations and other organizations.
Small wonder the whole broad band of civil servants and diplomats manning the top echelons of the Indian government move heaven and earth to ensure their progeny are educated in the US and settle down there or elsewhere in the modern and ‘secular’ West. The flipside of this parental interest in doing good by the children is, as I warned in my 2018 book (‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’) the rise of a distinct Fifth Column within the Indian policy establishment. It peddles and pushes the US policy line without a twinge of conscience, convinced it benefits India too. Its activity is supported in terms of public outreach by a number of American thinktanks — Brookings, Carnegie, Aspen — who have set up shop in Delhi financed by Indian monies! ( I wrote about this in Open magazine in April 2016 — ‘India’s Foreign Policy — The Foreign Hand’, https://openthemagazine.com/voices/indias-foreign-policy-the-foreign-hand/ )
All the Delhi chapters of the American thinktanks studiously plug and propagate the policy line of the Administration of the day. It is an activity in which a bunch of retired Indian diplomats, serving and former secretaries to the government and senior military officers — all the people, in fact, who whilst in government favoured siding with the US, participate. There is now a counterpart presence in Washington of an Indian thinktank — the Ambani-funded Observer Research Foundation (ORF). This would be a welcome development, except far from creatively articulating for the Beltway denizens India’s vital interests and explaining why these on many important issues collide with US interests, ORF Washington seems to be in the business of doing the same thing the US thinktanks do in India but with a slight twist. It embroiders US policy schemes acceptable to the ruling party in Delhi (going by the op-eds in Indian papers — because there’s little else — by its head)! So, what good it does India is anybody’s guess.
One cannot blame aspiring Indians for seeking a better future abroad or Indian officials for wanting the same for their kids, because the Indian system is too stultified to offer the youth brighter prospects at home. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is among those who has been hugely influenced by America and the “good life” it offers its people. At the core of his government’s ceaseless efforts over the last six years to keep the H1B visa channel open to Indians is precisely his fatalistic acceptance of the fact that the Indian system cannot be changed. Not, as he once promised, by him anyway.
Ever since the first reports of Chinese transgressions into Ladakh emerged in early May, experts had been warning India was staring at a formidable security threat.
The fatal clash in Galwan that left 20 Indian soldiers dead and the subsequent troop buildup in the region had led to fears that the LAC could become an ‘active’ security zone for Indian security forces like the LOC has been.
The fact that India and China have not made much progress in disengagement talks means the standoff in Ladakh could continue into the New Year. Unlike periods of tension with Pakistan—such as during Operation Parakram that followed the attack on Parliament in 2001—the trajectory of the Ladakh standoff is hard to predict given China’s strategic heft and goals and motivations. China’s strategic ties with Pakistan, by means of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, have been linked to the current standoff in Ladakh by some analysts, given Ladakh’s proximity to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Beijing has committed to investments of over $60 billion in Pakistan as part of CPEC to develop infrastructure in Pakistan to make the country a hub for Chinese imports and exports.
To make sense of the direction where the India-China standoff is heading, THE WEEK reached out to two eminent strategic commentators: Bharat Karnad and retired Lt General Vinod Bhatia.
Bharat Karnad is emeritus professor, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Vinod Bhatia, an Indian Army veteran, is currently director of the Centre for Joint Warfare Studies.
Why have attempts at resolving the Ladakh standoff not yielded results?
Karnad: Because of two contrasting negotiating styles. The Narendra Modi government is in a hurry for a final solution of the border issue and willing to compromise. The Chinese negotiating style, on the other hand, considers time an ally. So the proceedings are prolonged, its position maintained without compromise or concession, in an attempt to wear out the patience of the adversary in the hope he will fall in eventually with Beijing’s demands.
Bhatia: There has been a constant effort by both China and India to resolve the ongoing situation by dialogue at military, diplomatic and political levels. On account of hardened positions, the resolution will be a laborious and lengthy process. Peace and tranquility along the LAC are in the interest of both nations. However, post Galwan, there is a total lack of trust. We should give it time as we have the requisite resilience to ensure an effective response to China’s aggressive behaviour.
Is the long-term Chinese plan in Ladakh related to its interests in Pakistan?
Karnad: There are two aspects to this. China wants India to vacate the heights on the Kailash Range around Chushul occupied by Special Frontier Force units while consolidating its hold over Fingers 4 to 8 on the Pangong Tso. Whatever the inducements offered, under no circumstances, should Delhi agree to climb down from the Rezang La ridge and the tops above the Spanggur Gap. The other thing is China’s reported revival of the so-called ‘1959 Line’ by firming up its control of the area beyond the Y-Junction. The Chinese objective clearly is to distance the Indian armed forces even more from the Xinjiang Highway, which is China’s lifeline to its other western province, the Karakoram Pass and CPEC.
Bhatia: I think we went wrong in discerning China’s strategic intent initially. China’s forward deployment along the LAC is a part of Chinese ‘military coercion’. China cannot afford any threat to CPEC, as CPEC is central to China’s dream One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. China would also like India to endorse this initiative.
How important is the status of Depsang in the event of a resolution of this standoff?
Karnad: The blockade of the Y-Junction on the Depsang Plains is crucial and has to be lifted by India, by forceful means, if necessary. Because by preventing Indian troops from patrolling the Indian-claimed area north and northwest-wards, it pretty much permits that entire ‘sub-sector North’ in Indian Army’s parlance—some 975 sq kms in all—to slip into China’s possession.
Bhatia: Depsang is definitely critical to our operational interests as occupation by China threatens the Shyok-DBO-Karakoram road. China will like to play this card to coerce India to seek concessions at other places and, more importantly, threaten Siachen as a collaborative strategy along with Pakistan. However, our occupation of operationally and strategically important heights along the Kailash ridge on the South Bank of Pangong Tso has given India an advantage at the negotiations. India aims at ‘status quo’ ante as of April 20 and continued peace and tranquility, ensuring equal and mutual security.
Is there a basis for fears of a two-front war against Pakistan and China?
Karnad: Realistically, a two-front war is less of a possibility; the more worrisome thing is the Modi government agreeing to withdraw Indian forces an “equal distance” as part of a “comprehensive” accord. Such an agreement will seriously handicap Indian forward units, because the PLA, availing of a dense network of border roads, will be able quickly to rush and occupy strategic locations presently in Indian hands even as the Indian units struggle, owing to still-thin border infrastructure.
Bhatia: China has always been a long-term threat. Recent China’s arrogance and aggressive behaviour now indicate an immediate-to-near-term threat, with the probability of manifesting as a China-Pakistan collaborative threat in the conventional (warfare) domain. India will need to ensure peace through military preparedness. A two-front war is a reality. India should also look at like-minded nations to negate the China threat; ‘bind to balance’should be a good way forward. India should also reset and refresh its China policy. However, the reset policy should be pro-India and not anti-China, despite the anger and anguish caused by China’s betrayal yet again.
How much will US policy change with respect to India once a Biden administration takes over?
Karnad: There will be changes. The Biden administration, unlike the Trump dispensation, will emphasise human rights issues: Kashmir, Hindu-Muslim tensions and other social issues. This will alienate the Modi government and likely poison India-US relations enough to make uncertain such US assistance as Delhi would have otherwise relied on in a confrontation and crisis involving China.
Bhatia: The Biden administration’s policy too will be dictated by US interests. There are a congruence and convergence of interests of India and the US, especially where China is concerned. In a post-COVID-19 world order, India will be a global leader and hence the US will need India as the ‘balancing power’ as the balance of power shifts from West to East.
Subramaniam Swamy, Rajya Sabha MP, has long been a fixture of the Delhi scene and never out of the news. If he is not playing the Scarlet Pimpernel in Indira Gandhi’s Parliament-held-hostage drama during the Emergency, he is exposing the Gandhi Family for some corruption or the other, his latest target being Sonia and Rahul Gandhi in the National Herald case involving dummy companies and suspicious property transactions. At all times his contacts in the Enforcement Bureau and the Intelligence Bureau keep him supplied with photocopies of “documents” supporting his charge that he can wave at television cameras and still the hearts of those he has accused and their effort to take him to Court because, it turns out, he is well-versed in law.
Swamy has held various posts in numerous governments, including as Minister for Commerce and Industry in Chandrashekhar’s (1990-91). Usually he was considered a nuisance and, in US President B. Lyndon Johnson’s phrase, kept inside the tent to piss out rather than that he remain outside pissing in (!), and fobbed off with minor sinecures on the Planning Commission, Standards Commission, etc. Through out his time in and out of government he cultivated contacts who kept him abreast of what was happening at any time in the corridors of power. He exploited this insider information to prop up his reputation as the stormy petrel of Indian politics, eager and ready for a political donnybrook with anyone, any party, any institution at any time. So when not pillorying the Congress party he is publicly roasting his own ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (albeit, media cell) for “going rogue” as he did three months ago supposedly for mounting “personal attacks” on him. ( https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/subramanian-swamy-accuses-bjp-it-cell-of-running-a-campaign-against-him-1719522-2020-09-07 ).
However, for iconoclasts, he is an absolute delight, showing particular talent for being a god awful pain-in-the-butt for the government of the day and its durbaris. Have been acquainted with him for over 30 years now and never failed to admire his chutzpah (gall in Hebrew), and his sheer talent for effrontery. How can one not like a man whose intent is to wreck whatever political dispensation is supreme in Delhi at the moment, and who wears his crustiness and don’t-give-a-damn-attitude and not so thinly-veiled contempt, especially for those holding power, on his sleeve? This even though his overarching ambition is actually to run the government and to set it on the right course. What that course could be is hard to say considering the fluidity of his views! But being erudite, he is normally persuasive when making his point.
It was, therefore, a shocker to read a fortnight back his article attacking Russia for not being India’s “friend”. (See his “Russia is not a friend”, Sunday Guardian, 31 Oct 2020 ( https://www.sundayguardianlive.com/news/russia-not-friend-india ). Not sure what it is that has got Swamy riled. But the case he makes is so incoherent I can scarcely believe he penned it. Having already confessed my admiration for him I will carefully deconstruct his argument because he carries weight with many in the BJP.
Take Swamy’s 1st line of argument. He writes: “For China, Russia was a trusted friend and a patron of the communist parivar from 1949 to 1960. Then at China’s weakest moment in 1960, faced with a gigantic collapse of the ill-conceived Great Forward Movement and a huge famine, when between 16 to 32 million Chinese died due to starvation, Moscow ordered the withdrawal from China all its industrial projects, its blueprints, and technical staff, resulting in the collapse China’s industrial sector….To collapse this project, the Soviets led by Khruschev cancelled all the industrial projects that were being implemented to modernise China, and also withdrew all the experts along with the blueprints sent to China….Not only did the Great Leap Forward become a disaster for agriculture, but industry got stunted, and because of terrible drought about 16 million to 32 million died in the ensuing famine in 1960-61.”
So Russia’s NOT being nice — more countries shouldn’t be nice — to China is held against Russia’s being India’s friend? This doesn’t make sense and, if anything, suggests why India should have Russia in its corner. If Swamy means by this reference to show up Russia as an unreliable partner, then the burden of proof rests on him to prove, to show, that it has faltered as a friend. This he hasn’t done. The fact is starting in the 1950s the Soviet Union helped set up heavy industries in India, including the Bhilai steel plant and, in the wake of the 1962 War with China, increasing ideological alienation from Mao’s China led to Moscow offering 12 ready-to-fly supersonic MiG-21s along with the licensed production rights for this aircraft and its jet engine. These Russian offers were in the context of a grateful Indian government accepting them less because Nehru was a communist camp follower than because Washington promised than failed to get the US Steel Company to set up the Bhilai plant and, post-1962, failed to provide the supersonic F-104 fighter aircraft transferred to Pakistan that Delhi had sought, offering instead the transonic, low performance, ‘Freedom fighter’ — the Northrop F-5. The record shows the Soviet Union-Russia has supplied its latest military hardware; if there has been a spares problem with them it is because the Indian armed services and Defence Ministry never bothered to segue their requirements with the Russian spares procurement protocols as Indian military stalwarts admit.
Consider Swamy’s 2nd line of argument: “The transition of Russia has been amazing. First there was the Czarist monarchy called Russia, which the royalty ruled from St Petersburg as capital. Then there emerged through a revolution led by Lenin the Bolshevik state, and after Lenin’s death was followed by Joseph Stalin’s communist Soviet Union with its capital in Moscow. Today there is Putin’s Oligarchic Russia being ruled from Moscow. These the government formations spanned a century since 1920.But the bottom line has remained the same—a government led by dictatorship, which is expansionist, an oligarchy and headed for bankruptcy.”
The monarchist/totalitarian antecedents of the Russia state is, astonishingly, wheeled out to support Swamy’s case of Russia being an uncertain ally to China! This is non-sequiter-ish, at best and, in any case, how does it matter to India’s national interest what kind of a state Russia is? Even so, Swamy uses this to also buttress his contention that the US will make for a better partner!! This last view is built on the common belief that democracies get along better with other democracies. Which’s fine in rhetoric but is irrelevant when it comes to the hard business of inter-state relations when considerations of the national interest kick in. Hence, a democratic America finds that authoritarian states are more malleable and relations with them less complicated. It explains Washington’s marked historic partiality for unfree countries usually run by generals. Thus, Pakistan has always been the preferred US partner in South Asia, not India.
Then there are sideline declaratory references by Swamy with no proof or historical evidence adduced for them either, such as: “Nehru was fooled into thinking that leaders in Moscow were permanent friends, but in fact we Indians were more like “Pavlovian dogs”, that is, those who complied on signals from Moscow.” When actually, Nehru, the quintessential upper class Englishman (who unself-consciously told Malcolm Muggeridge in a 1958 BBC interview that he was the last Englishman to rule India!) was contemptuous of Russians — if not of Russia whose leap into the status of an industrialized state inside of a generation he hoped to replicate in India, referring for instance to the shabby clothes his Russian interlocuters wore. And pray, Mr Swamy, which Indians, and when and where have salivated like “Pavlovian dogs”? And, more amusingly, Swamy’s view that “Indian patriots suspect that Netaji Subash Bose, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Deendayal Upadhyaya, and Sanjay Gandhi were assassinated by the KGB to ensure secure entry into the top positions for Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and Sonia Gandhi.” And how “clinching proofs are kept in frozen vaults in tight fisted Russian archives”.
Sanjay Gandhi is classed a “patriot” alongside Netaji, Shastri, Upadhyaya, uh?!! What?!! That the chief goon of the Emergency is so elevated must spin some heads! An awful lot of the “tight-fisted Russian archives” are actually already available in published form as the Mitrokin Archives. And there are, indeed, mentions in them of Indian leaders of the Communist party stripe beholden to Moscow and even some Indira Gandhi-appointed ambassadors to the USSR reacting, as Pavlovian dogs are supposed, to at the first hint of financial consideration and largesse coming their way.
Swamy’s 3rd line of argument is that “the Russians act according to the interests of China. That is, Russia is a ‘junior partner’ of China. Russia, according to Putin’s 23 October 2020 statement, ‘could enter into a military alliance with China’. Since India purchased the S-400 air to surface rocket attachment for jet fighters in 2018, India has been increasingly relying on Russia for weapons. India appears to have accepted Russia as a de facto mediator in the conflict with China since 18 April 2020 in Ladakh.”
Logically, how does the 2nd contention that India is increasingly buying Russian arms follow from the 1st about Russia being China’s “junior partner”? It doesn’t.
Another Swamyism: “In 1972, the US changed its two-decade-old stand and voted to admit China into the United Nations and invited it to take the seat of permanent member with a veto at the UN Security Council. China was greatly benefitted by the US granting it the Most Favoured Trade Clause, thus opening US markets to China, and for Joint Ventures to enable China to produce with its cheap and captive labour, and accelerate Chinese GDP at more than 10-12% growth rate for a decade. China soon rose from 9th position in GDP ranking to second position by the year 2000.”
How this point in any way strengthens Swamy’s view that the US is a great friend of India, is anybody’s guess. But Swamy needs reminding that the US Security Council seat was first offered India by both the US (John Foster Dulles) and Russia (Khruschev) but Nehru in a fit of strategic stupidity wanted it occupied by China instead! Moreover, had Indira Gandhi in 1966 radically overhauled the over-bureaucratized socialist apparatus of the Indian state and opened up the Indian economy as Johnson Administration had advised her to do — and which Dengxiaoping did in China in 1979, India too could have benefited from open access to, and trade with, America and emerged as the global source of low cost consumer items.
Here’s another unconnected remark by Swamy that makes an unclear case more opaque. “Currently, Sino-Russian trade has more than doubled” He writes. “Russia’s central bank has increased its Chinese currency reserves from less than 1% to over 15%. Germany is no more the principal supplier of industrial plant and technology to Russia. China is! Action is taking place in multilateral forums such as BRICS, increasingly sophisticated joint military exercises, and pooling of influence with countries such as Iran. The S-400 missile system built by Russia and sold to India has Chinese electronics. This has alienated the US, which was about to sell advanced military hardware to India, but has put it on hold because US cannot risk Chinese or Russian espionage in India on advanced US weapons systems.”
Well, yes, Russia is increasingly beholden to China to keep it economically afloat but only in the neo-colonial sense of China denuding the Russian Far East (Siberia) of all its natural resources — wood, minerals and oil to keep its industries going. However, his assertion that the Indian purchase of the S-400 has alienated the US and stopped it from selling Delhi “advanced military hardware” is questionable. Of course, Washington is upset that India purchases military goods from Russia, but there’s nothing that the US can do about it. However, what is the mysterious “advanced” hardware that Swamy is hinting at? Surely not the F-21 fighter aircraft — a ridiculous makeover of the 1960s’ F-16 plane because that’s at the top of Washington’s arms sales agenda. So it must be the improbably expensive EMALS (Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch System) for aircraft carriers that is costed at one billion dollars and which the US Navy finds too pricey. It is sought to be sold to India for $2-$3 billion! The last one heard, the Indian Navy, fortunately, was in the right mind to reject it.
After pursuing all the above uniformly unsustainable lines of argument to a dead end, Swamy finally rounds in on his main theme. “India has to make a choice: Either we partner US strategically”, he states, “or Russia and China together. If we have a conflict with China, Russia therefore cannot be trusted, nor if we do, will the US trust us. Hence, this dream of isolating China by trusting Russia is short-sighted. Russia is no more, if ever since 1992, a friend of India in the sense of standing up with India against China. India”.
In the hard realpolitik perspective, India shouldn’t care who it sides with — even if it is the devil — just so long as this tilt helps its cause. The US, Russia and China are all equally out to further their particular regional, international, and geostrategic interests at the expense of every other country, including India. For Swamy to think that the US is somehow different in this respect is to be delusional. Still he should be aware that the Sino-Russian linkup is not going at all smoothly, and that Putin’s Russia has always been aware and apprehensive of China’s designs on Siberia, and acted to counter it. That India is a piece in this strategic game versus China is as true as the fact that Delhi uses and can continue to use its relations with Moscow as leverage to, on one hand, extract more from Washington, and on the other, to muddy up Beijing’s strategic calculus and keep Xi Jinping uncertain and on the hop — the reason why Xi is now holding the PLA on a tight leash in Ladakh. Besides, Swamy a little too readily assumes the former KGB agent Vladimir Putin and the Russia he leads can be China’s willing plaything, and obviously underestimates the political-military weight Moscow packs in its conditional concert with China.
Swamy’s solution that while “India in a border war with China, does not need allies. But if China expands the war arena with India, then of course the Quad arrangement with Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and other nations can form a grand alliance” does not mention the US, and closely resembles the geostrategic architecture of littoral and offshore states organic to Asia conceptualized by me in my 2018 book (Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition) as the “modified quadrilateral” or “Mod Quad” of India, Japan, Australia, and a group of Southeastern nations, inclusive of Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines.
There may be more to Swamy’s crotchetiness though. In his eighties now, the 1939-born politician’s ambition remains unfulfilled and unfettered as is his frustration with not achieving his goal. Despite being mollified by the BJP regime and personally by Modi, Swamy now and again voices his desire to be appointed Finance Minister. ( https://www.theweek.in/news/india/2019/05/29/is-subramanian-swamy-upset-with-bjp-over-lack-of-recognition.html ). But why would Modi want a proven curmudgeon and malcontent in North Block when a pliable Nirmala Sitharaman is there to take his dictation, not make waves? So Swamy knows he doesn’t have a sporting chance and therefore hasn’t quailed from taking potshots at Modi that few on the country’s political stage would dare do. Like when Swamy talked about the “war like” situation on the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh this past summer. When someone asked him why he was reticent about using his alleged contacts in China to defuse the situation, Swamy retorted, per ‘Janta Reporter’ of 13 June, that “If Namo does not want to use my economic expertise why would he want [to do so] on China?” (See http://www.jantakareporter.com/india/subramanian-swamy-advised-by-seer-to-show-his-anger-to-pm-modi-bjp-mp-makes-stunning-revelation/293717/ ) Why indeed.
The US President-elect Joe Biden is on the horns of a dilemma. Trump went so far in painting China as the comprehensive threat to America, the West and the liberal world order at-large that doing a 180-degree policy turn and begin canoodling with Beijing is not possible. But, equally, Biden is concerned that Trump had made a collective response to arrest China’s uncontrollable rush to great power status difficult by hollowing out the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which has put that European alliance in a weaker position to handle a re-energized Russia under Putin. But Moscow, in turn, out of economic necessity as much as strategic calculation, is getting intimate with Xi Jinping’s China.
A potential Sino-Russian duopoly on the Eurasian landmass would separately encourage belligerent behaviour by Russia in Europe and by China in Asia. This threat is what ought to give Biden and his advisers conniptions. Especially because after two decades of futile wars that it has lost in Afghanistan, Iraq and in West Asia in general, the American people are in no mood for more military adventures or even peacetime deployment of US forces abroad.
It has left the US President to-be, Biden, with few, politically safe, options. The way out, the incoming Democratic party Administration figures, is for the US to not take on China frontally in Asia or Russia in Europe but to rely on America’s traditional allies to do the heavy lifting using NATO at one end, and its strategic partners, principally India, Japan and Australia, to keep China tethered, at the Asian end. Such a policy has the advantage of minimizing US’ commitments and costs.
Antony Blinken, the Secretary of State in-waiting, speaking to an American-Indian audience on Nov 23, before his nomination to become US’ chief diplomat was announced, articulated just such an approach. “We have a common challenge which is to deal with an increasingly assertive China across the board, including its aggression toward India at the Line of Actual Control, but also using its economic might to coerce others…to its advantage, ignoring international rules to advance its own interests, asserting unfounded maritime and territorial claims that threaten freedom of navigation in some of the most important seas in the world,” he said, during a virtual panel discussion on ‘US-India Relations and Indian Americans in Joe Biden Administration’.
“We have to sort of take a step back and start by putting ourselves in a position of strength from which to engage China so that the relationship moves forward more on our terms, not theirs,” Blinken said. “India has to be a key partner in that effort,” he added. “Unfortunately, right now by virtually every key metric. China’s strategic position is stronger and ours is weaker as a result of President Trump’s failed leadership,” he stated. “Put another way, this is really about us in the first instance, the competitiveness of our own economy and workers. The strength of our own democracy and political system, the vibrancy of our own alliances and partnerships. And of course, the assertion of our own values, all of which President Trump has done so much to undermine,” Blinken complained. He elaborated further, saying “During the Obama-Biden administration, we worked very hard to establish India as a key contributing member of the Indo-Pacific strategy. And that includes India’s role in working with like minded partners to strengthen and uphold a rules-based order in the Indo Pacific, in which no country, including China can threaten its neighbours with impunity.” “[India’s] role”, he averred, “needs to extend even beyond the region as vast as it is to the world at large…We would work together to strengthen India’s defence, and also add to its capabilities as a counterterrorism partner.”
In other words, Biden’s Washington will want India to be a frontline state in US’ great power confrontation with China and, military-wise, to contribute substantively. Blinken held out the usual inducements. Aware of how much Indian leadership hankers for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, Blinken played up to Delhi’s craving. “In a Biden administration”, he asserted, “we would be an advocate for India to play a leading role in international institutions and that includes helping India get a seat on a reformed United Nations Security Council.” And knowing as well that Washington can get Delhi to eat out of its hands by merely making noises associating Pakistan to terrorism, he stated that “On the question of terrorism, specifically”, the incoming administration will “have no tolerance for terrorism, in South Asia or anywhere else: cross border or otherwise.” ( https://www.livemint.com/news/india/antony-blinken-india-has-to-be-a-key-partner-in-engaging-china-from-position-of-strength-11606201539220.html )
In tune with such Biden-Blinken views, the US Secretary of Defence-designate a retired Vice Chief of the Army Staff (2013-2016) General Lloyd Austin, responded by saying the right things. Austin suggested, for instance, that where China is concerned, the US should show “strategic patience”. Considered an officer with a fairly nondescript career record and an intellectual lightweight by those who are professionally familiar with him, he is unlikely to be disruptive and hence is considered a safe choice by Biden. Austin’s nomination relieves the pressure on Biden from his core constituency to appoint the first black man as boss of the Pentagon to reflect the fact that minorities constitute some 40% of the US armed forces. Given that most US Defence Secretaries in the past have been persons of renown, the nomination of a not particularly distinguished Austin was bound to be controversial. Biden has tried to nip the criticism of Austin’s selection in the bud by unprecedentedly taking to the pages of the Atlantic magazine to explain and justify his selection.
Recalling the General’s career, especially commanding a Division in Iraq where he exhibited a great deal of tact when dealing with leaders of various Iraqi factions, Biden writes about Austin serving as a “statesman”, about how he “oversaw the largest logistical operation undertaken by the Army in six decades — the Iraq drawdown” and, how as head of Central Command, he “executed the campaign that ultimately beat back ISIS” by “helping to build a coalition of 70 countries [working] together to overcome a common enemy.” Whatever Austin’s virtues, it will not help India any.
The problems that India will soon face — and the Modi government better be prepared for a much changed policy milieu in Washington — are two-fold. One, it will not take much for US’ “strategic patience” that Austin advises to convert to strategic reticence in militarily tangling with China. Just the first small crisis — such as as a FONOP (freedom of navigation patrol) by US warships challenged by the Chinese Navy in the South China Sea, or by an American carrier task group running into a Chinese naval flotilla in the Taiwan Straits, should do. Secondly, before his appointment as Vice Chief, Austin was Commander-in-Chief, US Central Command that includes Pakistan and Afghanistan in its operational ambit, but not India, which finds itself in an area that the Hawaii-based Indo-Pacific (previously Pacific) Command is responsible for. Austin is hence a known commodity to GHQ, Rawalpindi, but a stranger to Delhi. This could mean that the Indian government will be at a decided disadvantage in personally dealing with the new American Defence Secretary, even as Islamabad finds it easy to get its message across to Austin.
India may find a more sympathetic State Department but a less welcoming Pentagon, even as the reverse could be true for Pakistan.
In any case, the basic security situation India faces will remain unchanged from the last four years of Donald Trump’s presidency. India will have to fight China mostly on its own — in line with the Biden-Blinken policy of urging US’ Asian strategic partners to fight their own wars, singly or collectively, the best they can against an ambitious Chinese military itching for a fight. In the coming hostilities in eastern Ladakh and/or elsewhere along the Line of Actual Control it will, in the event, be foolish for the Indian government and armed forces to expect the US military to wade into hostilities alongside Indian troops against Chinese forces, or for the American ‘First Fleet’ — that is soon to come into being — to be in lockstep with the Indian Navy in a China-sourced contingency west of the Malacca Strait.
Having mulled for a week the assassination of the nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh near the town of Absard northeast of Tehran on Nov 27, it is clear it was an event that was foretold. On September 9, 2019 the Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu briefed the home and international media about how the Iranians had experimented on prototype nuclear weapons at a site in Abadeh, not far from the uranium centrifuge enrichment complex in Natanz, and how on realizing that the site was compromised Tehran proceeded to cover up its tracks by demolishing this facility. Probably because it feared attracting an US or joint US-Israeli aerial/remote strike under cover of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action) prohibitions. In that briefing Fakhrizadeh was identified as central to Iran’s crossing the weapons threshold. His goose was cooked then. Driving to work in his car, he was terminated with a super-sophisticated kill system involving a remotely controlled weapon firing at a mobile target tracked — whether by a standoff drone or by satellite is a matter of speculation.
A year earlier in May 2018, Netanyahu had taken to the stage to reveal a rich haul by the Israeli external intelligence agency, Mossad, of what Jerusalem claimed was most of the Iranian weapons-related archive spirited away from a warehouse in Tehran. If Fakhrizadeh’s killing was evidence that the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guard) in-charge of the country’s nuclear programme was lax about providing security to the leading scientists involved in critical and sensitive work, the spiriting away by the Israelis of a treasure trove of some 55,000 highly classified papers and an equal number, as BBC reported, of files in 183 CDs stored in an apparently unattended building, proved the Iranians to be just as loose with their secret documents.
But the world is well aware of Israel’s proven partiality for preemptive-preventive military action to neutralize even the remotest threat. In 1990 an inspired Canadian long range gun designer and ballistics expert Gerald Bull, who helped Canada, the US and China design and perfect long range artillery systems, was shot by Mossad agents outside his home in Brussels. He was, at the time, helping the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussain develop ‘Project Babylon’, perhaps, the biggest artillery system ever conceived — a 150 meter long gun, weighing 2,100 tonnes, with a bore of one meter (39 inches), capable of placing a 2,000-kilogram projectile into orbit and, if fired laterally, of its massive shell hitting any target in Israel, or Iran. (Iraq and Iran were then in a 10-year war.)
Attempts to cripple in the early stages the nuclear weapons programmes of adversary countries by terminating the lives of leading scientific and engineering figures involved in them is by now a tried and tested strategy. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists reveals that the nuclear pioneer Niels Bohr proposed to the Allied governments during the Second World War the kidnapping of the leading German physicist Werner Heisenberg, the 1932 Nobel prize winner for creating the field of ‘quantum mechanics’, lest he produce the A-Bomb for Hitler.
India was the first country targeted for its nuclear weapons ambitions post-1945. On 24 January 1966, an Air India Boeing 707 aircraft, ‘Kanchenjunga’ — Flight AI 101 on a hopping flight — Bombay-Beirut-Geneva-London crashed into the 15,300 foot high Mont Blanc on the approach to the Geneva airport. A US CIA agent Robert Crowley admitted getting a Bombay airport services staff member — for a few rupees no doubt — to place a bomb in the luggage hold. As he told a reporter Gregory Douglas, who reproduced this revelation in his book ‘Conversations with the Crow’, “We had trouble, you know, with India back in the 60’s when they got uppity and started work on an atomic bomb.” On Bhabha, he said, “[T]hat one was dangerous, believe me. He had an unfortunate accident. He was flying to Vienna to stir up more trouble when his Boeing 707 had a bomb go off in the cargo hold.”
According to Douglas, Bhabha was targeted by the CIA after his statement in October 1965, that India could, in fact, build an atomic bomb within 18 months if okayed by Delhi. But as I detail in my book 2002 book ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security’ (now in a 2nd edition published in 2005), Bhabha had actually pleaded with Nehru in November 1962 to allow him to test a nuclear explosive as a means of raising the morale of the Indian people who saw their army being pummeled in the Himalayas by the Chinese PLA. Nehru, as always when it came to weaponising the capability, demurred and set India back in the nuclear realm in such a way that it has never really recovered. With that also went the chance of the country beating China to the A-Bomb and vaulting into the ranks of the great powers. China tested its fission device in October 1964 –some three months after Nehru died. India did not test until ten years later, and then failed formally to weaponize.
Incidentally, John F Kennedy thought of ending the Chinese nuclear weapons programme by attacking the Chinese nuclear weapons complex at Lop Nor but desisted for fear of Russian reaction. Later Russia considered doing the same and so informed Washington but the US was discouraging because by then it had begun to perceive a nuclear China’s utility in containing the Soviet Union.
Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme could have been throttled had Indira Gandhi permitted the Israeli strike aircraft staging out of Indian bases in early 1982 to take out the Kahuta nuclear weapons facilities. This operation was revealed to me by the Israeli General Aahron Yaariv, the military intelligence chief to General Moshe Dayan in the 1956 Sinai Campaign, when I was in the kibbutz at Kiryat Shimona covering the 1982 Lebanon War. I wrote about it then, and have detailed the strike operation in ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security’. That operation would also have eliminated the frontline generation of Pakistani nuclear scientists and technologists. Recall that Israel had bombed the Iraqi Osirak reactor the previous year and had displayed the required expertise.
I had advised in a Sunday paper column in the Summer of 1987 (if I remember correctly) that India still had a six month window to strike, but if it did not it would have to forever hold its peace with Pakistan. India did not and the situation is what it is today.
Except, the ground reality is as perilous for Indians involved in the weapons directorate at BARC, Trombay, and elsewhere today as it is for their Iranian counterparts. According to one count ( https://www.newsbytesapp.com/news/india/mystery-abound-with-india-s-nuclear-scientists/story ), between the years 2008 and 2016, some 70 Indian science and technology personnel employed by the Atomic Energy Commission in Trombay and at Kalpakkam have mysteriously died, 38 of them in extremely suspicious circumstances. Many of them were involved in the high-value breeder reactor project to secure for the country “energy independence” that Bhabha had chalked out per his 3-stage plan — heavy water-natural uranium reactors producing the feedstock for breeder reactors which, in turn, fuel reactor run thorium — a mineral of which India has the 2nd largest reserves in the world. In many of these cases, the local police have rushed to judgement and usually pronounced the deaths suicides!
In the last four years there might have been more such unexplained deaths. This is a ridiculous state of affairs where Indians involved in ostensibly high-security projects — weapons, breeder and thorium reactors — are being bumped off with the Indian government seemingly unaware of the threats, and doing less than nothing to protect the country’s prized nuclear science and engineering talent.
Of a piece is the case of the ISRO scientist responsible for indigenously developing cryogenic rocket technology DrNambi Narayanan. One day in 1994 he was hauled up by Kerala Police for espionage and leaking sensitive documents to Pakistan, tortured in jail, and asked to confess. He didn’t. CBI took over the case in 1996 and after a thorough investigation concluded Dr Narayanan was not guilty of anything. This exoneration did not prevent the Kerala Police from troubling him again, nor did it persuade ISRO to return the good Doctor to his previous job. In the meanwhile the cryogenic engine project floundered, and cost and time over-runs accrued. The opportunity cost to the country of this action of the Kerala Police was immeasurable. And yet no one from that State Police cadre was hauled up and held accountable for this action that was obviously engineered by any number of countries who didn’t want to see India become a space power.
Put all these cases related to strategic technologies sector together, and one can discern the clear intent and pattern of targeting technical personnel in order to sabotage and subvert India’s progress. There is no trained police agency providing 24/7/365 protection for Indians in highly sensitive technology programmes as is the case in most advanced countries, and especially in China and Pakistan. There’s something phenomenally wrong here. Time the government and country woke up to these dangers and did something meaningful to assure members of our nuclear and space communities the safety and the peace of mind they deserve.
Have had the occasion to meet several Chiefs of Staff of the Pakistan armed services over the years, mostly during the trips I made to Pakistan, most of them in the decade following the nuclear tests by both countries in May 1998. Among them are/were Generals (the Azamgarh-born) Mirza Aslam Beg and Khalid Mahmud Arif, and Pakistan naval chief Admiral Fasih Bokhari. Arif carried the most heft. As Vice Chief he ran the army during General Zia ul-Haq’s extended tenure as COAS. But Zia was busy as Martial Law Administrator and later President of the country, and trusted his fellow Araini from Jallandar to mind the store and manage the army and, for his troubles, handed Arif his 4th star, making him the first and so far only Vice Chief of Staff in the subcontinent with the rank of full General.
I found Beg to be cautious and calculating; Arif, who died earlier this year on March 6, to be straight forward and, surprisingly, for someone who was the second most powerful man in all Pakistan, without airs. I recall that in our first meeting Arif explained the entire 1987 Op Brasstacks episode when he exposed the approaches to the Indus River line by concentrating his Army Reserve South at the chicken’s neck to cut off India’s access to Jammu & Kashmir — a stunningly audacious move that dared General K. Sundarji and the Indian government to make the exchange — try and cut off Pakistan at its waist as he severed India from Kashmir and took it. He bet that while his forces would take Kashmir, Indian forces wouldn’t be able to bisect Pakistan (with Op Brasstacks transitioning to Op Trident). In any case, that bait was not taken. Asked why he thought he would get away with risking so much, Arif replied with five-words dipped in contempt and etched in my mind as if with acid ever since — “Kyon ki aap buzdil ho” (“Because you are cowards”). When I once asked Sundarji (then residing in a bungalow within the Signals Enclave in Delhi) about Arif’s ruse de guerre he confirmed the essentials of the situation as the Pakistani General had described them to me but didn’t, other than shrugging his shoulders, either dilate on Brasstacks or respond to Arif’s taunt.
Arif, incidentally, provided an essay — “Roots of Conflict in South Asia: A Pakistani Perspective” for the 1994 compilation published by Penguin which I edited — ‘Future Imperilled: India’s Security in the 1990s and Beyond’ — unfortunately out of publication. Among the other notables who contributed to the book were Sundarji, K Subrahmanyam, US Senator Larry Pressler, KPS Gill, Foreign Secretary AP Venkateswaran, and the then US Deputy Under-Secretary of Defence for Planning & Resources Dov Zakheim during the Reagan Presidency, who in the George W Bush Administration was appointed the US Under-Secretary of Defence and Comptroller of the Pentagon.
Beg is alive, Arif and Bokhari are gone. They are/were, as expected, stout defenders of Pakistan, the Pakistan ideology and Pakistan’s national interests. Except the CNS, 1997-1999, Bokhari, a submariner was almost the exact opposite of Arif — his sophistication and easy-going urbanity and charm a contrast to the rough-hewn self-conscious toughness of Arif. In another profession, Bokhari would have made for a cultured, gentle-spoken, professor who commanded respect for the logic and persuasiveness with which he put forth his views.
Bokhari became CNS when the Pakistan Navy was passing through a hard time, its reputation stained by his predecessor Admiral Mansurul Haq’s being drummed out of service on corruption charges relating to the Agosta-B submarine deal with France. Haq escaped to the US, was extradited, and imprisoned by the Nawaz Sharif regime on an anti-corruption drive. His military credentials and spotless record led in 2011 to Asif Ali Zardari appointing Bokhari chairman of the National Accountability Bureau set up to collar the corrupt within the establishment. Bokhari’s appointment by Zardari was on the basis of the former’s success in cleaning up the naval procurement system, with the new naval acquisition system configured along the lines recommended by Ayesha Siddiqa — as she explains in her obituary of the Admiral ( https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/750707-remembering-fasih-bokhari ), who was back home with a PhD from King’s College, London, and impressed Bokhari by her new thinking. He appointed her ‘Head of Naval Research’. This reaching out to an outsider for fresh ideas was typically Bokhari.
He reached out to me — having heard of the views I had aired on nuclear and other issues relating to South Asian security in a session chaired by the former foreign minister Agha Shahi, ex-ICS, Madras cadre, at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad, whose Board Shahi presided over. Shahi informed me of his pulling time as Private Secretary to the Premier of the Madras Presidency, C. Rajagopalachari — “Rajaji” to one and all — in the late 1930s and, in fact, opened his conversation with me in his office with a flourish, in what sounded to me like pure, flawless Tamil! I was taken aback but recovered sufficiently to remind him that my birthplace in Karnataka (mentioned on my passport) did not make me a “Madrassi”. He said he knew I was not a Tamilian but hoped nevertheless that I could speak his native tongue at least a little because, he said, with not little nostalgia, he wanted to show off his Tamil! Shahi hailed from the small but distinguished community of shia Muslims of Madras. He then spent half an hour speaking of Rajaji, and the latter’s run-ins with Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and generally about the exciting political times on the cusp of freedom, as a young ICS officer attached to Rajaji, and relayed many tales of the “great man” he had served. But I digress!
Bokhari wanted to discuss matters of South Asian security and contacted me in my hotel (if I remember correctly). He invited me for lunch; I readily accepted. He picked me up from my Islamabad hotel and once in his Pajaro Bokhari informed me that he was taking me to Murree for the meal! I informed him that my visa, while absolving me of the daily trip to the police station to mark hazari, restricted my movement. He told me not to worry about it and the police and army jawans manning the several check points we passed on the way, did not bother to inquire about his passenger, and we breezed through. At Murree and in numerous discussions thereafter the one thing that struck me was the complete absence of dogma in everything the Admiral said. There was the light-hearted tittle-tattle about life under General Pervez Muharraf, more serious stuff about how he, along with the CAS, Air Chief Marshal Parvaiz Mehdi Qureshi, had not an inkling of Musharraf’s and the army’s plan to occupy the Kargil heights, and the fact that they were informed of these actions by the Northern Light Infantry elements by Musharraf some time after the launch of this operation. Bokhari said he protested vehemently but was stopped short by Musharraf wondering how the Pakistan Navy would have contributed to the operation, implying that because the navy had no role, Bokhari was not in on the planning, and that the Kargil action would have sailed through anyway with or without the CNS’ concurrence. But, considering how that episode panned out, Bokhari sounded relieved he was not party to this ill-conceived and failed military venture.
Bokhari particularly liked a lot the idea I had developed in a 1996 issue of ‘The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of international Affairs’ in London of having the Indian and Pakistani armed services restore their old, pre-Partition, social, cultural, and sporting ties as a “confidence and security-building measure” between the two countries. He thought it doable once the passions aroused by the Kargil conflict were spent, and talked of the mechanisms of such interactions, the procedural hurdles at both ends, etc., and even proposed that the naval chiefs of India and Pakistan meet to break the ice.
Like many senior military officers, Bokhari wanted India-Pakistan peace. But unlike quite a few of them, he did not pivot peace on prior resolution of the Kashmir dispute which position, he indicated, he had communicated to Musharraf and which view the latter accepted or came to realize on his own as the Open Sesame to a negotiated settlement. The broad contours of such an accord were broached by Musharraf to Atal Bihari Vajpayee and external affairs minister Jaswant Singh in the July 2001 summit in Agra, and later to Manmohan Singh. Pity, it didn’t work out on either occasion. Because the central concept was of a joint Indo-Pak mechanism to oversee developments in J&K which solution, if only Delhi had pushed for it, could have included Hunza and Gilgit-Baltistan as well, and combined with Pakistan’s acceptance that natives of PoK and Northern Areas and of J&K travelling freely across the LoC on the basis of their residential papers being stamped, would have satisfied both sides. This last provision essentially would have formalized and internationalized the India-Pakistan border on the Line of Control, something the MEA had at that time determined was a satisfactory remedy. The joint mechanism on the other hand by creating the fiction of Pakistani oversight in Kashmir would have salved the ego of the Pakistan Army. All these years later, there still is no better solution.
Admiral Bokhari, exactly six years my senior in age, and I corresponded sporadically via email until that correspondence petered out some years back because we knew what we agreed on and neither of us had anything new to say to each other. But the goodwill remained until this morning when I read Dr Siddiqa’s obit of Bokhari. I cannot claim to have known him well, but what I divined of the Admiral as a gentleman and a man of honour, and through his email-messages, was his clear-eyed frustration with how the situation was unravelling in his own country and in the subcontinent at-large, causing loss and pain to Indians and Pakistanis alike, and reducing both India and Pakistan in Asia. But I cannot but think that with the generations on either side of the Great Divide that still believe that rapprochement and even intimacy is somehow possible between India and Pakistan passing inexorably from the scene, hope grows dimmer.
Of course, it matters to India who becomes the US Secretary of State. With Anthony Blinken named by President-elect Joe Biden as his Administration’s chief diplomat, American foreign policy will regain its familiar moorings. Relieved traditional allies in Europe and Asia who had been asked to do the unthinkable — pay for the hitherto free ride on security the departing president Donald Trump had accused them of, will clamber back on to the US bandwagon, hoping a friendlier White House will not insist on reimbursement of the costs of stationing American troops on their soil. Except, it won’t at all be easy for the Biden regime to reverse any of Trump’s disruptive policies. Simply because NATO allies and Japan and South Korea, who began contributing more, per Trump’s demands, to the costs of collective security helped reduce US deficits somewhat and why is that not welcome news for the incoming government? This is now the new beneficial normal that Washington will do nothing to disturb.
Likewise, the transactional contours of Trump’s India policy will be hewed to by the incoming Biden dispensation and the frame of “strategic partnership” will stay fleshed out in the Trumpian manner. This country enjoyed absolutely no favours with Trump at the helm. The situation will not change substantially with Biden-Blinken at the wheel. Except on the policy margins. With Kamala Harris as Vice President, there will, for instance, be some easing of the visa rules to facilitate “family reunions” and to permit spouses of temporary H1B visa holders to seek employment — rules that Trump had tightened. But, with the ranks of the unemployed rocketing in these pandemic times as also the matching social welfare costs, removing visa restrictions on Indian techies will not be a Biden priority. Especially because he has promised economic policies to dissuade outsourcing of corporate back-office operations, software development, etc. and to incentivize US corporations into “in- sourcing”, bringing production units back to America. It is a policy followed from the Obama era. The result will be a continuation of Trump’s visa policies in all but name and active encouragement to US companies to shift their manufacturing hubs from China, not to India, but back to America.
This will be easy for Biden to do. Because, unlike the ‘little dragons’ of Southeast Asia, principally Vietnam, who very early configured extremely welcoming industrial milieus complete with skilled work forces in place, and attracted the first wave of Western manufacturing industries getting out of China, the Modi government in the last six years just talked, and talked some more, about India’s great demographic dividend, held investment melas, got Amitabh Kant of the Niti Ayog to paint bright jargon-laced pictures of an “economically vibrant India”, but did next to nothing in terms of actually improving the country’s “ease of doing business” standing, skilling the youth for advanced manufacturing jobs, or tackling the uncontrolled level of corruption faced by the ordinary citizen, what to speak of companies and corporations who keep tax officers and regulators off their backs by bribing them heftily. Transparency International has just published its annual ‘Global Corruption Barometer 2020’ and, despite all the digitizing, deregulating and improving the performance of government staff — the beat policeman, patwari/tehsildar on up, India is revealed as the most corrupt country in Asia, with a corruption rate of 39% (compared to 2% for the Maldives, which is in the same category as Japan!). Has any Indian media reported these findings? For the report see https://images.transparencycdn.org/images/GCB_Asia_2020_Report.pdf
Predictably in this context, foreign investors came, saw, shook hands with the Prime Minister, and got the hell out, preferring to invest in the more orderly and speedily-modernizing Vietnam and even in Bangladesh — fast rising as a middle income country and magnet for global industry in the subcontinent. Noting the trends, a leading article in the Pakistani newspaper, Dawn, gleefully called India “the sick man of South Asia”.
So, which American companies now in Asia, you think, will be targeted to close shop? Not the ones surely that already have their factories humming in Vietnam or Bangladesh, say, and making profits and prospering. Rather, it will be the companies which, espying the potentially vast Indian market are inclined, despite the horrible economic indices and bureaucratic obstacles, to set up presence in India. Because they have no stakes in India, as they do in Southeast Asian states, they can be more easily persuaded by tax concessions and other devices that the Biden Admin will soon roll out, to return home. So Delhi cannot reasonably expect to gain much on the economic or trade front, other than the US pushing India to buy more high-value military hardware — the hardy policy perennial when it comes to bilateral commerce!
The one positive that Trump’s Asia policy carried was its hostility to China. The Biden-Blinken duo are set to lessen the trade and military pressure on Beijing. Because, like Obama, Biden believes in a concordat with the Chinese. Recall that it was, in Modi’s words “my friend Barack”, who first talked of G-2, a consortium of the US and China running the world, an idea Xi Jinping quickly cottoned on to. This was bad news for India then; it will be an even worse development should it ever come to pass. In the main because the belligerent posture of the US Navy — the talk of a new fleet just for operations in the Indo-Pacific, designated the US First Fleet, notwithstanding, will be watered down with Washington hereafter striving to avoid military confrontation with China. For many in the Indian government, who seem not to understand this fact of life, let me put it bluntly: India will alone have to deal with China; there will be no US cavalry riding to the rescue of us Indians.
As to statements by Blinken, in his previous avatars as adviser to Vice President Biden, promising India military high-technologies, well, it turns out the Indian foreign policy establishment distinguished by its high gullibility quotient, are all in and happily parroting this line with a couple of former Indian ambassadors to the US in the van! The fact is Americans long ago realized that all they need to do is dangle the “transfer of military high-technology” carrot to get the Indian donkey to go where ever Washington wants it to. This has been happening from Prime Minister Vajpayee’s days. India has not received a single US-sourced high-technology to-date, all the talk of collaborations on advanced technology development vide the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative, etc. have proved to be so much hogwash. The real US intention to string India along is evidenced in Trump abruptly pulling the US out of the underway joint project to produce a high-performance jet engine for combat aircraft.
Even as India got nothing, consider all that the good vibes and warm embraces fetched the US over the last two decades: the 2005 civilian nuclear deal (negotiated by minister S Jaishankar as MEA Joint Secretary) capped Indian nuclear weapons technology at the low-yield fission level; and the “foundational accords” — GSOMIA, LEMOA, COMCASA, and BECA, pulled India fully into the American orbit. These agreements have, at a stroke, robbed India of its “strategic autonomy” and signaled to Asia and the world India’s newly minted status as a US hanger-on. Wow! Some exchange this!
Reminds me of the bargain the European settlers obtained — buying Manhattan Island from those other Indians for a few shiny beads!
Looking like some battling Old Testament figure transplanted to the Longewala border outpost in the Thar — a strikingly full white beard, camouflage tunic, dark glasses, and a BSF hat, riding an Arjun MBT, Prime Minister Narendra Modi once again proved he has no equal on the Indian political scene for engineering optics, or registering on the camera.
The PM’s presence among them and what he said was no doubt comforting to the army and para-military troops but it was largely unexceptionable stuff. But let’s consider his comments possibly pertaining to China because that’s the one adversary the Indian government and leaders over the decades stretching back to Jawaharlal Nehru have shown absolutely no instinctive feel for nor ever displayed the necessary confidence or desire to tangle with. That may be the reason why — by way of compensatory rhetoric during the BJP’s current tenure in government — bombastic talk has emanated from Modi exclusively directed at Pakistan!
There are three points in Modi’s peroration at Longewala troops that one can reasonably assume relate to China with which this country has been in a military faceoff since May this year in eastern Ladakh. One, he talked of the world being troubled by certain “expansionist” forces who sport a dated — “very 18th century” and “distorted mindset”. Two, he painted India as a country that “believes in policy of understanding others and making them understand but if an attempt to test [India] is made, then the country will give a fierce reply.” continuing standoff with China at Ladakh border. And finally, he mentioned India having the strength and, presumably the government he heads, having the political will to give — what else — a “befitting” reply to those challenging it. “The world now knows”, he asserted, “that India will not compromise with its interests even one bit.”
Take his points, one by one. Modi is quite simply wrong when he talks of territorial expansionism being an obsolete phenomenon. It reflects badly on the personnel in MEA and PMO advising him, who ought to have slightly deeper historic knowledge. In any case, hardheaded states on the make, such as China, intrinsically value territory and rely on strategic geography to establish an extended global presence. They covet the territorial space on land and sea of adjoining states especially if they are less venturesome, more passive, such as India, and have proved that territorial expansionism is very much on their agenda. Just because the Chinese allude to nonsensical history to buttress their dubious claims does not make China’s territorially expansive policies an anachronism — it is part and parcel of Beijing’s traditional approach of relating to lesser powers among which it clearly counts India. So, no, where China is concerned territorial expansionism is not passe’.
Are there clues in the other things Modi said that may indicate which way his government is leaning vis a vis a likely compromise with China? Beijing has not made it easy on the Modi regime. While eight painful sessions of fruitless talks between corps commanders on the border have come and gone without any progress to show for them, the Xi dispensation has not budged a whit from its original position that the Indian army vacate the heights on the Kailash range — the Rezangla ridge line — it showed the wit, for a change, to capture — beating the Chinese PLA to it. The only give on its part has so far been the offer to withdraw its forces to Finger 8 area in the Pangong Tso north area as long as India does not advance beyond its current presence on Finger 3 even though the Indian claim line extends to Finger 8! This supposedly is a Chinese concession!
Delhi, on its part, is seeking “comprehensive disengagement”. What does this mean exactly? Press reports quote Indian official sources as saying this would involve the two sides withdrawing an equal distance, something the Chinese seem inclined to accept because it will require the Indian army and Special Frontier Force units manning the Kailash heights to climb down encouraging the PLA, as several retired Indian generals have stated, to then quickly occupy these commanding hill tops and permanently disadvantage the Indian army. Considering that no other big power endows bilateral agreements with the ridiculous sanctity that the Indian government insists on doing, India has always lost out and will do so again as the PLA will quickly present Indian with a new Line of Actual Control — something I have been warning about from my first post on this subject mid-May onwards.
In this context, the prime minister’s third point that “India will not compromise one bit” is rendered irrelevant. See what the PLA has done vis a vis the Y-junction on the Depsang Plains — they have blocked Indian patrolling units from reaching Indian areas northwestwards to the Karakorum Pass — the most strategic subregion — the so-called “sub-sector North” in army parlance. And because the Indian army has not forced the issue by forcibly removing the blocking PLA units, that entire area amounting to some 900+ sq kms has, in effect, been lost. So, while in theory Modi and MEA may, with a straight face, aver China has captured no Indian territory and that the LAC remains undisturbed, in reality PLA extensively holds Indian ground and LAC has been grossly violated.
It appears Modi is in no mood to ruffle Xi’s feathers and order offensive operations to push the PLA out of Y -Junction and to recover lost Indian territory. The GOC XIV Corps Harinder Singh was at fault when, instead of ordering instantaneous action to bulldoze through the PLA block when army patrols first encountered it, he waited for higher authorities to green signal some counter-move, which he should have known would never come, leave alone in time for him to do something decisive. This was a tactical decision that was unnecessarily elevated by the Leh Corps HQ to strategic, even political, decision-making level, which was not warranted.
On the negotiating front too India is losing. As I argued in my early posts on the subject, MEA by attributing PLA aggression to an “indistinct” LAC actually provided Beijing with a justification for its moves that it has used ever since. Seeing Delhi on the defensive, moreover, China is now discreetly shoving India into accepting its terms. Here’s where Modi’s “won’t compromise a bit” promise ought to kick in. But it hasn’t. The PM, moreover, has been equally squeamish in not demanding that PLA get the hell out of the Y-j on the Depsang and, if it didn’t do so, that the Indian army would do whatever is needed for Indian units to resume patrolling in that sub-sector to which the Indian army has been denied access. And when the PLA block is removed that precautions would be taken to prevent the Chinese from pulling such blocking maneuvers in the future.
Plainly, Modi, foreign minister S Jaishankar and NSA Ajit Doval have singly and collectively failed to make Beijing “understand”, among other territorial enclaves being contested, the importance the Indian government and people attach to controlling the areas with patrolling points 10, 11, 11A, 12, 12A, etc. north and northwestwards of the Y-junction. And it is clear India has been severely “tested” by the provocation of the PLA maintaining its blockade. So per point 2 of the Longewala speech: Where, oh, where is the “prachand” (fierce) response?
This brings us to the central issue. In the light of the foregoing arguments, would it be wrong to conclude that the PM’s latest speech was the usual hot air Indian politicians emit anytime they have an audience, in this case a captive one? There may be something after all to the lurking suspicion about the BJP government seeming keener than Beijing to arrive at a resolution of the problem even if it means surrendering Indian territory beyond the Y-j and, thereby, giving up the ghost of strategically dominating the Gwadar-bound Chinese commercial traffic, and military movements on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in support of Pakistan’s control of Hunza and Gilgit-Baltistan, the region the Imran Khan government has incorporated as another province.
Interacting with a visiting official Filipino team of mid-level diplomats and military officers some 15 years ago, I was repeatedly told that Manila very much desired defence cooperation with India. They hinted at how the IAF could extend its strategic reach and punch by using Clark’s Air Force base and the Indian Navy the Subic Bay naval base — the finest deep water port outside of Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, as their forward deployment sites in the region. These facilities in the Philippines were vacated by US forces by mutual agreement because Washington saw it as an economy measure and Manila as means to rid their country of the over-weaning American presence.
Plainly, Philippine regimes since before Rodrigo Duterte came on the scene have been thinking of ways to firm up their external security, espying in India, a newly nuclear weaponized country, just the non-intrusive but hefty counterpoise to China Manila valued. Duterte openly sought defence cooperation when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Manila for the 15th ASEAN Summit in November 2017 — the first time an Indian head of government had made this trip after Indira Gandhi did the honours 36 years earlier. At the same time, Manila has tried to be on the right side of China, proposing to drill for oil and gas jointly with a Chinese oil major in maritime territory claimed by both China and the Philippines.
This double game notwithstanding, a glance at the map shows just why Indian military and naval units at Clark’s and Subic Bay would hamper the Chinese Navy and, together with other Asian forces, such as the Japanese Self-Defence Forces, would if not scuttle, then hinder, Chinese plans for dominating the South China Sea and even the East Sea. Access to these facilities were there for Delhi’s asking if only governments here — first Manmohan Singh’s and then Modi’s, had an ounce of strategic vision, foresight, and drive. Absent these ingredients in the approach and outlook of Indian PMs and, therefore, in Indian foreign policy, MEA settled for an endless series of to-ings and fro-ings by Indian and Filipino diplomats and military delegations without the central issue of Clark’s and Subic Bay being ever directly addressed and an accord expeditiously negotiated to enable Indian units to be placed at these locations. Sure, there have been visits by Indian Coast Guard vessels exercising with their Philippine counterparts, and Indian warships on flag-showing missions have regularly dropped anchor in Subic Bay. But these events are trivial and of passing importance in the context of the primary mission of a forward presence of Indian armed forces.
Indicating how busy the two-way traffic has been of official busybodies and military officers, and of Indian warships to Philippine waters, is a press release on Indo-Philippine relations on the website of the Indian Embassy, Manila. The part of it related to defence ties is reproduced in full below (https://www.eoimanila.gov.in/page/bilateral-political-and-cultural-relations/ ) to give the reader a flavour of the underway defence cooperation, which belying the promise and potential, is still pretty damn thin!
“The mainstay of bilateral defence cooperation continue to be capacity building and training, exchange visits of delegations and naval and coast guard ship visits. Secretary, National Defense, Delfin Lorenzana visited India with a five member delegation for the first ever bilateral defence minister level visit from 8-11 March 2018. Apart from bilateral interactions with his counterpart, he also visited defence establishments and defence equipment production centres in India. Philippines participated in the Def-Expo in April 2018 and is also slated to participate in the Def-Expo 2020 in Lucknow from Feb-5-Feb-9, 2020 represented by Mr Raymundo DV Elefante – Undersecretary for Finance and Materiel (USFM), Department of National Defence and Major General Reynaldo Aquino-Vice Commander, Philippine Army.
“Indian Navy and coast guard ships regularly visit the Philippines and hold consultations with their counterparts. Indian Naval Ships INS Sahyadri and INS Kiltan visited the Philippines from October 23-26, 2019. ICGS Shaunak visited Manila on 1st February 2019 on the occasion of Indian Coast Guard Day. Indian Navy Vessel, INS Rana (D52) visited Manila from 23-26 October 2018. ICGS Shaurya visited Manila from December 1-5, 2017, INS Satpura and INS Kadmatt visited Manila from 3-6 October 2017, Indian Coast guard Ship ICGS Samarth visited Manila from 7-10 January 2017, INS Sahyadri and INS Sakthi visited Manila on a goodwill visit to Subic Bay from 30 May -2 June 2016;INS Sahyadri visited Manila from 1-4 November 2015; and from 20-23 August 2014; ICGS Samudra Paheredar visited Manila from 19-22 September 2014; a flotilla of four Indian ships from the Eastern Fleet, namely INS Shakti, INS Satupura, INS Ranjit and INS Kirch visited Manila on a goodwill visit from 12-16 June, 2013.
“The participation of officers of the armed forces of both countries in various specialized training courses in each other’s countries has intensified, as have visits by National Defence College (NDC) delegations, including the first ever NDC visit from the Philippines to India. An Indian Armed Forces Officer has been regularly attending the prestigious Master of National Security (MNSA) course in the Philippines National Defence College in the last several years. A 27-member delegation from the College of War, Mhow visited in September, 2019. A delegation from the College of Defence Management of India visited Philippines from 23-31 October 2015 and again in October, 2018; a delegation from Army High Command Course of India visited the Philippines from 10-14 November 2014.
“In recognition of the need to further strengthen defence cooperation, the Joint Defence Cooperation Committee was constituted and had its first meeting in Manila in January 2012 followed by the 2nd meeting in New Delhi on 24 March 2017. The 3rd Meeting India-Philippines Joint defence Cooperation Committee (JDCC) took place at Manila on 31 Jan 20. The meeting was co-chaired by Shri Bharat Khera, Joint Secretary (Planning), Ministry of Defence, India and Mr Teodoro Cirilo T Torralba III, Assistant Secretary for Assessments and International Affairs, Department of National Defence, Philippines. Prior to the JDCC Meeting, Service to Service Talks were held between the representatives of three major Services (Army, Navy and Air Force) of both countries. These talks facilitated a detailed review of bilateral defence engagements over the preceding years and establishment of a roadmap for enhanced engagements over the next three year period. During the JDCC Meeting, both co-chairs reviewed this three year engagement plan and also exchanged views on evolving regional security concerns as well as multilateral engagements. Both co-chairs conveyed their mutual commitment to enhancing the quantum, scale and depth of defence engagements. The meeting was fruitful in comprehensive exchange of views on future trajectory of India-Philippines defence cooperation activities and further consolidated the mutual engagements between both countries in the field of defence and security. The INTELLEX meetings have contributed towards sharing and exchanging information on a range of sensitive issues; the last INTELLEX meeting took place in Manila in January 2015 with the previous one being held in New Delhi in February 2013.”
Reading this dense prose would lead any reasonable person to assume that a pact for the use of the two main Philippine bases by the Indian military was long ago in the bag, and what is being worked out are the practical details, such as the legal status of resident Indian military men on short duration stay, etc. and for the prepositioning of stores for Indian frigates and missile destroyers at Subic and IAF fighter squadrons on rotation at Clark’s. That, as always in a non-strategic-minded India’s case, would be to assume too much! What other conclusion is there to reach?
I mean here’s the operative part of the MEA statement in the wake of the “virtual meeting” between the two foreign ministers — S Jaishankar and Teodoro Locsin Jr. on November 8. ” The two sides “agreed to further strengthen defence engagement and maritime cooperation…especially in military training and education, capacity building, regular goodwill visits, and procurement of defence equipment.”
The “procurement of defence equipment” is the only novel reference here, but what major indigenous Indian hardware would the Philippine forces be interested in? Well, there’s the Tejas LCA and, the Arjun MBT. But considering the Indian armed services have only grudgingly inducted these items and there are insufficient production lines to mass produce these items, especially the potential block buster, Tejas, these weapons systems are unlikely to be on offer. Of course, if the Indian government had any strategic-commercial sense –which is missing, it’d have not only pushed private sector companies to sell items they have independently produced, like Bharat Forge its excellent 105mm rifled gun and 155mm long range artillery, but lubricated such transactions by opening credit lines for Manila to use.
That leaves the only Indian armament all Southeast Asian countries fearful of China crave — the warship killer Brahmos supersonic cruise missile. But given how the Indian government, infected by its trademark terminal indecisiveness, has made a hash of the Brahmos deal with Vietnam, which has been in the works for a decade and a half, Manila cannot entertain much hope of securing it any time soon. This despite Vietnam being the one and only country China instinctively fears, which fact, I have argued for over 22 years now, is very good reason why Delhi should speed the Brahmos into Vietnamese hands and prioritize it over equipping the Indian military with it,
It is a matter of the gravest concern that the government so keeps getting in India’s way to make strategic good!! But that’s because Modi and his circle of advisers, led by the China Study Group, has injected such unwarranted fear and apprehension of China in the capillaries of the ruling dispensation, Delhi is afraid to do anything that could be taken amiss by Beijing. A habitually quaking Indian government is now a constant on the Asian stage, a reality China will happily continue to exploit.
It is stunning — the width and resilience of the incumbent President Donald J Trump’s vote base. Despite doing everything wrong, he could win a second term! On his watch, he grossly mismanaged the novel Corona pandemic and wrecked the US economy, spiked unemployment to unprecedented levels (30%), and stoked the deadly corona health crisis with ridiculous assertions (the virus will “disappear miraculously”) and laughable ‘snake oil’ remedies (insertion of “light” inside the bodies of infected patients and injecting common bathroom detergent into veins!!).
His record of reckless policies and corruption — his Secret Service protectors, for instance, are charged room and board at extortionist rates at Trump-owned hotels and golf resorts where the president invariably chooses to stay, and of a raft of foreign and economic policies designed to further his family’s interests — Trump properties in several countries (including India) coupled to his blowing up of Constitutional norms and political proprieties, has not fazed his followers who have elevated him to a cult figure. Trump is verily a Yankee version of the self-serving Indian politician!
He tarred the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris duo as carriers of “socialism” into America — a dog whistle for all kinds of people ranging from immigrants escaping socialist states (Cuba, Venezuela), anti-abortionists, to extreme racists who vow to use violence to return America to a supposedly pristine all-White past!
Except, he has run into headwinds building up over the last four years. Based on intense dislike of Trump and his destruction-derby mentality, the president has turned very large swathes of the American society against him. Educated, liberal, Whites, and bulk of minority and immigrant populations and even mainstream ideologically conservative Republican party voters — especially suburban house wives — who find the President’s crudities and excesses hard to accept. The mailed-in votes are still being counted in several crucial states, but the trend suggests Joe Biden and the democrats may squeak into the White House.
The Narendra Modi-led BJP government, like the Manmohan Singh-headed Congress coalition regime, with Ministry of External Affairs in the van, invested a lot politically and diplomatically in Trump and the Republican party. While in the George W Bush and Barack Obama years Washington pushed its national interests using the liberal world order as cover, Trump dispensed with that pretense and made bilateral relations, to Delhi’s consternation, a purely transactional affair. Modi tried to get around this bump by personally cultivating Trump but it failed to pay dividend. His administration did not water down its antipathy to any and all channels of immigration from “shithole” Third World countries, involving illegal influx at one end to high-tech coolies India has funneled into the US using the H1B visa, at the other end, notwithstanding pitiable pleadings by Modi and his sidekick, S Jaishankar, at every meeting to ease up on the movement of skilled labour India can ill afford to lose. He imposed a policy of denying India the benefit of concessionary trade provisions in the Generalized System of Preferences and did not relent in the face of repeated supplications by Delhi.
The only favour Trump showed India — and here the shared threat perception of China and security of the Indo-Pacific region, has come in handy — is his pushing Modi to buy expensive, mostly dated, military hardware — M-777 light howitzer, F-16/21, etc. Delhi has compromised by making regular buys of transport planes — the C-1380J and C-17, and of maritime recon P-8I aircraft, to placate Washington and keep it engaged. Similar motivation has resulted in the Indian government in this past decade acceding to the four “foundational accords” (LEMOA, COMCASA. GSOMIA & BECA) desired by the US with “India-specific” exceptions being signed into them, which may not mean much. Even in purely transactional terms, India has received little in return for surrendering its freedom of action and “strategic autonomy”. Conclusion: Indian leaders, across the board, like to be taken for a ride.
The good thing, however, about Trump’s tit-for-tat basis of US foreign policy was that it took uncertainty out of the calculation! India, or any other country, knew exactly where it stood on any issue, what to expect, and the kind of deal Washington would be amenable to signing. But mostly it compelled friendly states to look out for their own interests and their own security. The reason why, on this blog, four years ago I welcomed Trump’s presidency and warned MEA to retool its US policy accordingly. It was advice the Indian government, of course, ignored to the country’s detriment. Because by persisting with a beggar bowl policy that looked to America for succour, the Modi government pushed India deeper into dependency status and lost the country respect in the world.
With Trump possibly becoming history, what does a Biden-Harris Administration mean for India?
Firstly, a 180-degree turn is likely to be affected on the human rights front. Pramila Jayapal, a fashionably leftist Indian-origin Congresswoman from Washington state, prompted by the curbs in J&K, is spearheading an HR anti-India campaign. Not too long ago she introduced in the House of Representatives (the lower house of the US legislature) a resolution condemning India for denying Kashmiris rights and freedoms. The resolution HS Res.745 urged “the Republic of India to end the restrictions on communications and mass detentions in Jammu and Kashmir as swiftly as possible and preserve religious freedom for all residents”.
The significant thing about this resolution is that it managed to attract some 93 fellow Congresspersons from both the Democratic and Republican parties, constituting a quarter of the 435-representative-strong House, as co-sponsors. It may not have the force of presidential directive or executive order, but it could be the precursor of a punitive US policy. This initiative is in the context of the US Commission on Religious Freedoms recently charging India with restricting such freedom. “I have fought to strengthen the special US-India relationship, which is why I’m deeply concerned”, tweeted Jayapal, by way of explanation. “Detaining people w/out charge, severely limiting communications, & blocking neutral third-parties from visiting the region is harmful to our close, critical bilateral relationship,”
Indians being a sentimental people, we were pleased as punch when a half-Tamilian Vice Presidential candidate, Kamala Harris, admitted her love of idli with “really good Sambar” and for “any kind of Tikka”. This kind of familiarity led many to conclude that real India-friendly policies may be in the offing. And that being the VP places her in a good position to be her party’s presidential candidate in 2024. This last is winter dreamin’. The fact is the real reason why Biden hasn’t sailed through this election by walloping Trump as was expected in many American quarters is because the White majority is simply not ready for a coloured woman president to takeover from Biden.
The mere prospect of this may have turned many voters away from backing Biden. Indeed, if anything, the rethink in Democratic party circles will lead to the selection of a middle of the road white politician to be its standard bearer in the next election cycle given that Biden has already pronounced himself a bridge to the next generation of leaders. The question is what kind of leader? In realistic terms then, Kamala Harris because she has been a drag on the Biden ticket and is not acceptable to the white majority will not be acceptable to the Democratic party either in the future. There dies the Indian dream for our Kamala. It also ends the Democratic party’s dalliance with leftist policies which are anathema to most American people.
But what can one expect by way of Biden’s foreign and security policies? The advisers to Biden, are all Washington establishment type. Such as Anthony Blinken, who has been advising Biden since 2002 and was his National Security Adviser for eight years in the Obama Administration. Blinken is joined by Tom Donilon, sometime NSA to Obama, Nicholas Burns, a former diplomat who negotiated with Jaishankar the civilian nuclear deal with India, Kurt Campbell, a Far East expert, and Michèle Flournoy, who may become the first female US Secretary of Defence.
All of them have had a hand in propping up the old American treaty system in Asia and, this is important, balancing power in the subcontinent by tilting discreetly on Pakistan’s side. This does not mean the Biden dispensation will not try and build on the foundational accords to advantage US interests in the Indo-Pacific. Rather, that Messrs Blinken & Co., like the Trump Admin will be partial to not alienating Islamabad considering an Afghanistan solution is still hanging fire and generally to keep India muzzled. These advisers are divided on China with some of them believing that where China is concerned the US ought to show “humility” and carefully manage Sino-American relations. Others more realistically have talked of “great power competition” being back. They all share the view, however, that while Xi Jinping’s China and Vladimir Putin’ s Russia are powers to reckon with, they are convinced that the world can’t do without American leadership and that the US still needs to lead (on climate, for instance) even if it cannot any longer throw its weight around as it once did.
Then there’s a powerful element in the Democratic party beholden to Bernie Sanders, which thinks that after the disastrous Trump term America is in need of internal repair and democracy building and that this should be priority, not foreign ventures. So for quite different reasons, the Biden Admin too may be inward-turned, preoccupied with righting the domestic scene scarred by racial turmoil and political unrest necessitating a rebuilding of the US polity.
This may mean that India will be left to its own devices to look after its own security and economic interests the best it can. If the Jayapal initiative is guide, the Modi government may be well advised to not harp over much, even if indirectly, on the Muslim-ness and Pakistani-ness of the terrorist threat India faces. Because unlike with the Trump cohort, such stance will have less traction in Biden’s Washington. However, Indian policies may be better received in Washington if it substantially reorients its national security policy to take on China instead but without expecting the US to pitch in other than marginally in the collective Asian-regional containment effort.
As to the belief prevailing in some circles in India that a Democratic party Administration will be more open in its trade policies and welcome a bigger volume of Indian exports, they will be disappointed. Like the President (Obama) he served, Biden has made plain that he is for “inshoring”, the opposite of out-sourcing, and aims to incentivize American companies and financial institutions to invest and grow the manufacturing and other industries in the US as a means of addressing the high unemployment problem. That rules out relief for India.
Whatever the difference in the outlook and approach of Republican Trump and Democratic Biden, for India it is a choice between poisons.
The statement in Pakistan’s National Assembly Oct 28 by the former Speaker and Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) MP Sardar Ayaz Sadiq that Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, in the presence of the army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, had pleaded in a parliamentary committee meeting to not make a fuss over the decision to release the Indian MiG-21bis pilot, then Squadron Leader, Abhinandan Varthaman, downed on February 27, 2019. Abhinandan was released some 60 hours after his capture. Regarding the Foreign Minister Sadiq said this on the floor of the Assembly: “With his legs trembling and sweat on the forehead, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said to us, ‘For God’s sake, let him [Abhinandan] go back now or else India would attack at 9pm’. “No attack was imminent; they only wanted to capitulate and send Abhinandan back.” Two days later (on Oct 30), Sadiq confirmed his statement. “I stand by my stance. I have numerous state secrets. I….head a Parliamentary committee on national security. I had neither given any irresponsible statements in the past nor would I do [in future],” he said.
Party colleague and fellow MP Khwaja Asif confirmed the meeting, Bajwa’s presence in it, the latter’s briefing to the committee and his voicing the hope that the release would be accepted by India as a positive gesture. Then Asif too turned the knife. “You might have released Abhinandan to ease tensions between the two countries,” he said, “but I want to ask as to what has been the outcome of what you invested into this step.”
The raising of this issue by the opposition party at this time is doubtless to counter the bad press generated by Imran Khan’s October 2 charge that his chief political rival, three times PM, and head of PML(N), Nawaz Sharif, had “gone [to the United Kingdom] and is playing India’s game. He is attacking Pakistan sitting over there. He is 100 percent getting backing [from India], he is a coward and without that [Indian support], he could not be doing anything.”
Predictably, Sadiq’s and Asif’s statements were dismissed by Major General Babar Iftikhar, the director general of the Pakistan army’s Inter-Services Public Relations, as an “attempt to distort history” and to sow doubts about an air battle in which PAF had given the IAF “a bloody nose [which] is still hurting.” Abhinandan’s release, Iftikhar declared, was nothing “other than a mature response of a responsible state in order to give peace another chance”. He added for good measure that the PML(N) “narrative is being used to downplay India’s defeat and loss”, and that “In [the] circumstances when the enemy has imposed a hybrid war on Pakistan, all of us will have to move forward with great responsibility.”
Pakistan’s minister for science and technology Fawad Hussain Chaudhry, who is often deployed by the Pak PM when fighting words are needed, instead of addressing the Abhinandan release issue and calling Sadiq and Asif names as is the norm in the Pakistani parliament, contrasted the ruling party’s muscular approach to India to the soft approach adopted by the previous PML(N) government. He revealed that the terrorist attack on Feb 14, 2019 on a CRPF convoy was, in fact, his government’s handiwork. Seeking, perhaps, to needle Delhi he deliberately echoed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s words. “Humne Hindustan ko ghus ke maara (We hit India in their home)”, he said. “Our success in Pulwama, is a success of this nation under the leadership of Imran Khan.”
He thus unwittingly confirmed that his country sponsored terrorism and prosecuted terrorist actions. It fits in with the Indian government’s longstanding diplomatic campaign to punish Pakistan for being “the epicentre of international terrorism”. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) meeting in Paris only a fortnight or so back had given Islamabad one last chance to mend its ways — just six months, actually, to change laws, and incorporate various other measures verifiably to tamp down on the sources of terror inside the country, failing which to face crippling economic sanctions. FATF is a UN body tasked with shutting down channels of illegal and clandestine funding of terrorist outfits the world over.
Imran, shaken by the prospect of the FATF lowering the boom on Pakistan now that his own cabinet colleague had admitted in Parliament Islamabad’s role in cross-border terrorism, ordered Chaudhry to go on Indian TV to try and get the country off the terrorism hook he had hoisted it onto. A visibly shaken Fawad, realizing the enormity of his terrible faus pax, made the usual excuse a politician does when caught with his foot in his mouth. He lamely explained that his words were misquoted, taken out of context, an explanation that a contrite Sadiq, who had started the fracas, too resorted to because he now faces an upset army. (He tried Oct 30 to pacify Bajwa. “Attempts to link my statement with Pakistan Army is a disservice to the country. It can be heard clearly in the statement that I spoke about the government,” he asserted.) The Indian news show host — Rajdeep Sardesai, India Today TV — who seemed to be channeling his inner Arnab, rather than talking about the FATF dangers facing Pakistan, etc., hectored his guest to right there and then confess Pakistan’s culpability. Chaudhry stuck to his line that if the Indian media only read his entire speech they’d know that he was really referring to the post-Feb 26 PAF operation to hit India! He was, however, unable to explain why his words “post-Feb 26 PAF operation” came out sounding like “Pulwama”!
Much of this is old hat. What’s new is Sadiq’s revelation of the Feb 27 9PM deadline. There’s no reason to disbelieve Sadiq’s version both because it is, timeline-wise, specific and because it fits in with the milieu at the time in India where the public was clamouring for hard retaliation, which Modi promised if indirectly by saying so grave a Pakistani provocation would not go unanswered. The retired air force chief BS Dhanoa’s statement on NDTV yesterday evening that IAF was “in a position to wipe out their forward brigades” had Abhinandan not been returned only confirmed Sadiq’s story.
Clearly, it suggests that the Modi government was ready to escalate and turn the crisis into an armed conflict if the Imran Khan regime failed to comply with Delhi’s privately conveyed ultimatum. It is possible GHQ, Rawalpindi, were aware of the Indian preparations but not ready to pick up the Indian challenge.
Whatever the truth, Abhinandan, disregarded Indian Ground Control’s warning of an F-16 on his tail, chased another F-16 into Pakistani air space and was knocked off. He returned to a hero’s welcome, won a gallantry award (Vir Chakra), a promotion, and even shared a celebratory ride in a MiG-21 with the air chief. Unfortunately, IAF has been unable so far to come up with any evidence of an F-16 kill that Abhinandan claimed, a story the IAF and Indian government support. There’s, however, tell-tale proof of his ignoring ground control’s directive and indulging in some hot-doggin’ and losing, in the process, his aircraft to enemy fire. In that situation, I don’t know what to make of this trade-off.
But it is a story that is intertwined with IAF’s Balakot strike and its aftermath. The Indian air strike was in retaliation for the Pulwama incident. Pakistan’s version repeated by Iftikhar is that Indian warplanes violated Pakistan’s airspace but dropped their payloads in an uninhibited area of the mountainous region of Balakot when confronted by Pakistani aircraft and scooted home. Rejecting Indian claims of the destruction of terrorist camps and killing of terrorists, he pointed out that local and international media were accorded access to the bombsite soon after the supposed Indian strike and they found no evidence of the alleged destruction, etc., and in an action-reaction-reaction sequence PAF, Iftikhar averred, “decided to teach the enemy a lesson in retaliation” for the airspace violation and “responded in broad daylight. Not only did we give them a befitting response, but also shot down their two jets [and] Wing Commander Abhinandan was captured.”
Further, capitalizing on the friendly fire incident in the thick of the crisis on Feb 27, 2019 when an IAF Mi-17 helicopter was blown off by an Israeli Spyder short-range Surface-to-Air Missile positioned for air defence of the Budgam airfield, the Pakistan military spokesman attributed it to panic triggering of the SAM because the Indian forces, according to him, were frightened by Pakistan’s reprisal. He then skewered the IAF when he picked up on the view of certain service brass who blamed the absence of the Rafale combat aircraft for the air force’s failure, seeing it as an Indian acknowledgement of Pakistan’s aerial victory.
The postscript to this episode is that even though Bhadauria admitted the Spyder hit on the Mi-17 was a big mistake, and promised that those involved would be dealt with expeditiously, a year and half later there’s still no news — unless I missed it — of the two officers responsible for this mishap being cashiered and/or court martialed.
I had then contended that if the Modi government had decided to risk escalation and, potentially, war by approving IAF’s strike mission then the selection by Air HQ — because picking an appropriate weapon would surely not have been left to an operational commander for such a politically symbolic task — of the Israeli SPICE 2000 precision-guided munition was the wrongest possible choice. If the objective was to leave a huge impression of Delhi’s resolve on the Pakistani government psyche, the ordnance had to produce a damned big bang to flatten the entire hilltop — trees, terrorists, terrorist camps and all, which result could only have been obtained by dropping 500kg-1000kg high-explosive guided bombs. And, in the event, the launching of the SPICE PGM from a distance simply did not make sense because it did not have the earthshaking impact that was required for not just the local people and the world to see but for GHQ, Rawalpindi to get the deterrent message.
This failure is absolutely the IAF mission planning staff’s and, ultimately, Dhanoa’s who signed off on it and on the choice of the weapon. The Modi-Doval duo cannot be faulted for relying on the professionals to do the job right, except to the extent that it did not have the requisite military expertise on hand in the PMO to go over the final mission plan, including the selection of weapons and, if it did have such experts on tap, that they failed to apply any correctives, or at least to warn the Prime Minister and NSA that the mission would fail to have the desired effect and the reasons why.
The 2-day annual 2×2 meeting involving the foreign and defence ministers of India and the US, namely, Jaishankar and Rajnath Singh and Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper, respectively, begins six days before the American quadrennial elections on November 3 and the possible termination of tenures of Pompeo as US Secretary of State and Esper as the Pentagon boss. The chances of Joe Biden replacing Donald J Trump as US President are rated anywhere from the former squeaking through to registering a landslide win.
The ending of the one-term Trump presidency could quickly lead the Washington policy establishment, inclusive of the mainstream Republican Party which has been alienated and sidelined and has actively canvassed for Biden, breathing a sigh of relief and dismissing the last four years as an aberration. An aberration or whatever, it nevertheless revealed the basic self-centredness and the isolationist impulses at the core of US foreign policy. Trump gave his personal prejudices free run but was not ideological. He supped with Kim Jong-un of North Korea and was thick as thieves with Chinese president Xi Jinping while stomping on treaty allies in Asia and Europe because of his transactional belief that such tactics would best fetch America what he thought it deserved by way of substantive strategic/economic/political gain for putting out for its friends.
In Trump’s system the ask if promptly acted on fetched immediate returns. For instance, in May this year when Modi shipped hyroxychloroquine to the US peddled by the US president as remedy for the novel Corona virus, India received almost by return mail, as it were, relaxation in duties on Indian exports to that country. It was a glorified barter scheme at work and was only a variant of the usual Western liberal notions of world order requiring other countries to “follow the leader”, reflect its “democratic” values, mirror its strategic concerns, subscribe to free trade, and trust in multilateral organizations and treaty regimes that Washington can twist to protect its interests and secure advantages.
The US view of China as adversary predates Trump, of course. Nor has the Trumpian perception about India’s strategic usefulness in this part of the world differed from that of past Administrations. What was new starting in the new millennium was the unvarying insistence that India accept the 4+1 foundational accords to progress bilateral relations to a higher pitch. So we got the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) signed in 2002 to safeguard intelligence shared by the US, the 2016 Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) permitting each side to access the designated military facilities for refueling and replenishing military forces, the 2018 Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) valid for 10 years to facilitate interoperability, the fourth agreement up for signature at the forthcoming 2×2 meeting in New Delhi — Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) to share geospatial and satellite data, and the ‘+1’ — the 2019 Industrial Security Annex that makes available to Indian private sector companies classified American industrial information to manufacture military goods previously restricted to the Indian government and defence public sector units.
In my books and writings, I have detailed why the four foundational accords while not being particularly useful to India may be a drag and end up actually hurting Indian military capability and conduct of operations, and undermining this country’s sovereignty. Take CISMOA, for example. In the guise of seamless communications between the fighting platforms of the two countries, easier penetration and hence the compromising of the most secret communications networks, including the Indian nuclear command and control links, has now been enabled. But in this post let me outline the reasons why I think BECA could be problematical.
The US has, via satellites, apparently digitally mapped the entire world. In military terms, BECA promises Indian forces and weapons platforms digitized maps so obtained of, say, China and hence the precise targeting coordinates for any Chinese military assets India may care to have in its crosshairs in a conflict. It will, in theory, also permit Indian missiles and other over-the-horizon standoff munitions once fired to reach distant points by helping them correct course mid-way and align properly to target in their terminal run for precise destruction. So far so good; where’s the hitch?
The trouble is the US, as dispenser and source of sensitive adversary target information, is in a position to monitor on real time basis the digitized data being accessed and, if its national interests of the moment are so served, to deny the user state such information and even to tweak the digitized data just enough to misdirect the fired weapon, and otherwise to dictate the outcome of such engagements. The US can then plausibly blame technical glitches in the Indian weapon for it going astray. No BECA can ever be drafted in such verifiable detail as to prevent the US from doing this. After all, India has no control over American satellites and, therefore, even less control over the kind of information they transmit at any time. So, there’s no guarantee that expensive Indian weapons fired at China will not be thus fooled around with by a third party. It needs no reminding that Indian and US interests even as regards China only overlap a bit but are far from convergent.
The cautionary tale to have in mind is what happened when the intermediate range Agni missile was first test fired in May 1989 and was oriented to “target” by the US Global Positioning System (GPS). The launch was fine and the telemetry in the initial stage indicated flawless performance, but with Indian ships monitoring its progress and stationed at the planned endpoint in the Indian Ocean, the missile entering the terminal stage in its flight suddenly plunged into the sea. What happened was that the American GPS had just then “blinked” sending the missile off course! India thereafter used the Russian GPS. It is not hard to imagine such a thing happening with Indian munitions dependent on US-generated target data being misdirected in wartime. With what consequences for India can only be imagined.
This is why India so desperately needs to be self-reliant in armaments and strategic support systems at any cost, including accelerating the pace of launching and operationalizing an Indian constellation of satellites to provide the Indian military indigenous blink-proof GPS and targeting wherewithal not prey to the interests of any outside power.
Speaking at the Bloomberg Economic Summit yesterday external affairs minister S Jaishankar hinted at resolution of the border problems with China being sought through a yet higher channel than the Special Representatives level talks (Ajit Doval and Wang Yi) involving, apparently, Jaishankar and Wang. “Discussions are on, [but] what is going on [in that forum]”, said Jaishankar somewhat mysteriously, “is something confidential between us and the Chinese.” Well, Jaishankar better produce a rabbit out of that hat because nothing else has so far worked.
The MEA spokesperson was just as opaque, stating only that the two sides “exchanged serious proposals”. The Indian government says its sole interest is in arriving at a “comprehensive” disengagement covering all territorial friction points, meaning restoration of the status quo ante. Meanwhile, Beijing has been just as definite that if that’s what Delhi is waiting for it will have to wait for a very, very long time, if ever. Because it is interested for the nonce only in a Ladakh-specific remedy involving the Chinese PLA staying put in virtually all the areas they have intruded into across the LAC while asking the Indian army to decamp from its forward positions.
On this issue the Chinese urgently demand the Indian army vacate the heights it occupied around the Spanggur Lake in surprise moves that, for a change, froze the PLA out of the Rezangla ridge line that also includes ‘Black Top’ the highest point in that mountain range, which enables the Indian army to mount effective surveillance of the Chinese troop movements in the extended area and to launch timely counter actions to frustrate any offensive PLA activity.
But then, as happened very early in the confrontation when MEA offered the indistinctness of the LAC on the map and on the ground as reason for the hostile interface which the Xi regime thereafter used to justify all that transpired subsequently in eastern Ladakh, the MEA spokesperson this time around fouled up by once again offering the Chinese Foreign Office new talking points. He explained the lack of progress in the various parlays afoot by referring to the “complexity” of the disengagement process. “The two sides”, he averred, “have a better understanding of each other’s positions. Disengagement is a complex process that requires redeployment of troops by each side towards their regular posts on their respective sides of the LAC.” The Chinese negotiators can be expected to hereon gleefully embrace this so-called “complexity” of the mutual withdrawal process to stall all proceedings, and otherwise bring them to an impasse, and use it as plausible cause for refusing to back out of the annexed Indian territory.
Lately, and it is a bit a rich this, but Chinese Foreign Office spokesman have now taken to blaming India’s infrastructure buildup along the LAC as “the root cause of tensions” and implied that continuing with this activity besides “complicat[ing] the situation” would prevent “peace and tranquility” from returning on the LAC. To which his Indian counterpart, diffident and mealymouthed as always, stressed the need for both sides to adhere to all previous accords “in their entirety”.
Why can’t Jaishankar instruct his ministry spokesman to emulate the latter’s Chinese counterpart and vociferously demand the Chinese hand back all territory taken by force, and relinquish the infrastructure built up in the Aksai Chin — the first of which was the Xinjiang Highway constructed starting in 1955-56, and refer to this as, in fact, “the root cause” of all bilateral troubles and ill-will? These are two lines and their variants that should be iterated with vehemence and absolute conviction every time MEA spokespersons open their mouth.
But why do Indian diplomats come out like shrinking violets when compared to the Chinese Foreign Service staffers? In part because the former think their forte is the English language and they can weave a web of words to entangle the Chinese. In actuality, however, it is the new breed of Chinese diplomats posted to Delhi and in Zhongnanhai who speak good English, often are far better read and informed, and who, language-wise, end up hoisting Indians with their own petard.
Worse, when these MEA-wallahs can’t think of anything to say to the press they fall back on recounting the spurious tactical advantage the Indian army has supposedly gained on the Finger 4 feature on the Pangong Tso (spurious because the area Finger 4 to Finger 8 has already been lost to the PLA) and about the more real gain, courtesy the Spanggur-Rezangla area under Indian control. But what they never mention is the crucial and significant negative of the extant state of affairs — the 960 odd sq kms northwestwards of the Y-junction to the Karakorum Pass on the Depsang Plains in PLA’s hands.
The Chinese have achieved this by simply blocking Indian troops from accessing India’s traditional patrolling points beyond the junction. That XIV Corps and Indian army HQrs have not so far thought it worth their while to plan and execute an Indian army operation, obviously by Special Forces, to outflank and isolate PLA’s blocking force by going around the mountain range on the Y-junction rather than waiting for the PLA to permit Indian patrols, is pretty much allowing this bit of Indian territory to settle in China’s lap.
This lack of military initiative where China is concerned, alas, reflects the civilianizing of the military leadership — and not in a good way — to a point where risk-aversion has become part of the institutional DNA and central to the thinking of the military brass.
Like our political leaders, our armed services chiefs too have learned to talk big, act small.
Biegun, unfortunately (in Hindi) means, “without redeeming quality”!
Still, let’s give the US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun arriving in Delhi Oct 12 the benefit of doubt. He will be here to set up the scene, firm up the agenda, for the next edition of the 2×2 meeting Oct 27-28 involving the foreign and defence ministers of the two countries.
In the lead-up to this visit, Biegun made the sort of noises to the Indian media that Americans know will put the foreign policy establishment in Delhi in the right mood to, as has been typical of Indian representatives who go weak in the knees when dealing with their American counterparts, to give away far, far more than India can ever hope to receive. After all, heading the MEA is the arch symbol of India’s giveaway culture — S. Jaishankar who signed the unequal and entirely unfair 2005 nuclear deal, and then contrived to stay on to reap the rewards!
Biegun made clear the American approach. After the de rigeur comments about the shared democratic values, etc., at some do called by the US India Strategic and Partnership Forum, Biegun responded to a question about what more the US can do on defence cooperation, export controls and tech transfer, by playing to this country’s conceit as a “world power” and potential “net security provider” to countries in the extended Indian Ocean region. “We’re very eager to help India become and remain a world-class power in contributing [to] net security rather than worrying about net security and how it affects their interests. And I think defence cooperation is a key avenue for this.” He thus pointed out that Delhi does more talking about providing security than actually doing so.
Having slyly shown India its rightful place as talker more than doer, Biegun used his initial comments as launch pad for the business end of his trip and that of the Americans at the forthcoming 2×2 meeting — selling antiquated military hardware to squeeze the last cent for American defence companies before their production lines are junked, sold for scrap metal. He called India’s desire for self-reliance in armaments a “countervailing trend” that while appropriate in some sense, doesn’t jell with Washington’s ideas. “I get that”, he said. “No country wants to be entirely dependent on other parties.” But on this subject, he said, “Even…a partnership as close as the United States-India, can be tested… I understand that”, he continued smoothly, “but I think it can’t come at the exclusion of giving India the best-in-class defence capabilities, and I think India’s going to find a very willing and creative-thinking partner in the United States [in the time ahead] in that exact area.”
There’s no question that the US Government (starting in the George W. Bush era) has been very creative indeed in first fluffing up that tottering old granny of a combat aircraft from the Sixties — the toothless F-16 in new raiment, presenting it as an entirely new ‘F-21’ just for the yokels, and then pressuring India to go in for this bill of goods. Indeed, the Industrial Security Annex (ISA), as part of the General Security of Military Information Agreement, signed at the last 2×2 round in Washington in December 2019, is meant specifically to facilitate Lockheed Martin’s sloughing off the F-21 to the IAF and Boeing selling its F/A-18 Super Hornet for use on aircraft carriers to the Indian Navy. At the time of ISA signing, defence minister Rajnath Singh, hoped it would “enable smooth transfer of technology and information between private entities of the US and India.”
So, F-16 is apparently “the best-in-class” capability Washington is generous enough to want India to buy for billions of dollars that India does not have, and even if it did, it is money that could be better spent on stuff that is more critical to national security than aged aircraft looooong past their sell-by date.
It is another matter that the requirement for 114 single engine fighters was created by IAF at the Indian government’s behest to accommodate Washington. It was spun off from, and as an additionality to, the supposed need for Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft that the purchase of 36 Rafales partially met. Have presciently maintained all along — look up my posts- that the acquisition of the F-21 was always Jaishankar’s priority in whatever capacity he found himself in government, or outside of it. Chosen by Lockheed as its “strategic partner” per the Defence Procurement Procedure, the Tata Group has been itching ever since to produce the F-21 in India, and so hired Jaishankar as ‘President for Global Affairs’ in April 2018 to push for it. Jaishankar was appointed by Tata straight after he demitted office as Foreign Secretary, with the Prime Minister waiving the 2-year “cooling off” period rule applicable to all retiring civil servants. From this perch he canvassed for the Modi regime’s approval for the F-16 deal purchase. Tata hit the jackpot when little over a year later its President for Global Affairs was anointed foreign minister, putting him in a position to lubricate the F-16 transaction from within the cabinet. It’s just a matter of time.
So, as I had long ago warned, brace yourselves because the F-16 will soon be expensively in the IAF fleet for the Pakistan Air Force to make mincemeat out of in prospective encounters — and all this at the poor Indian taxpayer’s expense! It is necessary to reiterate Jaishankar-qua-Modi government’s follies because they are going to cost the country plenty.
But to return to Beigun; at the said Forum in Washington he emphasized that for US’ strategy for the Indo-Pacific to be successful “we have to tap into the full scale…of economics,…of security cooperation, and that’s impossible to do without India as centrepiece….So as important as I’d like to think the United States is to this strategy, it’s not going to be successful for us without India also standing side by side”. And then he went to dilate on the Quadrilateral — India, Japan, Australia, US, before re-emphasizing India’s importance to this geopolitical scheme, and urging India not be a “passive player”. And then as if to stress that it was beyond the Indian government’s ability to think expansively and strategically, he concluded, that “Quad concept has really helped India find a place in the Indo-Pacific — in the larger Indo-Pacific theatre [and] it’s…obviously…in our interest to have India as a partner in these issues.”
What is significant is that earlier this summer Biegun had for the first time called US’ China policy a failure, and issued a mea culpa for China-friendly policies of the last 30-odd years. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 22, 2020, he said — and this is worth quoting in extenso:
“Across multiple administrations the United States has supported China’s entry into the rules-based international order in hopes that China would be a partner in upholding international law, norms, and institutions and that the United States and China could develop a friendly relationship with reciprocal benefit. Over more than three decades, U.S. policies towards the PRC have advanced that goal through a massive outpouring of international assistance and lending, foreign investment, facilitation of Chinese membership in global institutions, and the education of millions of China’s brightest scholars at our best schools. Where this Administration diverges from previous Administrations is in the will to face the uncomfortable truth in the U.S.-China relationship that the policies of the past three decades have simply not produced the outcome for which so many had hoped, and that the United States must and take decisive action to counter the PRC.
“As stated in the 2017 National Security Strategy, despite the huge dividends to the PRC in terms of prosperity, trade, and global influence that United States support and engagement has delivered, Beijing has instead chosen to take increasingly hardline and aggressive actions, both at home and abroad; and China has emerged as a strategic competitor to the United States, and to the rules-based global order. We find the U.S.-China relationship today weighed down by a growing number of disputes, including commercial espionage and intellectual property theft from American companies; unequal treatment of our diplomats, businesses, NGOs, and journalists by Chinese authorities; and abuse of the United States’ academic freedom and welcoming posture toward international students to steal sensitive technology and research from our universities in order to advance the PRC’s military.
“Other areas of concern include China’s increasingly assertive use against partners and allies of military and economic coercion and state-sponsored disinformation campaigns, including, among others, India, Australia, Canada, the UK, ASEAN Members, the European Union, and several other European countries.”
The US Deputy Secretary of State then outlined the actions the Trump Administration was taking to counter China. “Across the Indo-Pacific region, the United States is deepening relationships with the countries that share our values and interest in a free and open Indo-Pacific. Last September, we held the first ministerial-level meeting of the United States, Australia, India, and Japan, marking a new milestone in our diplomatic engagement in the region. We are enhancing our alliances with Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand, which have helped sustain peace and security for generations, and we are furthering our engagement with ASEAN, an organization central to a free and open Indo-Pacific. Our security assistance to South China Sea claimant states and our recent rejection of the PRC’s maritime claims helps partners protect their autonomy and maritime resources. We are working with the Mekong countries to ensure sustainable development and energy security.
“Last month, I joined Secretary Pompeo in Hawaii to meet with our Chinese counterparts. In the two-day discussion the Secretary stressed that deeds, not words, were the pathway to achieve mutual respect and reciprocity between our two countries across commercial, security, diplomatic, and people-to-people interactions. He made clear our determination to push back against Beijing’s efforts to undermine democratic norms, challenge the sovereignty of our friends and allies, and engage in unfair trade practices, but at the same time, he also outlined areas where the United States and the PRC could cooperate to solve global challenges.”
Two things to note: Firstly, that Washington has defined India’s centrality to America’s Indo-Pacific strategy and hence also Delhi’s leverage. The question is will Modi, Jaishankar, and the PMO-MEA lot habituated to giveaways rather than selling India’s participation dear, strictly condition Indian military involvement in Quad activities on monitorable tech-transfer and assistance to specific programmes, like the one to design and develop a scalable Kaveri jet turbine to power present and future Indian-designed combat aircraft? I think not. After all, the Trump Administration not too long ago shelved any collaboration in developing a jet engine in India because of Pentagon’s concerns about parting with cutting edge technologies and the Indian government did not even object. So one can expect the Modi government to make much of wasteful, vapid transactions for the F-16 and the like designed to keep India an arms dependency.
And secondly, refer to the last bit of Biegun’s Congressional testimony reproduced above: After cataloguing all the reasons why China cannot be trusted, he repeats Pompeo and Washington’s readiness to discuss with Beijing the “areas where the United States and the PRC could cooperate to solve global challenges”. In other words, as long as the US can however and by whatever means ensure that China does not step on its toes, it wouldn’t care a fig before throwing the interests of the other countries of the Indo-Pacific overboard. This is the harsh reality that ought to contextualize Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla’s deliberations with Biegun, but won’t.
Indo-Pacific is absolutely crucial to India’s security, but an unreliable US as the central pillar of the Quad is a liability. The reason why I have been advocating the concept of the Modifed Quadrilateral — Mod Quad — of India, Japan, Australia and a set of Southeast Asian states to include principally Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, and Singapore that can more than even the balance of power with China. It is the only geostrategically organic and feasible solution the Modi government ought to be realizing instead of pursuing the chimera of the US as centrepiece in India’s security architecture. Combined with BRIS — Brazil, Russia-India-South Africa (BRICS minus China) as a complementary globe-girdling but loose security coalition harnessing the power and capacities of Russia, Brazil, and South Africa as well that Delhi should do its utmost to obtain, India could — with this twin security schema (elaborated in my 2018 book ‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’) — get into a position to dictate terms to China. And to even win America’s respect that Delhi so craves.
But this’d require a sea change in the mindset of the Indian government and military and, more specifically, in the thinking and approach of Prime Minister Modi. Of this last, however, there’s no sign.
It is not difficult to read China. But the so-called Mandarin-speaking China experts in the government who comprise the China Study Circle/Group (CSG), or whatever it is they call this unit these days made up with diplomats, and military attache and Intelligence-types — careerists all, seem intent — as is their bureaucratic habit — on configuring what they say to what they think the jefe maximo (maximum leader) wants to hear. In this context, it is less important for these officials to have their fingers on the adversary Chinese establishment’s pulse than not to rock the proverbial boat in Delhi.
Distinguished mainly for being so wrong so often about China — wrong here refers to recommending over-cautious turns in policy that actually assist, enable and advance the enemy’s cause and interests, the CSG’s greatest achievement appears to be that it is nevertheless taken seriously, relied upon for advice in crafting the larger China policy as also the tactical ploys and stratagems attending on unfolding events and crises. It says more about the country’s leaders and the quality of advice they are satisfied with than about the said advisers.
Then there are the China specialists in the academe and thinktanks who cheer the CSG-GOI’s every fear-stricken move from the op-ed webinar galleries, taking care to dissemble, calling for moderation, de-escalation and standing down in the face of Chinese provocations, lest Beijing slam the door shut on their academic advancement by denying them visas, and access to official documents, official interlocuters, and the Chinese seminar circuit. The only sinologists in the world who get away with being critical of Beijing are American and then only because the power balance still tilts towards the US.
Recall that in the military confrontation in eastern Ladakh now in its sixth month, the Xi government initially denied anything was amiss. But then the Indian military and government provided Beijing with the perfect excuse and justification for its territorial aggression: the Line of Actual Control is not delineated on the map nor marked on the ground, hence the presence of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army units on the Indian side is, well, understandable! It has since become the standard rationale for the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson to argue that not only have Chinese troops not crossed the LAC it is Indians who violated it, precipitating the June 15 clash in the Galwan Valley and, by preemptively taking the heights on the Rezangla range around Spanggur Lake, are inviting — and this is the favourite phrase PLA uses to cloak a military initiative — “a defensive counter-attack”! As I have said in my posts, this amounts to India withdrawing from its own territory.
Learning nothing and forgetting nothing, MEA’s reaction to Beijing’s reviving the old 1959 line as the disputed border, which upends 50 years of Sino-Indian diplomacy and some 4-5 agreements predicated on China’s acceptance of the present Line of Actual Control pending a final settlement of the border dispute, was again to soft-peddle the enormity of change in China’s position. Instead of a strong counter, it apologetically retailed the history of claims and counter-claims, and of various agreements since the 1950s. This has only reinforced Beijing’s view of India as a weak entity that can be railroaded into an agreement unfavourable to itself.
The tougher, more consequential, response ought to have been — and still can be — is for Delhi to declare that India too reverts forthwith to the border the colonial regime negotiated with the Tibetan government in 1913 in Simla disavowing, in the process, Nehru’s acceptance of Chinese suzerainty over Tibet and, even more emphatically, the Indian government’s later acceptance of Chinese sovereignty over that God-forsaken country over which Han China has no credible claim whatsoever other than in the abstract of the Chinese Emperor notionally denoting all adjoining states seeking a normal relationship as vassals, which tactic has been the Chinese norm in dealing with nations beyond its pale.
In practical terms, what China’s reaffirming the 1959 line means is that the PLA’s forcibly rearranging the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh is being justified ex-post facto. It leaves over 1,000 sq kms of Indian territory annexed either by direct occupation in the Galwan Valley, the Hot Springs area, etc and, indirectly in the Depsang Plains, by simply blocking Indian access to the area northwestwards of the Y-junction. Unless this blockade is militarily removed at whatever cost, it will result in the Modi government, for all intents and purposes, surrendering vital Indian territory. Once passed into Chinese hands, this sector will then become the staging ground for holding the DSDBO highway and Indian presence on the Saltoro Ridge and the Siachen Glacier hostage to Beijing’s whim. What is just as definite is that all the WMCC meetings and discussions at the Special Representatives level won’t get Beijing to restore the status quo ante that external affairs minister S Jaishankar publicly said was the Modi government’s goal.
The point about dealing with China is never to bring up diplomatic understandings, refer to past documents and agreements, etc. but to make matching territorial claims that exceed Chinese ones in their outlandishness. And to have all Indian officials preface their statements about India’s claims as being “clear and unchanging” — the crossed t’s and dotted i’s in its negotiating record to the contrary notwithstanding. China’s going outre should signal India’s going ballistic with its own wordy excess.
What has India to lose? If the Indian government still believes that the Wuhan and Mamallapuram spirit that President Xi Jinping pumped up Prime Minister Narendra Modi with retains its headiness and relevance then we may be in deeper trouble than we think. Because Xi has made it plain that his larger objective has always been to expansively secure China’s territorial ambit in Central Asia and especially its strategic investment in Pakistan by firming up its hold over Aksai Chin that was centrally part of Maharaja Hari Singh’s domain in Jammu & Kashmir.
May be, it is time for the Gujarati businessman in Modi to recognize that he has been conned by Xi, that he has a bum deal on his hands. And that his China policy needs an overhaul, a radical course correction.
Because there’s a tendency in the government (and, dare I say, in the higher military echelons) to hyperventilate at the very thought of actual war in the Himalayas, let’s be absolutely certain about one thing: the PLA is in no position to wage a sustained war in Ladakh or anywhere else; that Xi has bitten off more than he can chew in terms of getting the gander up of all its neighbours, including distant maritime ones — the US, and Australia, and that it is time for the Indian government to shake off its strategic lassitude and make life as difficult for China as is possible.
The following steps, in order of priority, have been advocated by me for over 25 years (in my books and other writings) and now is the time to implement them on a war footing:
Condition India’s acceptance of the ‘One China’ concept on Beijing’s acceptance of ‘One India’ policy — with ‘One India’ to include all of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, and Gilgit and Baltistan — the territory legally acceded by Hari Singh to the Union of India in 1947.
Should the Xi regime fail formally to accept ‘One India’ inside of a year, and in any case to renounce all previous Indian positions, and begin preparations to diplomatically recognize the sovereign Republic of Taiwan, and accept the Senkaku Islands as Japanese, denounce the Chinese nine-dash line in the South China Sea as fanciful and the sea-territories claimed by Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, Borneo, and Malaysia as entirely valid per UNCLOS guidelines and the verdict of the International Court of Justice at the Hague.
Begin expeditiously arming Vietnam, Philippines, and Indonesia, for starters, with supersonic Brahmos cruise missile batteries to be installed on the coasts fronting on the South China Sea on extreme priority basis, meaning even at the expense of equipping Indian army formations with this weapon. This should constitute the policy of belated but necessary payback for China’s nuclear missile arming Pakistan. It will instantly render inactive China’s powerful South Sea Fleet ex-Sanya base on Hainan Island and “narrow the seas” as I have contended for the Chinese Navy. The threat of loading nuclear warheads on these Southeast Asian Brahmos missiles can be an option Delhi can use to keep Beijing unbalanced.
Lead international campaigns in the the United Nations General Assembly and in the First Committee, and elsewhere for a ‘Free Tibet’ and for Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang to throw off the Chinese yoke, and materially and financially help sustain these Freedom Movements. And diplomatically begin referring to Tibet as ‘Chinese occupied Tibet’ and Xinjiang as East Turkestan. India can also channel and facilitate its friends with whatever assistance is appropriate among the Afghan Taliban to wage a full-fledged jihad in East Turkestan, again as payback for the longstanding Chinese help to rebel movements and insurgencies in Assam, Manipur and Nagaland, in particular.
Invest in factories to refine and produce rare earths to zero out dependence on China for these metals critical to sensitive electronics and other technology sectors.
Begin choking off all trade and commerce except that which is carried on in strictly reciprocal basis.
As I have argued, China has already done its worst, shot its bolt, as it were, where India is concerned. I mean, what worse can Beijing do to India after deliberately proliferating nuclear missiles to Pakistan? India so far has retaliated so meagrely as to merely confirm Beijing’s contempt for the Indian government and Xi’s perception of Modi as pliable.
What other provocation does Beijing have to offer India for you, Modiji, to wake up from your apparent China-induced stupor?
As people you know, love, respect and admire immensely depart the stage, a hollowness grows in the heart, and the world gets dimmer.
Major Jaswant Singh, long time Member of Parliament and erstwhile Foreign Minister, Defence Minister, and Finance Minister of India in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government and formerly Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission (before that institution morphed into the present day Niti Ayog) passed away this (Sunday) morning after six years of being comatose. It was deliverance of sorts.
In over 40 years of living in New Delhi and becoming familiar with many political movers and shakers, there’s no person I found more policy wise and intellectually stimulating and engaging than Jaswant. Oozing old world charm, he combined courtliness with a sharp mind and a deliberate way of speaking in his deep gravelly voice that no doubt brought the regimental risaldar-majors to clicking their boots. He was delightful company, easy to converse with, his interests wide and varied. I remember sitting hours with him in his book-lined study with Western classical music — Brahms, Schubert, Franz Liszt playing softly in the background as he ruminated on some issue or the other that he wanted my views about.
Recently returned from California, I first met him in 1979 at his Tughlak Lane residence when he was the leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha. Apparently, some of my op-eds had jiggled his curiosity. By way of breaking ice and aware he had resigned from the army to enter politics I wondered which infantry regiment he belonged to. He reacted like it was a slap in the face. “Infantry?!” he growled, measuring my gall. “Cavalry, man, cavalry! Central India Horse!” He related how as a Gentleman-Cadet in 1953 at the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun, he had won the tent-pegging contest and was handed the prize by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
Another faux pas on my part occurred soon thereafter when I was invited by him to dinner at his home. In my regulation uniform of those days — shirt and jeans, I entered his bungalow and advanced to the fireplace — it was winter — there to find a large man turning around and offering his hand, and saying “Jodhpur”! Astounded and uncomprehending — I mean, how can someone announce himself by calling the name of a city? — I gamely offered my hand in return and said “Karnad” this time eliciting like incomprehension on his part. What’s Karnad — a one-two gun salute wallah, at best? Had I been more observant, I would have noticed on entry to — instead of on my way out of — Jaswant’s ministerial compound the fancy car with a flying pennant and a red plate announcing ‘Jodhpur’, and correctly surmised that royalty would be in attendance. Instead, the two of us kept peering at each other, each as puzzled as the other until Jaswant scooted in to save the situation, explaining to “Baapji” — the Maharaja of Jodhpur, who I was. He thereby offered me a handle to now and then jocularly rib him with — “Jaswant, you are a feudatory!” and his mock admonition, “Bharat, you have respect for nothing!” It was the beginning of a warm and wonderful relationship. Among other things, he introduced me to dum phukt Rajasthani cuisine.
It turns out Baapji was responsible for first discovering Jaswant’s political talent that exceeded military careering, and helped him to get elected to Parliament from Jodhpur (if I remember right). It was a short, hop, skip and jump from that running start for the erudite Jaswant to be recognized as a leader in the Jan Sangh and then for him to rise as a founding member of the Bharatiya Janata Party and, in many respects, the political go-to person for Vajpayee (Brajesh Mishra being Atalji’s alter ego).
Even as the BJP was the government-in waiting during the years of Narasimha Rao, Jaswant was the undoubted shadow foreign minister. Then BJP was in power and it continued the Congress policy of cosying up to the US. Before almost every meeting in the series of 19-odd meetings to hammer out the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership that Jaswant had with the US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott in the Clinton Administration in various locations in the US, Germany, etc., I sent him a note anticipating the kind of positions the American might take and Jaswant’s options. More often than not, I was right because I’d receive hand-written notes from him saying so and how he had used this or that variation of my suggestion and why, in retrospect, he rued not taking this or that tack I had recommended! I didn’t mind his using me thus as a sounding board for ideas that he deployed in an attenuated form, always thanking me for my “impassioned” counsel. I kept warning Jaswant that the US means to hogtie India, prevent it from becoming a thermonuclear weapons power — a warning, unfortunately, he didn’t heed, arguing that an understanding would further the national interest! The NSSP was prelude to the 2005 nuclear deal with the US that, in fact, capped Indian nuclear capability at the 20KT fission weapons level.
He also didn’t take my advice that he should be the first one to write an account of his negotiations with Talbott on NSSP, reminding him that his interlocuter was a professional analyst who turned out books on a coin, and should Talbott beat him to a book, that would become the standard history, and he’d be scrambling to refute the American’s rendering of the facts, and how the unique Indian perspective Jaswant brought to the bargaining process would be lost. Jaswant kept putting it off until predictably Talbott produced his 2006 book — ‘Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb’.
The real crick in the Vajpayee regime’s joint was the unending clash of egos and bureaucratic turf battles between Jaswant (then in the Planning Commission) relying on MEA resources when negotiating with Talbott, and Mishra. The latter had parlayed the gratitude Vajpayee felt for Brajesh’s father, DP Mishra, the Congress party chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, who helped him get elected from Gwalior and tried to lure him into the Congress Party! — into first appointing him as India’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York during the Janata Party rule when Vajpayee was foreign minister and, when BJP formed the government in 1998, into getting himself installed as Vajpayee’s National Security Adviser-cum-Personal Private Secretary thus becoming, in effect, the de facto prime minister! Time and again the two — Jaswant by now in his various posts as foreign minister, defence minister or finance minister, and Brajesh — collided on policy matters, requiring Vajpayee to referee, except it was invariably Mishra who came up tops. Jaswant couldn’t abide him.
When as foreign minister, we used to sometimes sit on his lawn or his verandah for Saturday sandwich and beer, MEA secretaries would scurry around with files, appalled at the informality with which I treated their Minister whom they sir-ed while I called him Jaswant! On one occasion, a discussion with Jaswant led to his asking me to send him a note. Apparently, he passed my note to the then Joint Secretary (Americas) with ‘for action’ penned on it, resulting in the said Joint Secretary exasperatedly calling me to say “Bharat, why don’t you tell me what you want done, rather than going through my Minister?!” This may have boosted my ego but I was aware that the MEA guys were doing everything and more to divert Jaswant, water down my suggestions. It was a game they predictably won, and Jaswant owned up to it! It was all done in good humour though. But he nominated me to the National Security Advisory Board when it was first formed in 1998 and kept abreast, in particular, of developments in drafting the nuclear doctrine, a job K. Subrahmanyam as the Convenor, one other person, and I were engaged in because we seemed to be the only ones in the 27-member NSAB conversant with the nuclear deterrence history and literature. Except, the draft doctrine, to our chagrin, was made public to win some brownie points with Washington. And Jaswant was designated by Vajpayee (prompted by Mishra) to publicly refer to the finished doctrine paper as only “a draft” the better, I was informed, to preserve for the government some room for diplomatic maneuver.
Jaswant was the fixture in all my book launches, starting with my 750-page tome — ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security’ in 2002 in which I was critical of the BJP government’s nuclear weapons policy and for misdirecting and limiting the country’s nuclear weapons programme. I remember Jaswant sitting stoically on the podium, with a slight smile playing on his face, as I laid out the main points in the book and then had K. Subrahmanyam and Arundhati Ghose, India’s ambassador to the UN Disarmament Commission in Geneva, dissect and debate my thesis.
He asked me in 2006 to be a panelist at the launch of one of his books — ‘Travels in Transoxiana’. At that event, I expressed my astonishment at how beautifully he wielded the English language and why I simply didn’t believe him when he said that he had a Hindi medium school education, and was introduced to the language only when he was 15 years of age! One has to read his Transoxiana written almost in Curzonian style to appreciate just how polished Jaswant’s intellect was. I often take this book down from the shelf to read a passage here, a page there, to remind me how lucky I am to have had Jaswant Singh for a friend. For my money, he is the most intellectually accomplished, culturally rooted foreign minister/defence minister/finance minister India has ever had.
I am grateful to Jaswant for great many things. Among these was that he persuaded his cousin and fellow-cavalryman, the legendary Lt General Hanut Singh of Poona Horse-fame, to meet with me. It was the most educational three days I spent in the latter’s last command, the Armoured Corps Centre in Ahmednagar.
Jaswant is no more; he will be sorely missed but will stay on in the memory of those with the good fortune to have gained from his company.
Earlier this month, the Indian Air Force formally inducted five Rafale combat aircraft — two 2-seat trainers, and three combat-ready single seater aircraft, into the 17th ‘Golden Arrows’ Squadron in Ambala. Another five Rafales with IAF roundels are at the Dassault base in Merignac in southern France, being used for conversion of MiG-21bis pilots, ground handling and maintenance crews. The retraining stints are for six months for each lot of Indian pilots and technicians, with the pilots allotted the contracted number of training sorties alongside a French instructor.
Making allowance for the occasion, there was the expected hyperbole. The defence minister Rajnath Singh called the aircraft a “game changer” and, with less the Chinese adversary in Ladakh in mind than the domestic audience, added that it sent a “big and stern message to the entire world, especially those eyeing our sovereignty.” The French defence minister Florence Parly not to be outshone in exaggeration said that “India has world class capability and incredible sovereign tool. India has an edge over the entire region.” She was merely embroidering what her Indian counterpart had stated in Merignac on 8 October 2019 when formally accepting the first lot of Rafales. After a joy ride in the plane, the Indian leader had declared “the new Rafale Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA)” as making “India stronger” and giving the IAF an “exponential boost” to “its air dominance” capability.
Why Rajnathji was briefed to say this is not important. But how the IAF means to actually obtain air dominance with just 36 of these aircraft is a mystery. Sure, Rafales working in tandem with Su-30MKIs can plausibly achieve this objective as former Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa stated, but by themselves even twice this number of Rafales in Indian colours cannot. But, as the late defence minister Manohar Parrikar was convinced, larger numbers of Su-30s would alone have sufficed for the purpose. Moreover, the additional Su-30s could have been secured at a fraction of the Rs 59,000 crore upfront cost of the Rafales or, to repeat myself, for just a “truckload” of the exorbitantly-priced Meteor, Scalp and Hammer missiles that these aircraft will be armed with, and which have been tested and proven by the French Air Force against such military heavyweights as Libya and Syria!
This begs the question I long ago asked — where was the need for the Rafale in the first place?
But whether India dominates the skies is not Parly’s interest; that the IAF procures an additional 36 Rafales is. In a meeting with the French press at the embassy that evening, Parly was reportedly confident that Paris will be able to ring up such a sale on the same terms, but without the ‘sunk costs’ of attending infrastructure — airconditioned hangars, special diagnostic and testing machines, etc.
When reminded by a pesky French journo that such a follow-up deal clashes head-on with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘atm nirbharta’ policy and the thrust of Rajnath Singh’s ‘negative list’ thinking, Madame Parly dissembled but did not budge from her stand, indirectly hinting that such a deal would be signed for the same reason the original was approved in April 2015: Modi will agree to buy ’em. End of argument! Irrelevant considerations like, where’s the money? are obviously not expected to intrude into the Indian government’s calculations, or at least Paris does not expect them to.
Both France and the IAF had gamed this out right, and their plan is working. IAF was the decisive actor here. It had sought the 36 Rafales it was partial to from the beginning as a wedge purchase easing the buy, as I had predicted, of more such aircraft to fill the Service’s entire 126 MMRCA requirement without having to go through the transfer-of- technology and licensed manufacture cycle.
As part of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘self-reliant India’ policy, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh issued a list of 101 defence items in August with different timelines beyond which their import will be banned, with a second list soon to follow. From December 2020, the armed forces will not be able to purchase some 69 types of foreign-sourced military goods, including many major weapons systems and platforms: ship-borne cruise missiles, diesel submarines, missile destroyers, light combat aircraft and helicopters.
Most of these are already produced in India under licence, so the government is confident the ban will force the Indian defence industry to achieve self-sufficiency within a decade. Because imports will not be allowed for any reason, the military will be compelled to become stakeholders in indigenous programs. However, there has been minor pushback, with immediate purchases from abroad being approved to fill ‘voids’ in the war wastage reserve and the war stock just in case hostilities flare up with China in Ladakh.
Singh promised contracts worth US$54 billion to the Indian defence industry, but instead spawned scepticism because this figure includes funding for procurements that are already underway. The reality is that the Indian government has awarded US$34 billion of contracts to foreign arms suppliers, far exceeding the US$20.25 billion for Indian companies. Since defence budgets are written annually, there is no hint of long-term government funding for particular programs.
There are also more fundamental problems with the plan. It is ironic that a country more-or-less capable of making its own strategic armaments — nuclear warheads, long-distance missiles and ballistic missile submarines — is unable to produce conventional weapons. Because strategic weaponry is not available at some arms bazaar, these were developed in-country under a special dispensation — the ‘technology mission’ mode — directly under the Prime Minister. This precluded the procedural hassles, niggling financial oversight and bureaucratic foot-dragging usually faced by conventional weapons development projects. The arms self-reliance policy will be boosted if all indigenous conventional weapons projects too are developed under a similar regime.
India’s mindbogglingly complex defence procurement system, tilted against local industry, has been only superficially reformed. The latest version of the Defence Procurement Procedure defines a hierarchy topped by indigenously designed, developed and manufactured (IDDM) items. Next are items satisfying the ‘Make in India’ (MII) initiative, which includes equipment reproduced by foreign companies from their international product lines — Lockheed Martin’s F-16 fighter aircraft, for example, which will be sold as the new F-21.
IDDM items must include at least 60 per cent Indian content (whether by weight or value is unclear), with the same requirements applying to spares, special tools and test equipment. The MII category allows foreign firms to get away with only 40 per cent, skewing the competition cost wise in their favour. This pushes the armed services towards the MII option, involving munitions that are proven but that quickly become obsolete.
This process is complicated by the lack of procedures to assess the use of local content in either category — the defence force will have to take foreign firms at their word, which isn’t always reliable. In this case, kicking the crutch of foreign weaponry from underneath the armed services will not advance the cause of a ‘self-reliant India’ without first removing the anomalies in the procurement procedures.
The military has a habit of finding anything imported acceptable and anything Indian-made suspect. The travails of the Indian-designed and developed 4.5 generation, near all-composite Tejas light combat aircraft are well known. The Indian Air Force (IAF) contributed little to the project other than frequently changing the Air Staff Qualitative Requirements, imposing delays in the prototype and certification stages and, when the aircraft rolled out, claiming it was technologically dated. The IAF was finally pressured into buying a squadron’s worth of Tejas, and, with the push for indigenisation, will soon order an additional 83.
The Indian Armed Forces were also unconvinced by the Indian-designed Arjun main battle tank, buying too few to support the necessary economies of scale. Despite outperforming the Russian T-90 MBT in all field tests, the army contends the Arjun is wider and heavier than the specifications. Meanwhile, their T-90 fleet keeps growing.
The precedent for the stepmotherly treatment of locally-produced armaments was established in the mid-1970s, when the IAF favoured the British Jaguar low-level strike aircraft at the expense of the HF-73, the advanced variant of the Indian-designed Marut HF-24 — the first supersonic jet fighter to be produced outside of North America and Europe.
Compared with their peers in the public sector, private-sector defence industrial firms boast better designing wherewithal, work ethic and labour productivity. But the Modi government continues to relegate private firms to the role of sub-contracting for the apathetic and wasteful defence public sector units, resulting in time and cost over-runs, delayed delivery schedules and alienated military customers.
The government has so far ignored the economically sensible solution of making the defence industry more profit and export-minded. That would entail Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. sharing the design and source code for the Tejas LCA with Tata Aerospace and Mahindra Aerospace, creating multiple production lines for a combat aircraft with a ready market in the developing world. They could also task Larsen & Toubro, the engineering giant that puts together the Arihant SSBN, with producing conventional submarines.
A more ambitious approach would be to divide the public-sector research and development and defence industrial assets into two giant competing combines, each under the managerial control of leading private sector companies such as Tata and L&T. These two complexes would then bid for weapons contracts, with the Defence Ministry funding development in the prototype and selection phase.
Absent such optimal use of defence industrial resources, prospects are bleak for a militarily self-sufficient India.
Four months into the Chinese annexation of Indian territory in eastern Ladakh, specifically in the Galwan Valley, the Hot Springs-Gogra-Kugrang area, and in the stretch of the northern shore of the Pangong Lake from Fingers 3 to 8, the BJP government is unwilling to call China out.
Its case is that while the PLA intrusions and build-up are in the ‘dead zone’ 2kms on either side of the Line of Actual Control — meaning in the 4km belt astride it, there otherwise is no hint of Chinese aggression! This in the face of overwhelming evidence that the PLA has indeed gobbled up Indian land and will not stir out of it for any reason. If the government hopes that it will be able to leverage the “preemptive” occupation of Black Top and other peaks by the Indian army in the Kailash Range south and southeastwards of the Pangong, around the Spanggur Gap, to get the PLA out of where it has encroached and is now consolidating its presence, then it has misread China’s intentions terribly enough to render Indian diplomacy it is banking on, futile. Not that it has prevented foreign minister S Jaishankar from doing the obligatory rounds of Moscow, etc. and hoping to realize by these means the restoration of the status quo ante.
In this reality denial mode, the ruling party in Parliament yesterday stuffed the opposition, daring it to not support the motion of support for the armed forces in this their time of trial. The positive vote was then construed as a general backing for government policy. Neat! Except this policy teeters between doing nothing to reverse the Chinese capture of Indian territory and approving military actions, such as taking Black Top, etc., that while disadvantaging PLA forces some in that sub-sector, did not in its execution entail great risk of things going wrong.
On the basis of what the Indian army has done and not done in Ladakh so far, several worrisome aspects of Prime Minister’s approach driving Indian policy are becoming clear. Modi definitely does not want more Indian casualties. Containing the public ire after the gruesome killing by the PLA troops of the 16 Bihar Regiment personnel June 15 was a touch and go thing, and resisting the people’s desire for just retribution a delicate political operation the Modi regime barely pulled off.
The lesson learned was that the best way of avoiding Indian deaths on the LAC is to avoid hostilities as much as possible. Nor is Modi in a mood to countenance military escalation for any reason. This rules out any action by the army to force the Chinese out of areas on the Indian side of LAC they are presently entrenched in.
The August 29 Black Top action, in the event, was a perfect symbolic act showing a strong Indian army that far from taking guff from the PLA was taking the fight to the Chinese. Except it involved little real risk to Indian troops, as it was “preemptive” action. It was sort of the Ladakhi version of the Balakot strike on the other front. There was less physical harm done the adversary than that the operation suggested a dynamic Indian response and salved India’s ego.
Escalation has been avoided also by studiously ignoring the inconvenient fact of PLA’s territorial aggrandizement by rhetorically beating around every bush but that one. Modi has thus at once legitimated the Chinese moves and absorption of Indian territory into the ‘Tibet Autonomous Region’, incentivized President Xi Jinping to stop the PLA from grabbing more Indian territory than it had perhaps planned to do but far more land than Modi wants to lug around as political liability.
This has led to a counter Indian military build-up but one that seems designed for the army to stay put, weather the winter, rather than fight the PLA. It serves Modi’s aim of capping the military confrontation at the existing level of to-ing and fro-ing.
This is the logic of Modi’s “no casualties and no military escalation, at all cost”-approach, his brave sounding words during his day-trip to Nimu with references to the sudarshanchakra wielding Lord Krishna notwithstanding. After all, when the Modi regime, indirectly claims in Parliament that there’s no sign of Chinese aggression anywhere, nothing that cannot be explained by the indistinctness of the LAC on the ground, there’s no reason for Beijing to either disagree or, importantly, be disagreeable.
Happily, this policy conforms to the Indian armed services’ mindset of not provoking the PLA, not taking ‘pangas’ with the Chinese. And it is in line with the country’s traditionally defensive-passive-reactive military posture where China is concerned. Except, Modi’s over-cautious policy is the reverse of “no risk it, no biscuit” — a phrase a famous American football coach mouthed to urge his team to show initiative and aggro on the field. Transposed to the Sino-Indian confrontation, it means just the opposite — do less, do nothing, so less harm comes to you, with the ‘biscuit’ going to the PLA and Indian territory being lost permanently to China.
This includes the loss of access to all the patrolling points and land northwestwards of the Y-junction on the Depsang Plains and will lead to the DSDBO Highway becoming vulnerable to a Chinese pincer closing in from the Galwan and the Depsang endangering, in the process, India’s access to the Siachen Glacier and, incidentally, negate any Indian plans for striking at the Sino-Pakistani joint at the Karakorum Pass. This last objective is what the PLA had uppermost in mind strategically to achieve and, thanks to Prime Minister Modi, it has now done it.
As predicted in my last post, the extended S. Jaishankar-Wang Yi pow-wow in Moscow that reportedly concluded well after midnight, India-time, in substantive terms produced zilch. Keeping in mind Russian sensitivities and the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov’s determination to see the two not end their meeting with nothing, the Indian and Chinese minister reached a laboured 5-point agreement that far from brightening the prospects of peace may have set the scene for more military exchanges in eastern Ladakh. Depending on what transpires and however the intensity and scale get ratcheted up by the forward units of either side, we may yet have full bore hostilities.
The first point repeated the tired line of “not allowing differences to become disputes” — Jaishankar’s signature tune. The second, cleverly from the Chinese point of view, puts the onus on the military level talks — yes, the same patience-sapping talkathons conducted in Moldo-Chushul by the XIV Corps commander Lt Gen Harinder Singh and Major General Liu Lin, PLA in-charge of the southwestern border sector, and at less senior levels — to reach a modus vivendi and “quickly disengage, maintain proper distance and ease tensions”. The third point features the Indian government’s insistence that both sides “abide by all the existing agreements and protocol on China-India boundary affairs” starting with the 1993 peace and tranquillity agreement “in the border areas and avoid any action that could escalate matters” — though the 1993 accord is nowhere mentioned. In the fourth point, they agreed that the military-to-military interactions continue, on parallel tracks, with the Special Representatives level talks and the WMCC (Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination) meetings. And the final point, putting cart before the horse, voiced the unwarranted hope that the two countries “expedite work to conclude new Confidence Building Measures”.
That the 5-points mean little was stressed by Wang who, in response to Jaishankar’s saying that India “would not countenance any attempt to change the status quo unilaterally” and expressing his desire that bilateral ties resume their earlier “largely positive trajectory”, reiterated China’s “stern position” on the situation in the border areas. He emphasised “that the imperative is to immediately stop provocations such as firing and other dangerous actions that violate the commitments made by the two sides”, adding that it is also “important to move back all personnel and equipment that have trespassed” and the “frontier troops must quickly disengage so that the situation may de-escalate”. Meaning, that Beijing will not compromise a whit on its stance that because Indian troops violated the LAC, they’d have to withdraw to obtain peace premised on Delhi accepting the new LAC secured by the PLA. This frontally contradicts the Indian government’s goal articulated by Jaishankar June 17 of restoring “the status quo” as existed in Ladakh in April 2020.
It is clear though what the Chinese strategy is in the non-military sphere. It is to sow confusion with a plethora of negotiations — each negotiating channel, at least on the Indian side, getting in the way of every other, and seeding a mess that Indian official and military circles will be preoccupied with, while Beijing conveys the impression of progress being made, however haltingly, in this or that or the other channel. As mentioned in the previous post, at the apex level Wang Yi is discussing ways to resolve issues simultaneously with Jaishankar and with the NSA, Ajit Doval. Why Delhi agreed to this twin-apex track in the first place many years ago is not a mystery. In theory, the National Security Adviser in the PMO has the ears of the prime minister — the only person in the Indian system who counts — and is the channel the PM can use for directed intervention bypassing the bureaucratic maze in MEA. So far, some 22-23 sessions of the Special Representatives level talks have been held with nothing to show for them. And it doesn’t seem to matter if the NSA is a Mandarin-speaking China expert or not. Doval was preceded as Special Representative by Shivshankar Menon — NSA to Manmohan Singh, and former Foreign Secretary, who cut his diplomatic teeth in China. It made no difference — there are no results.
That China nevertheless is happy plugging for multiple active negotiating streams suggests they serve China’s purpose, not India’s. It is time Delhi called a halt to this farce of negotiations, and restricted all negotiating with the Chinese to a single forum, a unitariness of command Beijing has achieved by making Wang the go-to guy even as on the Indian side there’s a whole bunch of people mucking up the works. So, the negotiating strategy needs to be sorted out.
To add to India’s troubles, the two principals while alighting on the 5 points in Moscow entirely ignored the fluid reality on the ground in eastern Ladakh, which is hurtling towards some serious military engagements. Except, no one on the Indian side seems to be very clear about what the field reality is, not even the army.
Consider the situation on the north shore of the Pangong Lake. Per press reports, there is supposedly an Indian troop concentration on the Finger 3 ridge to match the strength of the Chinese force on Finger 4 and to deter it from advancing towards Finger 3 via the connecting “knuckle” — the site where the two sides are presently facing each other at not too great distance. But what is really confusing is the Indian army sources have told the press that the PLA is physically blocking Indian troops from reaching a high point — presumably the highest point — on Finger 3 ridge by suddenly appearing with flags every time an Indian detail tries to reach it. (Refer https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/delhi/pangong-fingers-hot-up-scramble-for heights-as-pla-men-mass-on-ridge-india-sends-more-troops-6591327/ )
So what is it? Are Indian troops really in control of all of the Finger 3 area or not, the knuckle connecting the fingers apart? Because if the PLA is entrenched on Ginger 4 alone, how can they suddenly appear on Finger 3?
Or, is it an unpalatable truth the army is unwilling to own up to that it has lost or nearly lost all of Finger 3 to the PLA as well? Or, if this feature has not been wholly lost, that the Chinese military units have been somehow allowed to get on the Finger 3 ridge? Because a source in the above-mentioned news story is reported as saying: “The assessment was that sooner than later, the Chinese would descend to cut off our access to Dhan Singh Thapa Post. We had to make sure they were blocked. Now along the entire Finger 3 ridge, Indian troop strength has been increased at different places to match the Chinese.”
If Finger 3 is being contested with the PLA, besides the Major Dhan Singh Thapa post at the foot and on the western side of Finger 3, Indian military presence in, and control of, Fingers 1 and 2 too are imperilled. After all, if the Chinese have taken Finger 3, why would they not try and also push Indian troops out of Fingers 1 & 2, thereby occupying all of the northern shore and completing a route of the Indian army? This reading of the situation fits in with HQ XIV Corps’ apparent belief that the PLA will seek to displace Indian troops from the Finger 3 ridge and add it to all the Indian territory already annexed to the west of it — the extended area from Fingers 4 to 8. Still, Indian military sources explain these aggressive PLA moves as merely a reaction to the Indian occupation post-August 29 of the commanding heights on the Kailash range around Spanggur Lake, proximal to the south bank of the P-Tso. This has only heightened the uncertainty about what’s happening as regards these hilly spurs on the Pangong.
Of course, the Chinese encroachment and permanent occupation of all the Fingers is a worrying prospect, and vacating the PLA from these areas will be a fairly major military undertaking. But the move to contest Finger 3 (and logically also Fingers 1& 2) could be a feint, to divert the Indian military’s focus and resources from the Kailash range that makes the disposition of Chinese forces on the Spanggur Tso and the southern end of Pangong untenable.
The fact is realizing the government’s objective of status quo ante will require the army to vacate the PLA from Fingers 4 to 8, remove Chinese troops from the Y-junction in the Depsang Plains, and PLA presence from the Galwan Valley and the Hot Springs-Gogra-Khugrang area, and protecting the DBO highway by securing the mountain heights on the eastern bank of the Shyok River, will necessitate the Indian army being more aggressive and proactive.
One can only hope the preemptive occupation and fortifying of Black Top and other heights in the Kailash range was not a one-off thing — a rare island of aggression in an otherwise bland sea of caution.
Hearing the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman say the near-clash September 7 at Mukhpari was due to the Indian army offering “serious provocation of an egregious nature” and then have the MEA accuse the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) for “blatantly violating agreements and carrying out aggressive manoeuvres” and firing small arms, a third country tuning in may find it hard to blame one or the other side for ratcheting up proceedings. This confusion would have persisted but for a picture of the incident snapped by a mobile camera and flashed to the India media.
It shows 15-20 Chinese troops, some of them unusually large-bodied – specially chosen for this intimidation mission in padded body armour. They had automatic rifles slung across their shoulders, standing over a small stone wall marking Indian territory, shouting and gesturing with ‘guandaos’ in their hands. Guandao is a Chinese polearm – a long lance with a slightly curved scything blade, a weapon from the 3rd Century AD in the time of the Eastern Wu Dynasty. It conforms with the PLA use of the slightly more modern, but still medieval, nailed maces in the June 15 confrontation in the Galwan Valley that led to the killing of 20 personnel of the 16 Bihar Regiment.
The PLA may not think such regression is the future of war. But it apparently believes it can use museum pieces, instead of in-date arms, to escape the charge of initiating military hostilities, and to shove the forward-deployed Indian mountain infantrymen, not similarly equipped, into escalating matters by reacting with automatic gun fire. Post-Galwan clash, Indian troops, if attacked, are instructed to use their assault weapons. By such contrivances, Beijing hopes to make India responsible for starting a fracas, violating existing agreements on the use of force on the disputed border, and to secure an excuse for military escalation. It is a clever ruse the Indian government and military seem to be dumbfounded by when such PLA tactics can be easily countered by arming troops with nail-spiked steel maces, etc. to enable them to respond in kind, which hasn’t been done.
The fact that the Indian jawans at Mukhpari neither flinched nor reacted precipitately in the face of jeering PLA troops itching for a fight and discharged their weapons in the air only in response to the Chinese doing the same, indicates tremendous discipline on their part. Following on the success of the Tibetan-manned Special Frontier Force (SFF) to surreptitiously secure Black Top on the night of August 29, it is a genuine psychological and tactical military reverse for the Chinese.
Black Top is the highest point in the Kailash mountain range surrounding the Spanggur Lake and Indian occupation of it renders vulnerable the PLA presence at lesser heights and its post at Moldo hosting artillery and a fleet of armoured vehicles. It does three other things – dominates all east-west routes in the vicinity, blocks the PLA from realizing its original objective — capturing the southern shore of the Pangong Tso and, according to the former Northern Army commander, Lieutenant General HS Panag, enables Indian units to move to the south bank of the Spanggur Lake and even advance northeastwards towards Rudok.
A more confident Indian army, rather than waste time gloating over its so far small successes, should prepare, with fast moving Special Forces (such as the SFF and the Ladakh Scouts) in the van, to take back the area — Fingers 4 to 8 — on the northern bank of the Pangong Tso, remove the PLA blockade at the Y-junction on the Depsang Plains, dislodge the Chinese from Indian territory around the Hot Springs-Gogra-Kugrang area, secure the mountain ridge on the east bank of the Shyok River to protect the new highway to Daulat Beg Oldi and the access route to the Karakorum Pass, and to fortify the hilltops it occupies in the Kailash Range.
General Panag, for one, rues the Indian army’s “error of judgement” in not occupying the “plateau-like areas” to the east of the Kailash Range which would have preempted their use by the PLA as staging areas for Chinese offensives he expects will be mounted to clear the Indian presence from the Chushul sector, in particular Black Top, which he thinks the Chinese cannot afford to have remain under Indian control. To thwart PLA attacks, he advises that the approaches to Indian-held positions be mined and embedded with Improvised Explosive Devices.
The uptick in the Indian army actions in eastern Ladakh, however, is not matched by equally efficacious Indian diplomacy. Commenting on the Chinese disregarding numerous “understandings” since 1993 to limit forces that can be deployed on the LAC and to restrain them, the external affairs minister (EAM) S. Jaishankar, had nothing very profound to say other than that this “raises very, very important questions” and “calls for very, very deep conversations between the two sides at the political level.” All this may be very, very good but doesn’t progress a diplomatic solution any.
In fact, it hints at the EAM kicking the can down the road, putting the onus on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to resolve the problem at his level with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
This is a reasonable conclusion to reach considering Jaishankar in his video conversations achieved nothing and is unlikely to accomplish much in the luncheon meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Moscow, September 10, and neither did the National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval who video-conferenced with Wang on July 5. If anything, there’s every possibility that Wang is playing Doval off against Jaishankar. Because policy- and decision-making processes in the Government of India are famously stove-piped and coordination is nonexistent, NSA and EAM on separate tracks negotiating with the same Chinese interlocuter, may further differently nuanced aims and agendas — a situation Wang is bound to milk.
Whatever gains the Indian army may register in eastern Ladakh could thus be squandered by Messrs Doval and Jaishankar at the negotiating table.
India does not have a good record when it comes to negotiating post-military success. With the 161 Brigade under ‘Bogey’ Sen poised to take Muzzafarabad, Nehru decided to halt all operations in the 1947-48 conflict over the erstwhile princely kingdom of Jammu & Kashmir and trust the UN to resolve the issue. In 1965, at the Tashkent peace talks that the Soviet Union hosted to end the “war” with Pakistan, the diminutive Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri succumbed to the size-wise towering Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s plea for “rahmat” (kindness) and unthinkingly returned the Haji Pir Bulge to Pakistan, whose capture lopped off some 200 kms between Jammu and Srinagar. It laid waste to the singularly bold and resolute effort by 1 Para commanded by Major (later Lieutenant General) Ranjit Singh Dyal, MVC, that led to the capture of this salient from where Pakistan had infiltrated its soldiers in mufti into the Srinagar Valley as part of Operation Gibraltar, and has ever since done the same with jihadis.
Such stupidity was repeated six years later and then in trumps when, instead of imposing a victor’s peace — which is never fair or equitable to the losing party and so sanctified by international law, and compelling Pakistan to hand over Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, Gilgit and Baltistan to India and formalizing the boundary or, at a minimum, cementing what is now the Line of Control in J&K into a delineated border, Indira Gandhi unconditionally returned 93,000 Pakistani Prisoners of War in Bangladesh to Pakistan. She was persuaded to do so by Pakistan PM Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s promise of delivering on this latter boundary solution once he stabilized the political situation back home. That Bhutto desperately needed this generous Indian gesture to establish his creds with GHQ, Rawalpindi, and to shore up his domestic standing and support was known to Indira’s advisers in Simla, not that they or the PM cared. India thus surrendered the single most significant leverage Delhi had to obtain a permanent politico-military fix for Kashmir, and said Good Bye to the last opportunity for durable peace in South Asia.
Sure, the situation in eastern Ladakh is nowhere comparable to these previous military successes, nor is it militarily settled in any way. After parroting for four months the Chinese-cum-Indian government/MEA line that the indistinct LAC was the reason for China’s aggression, and expecting Delhi to resolve the matter by reasoning with the Chinese at the twin (military and diplomatic) negotiating table, the army brass finally stirred. And then only because prime minister Modi prodded them. During his briefing in Nimu, Ladakh, he reportedly told Rawat, Naravane, Harinder & Co. to tell him what the army would do, not what the Chinese had done.
The actions to preemptively occupy the commanding heights (Black Top, Magar Hill, etc) in the mountains on the southern shore of the Pangong Tso followed and are fine, coming as a relief after an unbelievable period of passivity. But these cannot be counted as other than minor tactical gains that surprised the PLA. The Chinese plainly did not expect the Indian forces to take even such small initiatives. Whatever else these actions achieved, Beijing was alerted to India stiffening its spine somewhat and, after four months of unresisted occupation activity that may have added in excess of 60-odd sq kms in the Galwan and the Pangong (Fingers 4 to 8) areas to China’s bag, signaling it is in the game after all.
But now, Russia’s peacemaking foray intervenes. S Jaishankar, the giveaway expert — how can we forget the unforgetable! — the 2008 nuclear deal where he handed India’s nuclear testing option on a platter to Washington? — in the Foreign Office riding herd as minister, heads for Moscow, there to confer, September 9-11, with his Chinese and Russian counterparts, Wang Yi and Sergei Lavrov, respectively. Ostensibly to transact whatever Shanghai Cooperation Organization business there is to handle, Lavrov will push Jaishankar and Wang to, on the sidelines, hammer out a deal to end the Sino-Indian confrontation. That, in the process, Putin-ite Russia’s reputation as honest broker and go-between will be polished, explains Moscow’s motivation.
But what and where’s the danger? It lies in neither Modi nor Xi Jinping to-date saying anything that is directly accusatory or about the other’s culpability for things going askew in Ladakh. Modi has been scrupulous in avoiding making any reference to Chinese annexation of Indian territory and has consoled himself and the country by drawing an analogy to the “chakradhari” Lord Krishna in the Mahabharata epic and such like — how aptly I cannot say because my reading of English translations has been episodic, even as Xi has waxed authoritative about sinicizing the stubborn Dalai Lama-loving Tibetans. So, unless Modi gives the clearest instructions to Jaishankar, like the direct and clear order by the short time PM Deve Gowda to Arundhati Ghose, the Indian ambassador to the UN disarmament conference, to veto the draft comprehensive test ban treaty that was in the works in Geneva and which the Indian government was being pressured to sign, Jaishankar may take it upon himself to sell Indian interests down the drain.
Delhi’s declared position is that it wants the restoration of the status quo ante and rejects the Chinese terms of the two sides withdrawing an equal distance from wherever their forces currently find themselves. Jaishankar may believe that he can convince Modi that because this is all the give Wang offered him, and because peace with Xi’s China is so much the PM’s personal stake and priority, that he took it. Whence the Indian army will be asked to back down from the heights in the Chushul sector even as the PLA by and large retains its position on the newly realigned LAC there as also on the Galwan and the Pangong Tso.
Twenty-two years ago, the establishment IDSA journal — ‘Strategic Analysis’ published a research paper of mine in its January 1998 issue [“Getting Tough with China” (https://idsa.in/system/files/BhartKarnad1998.pdf — my name is misspelled in the URL!]. It argued for “equitable” not “equal” security, showing just why the peace and tranquility agreement signed by Narasimha Rao in 1996 was injurious to the national interest, as it required the two forces to pullback 40 kms. And how, in “as the crow flies”-terms, especially in the east, it would mean the Indian army backing all the way down to the foothills even as the PLA remains on the Tibetan Plateau in striking distance of the LAC. I had suggested that the pullback distance should involve the time it takes either side to mobilize a certain military mass on the LAC in each of the sectors. Should this be the Indian negotiating standard today, it would have to additionally factor in the differential in the extent and quality of the border infrastructure (roads, telecom connectivity, etc) which, in a comprehensive agreement, would necessitate the PLA retreating all long the disputed border roughly, at a minimum, to the west-east line Rutog-Shiquanhe-Zanda-Zhongba-Xigase-Yarlung-Bowo-Zayu. This, incidentally, in some ways is the true measure of the conventional military superiority the PLA presently enjoys over the Indian army in a long war.
In the shorter time frame, however, India is not that severely disadvantaged. And the Indian army may be better off carrying out actions in eastern Ladakh to permanently entrench itself on the heights that it has recently secured. And more particularly, it should get on with forcefully displacing the PLA from the Y-junction in the Depsang Plains and to occupy the tops of the range abutting on the eastern bank of the Shyok River in a salutary show of strength and intent, to protect the new highway to Daulat Beg Oldi and maintain its proximity to the Karakorum Highway. And Indian Special Forces (SF), with the Tibetan-manned Special Frontier Force and the Ladakh Scouts in the van with the Navy’s marine commando coming in from lake-side in a pincer attack, ought to be tasked with eliminating the PLA strong points on the ridges above Fingers 4 to 8 on the northern shore of the Pangong Tso. Fast-moving SFs are better suited for such ops than even the acclimated troops of the new mountain offensive corps. This part of Ladakh was inaccessible in 1962, a fact the PLA mercilessly exploited. In 2020 with the stocking and prepositioning of stores proceeding apace, the Indian Air Force in the worst case will hopefully be able to sustain an air bridge, periodically topping off supplies for forwardly deployed Indian formations in the winter.
One fervently prays the CDS General Rawat finds the above suggestions to be, in his own words from another context, “the best, suitable” course for the Indian military to follow. It will free Modi to tell Jaishankar to engage Wang in pleasantries about the Bolshoi theatre’s current production of Don Carlo, and do nothing else. The less our foreign minister is asked to do by way of negotiating, the less harm he will end up doing the country.
There were two casualties in the night operation on Aug 29 by a unit of the Special Frontier Force (SFF) to take Black Top Hill south east of the Thakung post — the main Indian encampment on the southern bank of the Pangong Lake.
SFF, recruiting mainly from the exile Tibetan community in India, was set up originally at the end of the 1962 War as the country’s covert warfare arm in the fight against China. As a ready motivated force of youthful, highly trained commando, its formal brief is to clandestinely carry out tasks to hinder the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in its rear areas in Chinese-occupied Tibet (COT) even as the Indian army takes on the enemy frontally in conventional hostilities. Initially it was manned by the warlike khampas of the Kham region of eastern Tibet, who formed the praetorian guard for the Lama-ist order centered on Lhasa. Armed with obsolete weapons, the khampas offered enough resistance to hold up for a while the advance elements of the invading PLA force rushing to capture Lhasa in 1949. SFF now comprises besides mostly exile Tibetans also other mountain people.
(The Ladakh Scouts and the Nubra Guards — comprising natives of the Shyok and Nubra Valleys, merged later into the Ladakh Scouts, were founded for similar reasons and missions in their respective native areas of deployment.) The SFF and the Ladakh Scouts are manned by people with unique constitutions that thrive in the thin high mountain air and can better withstand the harsh environs of high altitudes than the plains-origin soldiery.
It is hardly surprising the SFF set about its task with gusto on Black Top Hill, because it is precisely their unbounded enthusiasm and get-go attitude that eventuated in some free lance, unauthorized, actions by many of its trained personnel expert in demolitions and other destructive jobs inside Tibet whereupon, the Government of India in its characteristic craven-ness, decreed in 1973 that it not be used within 10 kms of the Line of Actual Control, defeating the very purpose of the SFF! May be after the latest Chinese adventurism in eastern Ladakh and the manner in which the SFF have performed, the Modi government will end these foolish, even ridiculous, restrictions on the SFF activity and permit its routine use across the LAC to impose on the PLA recurring high cost in lives and destroyed assets.
Officered by the army, the SFF has its own rank and organizational structure and payscales, and is based out of Chakrata near Dehradun, in a training complex called ‘Establishment 22’. It comes under the purview of the Special Services Bureau controlled by RAW. Formed into some 36 Companies, or six battalions, the SFF is the go-to unit for high risk actions and the only such outfit with several companies trained as paracommando for airborne operations. It has played a role in many actions, notably in the 1971 Bangladesh War. Time to enlarge these units — the Ladakh Scouts and especially the SFF by several battalions each and let them get on with their work unhindered.
Now to revert to Aug 29 night ops: Commander of the lead SFF company, Tenzin Nyima, was killed by a landmine when he was leading his troops in the approaches to the Black Top Hill. The fact that the area was mined suggests the Chinese had planted them in anticipation of preventing Indians from occupying it in strength. That Hill was taken and the Chinese prevented from establishing themselves there — the highest point on the Pangong Tso’s southern bank with a panoramic 360 degree view with a look down line of sight targeting now available, making the Chinese post at Moldo on the Spanggur Lake extremely vulnerable. With the subsequent Indian presence on Gurung Hill and Magar Hill at lower altitudes on either side of the Spanggur Gap, the PLA force, boasting of some armoured vehicles at Moldo, is pretty much bottled up.
The Black Top action was prompted, reports say, by sighting of a Chinese movement. The more likely reason may have been an electronic signals intercept of the PLA plan for the occupation of the Black Top and associated hill heights — Red Top, Helmet Top, et al, whence the approval of the preemption mission.
For Special Forces, the difference between war and peace is notional. Even so, the least that outfits like the SFF can expect is that those of its members who lose their lives in operations are accorded the honour and recognition due martyrs, their bravery publicly eulogized, their families treated by the government with the utmost respect and visibly and conspicuously showered with the gratitude of the nation.
Instead, the brave SFF company commander Tenzin Nyima, aged 53, lies unheralded, forlorn, in a casket draped with the Indian tricolour and the Tibetan flag in a modest house in the refugee colony in the village of Choglamsar in Ladakh, his memory emblemized by Tibetan mourning rituals and the flickering flame of yak butter lamps with the only thing ringing in the ears of the Nyima Family being, not the accolades of a grateful nation, but the advice by possibly a RAW official to not talk to anyone about commander Tenzin’s SFF antecedents and his 33-year service! The Nyima family was hesitant to speak for fear of Indian government’s reprisals. Reached for comment, the Indian defence and home ministries had nothing to say.
The Reuters news agency carried this story about Tenzin Nyima but not a single major Indian newspaper or online news service published it. I got it from the Karachi-based Pakistani daily, Dawn, at https://www.dawn.com/news/1577705/tibetan-soldiers-death-near-tense-india-china-border-sheds-light-on-covert-unit. The story quotes a young member of the kashag — the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala. “We respect and love India for giving us shelter but it is time the nation acknowledges the crucial role played by our men in the SFF,” Lhagyari Namgyal Dolkar, a 34-year-old Tibetan lawmaker told Reuters. “If an Indian soldier dies, the country declares him as a martyr, government pays rich tribute. Why are Tibetan refugees not bestowed the same respect?” asks Dolkar, whose family members have served in the SFF, with an uncle who fought on the Kargil heights in 1999.
It is time the services of the SFF and martyrs like Nyima are publicly acknowledged and praised by the defence minister Rajnath Singh and the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the role of the Tibetans in SFF nationally lauded, and their special military role against the PLA ceremoniously marked and celebrated. And hereafter, RAW should encourage and reward the SFF for its derring-do behind the Chinese lines, and otherwise set them loose to create mayhem in Tibet. For too long the Indian government and the Indian military have acted, where China is concerned, like the proverbial rabbit in a python’s pen — frightened into immobility, eyes glazed, brains dazed, as if awaiting doom.
Having finally and belatedly woken up to the possibilities, let the army brass not now fall back into its usual passive defensive funk. Rather than remain content with the actions to-date, the army should exploit the psychological edge it has secured against the PLA and proceed expeditiously to seal off the Chinese bridgehead on the southern bank of the Pangong on the Chinese side of the LAC (as recommended in my previous post).
It is such bold follow-up forward propulsive actions that will unhinge the PLA and loosen its blockade at the Y-junction on the Depsang Plains — the far greater strategic concern for India, even as the pressure eases on the Indian army units on the northern shore of the Pangong Lake, enabling them to drive the Chinese all the way back to Finger 8. After all, what use are Indian troops sitting atop Finger 4 ridge?
These are tactical moves that surely don’t require the Leh XIV Corps Commander to get cleared by that perfectly wretched band of nincompoops and dunderheads in the China Study Circle (which also includes the Vice Chief of the Army Staff as ex-officio member) — the premier fount of China policy in the government. Good Lord! Modiji will do the national interest no harm if he never listens to this bunch of idiots ever again.
Two days after I pointed out in my last post the futility of just “reviewing India’s options” even as S Jaishankar & Co. try and resolve the dispute with China through negotiations, the PLA proved with its night time (Aug 29-30) operation that it believed in more direct action. It is another matter that as the Indian army’s statement says the “Indian troops pre-empted this PLA activity on the Southern Bank of Pangong Tso Lake, undertook measures to strengthen our positions and thwart Chinese intentions to unilaterally change facts on ground.” Instead of the forwardly deployed Indian troops being paralyzed by their surprise action, the intruding Chinese unit, for a change, found itself challenged and its plan for establishing a new LAC alignment this time, ambitiously, on the southern shore of the Pangong Lake, nullified by alert Indian jawans who had previously occupied the immediate heights.
This was all to the good. But then the very next thing did the Indian army did was predictable and wrong. Almost reflexively, the Indian field commander called for a meeting in Chushul with his local Chinese opposite number where, over a cuppa chai no doubt, the two and their juniors endlessly mulled what the PLA soldiers were up to and being told repeatedly in response that they were merely traipsing around on hallowed Chinese territory. How any of this helped is anybody’s guess.
The right thing for the Leh XIV Corps Commander to have done immediately on receiving the signal of this latest Chinese encroachment attempt was to use it as a decision pivot to order instantaneous mobilization and rapid launch of forces to drive the PLA units northeastwards to the point on the Lake where the Chinese have established a bridgehead on the southern bank for the purpose of decanting its troops from the northern shore onto the approaches to the Thakung Pass area on the Indian side.
True, Indian forces on the offensive, fighting hard to reach that south shore bridgehead, well into the Chinese side of the LAC would mean India occupying what is Beijing-claimed territory. This advance, moreover, ought to have been be followed up by the theatre command speedily pouring masses of troops into this salient — there being no dearth of troops with some 60,000-strong Indian presence in that sub-sector, and having them rush to firm up a defensive line on the southern shore with the lake in front as natural barrier. For the first time, the Indian army would have been seen as having taken the initiative and, in a fell swoop, reoriented the LAC — “possession is three quarters of the law” remember! — and, in operational terms, obtained the upper hand.
Time has been lost with the army choosing to powwow in Chushul, stopping after “thwarting” the PLA ingress to presumably preen itself. Except, had this incident been converted into an offensive opportunity and a drive set into motion, the momentum of the Indian military mass would have carried Indian formations quickly to the Pangong shoreline where the PLA troops crossed over. The reason why it would have panned out this way is because it would have been an unexpected Indian move, surprising the PLA, catching them unprepared to deal with a fast-paced and far-reaching movement. And it would have been a perfect, albeit belated, riposte to the PLA entrenching itself in the area Fingers 4 to 8 on the northern shore that is Indian. This is what the Indian army needs to do right away before the PLA regains its composure.
But what was China’s aim in the first place? Nothing that China does is of tactical value alone; there invariably is a larger purpose. And no Chinese move is ever innocent of geographic calculations because, unlike the Indian government and military, the Chinese have what the pioneering geopolitical strategist Halford Mackinder called, the “map reading habit of mind”.
Now look at the Pangong Tso through this map reading lens and what would the Chinese see? If they drew a north-south line roughly from the end of Finger 4 across the lake to the southern shore and extended it further down, and if the PLA were tasked with capturing the stretch of the southern bank of the lake to that point where the line meets the shore, you would have neatly partitioned the Pangong Lake area with China keeping the larger portion in the east, with the smaller lesser part left to India as a consolation. This, it appears, is the sort of partition PLA is planning to realize.
This makes the kind of Indian counter-action proposed here to secure the northeastern shoreline of the lake and ensconce the Indian military there, an absolute necessity. The sooner Modi, Army HQrs and the Leh commander Harinder Singh recognize that this is what needs to be done the better. Jaishankar and MEA can continue talking crap with Zhongnanhai.
There is however a problem of rushing unacclimated forces to the high altitude desert of Ladakh. Goodly parts of the three Divisions hurriedly deployed to eastern Ladakh will take some time to get accustomed to not merely function but fight in the thin air. But offensive operations against the PLA cannot wait. Here’s where the fullest use of regiments recruiting local mountain youth, such as the justly famed Ladakh Scouts, will come in handy. They have a decisive operating edge over other troops and even the Han-manned PLA who are uncomfortable at heights. The Ladakh Scouts along with other Special Forces in particular the Special Frontier Force featuring motivated Tibetan exiles, and especially the navy’s Marine Commando for lake-shore ops, would obviously be in the van, easing the advance of the Indian main force. And, by way of abundant caution, air defence systems would have to be readied in case the PLA uses its air assets ex-air bases it has constructed in that sector, and to deter the situation from going really askew or from escalating, have the canisterised nuclear warheaded Agni missiles in the theatre as backdrop.
However, what’s the chance the Indian army will finally go on the offense and do something this venturesome, or remotely risky, and the Modi regime permit it?
Five months into the Chinese annexation of Indian territory, the Chief of Defense Staff General Bipin Rawat gingerly girded up his loins to announce August 25 the possibility of military action to vacate this aggression. “The defence services always remain prepared for military actions should all efforts to restore status quo along the LAC not succeed”, he said. Without, perhaps, meaning to do so, he indirectly issued a mea culpa first by stating that the Indian military “are tasked to monitor and carry out surveillance and prevent such transgressions from turning into intrusions” — tasks the army clearly and manifestly failed to carry out, then by repeating the tired old excuse mirroring the Ministry of External Affairs’ statements for the army doing nothing: “Transgressions along the LAC [occur] due to differing perceptions about its alignment”. And lastly, by justifying military inaction by hiding behind the government’s position “to peacefully resolve any such activity and prevent intrusions”. It has ended up further tarnishing the army’s image.
Rawat’s revealing that Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval had met with the three service chiefs on Saturday, August 22, to discuss the military stand-off with China and to review “all options with the objective that PLA restores status quo ante in Ladakh” was not reassuring because it actually indicated a lack of appetite for the hard option. Reviewing options is after all what the senior most levels of the army and government have been doing all these months without bringing any closure.
On parallel track, the external affairs minister S Jaishankar, in a couple of interviews took a different but equally wishy-washy tack. Talking to Hindustan Times he said “We are engaging China through diplomatic and military channels. There are essentially two elements in our approach. One is starting 1993 and then every few years, we have had a series of agreements (with China). Their import is that both sides will keep minimum force on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). But that is not the case now. We have very large number of Chinese forces and frankly, we are at a loss to know why. There are also certain norms of behaviour that were prescribed. Clearly, if we want peace and tranquillity on the border, we need to adhere to those agreements. Second, I accept there are some differences in perceptions in the LAC. But there is again a clear understanding that neither side will attempt to unilaterally change the status quo. It was because of these agreements and the adherence to them that the bilateral relationship moved forward in other, different spheres, including the economic one. And this must continue if the relationship has to grow. But there will naturally be issues if the peace and tranquillity is put under stress.”
He thus admitted just how clueless MEA and the Modi government generally were in not anticipating PLA action — “we are at a loss” — in reading China and President Xi Jinping’s intentions, and how bereft of ideas they continue to be as regards dealing with a China that violates mutually agreed upon norms with impunity, and has over the years repeatedly wrongfooted Delhi with its territory grabbing initiatives. Experience is a hard taskmaster. However, the Indian government, like some particularly dumb student who gets smacked around but doesn’t get it, has fallen back on, when not appeasing Beijing, taking the ostrich’s way out of trouble — burying its head in the sand.
This last was evidenced in the Prime Minister’s astonishing television address June 19 in which he point blank denied the Chinese had done anything untoward on the disputed border, leave alone something as crass as invading and occupying Indian territory. Nor did he mention Chinese aggression in his Independence Day speech when the entire nation had tuned in. The sole reference to the eastern Ladakh scene was Modi’s praise for the strong counter-response June 15 by the 16 Bihar Regiment soldiers who inflicted casualties on the PLA on the Galwan. The implied warning was that China can expect this kind of violent reaction if it pushes India’s buttons in the future. Except, the Indian jawans’ giving it as good as they got reaction can be attributed to their own derring-do and not to anything thing the army higher command, and even less the Modi government, had ordered. In the event, the conclusion is inescapable — and this is what Beijing no doubt gleaned from that incident — that Delhi will wake up only if Indian lives are lost; short of that and other than having the MEA hee and haw, will look the other way if the PLA gobbles up Indian land.
Jaishankar dilated some more on this approach, this time to Rediffnews.com, thus: “This is surely the most serious situation after 1962. In fact, after 45 years, we have had military casualties on this border. The quantum of forces currently deployed by both sides at the LAC is also unprecedented. If you look back over the last decade, there have been a number of border situations — Depsang, Chumar and Doklam. In a sense, each one was different. This one surely is. But what is also common is that all borders situations were resolved through diplomacy. I am not minimising either the seriousness or the complex nature of the current situation. Naturally, we have to do what it takes to secure our borders. As you know, we are talking to the Chinese both through military channels and diplomatic ones. In fact, they work in tandem. But when it comes to finding a solution, this must be predicated on honouring all agreements and understandings. And not attempting to alter the status quo unilaterally.”
Two things about Jaishankar’s views reflect poorly on the Modi regime. One, the belief that past is prelude, that situations in the present and future are unfolding/will unfold as they have done in the past. This is nonsense because if past crises are deconstructed, there’s no pattern other than Beijing not keeping to any script, taking a different tack on each occasion. The only constant is the unvarying objective of territorially extending the Chinese realm. And secondly, if as Jaishankar publicly declared, the aim is to restore the status quo ante, why is the current situation deemed by him to be “complex”? By Jaishankar’s own telling, the Chinese acted against the settled norms, broke the rules and, notwithstanding the differing perceptions of the LAC alignment, are entrenched deep on the Indian side of the disputed border — a provocation that cries out for remedial military operations. Does it not suggest that by depicting the context as “complex” Jaishankar is creating diplomatic space for the Modi government to cede ground to China, to accept the newly imposed LAC, and otherwise to lend legitimacy to both the expansive Chinese actions and the resulting new territorial fait accompli presented to India?
This then is the China the Modi dispensation views as reasonable and desirous of a negotiated settlement when every indication suggests the PLA has settled in for good on the new border that it has created for itself in eastern Ladakh. Undeterred, Jaishankar hopes to engage in the chimerical pursuit of a negotiated solution when next he meets with the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in Moscow as part of a Russian peace-making effort under the aegis of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization September 9-11.
Except, Wang has already staked out his position. On his return to Beijing after a recent tour of Tibet he declared, according to the Xinhua news agency, that the security and stability of Tibet is of pivotal importance to China’s overall development. This statement was the backdrop for Xi’s ordering party, government and military leaders to “solidify border defences and ensure frontier security” and ensure “national security and enduring peace and stability” in the regions bordering India. Xi was speaking at the 7th Central Symposium on Tibet Work, which finished its deliberations in Beijing last Saturday. This ‘Symposium’ is described as “China’s most important forum for Tibet policies”, and the first held since 2015. Moreover, with the HH the Dalai Lama and India’s unplayed ‘Tibet card’ in mind, Xi warned the Tibetans to fight separatism, “form an impregnable fortress in maintaining stability”, and “adapt to socialism and Chinese conditions”. Because there’s not an iota of give in Xi’s and Wang’s statements, what give there is will be on Jaishankar’s part (considering he is an expert in giveaways, to wit, his handiwork — the 2008 nuclear deal with the US that all but robbed India of the nuclear testing option).
In this setting, how to make sense of General Rawat’s and minister Jaishankar’s utterances? It is plain the Indian government is conflicted between the military’s wanting even at this late date to do something, anything, and the insistence by the MEA to stay on the diplomatic course and seek peaceful resolution, the prospects of which are nil if this solution involves the PLA retreating to behind the claim lines existing prior to April-May. In one sense, these are different organizational outlooks on the problem staring the country hard in the face of an implacable enemy making a monkey out of India in both the military and diplomatic arenas.
It has shown up the Indian Army’s incapacity for prompt action, let alone, war as reflected in the low levels of preparedness, and in always being “surprised” by whatever PLA does. Skeptics may reverse this line of thought and say that because the brass is institutionally loath to act against the PLA for fear of being bested, the army puts itself in a position to be surprised and then uses the fact of unreadiness as cover for being insufficiently proactive and counter-aggressive.
And, Indian diplomacy has been shown up as terminally genuflecting to Beijing, issuing mealy-mouthed statements, offering up excuses — clashes due to “differing perceptions of the Line of actual Control”, etc — and sticking by its theme of China being open to a negotiated deal even as India is getting whacked in the head.
From Maozedong’s days, China has perceived India as a sissy state; the developments in Ladakh have proved to one and all that this, in fact, is the case.
Foreign control of cyber space, Prime Minister Narendra Modi warned in his Independence Day address, “can be a threat to the social fabric of our country, our economy and can even threaten the development of our nation; we are very well-aware of that. India is very cautious and is planning to take steps to combat these risks.” This was not the first time he had talked about cyberspace and the need for the country to be self-sufficient in related technologies, and to harness its potential for accelerated development and for better governance. While the message may have got across to the people, it apparently has not to the officials manning the government.
A day earlier on August 14, Niti Ayog chairman Amitabh Kant, who is regarded by many insiders as the PM’s favourite babu barring his Personal Private Secretary PK Mishra, unveiled the ‘Aspirational Districts Programme’ (ADP) for digital connectivity that Modi has touted as the vehicle for faster all-round rural progress. So, what’s the problem? Bypassing the normal tendering process, Niti Ayog picked Oracle Corporation of California to provide the cloud-based database management system and software driving this programme. Why is that important? Because it kept the relevant technology competent Indian companies out of the game, preventing them from competing for a contract that, should the programme be extended nation-wide, will be worth thousands of crores of rupees. Were there competition, an Indian company would likely have won, giving a fillip to, and registering the government’s vote of confidence in, indigenous technology development. It would have put teeth in Modi’s plan for an ‘atm nirbhar Bharat’ (self-reliant India). Instead, the ADP is controversial, labelled by a former official, as “another scam, another excuse” to award a big tech company contract when schemes — e-seva portal, common service centres, etc. — already exist to do the same job as Oracle is commissioned to do. “None of these bureaucrats or Big Tech companies will actually go down to ground level to solve real problems” this official said. “They will just fete each other in airconditioned rooms and make nice presentations.”
Had Niti Ayog taken the indigenous route on ADP, other ministries would perforce have taken note because the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) notionally responsible for ADP is, perhaps, the most egregious among government agencies in resisting and rejecting indigenous technology. The public sector BSNL signed a contract with Huawei for advancing its 4G network despite clear injunctions from the government not to do so. But then it was taking its cue from its parent — DoT, which had top listed the Chinese Huawei Company in the 5G sweepstakes despite national security concerns. It resiled from its position only after the Swadeshi Jagran Manch approached the Prime Minister. But to prove the point that generalist civil servants are never wrongfooted, the secretary responsible for pushing Huawei was, after retirement, appointed to head an ‘expert’ committee deciding on non-Huawei choices. Predictably, the Committee is inclining towards Nokia of Finland and Ericsson of Sweden as alternative suppliers when various Indian companies have already developed different technology components of an even more advanced telecommunications system, such as photonic transmission, but are missing a single entity to integrate these various technologies into a single 5G+/6G system designed and engineered for India by Indians!
Or, take the fibre-optic project connecting Chennai with the Andaman and Nicobar island chain. National security was offered as the reason by external affairs minister S Jaishankar to not only shift the contract from the lowest bidder, Huawei, to the Japanese company NEC, but got the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF), to finance it. USOF is a little known, separately administered unit within DoT tasked with funding rural telephony and indigenous networks, and known mostly for being, according to a source, “wholly corrupt”. “My question is” writes Smita Purshottam, ex-Indian Foreign Service, who retired as ambassador to Switzerland, “why no such grounds were invoked for domestic ICT networks?” Purshottam is founder and head of SITARA (Science, Indigenous Technology and Advanced Research Accelerator), an organization campaigning for home grown technology in government contracts and having as its members some of the smartest high-tech Indian companies and startups. In a note dated August 15 to SITARA members, she also pointed out how Jaishankar’s own ministry, MEA, has been remiss on the self-reliance front, not giving “any contracts under telecom Lines of Credit (LOCs) to domestic companies”, adding tartly, “I fail to see how a group dedicated to promoting domestic upgradation can get excited about LOCs benefitting only foreign companies [especially when] resources are scarce and the imperative of domestic development [of technology] is greater.”
And that’s the trouble. The current BJP government may be Modi-centered and top-driven. But Modi cannot be everywhere, monitoring everything. Hence, government agencies and departments, rather than being motivated by the principle of self-reliance (which would have led, for instance, to DoT forging a consortium of Indian private sector firms as 5G+/6G technology integrator), and the MEA offering telecom LOCs to Indian firms, they seek excuses and loopholes to continue importing goods and technologies, manifesting the characteristic Indian craze for “phoren”. It makes nonsense of the Prime Minister’s call for atm-nirbharta. All these instances suggest the PM and the rest of the government are not really on the same page, that Modi decrees something be done in a certain way beneficial to the nation only to have the bureaucrats habituated to doing things another way, carrying on as they have always done.
Modi’s self-reliance policy to a considerable extent pivots on the success of medium, small, and micro enterprises (MSMEs). I have long advocated the need for the government to incentivize in every way possible the emergence of MSMEs as the Indian version of the German ‘mittelstand’ – a concept France has replicated, as the source of technological innovation in the country. Except, other than lip service the government has done little to encourage and ensure the MSMEs their ease of doing business. Horror stories abound of would-be startups in the MSME sector, after getting initial clearances, having their projects, capital and other resources held up by rapacious, rent and bribe-seeking politicians, police and petty functionaries. Again, it shows a disconnect this time between what Delhi intends and how entrepreneurs and MSMEs are hobbled at the local level where Modi’s writ doesn’t run.
There, however, is light at the end of the tunnel where military hardware is concerned. I have long maintained that the government should go ‘cold turkey’ on arms imports and simply ban purchases of all armaments. Throwing the Indian defence industry thus into deep water, I argued, is the only way to force it to learn to swim. It is good the Modi government accepted the advice in principle. On August 9, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh released a list of some 101 defence items, each with its own timeline, beyond which their import is banned. It will beneficially shake up the scene. Sixty-nine of these items have a very short time window and cannot be purchased abroad after December this year. In this section are featured major high value systems, including ship-borne cruise missiles, towed 155mm artillery, tactical simulators for various combat arms, missile destroyers, anti-submarine warfare ships, light combat aircraft, light combat helicopters, specialized kinds of shells and ammunition, radars, assault and long range sniper rifles, conventional submarines, electronic warfare systems, self-propelled barges, drones, and machine guns.
This list may appear ambitious but between the private sector and DPSUs almost all these items are already being produced in the country. The more important and welcome aspect of the new procurement policy is that the escape route for the armed services to import these items by rejecting the indigenous versions as quality-wise deficient is closed. Meaning, the forces and the relevant combat arms will have to become stakeholders in the indigenous programmes and work with the manufacturers to, if required, improve the product.
The fly in the ointment is the possibility that the government will succumb to pressure mounted by the labour unions in defence public sector units (DPSUs) to hand over the main manufacturing contracts to them, with private sector firms thrown crumbs as subcontractors. This would be a fiasco. The track record of DPSUs over the last six decades in terms of product quality, and delivery within time and cost constraints is so abysmal, to appoint them principal contractors would, for the Modi government, be like taking an axe to its self-reliance policy.
Alternatively, it would make sense, for instance, to assign the Indian Navy’s Project 75i diesel submarine production to Larsen & Toubro – the only private sector company with the production wherewithal and its invaluable role and experience in building nuclear powered submarines, and compare its performance with that of the public sector Mazgaon Docks Ltd, which has struggled with producing the Scorpene submarine – delivering the first unit 12 years late and at almost twice or more of the stipulated cost.
The government will have to begin to trust the profit-driven private sector which cannot afford to waste time or resources nor to violate contract terms or alienate customers by rolling out sub-standard products as DPSUs routinely do. The IAF, for example, has often had to induct into service new HAL-built Jaguar low-level strike aircraft with leaky fuel lines because the Service has no choice. The Indian government should ensure private sector companies a major role hereafter and force the DPSUs to compete with them. Competition may, in fact, improve DPSUs’ product quality and delivery schedules.
There is an urgent and large IAF requirement for the Tejas Mk-1A. Even with two assembly lines, HAL cannot produce more than 18 LCAs annually. Getting DRDO-HAL to share source codes for this aircraft with Mahindra Aerospace and other companies with capability to, at a minimum, have as many as four Tejas production lines outputting some 72 aircraft a year, will enable a whole big aviation industrial ecosphere to spring up of small and big firms designing and producing components, systems, subsystems and ancillaries, employing people in thousands with positive cascading effects on the economy. Mahindra have already been selected by Boeing to manufacture the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet carrier aircraft in the hope the Indian Navy will buy it. What is problematic is the Super Hornet’s conforming with the Rajnath Singh list featuring the LCA, whose navalised variant not too long ago passed the carrier landing and takeoff test and may be ready for induction in the same time frame as Mahindra can get up the India-made F-18. In any case, multiple LCA production lines will result in decreasing unit cost, increasing profits from export orders, and internally generated funds being available for the development of the follow-on indigenous advanced medium combat aircraft.
LCA then can be in the van of the Modi government’s ‘atma nirbharta’ defence policy, and help it to take wing. Should Modi and Rajnath Singh follow it, they will be remembered for birthing a multi-faceted, world-class Indian defence industry and for generally seeding a high value, high technology sector that will assist India to pull itself up by its bootstraps.
The fun thing about an American presidential elections is its slam bang nature where the candidates of the Republican and Democratic parties and the media, lining up on either side, go at each other, hammer and tongs, in unending and enjoyable bouts of name calling and verbal slug fests that build up to a train wreck with the results Nov 3 providing relief.
The special interest this year relates to Donald Trump seeking reelection in a year when everything that can go wrong has gone wrong or is going wrong in the US, not little because of the actions of the President himself. The economy has plummeted following the pandemic, lives and livelihoods in the millions are lost — at last count over 30 million are out of work and, in the wake of the Minneapolis policeman’s knee on the neck death of a black man, race relations are on the boil and riots and social unrest prevail in many American cities.
The start point was the corona. Beginning in January this year when the first instances of the corona virus were evidenced in that country to now, six months later, when it has killed 165,000 with the death rate rising at the rate of an American succumbing every 80 seconds, Trump has been in absolute denial. He has denied the essential nature of the virus, the global pandemic it has caused, and the manner of its spread. In the face of hard irrefutable contrary data and reality, he has stuck pigheadedly to his line that (1) all’s well, (2) the US is faring better than every other country in the world, (3) testing for the virus is the reason why the numbers of the afflicted are so high, and (4) things like masks, social distancing, and lock downs recommended by medical professionals to contain the spread, are unwanted restraints on the economy and delay the return of normalcy.
His solutions for the slumping US economy are bad enough — increasing tariffs, shutting down trade, cutting social welfare benefits for the needy and unemployed and cutting taxes on the wealthy and, for the pandemic, are wackier still even by the vaudeville standard of his presidency. Trump has recommended as antidote that (i) doing nothing and people going about their lives normally will lead to the virus, somehow, magically, “miraculously” “disappearing”, (ii) people ingest hydroxychloroquine — a drug to tackle other maladies (such as malaria) — labelled by Trump as “gift of God” — that appalled doctors warned, far from alleviating danger, would actually do serious harm, and which is where India stepped briefly into the Trumpian circus lights owing to his personal call to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to ship as much of this drug to America as India has stocks of, and to top it all (iii) “inject” detergent — yea, the stuff you clean toilets with — into the human body to “kill the virus”! Sure, it will kill the virus as also the person so treated. He even mused to the Press that exposing the virus to light — somehow introduced inside the bodies of corona-infected patients could be a cure! Even as Trump thus holds forth, his medical advisers sit stony-faced in the press room trying desperately not to chortle in the President’s face — the situation being too serious to even laugh at nonsense.
So, why is the unbearably impulsive and mercurial Trump with a mental disorder, as his niece and professional psychologist, Mary Trump, alleges in her book, better for India than the more mainstream and old world Joe Biden and his part-Indian running mate, Kamala Harris?
(The Tamil brahmin half of the aspirant to US Vice President’s post is what the media here is making much of as if she is some long lost daughter of Chennai who has little else in mind than doing good for that city and India! Ms. Harris’ mother, Shyamala, apparently left for the US to study endocrinology at UC, Berkeley, in the 1960s where she met her husband and Kamala’s father, Donald Harris — a fellow foreign student from Jamaica, now professor of economics at Stanford University. Clearly, Ms. Harris doesn’t lack for intellect or, as she has displayed throughout her career, political moxie compared to her Republican counterpart, the stiff and humourless Mike Pence, who calls his wife “Mother”! The Delhi effect will be for Kamala’s maternal uncle, Dr G. Balachandran, for many years the nonproliferation mainstay at IDSA, to be thrust into the limelight.)
Since late 2018, Trump has more reasonably targeted China for carrying on with unbalanced and unfair trade, for stealing US secrets and intellectual property rights and, most recently, and for deliberately causing a pandemic by allowing what he calls the ‘China virus’ — corona virus by another name, to spread to all over the world from its locus genesis in the city of Wuhan. He has shutdown Chinese investments in the high technology sectors in Silicon valley and elsewhere, stopped the entry of Chinese citizens into the US, threatened to sanction particular members of the Chinese nomenklatura, been more aggressive in showing flag in support of its Asian partners and allies in the East Sea and the South China Sea by deploying US aircraft carrier task groups and smaller naval flotillas on freedom of navigation patrols, transferred a bunch of advanced military hardware to Taiwan, and led a ruckus over Beijing’s move to, in effect, absorb Hong Kong, which is violative of its treaty obligations to the United Kingdom. By thus politically and militarily pressing China, restricting Chinese imports into America, and slowing down its economy, US distracts Beijing and indirectly advantages India.
Trump did all this unilaterally with spur-of-moment decisions — initiatives that the US State Department opposed but could do nothing to stop. From India’s point of view it was an immeasurably good thing to happen because these various streams of Trump’s anti-China policy came together and peaked around the time Beijing had begun annexing Indian territory in eastern Ladakh earlier this summer. The unintended but beneficial consequence for India was that it put the brakes on whatever plans the Xi Jinping-chaired Central Military Commission may have originally tasked the People’s Liberation Army with achieving. Beijing realized that it had opened too many fronts at the same time, and by at least notionally negotiating with the Modi government put off more difficult choices. All the while though, Beijing made it plain that Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar’s June 19 demand for restoration of status quo ante was, well, for the birds, and that it would keep what it has occupied.
Xi’s amor propre required that China respond substantively if not in equally harsh measure to the US, afraid that pushing the Trump Administration too far would permanently damage its interests in the US, which it can’t afford to happen. But there’s a ratcheting up of the action-reaction chain, which again assists India’s cause. However, should Biden-Harris get voted to power — which I predicted will happen come November in a June 4 post (“The end of Trump”), the US will revert to its longstanding policy of mutual accommodation with China that will entail easing the pressure, especially in the contested maritime domain in Asia and vis a vis the Belt and Road Initiative in Central Asia extending to the Gulf and West Asia. That was, after all, what the US’ China policy during the Obama years was when Biden was Vice President. Recall Obama and Xi agreeing on a two-power condominium — G-2 to rule the world? This will not be good for India.
Far worse, the US policy establishment, reviled as the “deep state” by Trump and his appointees, will get the prospective Biden policy back on its nuclear nonproliferation hinge, and resume its focus of the last 45-odd years of getting India to “cap, freeze, rollback” its nuclear weapons programme. Trump, on his part, dismantled the international nuclear order by ending the strategic arms limitation talks (SALT-II) with Russia on the reasonable ground that without China in it such an accord makes little sense, ditching the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty in Europe, and junking the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran — any of which events could have been used by a strong-minded Indian government to initiate nuclear testing to acquire proven and tested high yield thermonuclear weapons. In the event, Modi will be arm-twisted into getting India back on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty track in the disarmament negotiations in Geneva, with the goal of compelling the Indian government to renounce all future nuclear testing — the foundation of the deleterious 2008 civil nuclear cooperation deal with the US that Jaishankar, as Joint Secretary (Americas), had negotiated with Washington.
In parallel, the old US policy of maintaining the power balance in South Asia will be resumed vigorously by Biden. It had wavered a bit during the Trump tenure owing to Modi’s making an impression on the US President that culminated in his grand reception in Delhi in January this year. All that goodwill, if not zeroed out, then the tenor of the bilateral relationship will be recalibrated. What this will mean in practice is that Pakistan will once again be able to rely on both China and the US to actively help it to square off against India. And, of course, the Democratic party and Biden-Harris in particular will be far more inclined to collar India on the Kashmir, human rights abuses, and similar issues.
The slight positives with Biden in will be in two areas: the pressure on India to buy the old and counterproductive Lockheed F-16 combat aircraft dressed up as F-21 that Trump was pushing on Modi, will recede. And the old H1B visa regime much liked by Indian IT firms sending off armies of software techies to America to do jobs at cut rate salaries, and that Modi tried his damndest to convince Trump to go easy on and failed, may return. It will open up the gates for Indian professionals to go more easily to the US, to augment their earnings by getting their spouses to work on the H-4 visa that Trump had closed down, and to try and convert their H1B status to ‘green card’ and permanent residency. Back home. it will consolidate the support of this section of the aspiring Indian middle class behind Modi by the time the 2024 general elections roll around.
On balance, it is obvious India’s interests are better served by the Republican Administration under Trump, which is ideologically and viscerally at odds with Communist China than by the Biden-Harris combo eager to regain the normal as Beijing sees it. All right thinking Indians must hope Trump returns to power even if that mightily screws up the internal situation in that country and roils the American society. But that’s for Americans to worry about.
Consistent pressure to end arms imports from small select quarters (like this blog) has worked. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh this morning announced a negative list of military items that cannot be imported. Each type of goods has been assigned a timeline beyond which imports are banned. This list took some time coming, but is no less welcome for that.
On this list are items that, by and large, are already being produced in the country . This is fascinating because it reveals the range of production capability existing in the country. Even so, of the 69 items with the deadline of December 2020, 29 pertain to navy, 28 to army, and 12 to air force, and include such capital platforms as combat helicopters, light combat aircraft, missile destroyers, floating docks, and all manner of guns and radars. Of the 10 items that have December 2021 as embargo date, 8 relate to army and 2 to navy, including conventional submarines (Project 75i). Four items are listed with December 2022 as deadline, 3 belong to army and one category — ‘E(lectronic) W(arfare) systems” would be relevant to all the three services. Of the 15 types of equipment with the December 2023 date for full indigenization, 7 each are army and air force related, with “long range land attack cruise missile” that both air force and navy will want in their inventories. But this is only the first step.
Another list is to soon follow featuring more high value weapons systems and critical technologies, and the two negative lists together will give a fillip to the indigenous defence industry. While the Modi government’s intention is good and well meaning, considering pretty severe timelines in the published annexure, how are all these pieces of capital military hardware to be actually produced in mass in-country? How are the contracts worth Rs 4 lakh crores in the next 7 years the defence minister has promised to be actualized? Rajnath Singh hopes the private sector will pick up most of the work load. Larsen & Toubro, with prizeless experience in constructing nuclear power submarines and the only private sector firm with the competence and the shipbuilding wherewithal is a shoo in for the next generation of diesel submarines, for example. This is an unusually good fit but, for many reasons, it is an exception.
The reality is that the vast realm of defence public sector units (DPSUs), Ordanance factory Board units, and DRDO labs and research centres, is where the physical and manpower resources are concentrated. But much of this caboodle is a wasteland owing to low labour productivity, indifferent morale, and despicable work ethos. An arrangement to energize this sector with private sector project leadership is the answer. The best model to integrate a national resource base and utilize it is the one I proposed in a paper in 1998 for the Technology subcommittee of the first National Security Advisory Board of which I was member [and featured in my 2015 book ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’].
In brief, this business model envisages dividing up all public sector physical assets along with work forces into two nearly equal defence industrial combines to be led by the two best and most versatile manufacturing sets of companies — Tata and L&T. The Government will continue to own the DPSU/Ordnance Board/DRDO physical facilities and will earn a rent and royalty for each item produced in any of them. Tata and L&T will be free to use their own resources in conjunction with those in the public sector that managerially they control. These two complexes will compete for every procurement contract from the military with the government funding development to the prototype stage. In the runoff between prototypes from both combines for any type of weapon system, etc the item that has less import content by value will be chosen, thereby incentivizing indigenous R&D. This is a viable business model the government should implement. It is specially attractive as it does not involve privatizing any DPSUs, DRDO labs, etc. — a move sure to generate very vocal political opposition.
Further, accelerated production of the Tejas LCA Mk-1A for the IAF, for instance, will require more than the two HAL production lines and necessitate the DRDO sharing the design and source codes for the Tejas LCA with several interested private companies willing to install their own assembly lines. There’ll then be economies of scale all round and enough capacity to not only produce sufficient LCAs for the IAF but also to spawn revenues from exporting this economical 4.5 generation fighter aircraft to a huge market in developing countries, and funds for developing the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft and its variants on the anvil. All this is doable. It needs the strong willed Modi government to realize this self-sustaining business model.
Still, the fact that the government has articulated a negative list suggests it is finally getting through to the military and, importantly, the government that a dependency status in armaments for the country not just stamps India as a second-rate power but robs it of military options. It curbs a certain course of action in a crisis because initiating hostilities at intense pace would lead to Indian forces quickly grinding to a halt mid-operation because the stocks of ammo, spares and ancillaries have run out, and there’s no production capacity in the country to meet the surge demand of critical stuff. Whence the urge on the part of the armed services in a crisis to carefully husband resources and the available war wastage reserve and war stock rather than fight full tilt, when not trying desperately to avoid fighting altogether (as is the case currently in eastern Ladakh) .
A surge industrial capacity is the factor that enables more advanced countries with large defence industrial bases to fight long duration wars to a decision. It is illustrative of the problem the country has always faced, which no Indian government has sought to resolve, that in a military crisis almost the first thing the defence minister and ministry teams do is rush off to foreign supplier countries to make panic purchases of ammo, spares, and to make up the shortfall in weapons, and platforms, and end up paying a hefty premium for the goods so acquired. Rajnath Singh’s recent trip to Moscow to buy an assortment of military supplies, including Su-30MKIs and MiG-29s, underlines the point.
But surge production capacity comes on the coattails of an industry geared to meet the country’s military needs. If, however, the armed services are stuck in a rut, preferring imported goods and are, not just reluctant to acquire a stake in indigenous efforts by not committing institutionally to such weapons projects and programmes, but actively conspire to make life difficult for Indian manufacturers, then Modi’s atm nirbhar Bharat-plan is doomed.
The military’s outlook on indigenous armaments has been slow to change but is now changing because of a few nationalist-minded senior military officers driving the procurement dynamic from within the armed services.
Two officers in particular have played a stellar role in this process. General Bipin Rawat as army chief championed indigenization in the army — the senior, the largest and most influential service, and now as Chief of Defence Staff, is staying with the arms self-sufficiency mantra. But the real and substantive transformation of the army milieu was instituted by Lt General Subrata Saha, who retired as Deputy Chief of the Army Staff (Planning and Systems) in April 2017. It was during his tenure in Army HQ that the groundwork was laid for the involvement of Indian private sector companies in meeting the army’s materiel requirements. He removed procedural and bureaucratic roadblocks and established protocols and approaches that Indian companies, for a change, found conducive. Saha’s initiative, in one sense, eventuated in Rajnath’s negative list, and India is finally and belatedly setting out on the road to self-reliance in arms.
This is a heartening development. Three Cheers for Generals Saha and Rawat!! Their positive roles need to be recognized.
But Saha and Rawat notwithstanding, the deep down antipathy to indigenously produced military equipments is still rife in the military. The three armed services are differentially tuned to the ‘atm nirbharta’ drive. The navy is deemed by industry-wallahs to be the “friendliest” to private sector industry and indigenous goods, perhaps, because until recently its warship directorate was the only weapons platforms design agency in the Indian military. The army, thanks to Saha and Rawat, is now ramping up in this direction. The Indian Air Force, in contrast to its sister services, is the laggard, still has its “head in the sky” as an industry leader tellingly put it and, far from coming down to earth, the IAF brass is on an unwarranted high from the entry of the Rafale, and continues to swear by foreign aircraft. Given the current thinking of the government, Air HQ better get its head in the right place and give up the ghost of additional Rafales and the like, and invest fully in the Tejas, its variants, and the AMCA, instead.
The army is now on the right side of indigenization but even with Saha’s endeavours residual bad attitude remains. Here’s an example of how the army succeeded in frustrating an Indian company from proving that its product was qualitatively better than the foreign item the army procurement officials had set their sights on. An Indian company had produced an air defence radar that it claimed would more speedily and effectively spot a target with smaller radar cross section (RCS) at a longer range than the foreign favourite the army officers were tilting towards. Instead of flying its helicopters and aircraft against this radar to test its performance, which was their job, the army officers demanded the company do all this on its own, and otherwise thought up every ruse and put up every hurdle in the book and some to deny this company the opportunity to prove the high quality radar it had developed at its own cost was better than the imported maal!
In the early 2000s, the army, even more notoriously, had sidelined an army project headed by a bright army signals officer (Colonel KPM Das) which had within two years produced a cheap, tech innovation — a handheld device with a fluid screen — SATHI (Situational Awareness to be Handled by Infantry) based on the Bangalore-developed ‘simputer’. The simputer (or simple computer) project if the Indian government had pursued with vigour would have resulted in children in the remotest villages becoming computer literate by now for relatively small investment by the HR Ministry. The simputer was combined by the Das team with other off-the-shelf technologies to come up with SATHI. This device was able to fuse information from various sensors and sources and able literally to see round the corner, enabling infantry jawans — with mobile telephone handling skills — to avoid ambushes and friendly fire incidents. It was hailed as a revolution and a boon by troops in the field, especially those engaged in counter-insurgency ops. This project died, not owing to lack of funds, but because not a single senior Lieutenant General rank officer lined up to “take ownership” of it, and to shepherd its development through to operational induction.
Having discarded a successful in-house project that produced such a stellar product, the army may soon be in the market for just such an item. The foreign vendor in turn will likely put together the same technologies the Das-led team had done 15 years back, and sell it to the army at many times the price of SATHI! (For those interested in reading more about this case, it is detailed in my book — Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet), pages 321-323.) An exasperated Col. Das up and retired from service, only to be picked up by Cisco Systems as its Vice President!
The SATHI episode encapsulates India’s tragedy. And the limits of the government’s good intentions if the armed services are not fully on board.
The Modi government’s approach to tackling an obstreperous China, like that adopted in the Vajpayee interregnum and by the Manmohan Singh regime, is frighteningly stupid. If both the PM and his cohort and the Army brass in Leh and at HQrs seem stoutly resistant to good sense and learning from the vast accumulated experience this country has of dealing with Beijing, then President Xi Jinping would be a fool not to exploit the situation to the hilt. He is not and China has.
The result is a significant loss of territory in eastern Ladakh, including on the Pangong Tso and conceding all land beyond the Y-junction bottleneck on the Depsang Plains without a fight. It spells strategic disaster for India reflecting less an imbalance of forces and military wherewithal than Modi’s shocking lack of political will.
The disposition on the ground is as follows: Pursuant to whatever understanding was reached — and it isn’t at all clear what was agreed upon by Lt Gen Harinder Singh, GOC, XIV Corps in his confabulations with Maj Gen Liu Lin, deputy commander, ‘South Tibet District’ — in the fourth round of the corps commanders’ meet in Chishul-Moldo, Indian troops retreated pell-mell to their long established post on the shore side of the Finger 2 hilly abutment on the Pangong Lake even as the PLA pulled back their presence only a slight distance to the line Finger 5, a pullback nullified by the Chinese remaining atop the ridge on Finger 4. Elsewhere, in the Depsang Plains the PLA is entrenched on the Y-junction bottle neck, preventing Indian patrols from reaching not just Patrol Point (PP) 14 but, as Kapil Sibal, the Congress Party spokesman charged correctly on June 27, also PPs 10, 11, 11A, 12 and 13. Liu, it is obvious, refused to entertain any talk of the PLA vacating the Y-junction (assuming Harinder brought up the issue at all in their 4th meeting).
Seeing that the Indian government and military would rather run than stand and fight, the Chinese called a fifth meeting to press home their advantage. Harinder was presented with a demand for further “mutual and equal” withdrawal by the two sides from the currently-held positions on the Pangong. Meaning, that India should get out of Finger 2 while the PLA, given its idea of equal, gets down from the ridge above Finger 4? That apparently is the limit of what the PLA is prepared to accept, if the previous experience is any guide. Whereupon, the vanguard of the appeaser brigade — the China Study Group — the worm, finally turned.
It held a stop sign to the China decreeing, in effect, thus far and no farther, instructing Harinder to inform Liu that this new Chinese formula was unacceptable. CSG then reiterated, at least for the media, the Modi dispensation’s objective of restoring the status quo ante first enunciated by minister S. Jaishankar on June 17. Except, it’s way too late because an awful lot of territory has already been lost to China that CSG, Modi, and the army are responsible for.
This leads to the Question: Was Harinder ordered by the CSG/Modi PMO to accept the schemata for military “disengagement” whose details were not spelled out, leaving it to to the two sides to decide whatever the hell was decided by the firm of Messrs Harinder and Liu? How otherwise to explain what came next — the Indian troops drawing all the way back to Finger 2 — skipping Finger 3 altogether — even as the PLA remained stuck on Ginger 4 top?
Was the hurry to withdraw several kilometers westward along the shoreline of the lake mandated by the PM/CSG, or was it Harinder’s call? One can see why GOC, XIV Corps calculated thusly: An already built-up facility exists at Finger 2 and is available for Indian troops to inhabit; hence, it makes sense for the Indian jawans to pull back a longer distance than a smaller one to Finger 3, which would necessitate construction crews to put up some kind of roofed facility on a new spot for the troops to spend the cold nights in.
This option avoided the possibility of the new camp construction activity triggering an adverse Chinese response. If this is how and why that decision was made then it backfired. Because all it did was consolidate China’s hold on the Pangong and convince Beijing to become both more rigid in its negotiating style and to enlarge their ask of India.
The more serious and strategic danger, however, is from the PLA blocking Indian troops from proceeding to all the PPs northwest of the Y-junction occupied by it — some 18 kms inside Indian territory. How deep does an armed penetration by the Chinese PLA have to be before the Modi government and army — in this case HQrs XIV Corps — decide, it is a provocation requiring a military riposte? Apparently, 18 kms doesn’t make the cut. Would the PLA occupying the town of Burtse — just 7 kms away on the DSDBO Road leading to Daulat Beg Oldi, be a trigger? Not sure. Because Prime Minister Modi has yet to publicly call out Beijing — three months into the confrontation, for its brazen large-sized land grab.
What’s involved is not some small parcel of barren, high altitude, real estate where a few PLA stragglers have planted their flag. But a full-scale Chinese military operation to realize the twin aims of establishing a second prong of the pincer closing in on the DSDBO highway, the first prong is in place via the Galwan corridor, and to absorb that entire part of Ladakh in the manner the PLA did the Aksai Chin, albeit more secretly, in the 1950s.
The characteristically smooth and inflexible Chinese ambassador in Delhi Sun Weidong in a webinar hosted last week by the Institute for Chinese Studies in his presentation and in answers to questions prefaced all references to the Indian territory China has occupied with the phrase “As is clear” to assert Chinese troops were on Chinese territory and in all cases that it was the Indian troops who had violated the Line of Actual Control! This is the process by which Beijing legitimates its territorial claims — occupy Indian territory and validate its legal status as Chinese land by pointing to the attempts by Indian forces trying recover lost ground! It is a successful tactic that Delhi has not so far forcibly opposed, and given the trend, won’t in the future.
Should the PLA advance unopposed to the vicinity of Burtse, Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) along with its Advanced Landing Ground, will come within range of Chinese artillery. PLA rocket systems will then be in a position to crater the landing strip at will, rendering resupply of DBO by air and forward operations by IAF combat aircraft ex-DBO in crisis, impossible. Additionally, with the PLA so near to DBO, the military logistics system linking Leh to DBO and Siachen, will be permanently compromised — exposed to Chinese firepower. Simultaneously, India’s ability to use the DSDBO Road to interdict traffic on the Xinjiang Highway and at its junction with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor on the Karakorum Pass, will be hugely weakened.
Such are the stakes that led me to first propose a limited war to get the PLA out of all the places it has ingressed in. Clearing the Chinese roadblock at the Y-junction has to be military priority. The Indian Army, if it is not to entirely soil its reputation, better begin planning and preparing for it without regard to cost. One hopes the COAS, General MM Naravane, and Lt Gen Harinder will together forcefully make the case to Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and the government for a sustained military operation to accomplish this specific aim, and also to evict the PLA from the Galwan Valley, and to push the Chinese military presence back eastward of Finger 8 to capture enough territory on the Chinese side to use as bargaining card.
Throughout this depressing episode, the Modi regime, advised by CSG, and the army have consistently misread China’s aims and intentions. They assumed wrongly that what was happening in Ladakh was the usual military to-ing and fro-ing on an indistinct border, nothing that could not be settled at the negotiating table. Instead, it has turned out to be what I said in my first post (May 25) on the subject once the PLA’s aggression became public, that the Chinese occupation of Indian territory is permanent. I moreover stated that Delhi’s inaction was tantamount to India’s accepting the loss of its territory. I feared “that anytime the PLA aggressively stakes its interest in a piece of contested territory, Indian army and government all but readily concede it. So, the likely future is for a slow territorial aggrandizement by China — an exercise in which the Indian army and government are and will, in equal parts, be complicit” in the main because they have accepted Beijing’s framing of the issue as PLA acting on its perception of an undelineated LAC, even if it results in the Chinese expropriation of Indian land. It turns out I was right, and CSG and the Indian government wrong.
Further, the CSG and the Modi dispensation still believe, despite all that’s occurred, that talking with the Chinese is still the way to resolve the issues related to the disputed border and to handling the flare ups. If the Corps commander level talks don’t work — as they haven’t — there’s the forum of the Special Representatives to tap. Except, Ajit Doval has had less than no success against a stonewalling Wang Yi, who serenely brushes off the Indian NSA’s protestations, while holding out the vague promise of something working out. All it has done is stoke Doval and Modi’s hope that Xi will be in an amenable mood and sometime in the future permit a durable solution to be negotiated at this forum, and strengthened Beijing’s view of them as a couple of strategic nitwits. They need to be disabused. The only time the Special Representatives forum will, in fact, be successful is when China gets Delhi to formalize the latter’s acceptance of all Indian territory under Chinese occupation, as falling within the Chinese claim line.
Even so this is the false hope that apparently motivated the PMO to order the Defence Ministry to yank a document it had uploaded to its website in early May honestly stating that “Chinese aggression has been increasing along the LAC and more particularly in Galwan valley since 5th May, 2020. The Chinese side transgressed in the area of Kugrang Nala, Gogra and north bank of Pangong Tso lake on 17-18 May, 2020.” It ended by saying “The situation in Eastern Ladakh arising from unilateral aggression by China continues to be sensitive and requiring close monitoring and prompt action based on evolving situation.” There, of course, has been no action, prompt or otherwise. The deletion of the document from the website cannot be explained except in terms of the desire of the PM, PMO and MEA that nothing be done to, in the least, upset Beijing and that any reference to “Chinese aggression” be excised from the public record.
This speaks about Modi’s unfathomable awe and fear of China and why there has not been even a squeak out of his government regarding Beijing’s clampdown on Hong Kong, or about threats against Taiwan, and serious provocations offered the Southeast Asian littoral and offshore states in the South China Sea at a time when China routinely slaps India around diplomatically. To wit, Beijing’s egregious wagging of finger on the anniversary of the Article 370 abrogation on Aug 5.
Does any of this make sense?
Then again, there really is no way out of the hole the Modi government and army have dug for themselves by being reactive, rather than proactive and attentive to satellite intel, when it comes to the LAC, except to go to limited war. Modi rode out the swell of public opinion demanding forceful military response after the deaths in the PLA ambush of the 16 Bihar personnel on June 15 — the very day on which my post recommended a limited war to claw back the territory China has annexed — by saying little, doing nothing.
Public memory being short, Modi can sit out the public’s disillusionment with his China policy and, as in the past, do zero in the expectation of some political dividend — what it can be is hard to see. But if his peaceful attitude gets him egg on his face, Indian territory stays lost to China, and if the opposition keeps up a drumbeat of withering criticism, he may have no alternative to ordering military action to restore the status quo ante by recovering Fingers 4 to 8 on the Pangong Tso, clearing the Galwan of the residual PLA presence and, especially, removing the Chinese blockade at the Y-junction on the Depsang Plains. But then the cost of recovering lost territory will be so much steeper. Such are the wages of feeble minds favouring procrastination and doing zilch rather than going in for prompt action.
As regards the limited war imperative too, I will be proved right. But just in case Modi girds up his loins and initiates a justified military operation, China may need to be deterred from escalating the conventional military proceedings. This will require the PM to deploy those Agnis that are canisterized to the Ladakh theatre, Agni-5s to launch positions in the northeast to reach the farthest Chinese targets, and the Arihant SSBN on active deterrence patrolling in the Bay of Bengal.
The US secretary of state Michael Pompeo publicly regretted President Richard Nixon’s 1972 policy of cultivating China that the US followed ever since as a grave strategic error. Far from liberalizing the Communist state as was hoped, allowing China concessional terms of trade, unhindered access to the American market, and transfer of advanced technology to modernize its military and manufacturing industry, helped it to emerge in the second decade of the 21st Century as an aggressive authoritarian state, a mercantilist powerhouse and military rival which can only be handled, he contended in a July 23 speech in California, by ‘a new alliance of democracies’.
As if on cue, India’s “weathercock strategists” — a delectable phrase coined by Jawed Naqvi, the Delhi correspondent of the Pakistani newspaper Dawn — began chiming in, about how with a slightly modified moniker this ‘coalition of democracies’ would serve India’s purpose. It is, however, a line External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar indicated the Modi government is a little chary of. He told a web audience at the ‘Mindmine Summit’ last week that while the ‘era of great caution and …greater dependence on multilateralism…is behind us”, the consequence of the US ‘repositioning’ itself and of the American security ‘umbrella’ becoming ‘smaller, less thick’ is that it has ‘allowed other countries to play more autonomous roles’.
Apparently, he sees India as a ‘middle power’ in such a role; the confusion and lack of clarity is about just how autonomously the Modi government wants the country to act, in Jaishankar’s words, in ‘a multipolar world with strong bipolar characteristics.’ The problem is, based on its record, reflexively siding with the US seems to be its default position that has alienated old friends (Russia, Iran) and ill-served the national interest.
The issue is this: Can any ‘alliance’ or ‘coalition’ of democracies be conceived or imagined without India in it? Absolutely not. So, there’s no real policy premium or material profit in joining a group mooted by the US which, as the dominant power, will decide the norms for intra-coalition affairs and dictate the rules of engagement with non-democratic adversaries of its choice. But there’s every incentive for India in this situation to remain in its own orbit, pursue its goals unimpaired by America’s do’s and don’ts, and leverage its participation for a price in such coalitions as promote its cause and keep away from moves detrimental to its interests.
Given that India’s perception of the China threat is more in line with those of the nations on the latter’s periphery, it makes more sense to alight on a security scheme organic to the extended region. Such as a Modified Quadrilateral or Mod Quad of India, Japan, a cell of Southeast Asian nations, and Australia in which the US, as the extra-territorial power balancer in the Indo-Pacific, can opt in or opt out. This is better than sticking with the Quadrilateral involving America, where its readiness for military confrontation is in inverse proportion to China’s growing military prowess.
The Mod Quad would allow India the latitude, for instance, independently to arm Vietnam, Philippines and Indonesia with strategic weapons, and to otherwise operate jointly with Japan, Australia, and the regional states with the most stakes in it, to curb China’s hegemonic tendencies.
The oceanic expanse separating China and the US, and the contiguous disputed land borders and narrow seas separating China and the Mod Quad members make for quite different security dynamics. As evidence of the distinct sets of interests and motivations at work, consider the clash in eastern Ladakh. The US has done precious little to help.
The deployment of two aircraft carrier task groups in the Philippine Sea pertained to the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait but was misrepresented by the Indian media as a gesture of support. And the Passing Exercise in the Andaman Sea with a couple of Indian warships by one of the carrier groups returning to its Bahrain base, was of no great value.
Many combat aircraft — new to the air force — have entered service over the years. But I doubt whether the IAF has experienced any warplane being accorded the kind of hyperbolised welcome the five Rafales (2 two seat trainers, 3 single seaters) are getting. This small Rafale complement is flying in today from Merignac, France, to the IAF’s 1 Air Wing’s home base at Ambala. Trumpeted as a “game changer” — among the more restrained phrases for it being flung around alike by bemedalled Air Marshals, reporters who went up joy-riding on this plane only to return to earth singing its hosannas, and television news show hosts, makes one wonder if this aircraft can fly with the weight of so much exaggeration!
It has long been known that the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) has a large inventory of mostly dated aircraft, and even the more modern ones in it — the J-10s (derived from the Lavi design and technology bought whole from Israel in the 1980s after the US pressured Tel Aviv to terminate this programme) and the J-20 air superiority fighter — a knock-off of the American J-35 Lightning-II cobbled together from designs and systems technologies purloined by cyber means from Lockheed and other sub-contractors working on that project, will be burdened by the same problem any aircraft taking off in the thin air from the high altitude Tibetan bases would face: Balancing the mix of fuel and the ordnance load, because one is at the expense of the other.
Or, put another way, a combat aircraft ex-Hotan and ex-Lhasa, can either have range or carry many weapons, it cannot do both. IAF planes taking off from the plains just across the Himalayan hump, on the other hand, are not so disadvantaged. Whence the concentration of Chinese short-range and medium-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs and MRBMs) in Tibet and the probability of the Chengdu combat zone command, on initiation of war, deciding to take out Indian air bases hosting IAF attack aircraft, with SRBM/MRBM strikes.
It is a danger Dhanoa did not address for the good reason that IAF has no credible plan for preemptively neutralizing these Chinese missiles. Instead, he hinted at the suppression of Chinese air defences role for the Rafales. Except, this mission can as easily and, perhaps, more effectively be performed by low flying Jaguars with the super-agile Su-30 MKIs providing protective cover.
Referring to the aircraft in Indian and Chinese air force inventories, he dismissed the danger posed by the J-20 saying the Rafale and the Su-30s will be able to counter it, if they can first avoid the surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems which, he claimed, constitutes the main “Chinese Air Threat”. What Dhanoa did not say is that both the IAF and the PLAAF will be operationally hampered by the small numbers of Rafales and J-20s available to the two air forces. However, while IAF will have to make do with just 36 Rafales — there’s too much controversy attending on the Rafale transaction for the government to risk an additional buy, the PLAAF currently boasting some 50-odd J-20s, will keep enlarging its J-20 fleet. It is a force imbalance that cannot be rectified even if the Indian government approves the purchase of another 90 Rafales as Vayu Bhavan desires (to bring the medium multi-role combat aircraft complement to planned strength) because the Chengdu Aerospace Corporation can keep rolling out the J-20s at will at progressively lower unit cost.
He then extolled “the advanced terrain following weapons and level II of Digital Terrain Elevation Data’ system onboard the Rafale, which he says will be particularly effective in the high altitude desert lacking tree cover for near zero-error kills. But it is a platform attribute that is also sported, it turns out, by the Su-30MKI with weapons that can be slaved to its terrain following radar in low altitude flight profile.
It is not my case that the avionics on the Rafale and the weapons it carries (air-to-ground Scalp missile, air-to-air Meteor missile, and Hammer (Highly Agile and Manoeuvrable Munition Extended Range) for precision A2G targeting are not qualitatively superior to their Russian counterparts that the IAF uses. Rather, that the price differential between the French and the Russian ordnance is so great it is not matched by proportionate performance upgrade and, hence, that it makes no sense for the IAF not to massively augment its Su-30 fleet for the cost of a truckload of Meteors, for example! In exchange ratio terms, therefore, the value of numerous Su-30s made by HAL, Nashik, ensuring that a good part of the procurement cost remains in the country, for invariably far fewer Rafales bought at humungous cost, is really no contest. It does not help Rafale’s case that its all up cost is three times Su-30’s! Further, the Sukhoi by all accounts is the finest fighter-bomber now flying barring the supremely maneuverable MiG-29 (tipping the hat here to retired Air Marshal Harish Masand — the 29’s biggest promoter). And upgraded to the ‘super Sukhoi’ configuration the Su-30 will be well nigh unbeatable.
For all these reasons, the Modi government in the face of the border crisis in eastern Ladakh, has gone in for a speed buy of the more economical Su-30MKIs and MiG-29s!
I am reprising here the sort of arguments I made in my books and other writings for more Su-30s as alternative to the impossibly high-priced and hence fewer Rafales, in the lead up to Modi’s French deal in April 2015. They had found favour with the then defence minister Manohar Parrikar before he was shipped back to Goa.
Dhanoa then got round to the business of slamming Chinese aircraft and technology with the Pakistan Air Force, especially the JF-17 Thunder that flew combat air patrol for the F-16s retaliating for IAF’s Balakot strike, as an inferior product. Except, he did not factor in the more sophisticated Block 3 stealth version of this aircraft that China will soon be transferring to Pakistan and begin filling PAF squadrons. Then Dhanoa threw in a non sequiter. Why, he asked, “does Pakistan use Swedish early air warning platforms up north and keep Chinese AWACS in the south? Why is Pakistan mounting European radar (Selex Gallelio) and Turkish targeting pod” on the JF-17? The answer is quite evident.” The riposte to this would be that Pakistan did as he says for the same reasons that India has equipped its Russian aircraft, starting with the MiG-21, with Israeli avionics and French, British, and Swedish components, systems and sub-systems — to secure a hybrid weapons platform that in its totality promises a bigger bang for the buck!
That Dhanoa has overstated Rafale’s virtues is not a surprise. Service chiefs in retirement are often more voluble and unrestrained in their views than when in service.
Even so, the point made by many IAF officers to the Press that Chinese combat aircraft and related technologies cannot compare with like Western or even Russian items, is not much of a revelation. But when IAF officers begin dissing the Chinese for “reverse engineering Russian equipment” they fail to acknowledge just how far China has gone in becoming near self-sufficient in armaments using these means that they revile when the Indian military has essentially remained third-rate because it is satisfied with surviving, hand-to-mouth, on imported arms.
Rediff News published a two-part interview (taken 8-10 days earlier) on July 20, 2020 and July 22, 2020
‘By not even acknowledging China’s occupation of Indian territory Modi signalled to Beijing that he was not prepared to use forceful means to vacate the Chinese occupation, and that his government was reconciled to this loss of territory and accepted the fait accompli engineered by the PLA.’
[Modi interacts with Indian soldiers during his visit to Ladakh, July 3, 2020]
National security expert Bharat Karnad is Emeritus Professor in national security studies at the Centre for Policy Research. A prolific author, his most recent book is Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition. He helped draft India’s nuclear policy and authored India’s Nuclear Policy and Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security. He was one of the first security experts to have issued several warnings about the Chinese incursion and occupation of Indian territory in eastern Ladakh.
“Considering how much Prime Minister Modi has invested in his personal relations with Xi, the impression cannot be allowed to go out that the whole India-China relations edifice was built on shifting sand,” Professor Karnad tells Rediff.com Contributor Rashme Sehgal. The first of a two-part interview:
Senior government sources claim Prime Minister Modi is upset with General Bipin Rawat on how the chief of defence staff incorrectly advised him on how to handle the Ladakh crisis.
I am not sure how General Rawat can be faulted for the ‘do little, do nothing provocative’ advice rendered by him to the prime minister. After all, it is natural for military advice givers to tack to the leanings of the PM. And Modi has in various summits and meetings with Xi Jinping shown a distinct tendency to accommodate Beijing.
Modi was also reportedly upset with Leh-based 14 Corps Commander Lieutenant General Harinder Singh for the PLA’s deep incursions in eastern Ladakh.
One may hold the Leh Corps commander and the army brass responsible for the deep PLA penetrations into Indian territory, but the PMO cannot be absolved of the responsibility either. It is hard to imagine that the Defence Image Processing and Analysis Centre, controlled by the army-run Defence Intelligence Agency, was not passing on the series of high-resolution satellite photographs detailing the PLA intrusions and build-up in Indian territory since the late summer of 2019 to army headquarters and the PMO.
There is a view among defence experts that the Modi government is making misleading claims about the extent of disengagement along the LAC/ Why should the government be doing this given that today there is satellite imagery to corroborate what is happening on the ground?
That’s the point I made several weeks ago in my blog. Any misleading statements emanating from the government can be confirmed or belied by commercially available satellite imagery. Hence, it is politically foolhardy to lie to the people.
[Indian Army vehicles in Leh, July 15, 2020.]
There are reports that the PLA has refused to withdraw from the Hot Springs area and from Gogra. Is that correct? Even in Galwan, the buffer zone is being created in Indian territory.
I am not sure about this. Gogra and the Hot Springs areas are where the two governments supposedly agreed to establish ‘buffer zones’. My problem with the buffer zone concept is precisely that they encompass territory claimed by India and the ‘no man’s land’ separating the two sides and, therefore, compromise India’s claims on the LAC. And it leaves this belt of land vulnerable to permanent Chinese absorption.
But newspapers and TV channels are reporting what they are being told by army sources who also qualify this information by stating that the army is spouting the line given to them by the national security adviser’s office. What are your views on this.
Of course, the NSA is in the business of micromanaging the public perceptions of the unfolding events in eastern Ladakh.
Considering how much Prime Minister Modi has invested in his personal relations with Xi, the impression cannot be allowed to go out that the whole India-China relations edifice was built on shifting sand.
[An Indian Air Force Apache helicopter flying over the mountains in Ladakh, July 15, 2020]
Commercial satellite imagery reportedly shows the LAC has shifted 12 to 15 kms in Depsang, 1 km in Galwan, 2 to 4 kms in Gogra and 8 kms in Pangong Lake. This would be by far the largest loss of territory to China since the 1962 war. Is this observation correct?
I have been warning since the beginning about the quite considerable loss of territory. I estimate that China’s policy of what I have called incremental annexation has resulted in the loss of some 1,300 sq kms of Indian territory in the new millennium.
Should the buck not stop with NSA Ajit Doval?
Well, yes, because he is supposed to ingest all intel, field reports, military briefings, analyses and recommendations from the China Study Group, et al, and alight on policy options for the PM.
You have said repeatedly that Indian intelligence knew about the Chinese build up for the last one year. More specifically, intelligence had told the army about Chinese movements in the LAC area, but the army took this to be normal spring time activity. Would you say this has been an operational lapse by the army?
As I have already said, there’s no excuse for XIV Corps Headquarters in Leh or army headquarters in Delhi and for the army misreading imagery intelligence transmitted to the Defence Intelligence Agency by DIPAC.
Is it correct to say that the government had considered the possibility of replacing the Northern Army commander and the corps commander but decided against it.
I don’t know about this specific case. But there’s no reason why a corps commander the government judges to be incompetent cannot be replaced mid-operations. In fact, such replacement should be routinised.
In your June 23 blog you highlight how Article 6 of the 1996 Agreement with China permits the attacked to use infantry weapons in defence. Why were they not used by Lieutenant Colonel Babu and his men when attacked by the Chinese?
The Article 6 provision was first mentioned by former Northern Army commander Lieutenant General H S Panag. And hence I argued Babu should have gone prepared on his sortie for a rumble (confrontation with the PLA). Article 6 permits use of side-arms if attacked by the other party.
[Modi with Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist party of China, at their second informal summit in Mahabalipuram, October 11, 2019]
What signal did Modi’s June 17 statement not mentioning Chinese occupation send to the world and more especially to the Chinese?
By not even acknowledging China’s occupation of Indian territory Modi signalled Beijing that:
1. He was not prepared to use forceful means to vacate the Chinese occupation;
2. His government was reconciled to this loss of territory and accepted the fait accompli engineered by the PLA.
Your June 23 blog suggests the Chinese had anticipated that Modi would not fight. You used the expression ‘Modi’s inaction in the face of provocation’. On what basis was this assumption based.
On the basis of Modi’s personal relations with Xi and warmer ties with China that he has ballyhooed over the year.
Why were the heights on the eastern shore of the Shyok River facing the Daulat Bed Oldi/Karakoram-Depsang road not secured ten years ago?
This, I have said, is the Indian Army’s biggest blunder. The heights on the eastern bank of the Shyok River should have been secured as soon as the alignment of the DSDBO road was fixed. It was an elementary precaution to protect a strategic infrastructure asset it did not take.
‘The PLA will not voluntarily withdraw from Indian territory.’
[Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, army chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane, Northern Army commander Lieutenant General Yogesh Kumar Joshi, and other officers at a forward base in Ladakh.]
“War is apparently not the preferred mode of action for a peacetime army with leadership that, other than counter insurgency operations, has not experienced real war,” Dr Karnad tells Rediff.com Contributor Rashme Sehgal in the concluding segment of a two-part interview.
You say a limited war is the only option for India. What prevents the government from taking this step? Is our army diffident about taking on the Chinese army? Or does our political leadership want to avoid a confrontation?
Limited war is the only option because the PLA will not voluntarily withdraw from the Indian territory it is ensconced in. But war is apparently not the preferred mode of action for a peacetime army with leadership that, other than counter insurgency operations, has not experienced real war.
Your blog alleges that Prime Minister Modi wants to cut some kind of deal with the Chinese. What are you alluding to?
How else to interpret Modi’s reticence in calling out Xi’s China for its calculated policy of territorial aggrandisement?
Do you see any kind of political fallout of these developments within the country?
It depends on what the Opposition parties want to make of it, and how successfully they are able to convey to the masses the fact of Modi’s capitulation to China.
Several army sources believe the PLA and the Pakistan army will move in unison and are likely to attack India in the coming months. What is the likelihood of such a move?
Zero possibility. The Pakistan army is too professional and pragmatic to get into a situation that could redound to its disbenefit.
With China supplying submarines and other naval equipment to the Pakistan navy, will this accelerate tensions further?
China as the primary supplier of military hardware to Pakistan is not a new development and will not aggravate the existing India-Pakistan or Sino-Indian tensions.
While Modi hesitates to take on China, he showed no hesitation in taking on Pakistan after Balakot.
The smaller, weaker, Pakistan is easier to belabour. Besides, being tough with Pakistan has domestic political dividends in that the Hindu-Muslim tensions at home are externalised in India-Pakistan relations.
In the run up to the 2019 general elections, the Centre for Policy Research published a compendium of essays by its faculty members — ‘Policy Challenges 2019-2024: Charting a New Course for India and Navigating Policy Challenges in the 21st Century’ for limited circulation and uploaded it to its website. It is available at https://www.cprindia.org/sites/default/files/Policy%20Challenges%202019-2024.pdf. These essays offered an alternative policy template for the incoming government to consider. I did not post my essay (with end notes) in this compilation on this blog ere now.
A year later and in the context of China’s annexationist policy on the disputed border and India’s continuing failure to deal with China, this piece has gained even more weight, methinks. It may be interesting for those of you eager to delve deeper into the subject, to compare and contrast my views with those of Shyam Saran, ex-Foreign Secretary, and honorary professor at CPR (also available at the above URL), which reflect the Establishment thinking.
Reproduced below is that piece.
———————- Several mega-trends are visible in international affairs on the cusp of the third decade of the 21st century. After a trillion dollars spent on the 18-year old war with the Taliban in Afghanistan following a similar amount expended in Iraq and Syria, the US is drained of its wealth, stamina and will for military confrontations of any kind. A reactive and retreating America under President Donald Trump, besides generating unprecedented levels of uncertainty and anxiety, has accentuated the conditions of unusual flux in the international system.
Second, with the old certainties gone, traditional alliances (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), trading regimes (Trans-Pacific Partnership), schemes of regional peace (Shanghai Cooperation Organization), and technology and supplier cartels (Missile Technology Control Regime, Nuclear Suppliers Group, et al.) are all alike in disarray; their concerns are now matters of contestation with China staking claim to the pole position vacated by the US.
And finally, these developments are compelling major countries to try to protect themselves the best they can by handling things on their own, in coalition with other similarly encumbered nations, and by exploring new security/military cooperation agreements. There is particular urgency in Asia to blunt China’s hegemonic ambitions and preclude its domination from taking root.
State of Play
Unfortunately India finds itself on the wrong side of these trends in the main. This is because it has, in the new millennium, accelerated its efforts to join the very same nonproliferation regimes and cartels that had victimized it all along. Worse, by sidling up to the US and virtually outsourcing its strategic security to Washington, India’s historical role as prime balancer in the international balance-of-power set-up – courtesy its hoary policies of nonalignment and its latter-day avatar, strategic autonomy – has been imperiled. This is at a time when doubts about the US commitment to other countries’ security have increased along with the apprehensions of allies and friends. With security made a transactional commodity by the Trump administration, treaty alliances have been weakened, unsettling West European and Far Eastern states traditionally close to the US. 
India’s trend-bucking policy, in the event, will only cement the growing perceptions of the country as unable to perceive its own best interests and to act on them. Its downgrade, as a result of its more recent strategies, to the status of a subordinate state and subsidiary ‘strategic partner’ of the US means that India will have restricted strategic choices. Its foreign and military policies will therefore lose the freedom and latitude for diplomatic manoeuvre that they have always enjoyed.
Thus, the 2008 civilian nuclear deal, for all practical purposes, signed away India’s sovereign right to resume underground testing and froze its nuclear arsenal at the sub-thermonuclear technology level (as the 1998 fusion test was a dud). Agreeing to the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement and the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement – the so-called ‘foundational accords’ – will, respectively, (i) permit the US to stage its military forces out of Indian bases and embroil India in its wars in the extended region, and (ii) to penetrate the most secret Indian communications grid, including the nuclear command and control network. The Indian government’s eagerness to cement the partnership is astonishing considering the trust deficit evident in a long history of duplicitous US behaviour and policies. 
By clinging to a feckless and demanding US, India’s profile as a fiercely independent state has taken a beating, distanced the country from old friends such as Russia (which is pivotal to balancing China and the US) and Iran (central to India’s geostrategic concerns in the Gulf, Afghanistan and Central Asia), lost the nation its diplomatic elan, and has seriously hurt vital national interests.
Placating China is the other imprudent theme that Indian foreign policy has latched on to. It has mollycoddled its most dangerous adversary and comprehensively capable rival in Asia with giveaways – such as non-use of the Tibet and Taiwan cards, refraining from nuclear missile-arming states on China’s periphery as a tit-for-tat measure for Beijing’s missile-arming of Pakistan, giving the Chinese manufacturing sector unhindered access to the Indian market through a massively unfair and unbalanced bilateral trade regime, etc. On the other hand, it has treated Pakistan, a weak flanking country, as a full-bore security threat when, realistically, it is only a military nuisance. This strategy is at the core of India’s external troubles. It has practically incentivized Beijing to desist from peaceful resolution of the border dispute. It has also undermined India’s credibility and credentials as ‘security provider’ to and strategic partner of a host of Asian littoral and offshore states fearful of an ambitious and aggressive China, as well as complicated the country’s attempts at obtaining a tier of friendly nations around it as buffer.
A topsy-turvy threat perception has also meant a lopsided Indian military geared to handle Pakistan but incapable of defending well against China, even less of taking the fight to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on land, air and distant seas; it is also laughably unprepared for future warfare featuring cyber pre-emption, remotely controlled armed drone swarms, robotic weapons systems managed by Artificial Intelligence, space-based weapons platforms, and clean micro-thermonuclear bombs.
In the context, moreover, of a recessive foreign policy and a military that seems unable to wean itself away from imported armaments, it is almost as if the Indian government and armed services have given up on national security. This bewildering state of affairs is in urgent need of drastic overhaul and repair.
Geopolitical Vision and Strategy
Strong nations in the modern era have transitioned into great powers not only through expansive national visions, but also, more significantly, by pursuing policies disruptive of the prevailing order and multilateral regimes they had no hand in creating. India in the 21st century, on the other hand, seems content with the existing international system, measuring its foreign policy success in terms of entry gained or denied in congeries of international power (UN Security Council) and trade and technology cartels (Nuclear Suppliers Group, Missile Technology Control Regime, etc.). In other words, it covets a place at the high table on terms set by other countries. It is not a mistake made by China or the US (or, to go back in history, Elizabethan England, Germany, Imperial Japan, the Soviet Union and now Vladimir Putin’s Russia). The Indian government is hampered by its mistaken belief that upholding the current regional and international correlation of forces and mechanisms of order, and stressing its soft ‘civilizational’ power, will make the country great. India with its many infirmities is in no position to undertake system disruption by itself. 
For India to rise as the premier Asian challenger to China and as the other economic-political-military power node in the continent in the shortest possible time – which should be the legitimate national aim and vision – requires a subtle but telling approach. It needs a doublepronged strategy. One prong should stress absolutely reciprocal positions and policies. Thus, Beijing’s insistence on ‘One China, two systems’ should be met with a ‘One India’ concept. So, the non-acceptance by Beijing of all of Jammu and Kashmir (including the Pakistan-occupied portion) as inalienably Indian territory should lead to formal recognition of and relations with Taiwan; it should also spark off New Delhi’s world-wide advocacy of a free Tibet and a free East Turkestan, and of campaigns against ‘cultural genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Tibet and Xinjiang.  And China’s nuclear missile arming of Pakistan should, even if belatedly, trigger India’s transferring strategic missiles to the states adjoining China on land and sea to ensure that, like India, China too is permanently strategically discomfited.
Hamstringing China should also involve metameasures to carve out separate, loose and specifically anti-China security coalitions from the two important groups India is part of. BRICS (Brazil-RussiaIndia-China-South Africa) is an entity dominated economically and trade-wise by China. This is something that arouses wariness in the other three countries, which can be mobilized to form a smaller, informal, security-cooperation-minded coalition, BRIS (Brazil-Russia-India-South Africa). It will assist in hedging Beijing’s military options and affect China’s economic expansiveness. Likewise, the US’s importance to international security has to be whittled away. The Quadrilateral (US-Japan-IndiaAustralia) proposed by Japan’s Shinzo Abe to contain China in the Indo-Pacific is problematic owing to the centrality accorded the capricious US. India could propose a different set-up – a modified Quadrilateral or ‘Mod Quad’ with India, Japan, Australia and the leading littoral and offshore states of South East Asia, resisting China’s over-lordship and disputing its claims in the South China Sea, with a cooperative Taiwan accorded, to start with, observer status.
This would at once define the strategic geopolitical face-off between ‘rimland Asia’ and a hegemonic ‘heartland’ China, and reduce the uncertainty attending on America’s security role (given that the US and China, owing to their close economic and trading links, are inseparable). Mod Quad will clarify the strategic calculi of member states, while encouraging the US to contribute militarily to the extent it wants to at any time but as an outside party. BRIS and Mod Quad are extremely practicable geopolitical solutions to share the cost, divide the danger, and generate synergy from the wide-spectrum capabilities, singly and together, of the member states in these two collectives. At the same time, they would stretch China’s economic and military resources and minimize the consequences of ambiguity attending on the US role. These new arrangements adhere to the time-tested principle of vision shaping strategy but geography driving it, which makes for cohesion and sense of purpose. BRIS and Mod Quad will enable their member states to be less inhibited in cooperating with each other to deal with the overarching security threat posed by China, but without the intimidating presence of the US (which, typically, pursues its own interests at the expense of any coalition it is a part of). They will instill in the Indian government’s external outlook an outcomes-oriented, competitive bent. It may result, for instance, in getting the east-west Ganga-Mekong connectivity project – as a rival to China’s north-south Belt & Road Initiative – off the ground. 
But BRIS and Mod Quad leave Pakistan out of the reckoning. Pakistan is strong enough to be a spoiler and, in cahoots with China, pose a substantial problem. More than 70 years of tension and conflict with India haven’t helped. For a lasting solution it is essential to break up the Pakistan-China nexus. The military palliative for terrorist provocations – air and land strikes – will only drive Islamabad deeper into China’s camp. A Kashmir solution roughly along the lines negotiated with General Pervez Musharraf in 2007 that Prime Minister Imran Khan has said Pakistan will accept, is a reasonable end state to work towards. But India can lubricate such an offer with policies to co-opt Pakistan (along with India’s other subcontinental neighbours) economically, by means of trade on concessional terms, and easy credit and access to the Indian market for manufactures and produce. This will obtain the goal of unitary economic space in the subcontinent and lay the foundations for a pacified South Asia – the first step in India’s long overdue achievement of great power.
Such actions should, however, be preceded by several unilateral and risk-averse military initiatives (outlined later) to establish India’s peaceful bonafides and to denature the Indian threat that Pakistan perceives. Simultaneously, prioritizing strategic and expeditionary military capabilities against China and for distant operations jointly with friendly states in the Indian Ocean Region and in Southeast Asia will secure India’s extended security perimeter.
National Security Policy Priorities
Lack of money has never been the hitch. Rather, the problem has been and continues to be the misuse of financial resources by the three armed services with their faulty expenditure priorities. Intent on equipping and sustaining inappropriate force structures geared to the lesser threat, they have squandered the colonial legacy of expeditionary and ‘out of area operations’. Consequently, they have shrunk greatly in stature even as they have increased in size. Persisting with thinking of Pakistan as the main threat long after it credibly ceased to be one post the 1971 war has resulted in an Indian military able to fight only short-range, short-duration, small and inconclusive wars. Indeed, so geared to territorial defence and tactical warfare are the Indian armed services that they have paid scant attention to strategic objectives and to the means of realizing them.
The political leadership, for its part, has shown marked lack of interest, and failure to articulate a national vision and to outline a game plan and strategy. It has chosen the easy way of relying on the armed services professionally to do the right thing by proffering the right advice – which they haven’t. Breaking the Pakistan-China nexus is an imperative. It requires the Indian government to first seed a conducive political milieu by making certain safe unilateral military moves. What the Pakistan Army most fears is India’s three Strike Corps; if this ‘threat’ is denatured, a milieu with enormous peaceful potential can be created. Considering the nuclear overhang and zero probability of the Indian government ever ordering a war of annihilation – which is the only time when these armoured and mechanized formations will fight full tilt – three corps are way in excess of need. They can be reconstituted and the resources shifted to form a single composite corps adequate for any conceivable Pakistan contingency. The rest of the heavily armoured units can be converted to airborne cavalry, and to light tanks with engines optimized for high-altitude conditions; three offensive mountain corps can thereby be equipped to take the fight to the PLA on the Tibetan Plateau.
The nuclear backdrop can likewise be changed for the better by India removing its short-range nuclear missiles from forward deployment on the western border and perhaps even getting rid of them altogether, because hinterland-based missiles can reach Pakistani targets with ease. These two moves made without demanding matching responses will cost India little in terms of security, establish a modicum of trust, persuade Pakistan of India’s goodwill, and confirm China as the Indian military’s primary concern. It will hasten normalcy in bilateral relations.
Tackling China at a time when it is widening the gap with India in all respects necessitates India using the playbook the Chinese successfully used against the US, that Pakistan has used against India, and North Korea against America, when facing an adversary with a marked conventional military edge. It means revising the nuclear doctrine to emphasise Nuclear First Use (NFU) and deploying weapons to make this stance credible. Emplacing atomic demolition munitions in Himalayan passes to deter PLA units ingressing in strength across the disputed border is one tripwire. Another is to declare that any forceful Chinese military action that crosses a certain undefined threshold may automatically trigger the firing of canisterised medium- and longrange Agni missiles, now capable of launch-on-launch and launch-on warning. Additionally, the large numbers of Chinese missiles positioned in Tibet should be seen as the third nuclear tripwire. As there is no technology to reliably detect and determine the nature of incoming warheads, any missile PLA fires will reasonably have to be assumed to be nuclear-warheaded. Such a posture leaning towards action will create precisely the kind of uncertainty about the Indian reaction and response that will bolster its deterrent stance.
Exorbitantly priced aircraft carriers are unaffordable and, in the age of hypersonic and supersonic missiles, a military liability. The Indian naval budget should instead prioritize nuclear-powered ballistic missile-firing and attack submarines, and a surface fleet of multipurpose frigates. The Indian Air Force needs to radically cut the diversity of combat aircraft in its inventory, rationalize its force structure and streamline its logistics set-up. This will be facilitated by limiting the fleet to just three types of aircraft – the multi-role Su-30MKI upgraded to ‘super Sukhoi’ configuration in the strike and air superiority role and progressively enhanced versions of the indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft for air defence, the follow-on Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft for longer reach and bigger punch, and lease-buying 1-2 squadrons of Tu-160M2 ‘Blackjack’ strategic bomber from Russia as the manned, recallable, vector in the country’s nuclear triad.
Politically, the most difficult policy decision for the government will be to resume nuclear testing. This is absolutely necessary to obtain tested and proven thermonuclear weapons of different power-to-yield ratios. India has got by with a suspect thermonuclear arsenal for 20 years. It is time India’s strategic deterrent acquired credibility.
An unreliable US, in fact, so concerns its NATO allies that the French defence minister Florence Parly in Washington asked a little plaintively, ‘What Europeans are worried about is this: Will the U.S. commitment [to NATO] be perennial? Should we assume that it will go on as was the case in the past 70 years?’ See ‘French defense chief questions US commitment to NATO’, AFP, RadioFreeEurope, Radio Liberty, 18 March 2019, https://www.rferl.org/a/french-defense-chief-questions-us-commitment-to-nato/29829763.html.
Bharat Karnad, Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet) (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2015), 187-219.
For a detailed analysis of its various infirmities that preclude India’s becoming a great power anytime soon, see Karnad, Why India Is Not a Great Power (Yet).
Karnad, Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet), ch. 5.
Bharat Karnad, ‘Shifting the Nuclear Security Focus to China’, in Lieutenant General A.K. Singh and Lieutenant General B.S. Nagal, eds., India’s Military Strategy in the 21st Century (New Delhi: Centre for Land Warfare Studies and KW Publishers, 2019); Karnad, Staggering Forward, 344-349.
China has risen to be a great power in part because its leaders have had the knack for never missing an opportunity to exploit a situation or kick an adversary when he’s down. For instance, Mao leveraged the support Nikita Khrushchev sought from China in his Kremlin power struggle with Georgy Malenkov, immediate successor to Stalin, and Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov in the mid-1950s, for Russian transfer of nuclear weapons and missile technologies. And, always inclined from early in his reign to show up the “cocky” Nehru, Mao chose exactly the time when John F Kennedy blockaded Cuba for a showdown with Khrushchev over Russian missiles there in October 1962 to attack India.
It is the sort of ruthlessness and single-minded pursuit of power Indian leaders can apparently summon only against their political rivals at home. In the external sphere, they are ‘bheegi billees’ — timid and cautious, ready to take the counsel of fear. And it is fear and risk aversion that the China Study Group’s advice to Indian governments usually reeks of. CSG is the main shaper of the government’s China policy. In the present circumstances, its urging the Modi government to have the GOC, XIV Corps, continue parlaying with the Chinese sector commander, carry on with the buffer zone-concept that has compromized India’s territorial claims in eastern Ladakh, and otherwise seek refuge in interminable exchanges with the Chinese at various official levels, is not getting India anywhere, but who cares.
Consider the context China unexpectedly finds itself in. The US and the West are pretty much hanging up on Beijing on the trade and technology fronts. The Chinese economy is slumping. The corona pandemic, the new Chinese security law imposed on Hong Kong and President Trump’s desire to economically and security-wise scapegoat China for his re-election purposes, has led to America orchestrating an international campaign against China as the irresponsible spreader of the corona virus, ending Hong Kong’s special trading privileges, threatening economic sanctions, terminating Chinese investments in cutting edge technology companies in the US, and denying visas to Chinese citizens. Further, the US and the UK governments have banned the Chinese tech giant Huawei from the American and the British 5G telecommunications markets — a move that India too has wisely subscribed to, deployed two American aircraft carrier groups in the Philippine Sea — a proverbial stone’s throw away from the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, accelerated deliveries of advanced armaments to Japan and Taiwan, and asked its allies and friends to vote against a seat for China on the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, which the US Assistant Secretary of State State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell likened to “hiring an arsonist to help run the fire department.”
Vice Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang called in the U.S. Ambassador Terry Branstad “to warn the U.S. sternly that any bullying and unfairness imposed on China by the U.S. will meet resolute counterattack from China, and the U.S. attempt to obstruct China’s development”, he added, unconvincingly, “is doomed to failure.”
One hopes, the Modi government has enough sense to vote with like-minded countries to prevent China from occupying a seat on the Sea Tribunal.
But to get to the more urgent point: With China rattled and besieged on all fronts and stretched militarily in the east and the west, it is in no position to engage in all out hostilities in Ladakh. Now is therefore the time, an opportune one, for Delhi to trash all the ridiculous understandings to-date, end talks at all levels, and to announce a time limit of two-three weeks, starting now, for the PLA to get the hell out of Indian territory. And, in this regard, to issue a clear and public warning to Beijing, and so communicate it to the world so that international pressure can be mobilized, that the Indian armed forces will undertake limited military operations using all conventional means at their disposal to vacate every last square inch of Chinese troops come what may, and at whatever cost. The PLA has to unconditionally and voluntarily restore the status quo ante that foreign minister Jaishankar has already formally demanded, or be forced to do so. The Modi regime should follow up with the facilitation of high paced preparations by the Indian military for war backed, as I have suggested in earlier posts, by moving Agni missiles to the theatre and ordering the Arihant SSBN on patrol to loiter in its launch area just in case and, at the end of the 2-3 week deadline, to initiate without ado the promised military actions. The international community will sympathize with India and press Beijing to get out and keep out of Indian Ladakh.
The Indian government has so routinely messed up on historic opportunities to make strategic good, it will be no surprise if Narendra Modi too fails to be decisive, and stays with his ridiculous public stance that China is not in occupation of any Indian territory, and hence that there is no problem of territorial aggrandizement that needs to be addressed. The CSG members will cluck in satisfaction that they have done well.
Except, Modi needs to be reminded that it was a private American company, Maxar, that first released commercially available satellite imagery showing deep PLA penetrations into Indian Ladakh, detailing the infrastructure buildup — intelligence that Indian satellites had long ago picked up and conveyed to the Indian government. The real scandal, in the event, is that Modi did nothing with this information and, ostrich like, stuck his neck in the sand, implicitly denying that his good and great friend Xi Jinping did anything wrong.
Not sure how Modi will live down this episode, but that’s his personal outlook. That India has had its territory so brazenly annexed without China suffering any cost whatsoever, will mean such intrusive adventures will be repeated every summer by the PLA. And Beijing will rely on the Indian PM to ex post-facto legitimate the LAC being thus steadily pushed India-wards.
Some 2-3 years back or so, I received an emailed letter from a Joint Secretary in MEA asking for what I thought India’s foreign policy priorities should be. It was perhaps a form letter sent out to others as well. I thought it was a bit late in the day for the Modi regime to ask for policy recommendations four years into its first term, and to me signaled an official acknowledgement that the earlier priorities — whatever they were — hadn’t worked. Nevertheless, I dutifully wrote back listing them with thumbnail justifications for each of them.
The list repeated the priorities I had, incidentally, put on a paper and handed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in November 2014 the only time he had called me in for “consultation”. I was part of an odd assortment of analysts, MEA beat reporters, a television channel’s “strategic affairs expert”, an owner-cum-editor-in-chief, and such like. Each of us had 5-minutes and then were treated to the PM’s ideas about this and that but mainly his achievements in Gujarat. There were no official note-takers, no follow-up, and the whole thing was a waste of time.
In contrast was the session I had (along with one or two other analysts) with Dr. Manmohan Singh over breakfast in mid-September 2004 on the eve of his first visit to the US to attend the UN General Assembly meeting. It was a proper and meaty discussion with lot of exchanges and the prime minister asking questions. On the PM’s side of the table were arrayed, among others, the NSA, Mani Dixit, and his Personal Private Secretary, TKA Nair (ex-IAS, Punjab cadre), both busily taking notes. I remember urging the PM to speak to President George W. Bush when they met on the sidelines in Hotel Astoria in New York about the need for a fairer, more equitable, nuclear order, failing to realize which, to say, India would feel free to test again and do whatever else was necessary to beef up its nuclear security. I also suggested he reinforce this message to the US government by repeating it publicly while in that city.
Gratifyingly, Singh told Bush what I had suggested, and repeated these points in a speech delivered a day later at an NRI function on Long Island. Perhaps, alarmed by what Bush heard, Washington got to work and, in conjunction with the usual suspects at this end, quickly turned Manmohan Singh. By the time the PM next visited the US in July 2005 he had committed to the strategically disastrous civilian nuclear cooperation deal that furthered the US nuclear nonproliferation goals by, for all intents and purposes, prohibiting the resumption of nuclear tests by India. The deal was negotiated by the then Joint Secretary (Americas) in MEA — one Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. The relentless criticism by a few of us about the prospective deal during the time it was being negotiated in 2005-2008 was used by Jaishankar — so he let it be known — to temper the ask by the US negotiators. (Just how merciless and on-point the criticism was may be gauged from reading the op-eds and other writings in that period by the four of us — Drs PK Iyengar, former chairman Atomic Energy Commission, AN Prasad, former director BARC and head of the plutonium reprocessing unit, and A Gopalakrishnan, ex-chairman, Atomic Regulatory Commission, and myself compiled in a 2009 book ‘Strategic Sellout: Indo-American Nuclear Deal’). Considering Jaishankar gave away the store in the most one-sided deal imaginable, one wonders what he thinks he got from the Americans. And, of course, I wasn’t called for consultation by Manmohan Singh again.
To revert to the session with Modi at 7, Race Course Road, given the time constraints I only argued the importance of the country using its hard power strategically. And in the paper given to the PM, I listed what his foreign and military policy priorities should be, reprising in bullet points some of the themes featured in my writings and books, particularly ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’ published a year later in 2015. The priorities included restarting open-ended nuclear testing, treating China as primary threat, using the Taiwan and Tibet cards and equating Tibet and Kashmir as leverage against Beijing, nuclear missile arming Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations as a belated coercive counter to China’s deliberate transfer of nuclear weapons and missiles to Pakistan, and accelerated development of Indian air and naval bases in the Indian Ocean and points east (Northern Mozambique, North & South Agalega Islands in Mauritius, Trincomalee in Sri Lanka, Seychelles, the former RAF base on Gan Island in the Maldives, Na Thrang ion the central Vietnamese coast, etc) and particularly of relations with Iran as India’s strategic linchpin pivoting on the Chahbahar port.
Six years into his tenure and a year into his second term as prime minister, Modi has flapped around endlessly on terrorism and Pakistan, supplicated the Trump Administration on the H1B visa issue in the process encouraging Indian IT talent to be siphoned off to the US, signed the ‘foundational accords’, and tried to win some goodwill by buying high-value US military hardware, only to be rebuffed by Washington. The H1B visa was closed and there is little else to show for Modi’s hug and bumble diplomatic efforts. And he has tried to cultivate the Chinese supremo Xi Jinping with worse results. India got kneecapped in Ladakh. Modi is obviously a glutton for punishment because he is still pursuing a conciliatory China policy propelled by his own, strangely pacific, instincts where China is concerned backed by his MEA minion S. Jaishankar’s wrong advice.
It is clear the Indian government historically has had no clue about how to deal with China, and the Modi regime is as befuddled, relying as all previous regimes have done on the China Study Group/Circle to give policy direction. The CSG comprises a changing bunch of usually bumptious and blundering mandarin-speaking Sinophiles from MEA, intelligence agencies, and the military who are strategic dupes — latter day versions of Richard Condon’s ‘Manchurian candidates’ beavering away to advance Chinese interests. Modi has, however, compounded his and CSG’s mistakes of going overboard with China with his equally feckless policy of alienating almost all nations in South Asia and in the extended region, especially Iran. The result is a collision of policy streams that is sinking the Indian national interest with China emerging as the short and long term tactical and strategic beneficiary. It is almost as if Delhi had been taking dictation from Beijing!
Iran, the supposed linchpin of India’s Afghanistan and Central Asia policy, feels so defriended by India, so isolated, and so threatened by the US, it has not only economically signed on with China but has agreed to be its stalking horse in the Gulf. In 2008, the then head of the Iranian Navy Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari remarked at the opening of the naval base at Bandar-e-Jask that Iran was “creating a new defense front in the region, thinking of a non-regional enemy.” Doubtless, the non-regional enemy was America. Iran has now alighted on a military partnership with China to neutralize it.
Soon to be finalized is Tehran’s 25-year agreement that New York Times reports, will in furtherance of the Belt & Road Initiative result in China investing $400 billion in Iranian infrastructure, including the development of free-trade zones in Maku in northwestern Iran, Abadan at the confluence of the Shatt al-Arab river and the Persian Gulf, and on Queshm, a Gulf island; the build-up of that country’s 5G telecommunications network, and help to create Iran’s own Global Positioning System and even an Iranian version of the cyber Chinese Great Wall to control domestic cyber space and to keep the US and Western countries from waging cyber offensives.
In exchange, an energy starved China will be permitted to daily offtake 8.5 million barrels of oil — the minimum necessary output for Iran to remain a viable oil producer and, more significantly, to use the Iranian base at Bandar-e-Jask for its naval operations. Considering the location of Jask on the Hormuz Strait at the mouth of the Gulf, the Iranian and Chinese navies between them will be able to dominate maritime traffic to and from the Gulf and pose no end of trouble for the US 5th Fleet out of Bahrain. It may compel the US to speedily relocate its forces in the region to Duqm on the coast of Oman, being developed as a modern US military base, as a more secure berthing for its warships and army and air force contingents onshore. The current Iran Navy chief Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi’s exulting to Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, in the wake of a recent trilateral Iranian-Russian-Chinese naval exercise that “the era of American invasions in the region is over” will have added weight once the Sino-Iranian deal is signed and PLAN deploys its ships at Bandar-e-Jask.
The presence of the Chinese Navy in Jask will be still more problematic for India. Perhaps, one of the reasons Beijing chose it for naval positioning was because it was bothered by the prospect of the Indian Navy active ex-Chahbahar 76 nautical miles up the coast on Gwadar’s flank. With Jask, 157 nautical miles to the west of Chahbahar, in hand, and combined with its base in Djibouti, PLAN will be able to shut the Indian Navy out of the Gulf, or at least to force it to remain inactive and to practice extreme caution with regard to Gwadar. This is a beautiful Chinese strategic counter-move.
The situation is far worse for India because Delhi, under US pressure, has decelerated its project to develop Chahbahar. So while India has committed $500 million to it the absence of any real buildup may result in Tehran asking India to vacate Chahbahar altogether. That would be a tragedy beyond comprehension for India’s strategic interests in the larger region. Nevertheless, it is a real possibility because with Delhi failing to firm up comprehensive economic links with Iran in the last decade when it desperately needed friends and counted on India to come through by signing up for long term oil supply, etc and because Delhi began tacking ever more fully to the American wind that may cease at any time, the Rouhani regime in Tehran apparently feels it has no incentive to be nice to India. So to add to India’s mounting foreign policy problems, Modi has now, in effect, gone and lost Iran to China.
But there seems to be no relief anywhere else, certainly not in eastern Ladakh where, like the government, the Indian army too appears more eager to jaw-jaw with the Chinese than to prepare to fight the PLA if the Chinese refuse to withdraw completely from the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control in Pangong Tso and the Depsang areas, leave alone occupy the heights on the eastern bank of the Shyok River on the Galwan to protect the DSDBO Road. The PLA, moreover, is so well ensconced on the lake and at these two sites, the military level meetings — the 4th round is ongoing as I write this and, like the previous rounds, will also be infructuous — are meant to reach a dead end. These are exercises to test India’s military tipping point.
In this context, the Xi government seems to be almost daring Prime Minister Modi to order military action to evict the Chinese military from Indian land but is confident the Indian PM won’t do so. Xi, for his own reasons, is probably itching to find out what the PLA is capable of because if India can be easily cowed as the evidence shows it can be, intimidating lesser states in Southeast Asia and on the South China Sea will be easier game, even with US aircraft carriers in the vicinity. In this context, the speed with which the Indian army has adhered to the vague disengagement protocol suggests it is pretty slack and unwilling to force the issue on the ground.
Pangong Tso, the Galwan and the Depsang are far away from Delhi and the PLA’s dawdling on Indian territory would be enough provocation for a tough-minded Indian army chief and theatre commander to say enough is enough and initiate rapid and forceful actions to kick the PLA out of these areas and even annex some Chinese claimed land. Alas, India has long lacked such army chiefs and theatre commanders who will force Delhi’s hand by starting hard and sustained action to deflate China’s military pretensions and strategic designs. It would do India’s reputation a lot of good. Except, the Indian armed services give every indication of doing nothing, chancing nothing, in the hope things will somehow work out, but they won’t unless it is to advantage China.
Indeed, the Modi government seems so frightened of Xi’s China, it couldn’t even muster the courage to slam Beijing at the UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva July 2 for illegally absorbing Hong Kong. This forum, by the way, is routinely used by Beijing to bash India on Kashmir. Instead the Indian Special Representative Rajiv Chander on Delhi’s instructions mumbled this: “Given the large Indian community that makes Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of China it’s home, India has been keeping a close watch on recent developments. We have heard several statements expressing concerns about these developments. We hope the relevant parties will take into account these views and address them properly, seriously and objectively.” He didn’t even name China! And some of us expect the Indian government and army to forcefully kick the Chinese out of Indian Ladakh?
The truth is the Indian government seems to have no backbone, no point where its humiliation tips over into anger and use of force against China. Even indirectly threatening China by nuclear missile arming Vietnam — the only country to induce respect and wariness in Beijing, is an option tremulous and weak-minded Indian governments in the last 35 years, including the present one run by Modi, have eschewed. India thus enjoys a special status with Asian states who once looked upon it as ‘security provider’ — as a country beneath contempt.
Retreating in the face of an enemy’s onslaught may be a tactical necessity. Withdrawing in anticipation of the situation getting sticky is inherently bad strategy but, as the record shows, it is one the Indian government reflexively follows when dealing with China. In eastern Ladakh, the Narendra Modi regime’s play safe-attitude combined with the army brass’ over-caution are allowing India’s main adversary and rival, China, to realize its expansive claims with minimum fuss. An undefined border – whatever the “peace and tranquility’ kind of agreements may say, permits military contestation and territorial gain-seeking. But it is Beijing that has shown the strategic foresight and the stomach to exploit it, leaving a disadvantaged India to always react, to scramble to recover lost ground.
Maybe it is too much to expect the country’s political leaders and their handmaidens manning the apparatus of state – the generalist civil servants and diplomats with only passing knowledge of military affairs, to be mindful of, and learn from, the country’s own historical experience of dealing with China. It is inexcusable, however, for the Indian armed services to act innocent of the methods that fetched them success against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the past.
In September 1967, when India was still suffering from the trauma of defeat in the 1962 War, the 17 Mountain Division stopped the PLA cold. An Indian unit marking the disputed border at Nathu La with cantina wire was challenged by PLA troops, a scuffle ensued, the roughed up Chinese soldiers withdrew to their lines and then, without warning, opened up with heavy machine gun fire killing and injuring many Indian soldiers. Rearing for a fight, the redoubtable Major General Sagat Singh, commander, 17 Mountain Division, responded by having his artillery destroy a series of Chinese bunkers with accurate fire that had the PLA crying for talks. (The same Sagat Singh – the unheralded hero of the 1971 Bangladesh War, as Lieutenant General commanding IV Corps in an operation that he thought up on the spot, which was violative of his operational orders to stay put on the Meghna River, heli-lifted his forces across it for the dash to Dhaka.)
Exactly twenty years later, the army under General Krishnaswami Sundarji, pretending to assess the time to mobilize forces in the northeast – Operation Chequerboard – began deployments. China took the bait, hinted at war, but the PLA found itself overmatched by speedy and massive Indian concentration — some 10 Divisions in all in Arunachal and Assam, three of them around Wangdung where there was trouble brewing. The Chinese once again beat a retreat and called for negotiations that eventuated in the 1993 ‘peace and tranquility on the border’ accord.
Now fast-forward to summer 2020. The Indian government and army, having disregarded the intelligence generated by Indian satellites over the previous 8-10 months depicting considerable military activity and build-up by the PLA on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the area between terrain features – Finger 4 and Finger 8, on the northern shore of the Pangong Lake, upriver in the Galwan Valley and, ignoring the ‘no man’s land’, right smack on the LAC itself in the Gogra and Hot Springs areas, found themselves up a creek. The Indian and Chinese Corps commanders met June 6 to sort out matters. But on June 15 a detachment of the 16 Bihar Regiment went, boy scout fashion, to its doom. Intending to verify if the PLA had kept its promise and decamped from the Galwan, its members were bludgeoned by PLA troops wielding medieval era weapons (rods with embedded steel spikes, etc).
Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar’s remonstrations and demand for the restoration of the status quo ante to his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, June 17 elicited a straight-faced, formal, claim over all of the Galwan Valley and a counter-ask that the intruding Indian soldiers get out of Chinese territory forthwith. To indicate it meant business, China as a coercive tactic also positioned two brigades of artillery and armour, in the Depsang plains, threatening to open yet another sub-sector front.
The Indian soldiers, unaware of the PLA’s penchant for springing local surprises, such as initiating hostilities with machine gun fire at Nathu La in 1967, were unprepared for one when they faced a Chinese attack with nail-studded batons. In the larger context, despite hundreds of unresisted PLA incursions, incremental annexations amounting to a loss of as much 1,300 sq kms of Indian territory in the new millennium, and periodically presenting India with newer territorial faits accomplis that the Indian army and government by doing nothing have, in effect, accepted a reshaped map of Ladakh favouring China.
In the event, the Indian army’s quickly putting a matching force (of two plus Divisions) in place has been of no avail because it did not rapidly go into action to vacate the Chinese occupation of Indian territory. It fell into the trap of trusting in the diplomatic method to get its chestnuts out of the fire. Except, the July 5 Special Representative level talks between national security adviser Ajit Doval and Wang Yi produced little other than an iteration of Chinese claims on the Galwan, a non-withdrawal in the Pangong Tso area, and acceptance of the newly conceived “buffer zones” at Gogra and Hot Springs encompassing the land between the two claim lines. But with the buffer zones obliterating the concept of ‘no man’s land’ separating the two sides all along the LAC, this border safety belt is exposed to surreptitious PLA takeover. Didn’t Messrs Doval & Jaishankar foresee the unnecessary “buffer zones” furthering Chinese designs? Apparently not, but this is par for the course.
China’s Galwan claims are to counter a potential Indian threat from the DSDBO (Depsang-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi) road to the Xinjiang Highway (number 219) connecting to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). That’s proactive Chinese geostrategics at work. In contrast are the Indian government and army. Having constructed the strategically-important DSDBO Road that permits support of the Indian military presence on the Siachen Glacier and potentially interdiction of traffic at the CPEC-Xinjiang Highway junction on the Karakorum Pass, they failed to take the most basic precaution of protecting it by occupying the heights on the mountain range on the eastern bank of the Shyok River running north to south, to pre-empt the PLA from dominating this road.
Having messed up hugely, the Modi government and the Indian army – if they are not to permanently have mud on their faces – have no alternative but to ignore agreements and telephonic understandings if any, and expeditiously occupy the heights above the Shyok to safeguard the DSDBO Road, and to waste no time in launching a limited, possibly intense, war to take back the Galwan fully and to recover Indian territory on the Pangong Tso at whatever cost. Anything less will, in practical terms, mean ceding these territories to China, imperilling the lifeline to Siachen, surrendering a potential Indian strategic military chokehold on the Karakorum, and reinforcing Beijing’s perceptions of India as a weak and pliable state it can safely mistreat.
Much is being unwisely made about several developments on the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh.
One, that both the Indian and the Chinese armies are withdrawing some 2 kms from the Patrolling Position on the Galwan — the site of the barbaric PLA attack June 15 on an Indian patrol out to verify if the Chinese troops had left the area. This was promised by a Chinese Division-level commander, Major General Liu Lin, heading the South Xinjiang Military District, in his meeting June 6 at the Chushul-Moldo post with the GOC XIV Corps, Lt Gen Harinder Singh. It is the location where the Galwan River runs into the bigger Shyok River. Along the western shore of the Shyok running north to south is the strategic Depsang-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DSDBO) highway reaching the Karakorum Pass.
Satellite imagery shows the PLA has decamped from the bend up-river. It is very likely though that the Chinese troops up and left the area before the two sides agreed they’d do so because the seasonal snow-melt with freezing waters had swamped the PLA camp forcing the Chinese to get the hell back to their own lines on higher ground. Unless satellite images of that area when the Chinese actually departed indicate otherwise, this is what must be assumed by the Indian government to have happened. Delhi should not needlessly credit China with adhering to whatever was agreed upon in Chushul, when in actuality the flooding waters drove out the Chinese. Whence, it may be argued that it is only India that has really affected a pull-back of its presence on the Galwan. This is important because the Chinese government may be inclined to use the fact of the PLA troops being forced by an act of Nature to retreat as something they willingly undertook to do, and pitch it as a means of reviving mutual trust.
It leaves unclear what the Indian army hopes to do on the Galwan. Will it seek the cover of this minor disengagement to write off the chance of dominating the heights in strength on the ridge overlooking the DSDBO road by pleading deficiency in the logistics system? This seems to be the case because a news report refers to the difficulty of supplying such posts at 16,000 feet altitude the year round using the twin-routes via Zoji La and Manali? As an army source told a newspaper, “a semi-permanent habitat” presumably on this mountain range is not on the cards. ( https://indianexpress.com/article/india/lac-dispute-indian-army-troops-military-supply-chain-6490608 ).
In the event, the legitimate thing to ponder is this: If the Indian army misses the opportunity of permanently occupying the heights above the Shyok NOW, later may be too late. Because the PLA will surely preempt it by setting itself up on the ridge line. They have already signaled their intent to do so with their Galwan adventure. And because the statement issued in Beijing at the conclusion of the telephonic negotiation July 5 by the two Special Representatives — NSA Ajit Doval and the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi articulates the basis for such prospective action by reiterating China’s claim on the entire Galwan Valley. The statement issued by the MEA, of course, makes no mention of it. But China will naturally go by its document, not Delhi’s.
Secondly, the two sides moving back at Gogra and Hot Springs, was the easiest action to affect in the main because PLA did not cross the LAC at these locations. But, strangely, these are the places around which the two sides agreed to establish what is referred to as “buffer zones”. Are such zones different from the ‘no man’s land’ separating the two armies that has always existed and if so, in what way are they different? And what’s the purpose of these buffers and why at these points only? Or, is the buffer zone concept an enlargement of the no man’s land to reduce the frequency of enemy incursions and prevent head-on clashes? It would make sense if this concept were extendable to the rest of the LAC. Such a buffer zone would be helpful at the Y-junction on the Depsang plains the PLA has occupied, preventing Indian troops from legitimately accessing Patrolling Point 14. This is a flashpoint China apparently doesn’t want to deactivate.
Finally, does the requirement for the opposing forces to move back 2 kms not apply to the Pangong Tso area? Because here the PLA are entrenched not only on the shoreline with a motorable road connecting the terrain features Finger 4 and Finger 8, but also on the top of these hills — on Fingers 4,5,6,7 and 8 — an expanse of territory well within India’s claimline that Indian troops regularly patrolled as of last summer, i.e., until the 2019 patrolling season. There’s not a hint from the Chinese that the PLA will be moving out from these parts that boast of some pucca structures. So, how will annexation of this territory by China be reconciled by the Modi government with Minister S Jaishankar’s demand of June 17 for an unconditional restoration of status quo ante? Or, is Prime Minister Narendra Modi tending towards accepting this new territorial fait accompli?
The only good thing to occur with respect to the Pangong Lake is that the Indian Navy is sending its armed patrol boats. Hopefully, they will be manned by its Marine commando (MARCOS) — the country’s finest, most capable, Special Force. It may be recalled just how successful the Marcos were when deployed during Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat’s foreshortened tenure as CNS in the mid-90s on the Wullar Lake in Kashmir. They ruthlessly shut off attempts at riverine infiltration by the Pakistan-based Lashkar jihadis. We can expect the MARCOS with some unusual tactics to keep the peace, stop the Chinese from messing around, and instill the fear of God in the godless PLA troopers. Hereafter, the contest for the Pangong Tso is bound to be more even.
All of which leads one to wonder if there’ll really be a meaningful disengagement in this region controlled by XIV Corps? Yes, some small de-escalatory steps have been taken, but as matters stand, the PLA is still where it is ensconced on the Pangong, and China has reasserted its claim on the Galwan Valley. This last means the Chinese armed units have not withdrawn any great distance from their forward positions and can renew their annexation offensive at any time of their choosing. This is not progress towards a peaceful resolution. If anything, it should convince the Indian army to redouble its efforts at cementing its presence, especially on the Galwan ridge, and not pull back too much its forces or the warfighting wherewithal hauled up there — the howitzers and air defence missiles in particular, that constitute a deterrent. These should be here to stay.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had four aims in mind for his quick turnaround trip to Ladakh — the scene of the fiercest Indian hand-to-Chinese nails-studded baton fighting that led to the loss on June 15 of 20 personnel of a battalion of the 16 Bihar Regiment, including its CO Lt Col Santosh Babu.
The PM sought to (1) show support for the forces deployed in this high-altitude battlefield, (2) reassure the Indian people who have been disappointed by the BJP government’s stupefied inaction in the face of the unexpected Chinese tactics and occupation of territory on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control, (3) clean up his smudged nationalist image with optics showing him as a wartime leader on the frontline amidst Indian soldiers, and (4) signal President Xi Jinping that the cask of the Wuhan and Mamallapuram spirit has run dry, and were China to resort to further armed hostilities the Indian military would respond in kind. Whether this signal will be properly received and how Beijing will react to it, of course, remains to be seen. But at least and finally the PM conveyed his resolve and the army’s to stand their ground.
Except, and this is the troubling part, a senior army commander — it must have been one of the three senior most officers accompanying the Prime Minister — the Chief of the Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, Army Chief General MM Naravane, or the General Officer Commanding XIV Corps Lt Gen Harinder Singh, undercut the ostensible thrust of Modi’s message by revealing to a newspaper the more limited type of operations contemplated by the Modi government and the army. “We have no intention of initiating any skirmish”, this officer is quoted as saying, “but any aggression from the other side will be fully repelled.”
This means India will undertake no military actions to remove the People’s Liberation Army units entrenched on the Galwan and the Pangong Tso in Indian territory, and right smack on the LAC at Gogra and Hot Springs, disrespecting the No Man’s Land separating the two sides on the Line from where the intruding PLA troops may or may not be evicted. But that the army will react in case there are further Chinese attempts to grab Indian land. This is to say that China gets to keep the territory it has already occupied at the first two sites and, for all intents and purposes, annexed. In this context, was Modi’s trip an eyewash to conceal the Indian government’s policy of not contesting the Indian territory expropriated by China? It fits in with the totality of statements issued by both governments in recent weeks. My worst fears (expressed in the May 25 post on this blog) have thus come true: Indian forces in eastern Ladakh were presented with a new territorial fait accompli which the Modi regime has accepted. Alas, this lonely Cassandra may, once again, be proved right.
Addressing the troops Modi said “The weak can never accomplish peace, the brave do.” This uplifting sentiment was undermined by an infirm grasp of international affairs and a somewhat shaky sense of history. “The age of expansionism” the PM declaimed, “is over, this is the age of development” and added “History is witness that expansionist forces have either lost or were forced to turn back.” That both these statements suggest just the opposite is apparent from the record of Sino-Indian relations and in the history unfolding in real time in Ladakh. A powerful expansionist China far from being punished and forced out of its ill-gotten territorial gains is, in fact, being rewarded by the victimized state (India) quietly reconciling to loss of territory. This impulse of China’s is manifested everywhere on its periphery — in the South China Sea where its Nine-dash Line encompasses almost all of this Sea, and now in the capture of India’s Galwan Valley and the Indian part of the northern shore of the Pangong Lake. This reality on the ground mocks Modi words!
To make it more farcical still, Modi chose on this occasion to channel his inner Donald Trump! Not once mentioning China by name in his address, he told the assembled troops that the enemy “has seen your fire and fury”, presumably at the June 15 Galwan clash, and received a strong, direct message. It may be recalled that in the wake of the threat of missile strikes by the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in August 2017, Trump warned North Korea that it “will be met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
Modi rounded off with a trifle too high praise for the military, saying “You have proven time and again that the Indian armed force is mightier and better than everyone else in the world.” Such talk may bolster the spirits of the Indian mountain infantrymen who may be asked to fight at these forbidding heights. But the danger is that it may lull the military brass into their customary complacency. After all, if the Indian military is all that good, taking back the territory annexed by China should pose no real problems.
But to revert to the PM’s utterance about the inability of the weak to accomplish peace, unfortunately, it is India that is the weak party — its military, economic, diplomatic disparity with China too great to gloss over but too obvious for Modi to openly acknowledge. The sheer imbalance of power may leave India with dire options. Should China not peacefully vacate its occupation of Indian territory in toto, the limited war the Indian armed forces would have to undertake to roll-up and push out the aggressor PLA units will necessarily have to be backed by the threat of first use of nuclear weapons (the case for which is argued in extenso in my latest book ‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’).
Activating the nuclear arsenal by bringing into the theatre mobile Agni missiles as nuclear cover for conventional operations is unavoidable. It will test the mettle and the political will and nerve of the Prime Minister. Modi better not fail.
This is getting seriously worrisome. The media was primed to hear Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally speak about the national security crisis engendered by the bloody border clashes with China; a crisis that with every passing day growingly advantages Beijing. Instead, in his televised address this afternoon the country got more about the corona pandemic and his government’s steps to alleviate hunger of the poor — the hardest hit by it.
The armed confrontation with China is telling on the PM. Modi appeared thinner, deflated. It is as if Chinese President Xi Jinping’s move to expropriate Indian territory and zero out the possibility of an Indian military presence in locations (particularly on the Shyok River) potentially threatening the Tibet-Xinjiang highway (No. 219), has let the air out of the Narendra Modi balloon.
Perhaps, Modiji feels that not publicly addressing the fact of a realpolitik-driven adversary itching for a fight will somehow provide him greater purchase with Xi, keep the situation from spilling over into fighting, and allow him more time and negotiating space to persuade Beijing to call off its adventurism and restore the newly drawn Line of Actual Control (LAC) by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to its original alignment.
For all his rhetoric (lal ankhen jo dikhayega…etc) minus any mention of China, Modi is no fool. Hence for him to not make an almighty fuss about the brazen Chinese land grab and to act unconcerned, as if Xi’s turnaround and giving back the annexed Indian territory on the Galwan River and in the Pangong Tso area is round the corner, suggests the Indian PM is losing his grip on reality. Or, that he is massively misreading his supposed good friend Xi’s intentions (aided and abetted by the China-appeasers in the foreign service and by Minister S Jaishankar, who pulled time in Beijing as ambassador without knowing a word of Mandarin — talk of getting a runaround in the Forbidden City!).
In the event, Jaishankar’s attempts to lighten the mood by asking his opposite number, Wang Yi, to restore the status quo ante no doubt occasioned mirth in the Zhongnanhai. This because, in the wake of the bludgeonings of 16 Bihar personnel by the PLA, the Xi regime promptly justified its excesses to the world by claiming that the Galwan and the Pangong Lake are and have always been on its side of the LAC, and that the violence was triggered by trouble-making Indian soldiers trespassing into Chinese territory. So, there! The MEA, mealy-mouthed as ever, was preempted by Bejing spokesmen thus strongly making the Chinese case. Whether the Indian or the Chinese view is believed or disbelieved by the international community, what is certain is there’s no sympathy anywhere for India. What there is is the schadenfreude enjoyed by India’s neighbours who too often have felt Delhi’s heavy hand.
The plethora of news reports, especially on TV continue to give the impression of China quaking in its sandals now that the Indian army is entering the theatre in strength, and the IAF is placing Apaches, Su-30s, MiG-29s and Mirage 2000s at Leh and other satellite bases. Except, the IAF will have to fight outnumbered should hostilities begin, because PLAAF will switch a lot of its squadrons to this front.
The commentariat, for its part, appropriately featuring a covey of retired militarymen, diplomats, and the usual suspect columnists who started out by urging peaceful negotiation and sounding like MEA careerists, are inching towards more muscular options without any of them clarifying what that action should be and to achieve what end.
So the army is building up to near Division-level force strength in this sub-sector. But the PLA, expecting an Indian riposte, is already fielding brigade-sized artillery and armoured formations in the Depsang plains and beefing up its defensive positions in Chumar and elsewhere where they are emplaced in terrain-wise disadvantaged sites.
Meanwhile the marathon military-to-military talkathons continue at Chushul. The third round that began this morning is heading, as did the earlier ones, to an impasse. Delhi shouldn’t be fooled into expecting any outcome. The Chinese have always used these elongated negotiation sessions to tire out the opponent — not to reach a compromise solution. Decisive results will accrue, to paraphrase Maozedong, from the barrel of a gun, i.e., by a limited war at a minimum.
In this regard, there’s a debilitating belief as much within the government as outside that, if in real trouble, the US will help India out. Indeed, Trump’s pulling US troops out of Germany and the American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s taking notice of happenings in Ladakh have been widely interpreted as the US Cavalry preparing to ride to rescue Indians! In actuality, the US is diverting its land forces from their NATO stations in Germany to South Korea and Japan, and last week mounted a 3-nuclear carrier (USS Nimitz, USS Ronald Reagan and USS Theodore Roosevelt) operation with some 180 combat aircraft on board and an escort flotilla of two cruisers and three missile destroyers in the Philippine Sea to deter Beijing from pulling a Ladakh-like surprise naval stunt in the nearby South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. This region is America’s focus, not Ladakh. So, if Delhi is waiting for America to take direct action, it may have to wait forever.
As I have been iterating from Day One, there was intelligence failure with Indian satellite information revealing the PLA build-up being ignored by the government for over a year. Lt Gen Kamal Davar, the first Director General, Defence Intelligence Agency, now hints at RAW — the first receiver of satellite data from DIPAC (Defence Imagery Processing and Analysis Centre) being remiss in not passing on this information to the army. (See https://www.thequint.com/voices/opinion/indian-army-veteran-comments-on-india-china-border-clash-galwan-intelligence-lapse-military). Whosoever is responsible for this particular glitch, such snafus seem par for the course.
I have also all long argued that India must embark on a military counter. The Indian army cannot limit itself to just a holding action in case the situation hots up, which is what it may be planning to do. It has to act to vacate Ladakh of Chinese aggression in toto, secure the heights on the range fronting on the Daulat Beg Oldi-Depsang highway and the Shyok River, and to create a hefty military presence on the Pangong and the approaches to Karakorum Pass. Unless India does this it will perennially be at PLA’s mercy. To avoid such a denouement, the western sector of the LAC hereafter will have to be treated as a live military theatre, and developed into a staging area for military action across the LAC and into Tibet by the Indian army and air force. India cannot launch substantial offensive actions into Tibet without having at least three offensive mountain strike corps equipped with 30-35 ton light tanks, a capability the army doesn’t possess.
Politically, there’s little doubt Modi is stepping into what may be a troubling period for him personally. The Ladakh fiasco has shown him up, to use the Chinese phrase, as a “paper tiger”, one that may scare Pakistan some but is a dormouse once the dragon hews into view. The Opposition led by Congress party are mercilessly skewering Modi and unless he shrugs off his diffidence and orders the army to roll-up PLA aggressor units at whatever cost, he will be stuck with the taint of 2020 much as Nehru had the ’62 albatross around his neck. Banning of Chinese apps, barring Huawei and ZTE from the 5G sweepstakes, etc. are small potatoes for a Beijing set to realize its longtime strategic dream of accessing the warm water port of Gwadar as the entrepot for its western provinces. The objective of keeping India as far away from the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor facilitating it is, therefore, a priority interest that China, by annexing Indian territory, has cemented. This is a military challenge India has to overturn — no two ways about it.
Trying the other day to do his bit to head off the bad notices his boss is attracting Home Minister Amit Shah only prompted a controversy. He messaged on Twitter that “At a time when the entire nation is united, Mr. Rahul Gandhi should also rise above petty politics and stand in solidarity with national interest.” This is a curious statement because, surely, the “national interest” doesn’t lie in everyone unquestioningly supporting Modi’s policy of military inaction. In the light of the PM’s June 19 statement which denied that the Chinese aggressed at all, it would mean that PLA’s annexing Indian territory is in the national interest! Say it is not so, Modiji.
Ponder the satellite pictures above released by Maxar Technologies of the US for worldwide public information showing the scale and degree of military buildup within a very short period of time without any matching construction, elaborate facilities and presence in these contested areas by the Indian army. This is the context for the military drama unfolding in realtime in eastern Ladakh and the political drama in Delhi and Beijing.
But first a piece of good news. The Indian army is finally paying attention and doing the elementary thing of securing the heights on the Galwan to prevent the PLA from dominating the Depsang-DBO-Karakorum Pass Highway. The pity is they didn’t do it until goaded into action by this blog — because I know of no other blogger/commentator/analyst/expert, who urged this early and publicly. The failure to take so basic a precaution of controlling the heights to protect this highway — a national strategic asset, suggests a lapse in professionalism and a laid back attitude of the army and the government that the country can ill-afford. It permitted the PLA to get not just a toehold but a foothold.
Except now, Indian soldiers have reached the crestline of the mountain range on the Shyok at the Galwan River confluence. This was reported several hours back on Twitter by wolfpackIN, which bit of good news seems credible because the retired Northern Army commander Lt Gen HS Panag retweeted this message on his twitter handle along with an exclamation “Excellent!” Retired generals are usually known to keep themselves in the know of happenings in the army commands they once headed.
Having done this initial bit, the army better plan on staying at these heights indefinitely starting with the coming winter months and accordingly establish a hardy logistics system to sustain this armed presence on the heights above Galwan but also, as proposed in an earlier post, along the ridge line above the Shyok River to the Karakorum Pass. The cost of setting up a supply line for all-weather posts on the Galwan peaks with communications gear can be extended to reach other high points at marginal additions in cost. In any case, the financial investment — whatever its size –is a secondary concern. The primary focus should be to prevent the PLA from increasing its footprint.
India has already lost a good part of the Indian side of the Galwan and Pangong Tso area. Firming up an Indian presence at the heights will disincentivize the PLA from taking what remains of our territory in that sector. Because the almost base-area kind of buildup at these sites, as well as in the Hot Springs area means the Chinese do not mean to withdraw, no matter what. If the Chinese stay, so should the Indian army.
The rest is piffle, including the statements issued pro forma by Beijing and Delhi, such as the one by the Chinese government about the official exchanges to-date being “candid and in-depth” and how both intend to “earnestly implement the important consensus” reached by the two Foreign Ministers S Jaishankar and Wang Li in their June 17 talks over the telephone, and — an ugly turn of phrase this — “actively accommodate with the two military forces to implement the outcome reached” at the June 6 and June 22 military level meetings. Conforming to this theme, diplomatic underlings from the two countries yesterday (June 25) agreed to “sincerely implement the understanding on disengagement and de-escalation” along the LAC.
The military commanders for their part announced they too had arrived at a “mutual consensus to disengage” without agreeing either on the timeframe for such disengagement and, even less, its modalities. There are so many of these military and diplomatic forums the head spins especially because they all seem to end up furthering China’s interest even as Indian diplomats are left twiddling their thumbs on the sidelines. Thus, another such body — the Working Mechanism for Consultation & Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC), too went through its motions and spouted a lot of useless words.
Predictably, these exchanges have ended up with the MEA wagging its finger saying things like both sides should “strictly respect and observe” the Line of Actual Control, and the Chinese Defence Ministry warning in no uncertain terms that “China has sovereignty over the Galwan Valley region and the Chinese border troops have been patrolling and on duty in this region for many years.” Except China’s are fighting words and straightforwardly pose a military challenge to India to prove Beijing wrong. The Modi government, however, does not seem interested in picking up the gauntlet.
This is evident from the contrasting attitudes and approaches. The Indian government relies on peaceful resolution and MEA mouths diplomatese. The Chinese government, on the other hand, asserts its unmaintainable claim over the Indian territory it has brazenly occupied and which, for all intents and purposes, stands annexed through the instrumentality of the PLA.
Often the best thing for political leaders as well as generals, serving or retired, to do during volatile border crises of the kind India has on its hands is to resist the impulse to say something, anything, because their statements are usually overtaken by events.
The COAS, General MM Naravane, discovered no doubt to his discomfiture that a bare ten days after he talked about the two armies agreeing to, and being involved in, the process of “phased disengagement”, the situation erupted June 15 on the Galwan with the death by bludgeonings and drownings in the river of 22 Indian soldiers, including Colonel Santosh Babu of 16th Bihar.
The mystery around why these killings by Chinese soldiers using nails-studded batons and similar type of weapons even occurred when Article 6 of the 1996 Agreement with China absolutely permits the attacked to use sidearms and infantry weapons in defence, only deepened when the former army chief General JJ Singh told a TV channel June 19 that this was because the army strictly followed the government’s injunctions against the use of force, any force, on the LAC. He apparently believed the government’s list of no-no’s over-rode Article 6’s provision for resort to lethal force. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s announcement June 21 that forwardly deployed field commanders were now free to retaliate in kind at least proved General JJ Singh right in terms of the previous rules of engagement. However, it doesn’t explain why the army in any way felt constrained by them — unless one assumes that officers up and down the command were, like General JJ Singh, unaware of Article 6, and if they were so aware, didn’t want to exercise their right of just response, not even to save themselves.
Now that the government is on board Article 6, the question is has the army made sure to rapidly arm all jawans and officers on the LAC with compact steel spiked maces and flails and instructions for their express use preemptively if they sense Chinese intent? Because otherwise, our mountain infantrymen will be in no better position than when surprised by the adversary on June 15 evening, and the outcome will not be different or any less bloody.
If the army brass were wrong-footed by surprise Chinese action, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s virtual clean chit to China in his televised declaration of June 17 about the status quo not being disturbed at all was astonishing, considering TV channels in the previous days were regularly flashing commercial satellite images showing substantial military infrastructure buildup (pill boxes, depots, troop hostels, even kraals for armoured vehicles), dug-in artillery pits, and occupation of the entire area between topographic features Finger 4 and Finger 8 on the Pangong Lake, and similar construction by the PLA, inclusive of a helipad, northeast of the site of the imbroglio on the Galwan River.
The Indian people watching TV news are, unenviably, left to either trust their eyes (visual satellited data) or believe the PM.
I have been saying since the beginning of this territorial tussle that the Indian government had the imagery intelligence from Indian satellites making passes over these contested areas for over a year now when the PLA first initiated its construction activity. A person at the senior most level dealing with national security in the government confirmed this. The conclusion: Even as he was completely in the know, Modi did nothing. Not sure why though. Could it be because he expected that his personal relationship with the Chinese President Xi Jinping would motivate the latter to keep the LAC quiet? And, now by not acknowledging the Chinese buildup on the Pangong Tso and in the Galwan area, he is still affording Xi the maneuvering space to, even at this late date, pullout without “losing face”?
Beijing has been preparing its annexation plans for awhile and seemingly didn’t care Indian satellites were conveying photographic evidence of PLA activity to Delhi. Xi, it’d appear, was confident Modi would not react violently. The reports from those who accompanied Modi to Wuhan suggest the Indian PM was particularly taken by Xi’s deft personal touches, such as conducting the Indian leader around his birthplace (near that Chinese city), etc. The result is Xi is playing Modi like a fiddle.
Xi’s conviction about Modi’s inaction in the face of provocation may also be because of the 2008 agreement binding Delhi to not rake up the matter of clarifying the LAC (alluded to in the preceding post) that the US-based Stimson Centre Chinese-origin scholar Yun Sun (not Sun Lun — my mistake!) based her analysis on. Yun concluded, in effect, that Delhi is cognizant of the latitude China feels it has in redefining the LAC, and it is this that China has exploited. When asked about this and Delhi’s response a very high official who served in the UPA government tells me there was no such agreement and, in fact, that clarification about the LAC was sought in 2010 and again in 2012. “We drew the conclusion quite early in 2003-4 when it was clear that China wanted ambiguity about the LAC”, he writes in his message, “that the only real answer was on the ground. Hence the 72 GS roads, two extra divisions, the mountain strike corps, the reopening of ALGs etc. But you know all this. The other responses were diplomatic, or narrative building etc.”
As to why the lowland and the heights on the eastern shore of the Shyok River fronting on the Daulat Beg Oldi/Karakorum- Depsang road were not secured once the alignment of this road was fixed a decade or more back, well, there’s no satisfactory answer. A senior military man in the loop advised that I needed “to understand both the dynamics of LAC and the terrain”. Given that the PLA doesn’t have a much easier terrain on its side, the Chinese seem to be able to better cope with geography and the vicissitudes of the LAC.
In this mess, however Modi anticipates this crisis to peter out, one thing is certain, China will not give up the Indian territory it has occupied nor surrender the physical assets it has constructed. In short, Beijing will not negotiate away the land it has acquired by proactive action in the Himalayas. This about draws the limits on Indian diplomacy. The sooner Modi government accepts this reality the more expeditiously it can approve military plans for evicting the PLA intruders , whatever it takes, because there’s no alternative. Especially because it wouldn’t want to be in a situation where commercially available satellite images will belie, at every turn, the comfortable fiction it may choose to flog about there being no Chinese aggression and occupation, and no situation that a bit of jaw-jawing with the Chinese won’t smoothen out. Beijing will be happy to talk but will not move out an inch.
A limited war, as I have maintained from the start, is the only way to vacate these areas of the PLA. It is also imperative a more proactive army establish soonest possible and at whatever cost a presence on the eastern shore of the Shyok River, and especially on the Galwan, Cheng-chenmo valley openings on the Shyok, whatever the difficulties of terrain and the LAC orientation in these areas.
The Chinese seem to appreciate that old saw about possession being nine-tenths of the law. What the Indian government and MEA understand about the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty is anyone’s guess.
No doubt bent on cutting a deal, the Modi government urged the Army Commanders’ Conference to fall in line. It did, deciding to disengage across the board and to do so fairly rapidly based on the agreement reached by the Leh GOC Lt Gen Harinder Singh and the Chinese Maj Gen Liu Lin meeting in Chushul. Caution has been thrown to the winds. There’s no hint here of a proportionate withdrawal, with verification at each step that the PLA has pulled back as well. It will end up providing solace to Beijing and encourage it to get into the occupy, build-up, annex cycle that will leave India ever more vulnerable to Chinese military pressure.
Mark my words, the territory taken away by the Chinese will stay annexed. And this will be proven by commercial satellites a month hence which will show no change in the PLA force disposition on the Galwan and the Pangong Tso.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement to opposition leaders regarding the crisis in eastern Ladakh has confounded the already existing confusion. His declaration, without mentioning China, that “No one has forcibly entered into Indian territory, there is no intruder inside our border, nor has any Indian post been captured by anyone” is contradicted by commercially obtained satellite imagery featured in television news reports. These clearly show the accelerated Chinese military build-up between the hill features Finger 4 and Finger 8 on the northern shore of the Pangong Lake, and in the Galwan Valley — areas considered well within the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
Military-grade imagery from Indian satellites with sub-metre-resolution cameras and contact reports from the field indicating Chinese penetration in strength were available to the government from the beginning but apparently went unheeded.
The Prime Minister’s denial about the Chinese occupying Indian territory minimizes political troubles for himself and suggests he is reconciled to India losing these areas. This may be for two reasons. One, the army’s assessment that evicting the PLA from these areas would be an impossibly difficult task, could escalate to serious hostilities, and rupture his relationship with Xi Jinping that he has personally invested in.
And two, the profound blunder committed by the Ministry of External Affairs in 2008 by accepting Beijing’s condition that “clarification of the LAC” be no part of bilateral documents (as revealed in an article by Sun Lun, a Chinese-origin scholar at the Stimson Center in Washington, DC). It legitimates China’s expansionist activity in Ladakh and elsewhere on the indistinct LAC.
Sun Lun’s stunning revelation is a severe indictment of the MEA and its seemingly la-di-dah attitude to Chinese takeover of Indian territory which, by some authoritative accounts, amounts to 60 sq kms in the present crisis and some 1,300 sq kms in the new millennium. It fuels Beijing’s policy of creeping annexation predicated on the border dispute remaining unresolved and the LAC undefined.
The oft-repeated Chinese promise to negotiate a final solution at the Special Representatives level that successive Indian governments have been fobbed off with, in the event, is only a diplomatic ruse to buy time for the PLA to realize China’s territorial claims by incrementally pushing the LAC India-wards, and presenting Delhi every now and then with new territorial faits accomplis.
The capture by China of Galwan is a strategic stranglehold because now PLA can interdict at will the traffic on the newly built Depsang-Daulat Beg Oldi/Karakorum Pass highway sustaining the Indian army presence on the Siachen Glacier. The army fouled up by not pre-emptively securing the valleys and the heights on the Shyok, Cheng-chenmo and Galwan rivers fronting on this highway when its alignment was firmed up over ten years ago.
It has left India with no alternative than forcibly evicting the Chinese from the Galwan, whatever the cost, as the army did Pakistani troops in 1999 from the Kargil ridge because they imperilled the lifeline to Leh. However, Modi appears disinclined to risk it.
Developments on the border with China are taking a turn for the worst. The Indian government and army seem surprised by the vehemence of the intruding People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers when asked by patrolling Indian army jawans to keep to their side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). That they have in the last two weeks, time and again, resorted to violence suggests this is not an outcome of local imbalance of forces, or a tense situation going akilter, as many retired Indian generals believe is the case. Alone among the major armed forces of the world, the PLA is comprehensively top-driven, with the lower field and unit commanders enjoying little discretionary power. There’s simply too much at stake for Beijing to leave it to local commanders to blunder about in what is plainly a hazardous policy terrain.
At the local level then the PLA troops are scrupulously following orders. There is little doubt their aggressive stance is prompted by the highest military authority in China — the Central Military Commission (CMC) — chaired by President Xi Jinping; this new found bellicosity as evident in eastern Ladakh as the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. While exploiting the disjunctions in a COVID-19 ravaged world to advance its geopolitical goals, Beijing doesn’t want to tip the situation over into where everybody gangs up even more against it.
It is a risky exercise but Xi believes he can punish India – China’s putative rival in Asia, take it down a notch or two in the subcontinent, and show it up as a political light weight to its smaller neighbours (Pakistan, Nepal) so they can take liberties with it. For this purpose the forward-deployed PLA units are instructed to physically belabour Indian troops and otherwise raise the tension and the temperature without having these encounters spill over into uncontrollable military hostilities. Beijing is convinced it can do this at no great cost and so far it has been proved right. The Modi government seems unable to muster other than timid and confused statements in response even as Indian jawans and officers are assaulted with barbaric weapons – steel spikes-embedded batons, cantina wire wrapped rods, etc. redolent of the medieval age.
China’s belligerent reaction to the matching Indian border infrastructure build-up – far less dense than on the Chinese side, especially in eastern Ladakh, is hardly surprising and ought to have been anticipated by the Indian intelligence services and the army. It is curious the entire process of the PLA building up its encampments in the Galwan River Valley went unnoticed by any Indian agency. This doesn’t sound true because the Delhi-based Defence Image Processing and Analysis centre (DIPAC) that interprets Indian satellite-derived imagery data regularly onpasses its assessments to RAW, IB, PMO, Military Intelligence in Army HQrs, etc..
Moreover, given the sub-metre resolution cameras on Indian satellites the Chinese construction activity would have been picked up very early, perhaps, as far back as 8-10 months ago. So, how come the Indian army and Modi government were clueless?
That the PLA is sitting pretty on the Galwan and in the area between the hill features Finger 4 and Finger 8 on the northern shore of the Pangong Lake is in no small part because the Indian army is not proactive and did nothing as the Chinese constructed their facilities in both these locations. By controlling the foothills and the approaches to the Galwan River fronting on the newly constructed Karakorum Pass-Daulat Beg Oldi-Depsang road, complete with a superbly engineered bridge over the Shyok River, for instance, the PLA now commands the heights and is in a position to interdict Indian military traffic at will.
Considering this road supplies the army’s Bana Post on the Siachen Glacier and affords the Indian army easy access to the Karakorum Pass, the first thing the army should have done after the Border Roads Organization laid down the alignment for this road some ten years back was to protect this asset by pre-emptively securing the foothills and, hence, the heights on the Galwan, Cheng-chenmo, and Shyok rivers. It would have closed out PLA’s options on the Indian highway. The army blundered by not implementing so basic a precautionary military measure.
Why it didn’t do so, is one of those issues where there will be a lot of finger pointing and no accountability. But this reflects a laidback attitude of the army that conforms to the Indian government’s equally lackadaisical, historically complacent, outlook when dealing with China. This combination has allowed the PLA, post-1962 War, to affect incremental grabs of Indian territory resulting in a loss of over 60 sq kms in the Galwan Valley alone and some 1,300 sq kms in all on the LAC fin de siecle onwards. This is the Chinese policy of creeping annexation that will surreptitiously realize for Beijing its territorial claims to the fullest extent.
Based on land grabs here, feints there, the PLA periodically presents the Indian army and government with new territorial faits accomplis that go unchallenged, whence there are ever newer alignments of the LAC and reality. This has happened on the Galwan and the Pangong Tso. It suits the Xi dispensation to keep the border undefined and to string Delhi along with promises of dispute resolution in the Special Representatives forum. The perennially hopeful Indian government always falls for it and may do so again.
The brutal killings of Indian infantrymen, including a Lieutenant Colonel of the 16 Bihar Regiment on the Galwan slopes has, however, radically transformed the crisis, increased its political gravity. The Indian people will simply not be satisfied with Narendra Modi’s usual bluster – though he was quiet until last (June 17) evening when he voiced a wishy-washy commitment about responding in kind. In his televised statement the Prime Minister said India ‘will respond if it is provoked’. Not sure what he meant by ‘if it is provoked’ when the Chinese troops are already deep inside Indian territory on the LAC, have entrenched themselves there, and Beijing has declared the Galwan Valley and the area covered by Fingers 4 & 8 in the Pangong Tso region as parts of China. Is this insufficient provocation? If so, then, perhaps, the government is setting the scene for India’s acceptance of this redefined LAC with the Galwan and Pangong Tso areas that PLA has newly occupied as Chinese territory.
That said, several steps need to be taken urgently. The Indian mountain infantrymen deployed on the LAC, other than normal weapons, have to be equipped with nail-studded heavy wooded baseball bat-type weapons with standing instructions for first use against PLA troops at close quarters.
The larger, more meaningful, action that’s imperative and will have to follow is a conspicuous military operation – not some Balakot-type of secret strike with a dubious outcome.
If in 1998 the Indian army forcibly vacated the Kargil ridge overlooking the road supplying Leh of Pakistan army’s Northern Light Infantry troops, then why would it and the BJP government tolerate PLA’s control of the Galwan frontage imperilling the lifeline to the Siachen Glacier, Daulat Beg Oldi, and the Karakorum Pass?
To those who argue that maintaining all-year outposts on the remote Galwan, Cheng-chenmo, and Shyok rivers would be prohibitively expensive and beyond India’s capacity, they need to be reminded that the army has for 40 years sustained its presence on the Siachen glacier, which is remoter and at a much higher altitude. Manpower wise, larger numbers of army units, on rotational duty, will need to be processed through the ongoing high-altitude acclamatization programme.
Whatever its financial, political and diplomatic cost, Modi can motivate the people to bear it, because his government cannot avoid ordering such a military operation to evict the Chinese. Nothing less will do, not if the PM means to retain even a semblance of his “nationalist” credentials.
It will mean embarking on a localised limited war, and some sections of the army, albeit in a minority support this option. Should the government approve such a mission, it will have to publicly define these parameters before it gets underway just so, like Pakistan in Kargil, China is aware from the start of the Indian military’s focus and severely limited goal. By way of strategic cover for this action and to deter China from escalating this fight into something bigger – even though there’s zero possibility of this happening, India should publicize the forward deployment of Agni missiles, and alert the Arihant SSBN on patrol for possible attacks on China’s economic heart – the Shanghai coast and its immediate hinterland.
The recovery of the Galwan in particular can be preceded by a set of punitive economic measures to show India means business. One, Huawei should be banished from the telecommunications sector for security reasons. Two, extraordinary tariffs ought to be imposed on all Chinese goods without exception, justified in any case because of the hidden subsidies all exporting companies ex-China benefit from, and three, Beijing must be informed that this closing of China’s access to the Indian market can be reversed in stages depending on verifiable withdrawal of PLA from all the points where it has ingressed. The financial steps announced to-date by the government against certain Chinese companies are small time and don’t move the needle much.
It is doubtful if Delhi has the balls to do any of this. Especially because there’s no indication of Modi junking the Indian government’s historic appeasement mindset and relying on a military solution to restore the status quo ante, national self-respect and equilibrium in the relations with China.
I have been proved right so often where China is concerned it is almost besides the point to crow about it.
In all my books — from the first one in 1994 (‘Future Imperilled: India’s Security in the 1990s and Beyond’) to the latest one (Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s global Ambition) in 2018, I have pointed to China as the premier, and only credible, threat that India has to fully commit its resources to somehow neutralizing. I have also repeatedly stressed that the difference between the Indian military and its Chinese counterpart, other than the differential in the quality and quantity of hardware and software available to them, is this: The Indian armed forces’ planning as regards China, is on best case basis, meaning as in the case of the current confrontation in eastern Ladakh, that there’s always diplomacy to fall back on, to defuse the situation should it come to a boil.
The Chinese on the other hand plan and act on the basis of worst case, and prepare accordingly. So, if the local PLA commander is instructed to test Delhi’s resolve by killing a few Indian soldiers on the contested border, their troops carry out the order without having any doubts that their escalatory actions can be followed up with decisive military hostilities on a larger scale. This is simply not so in the Indian case. Yesterday, the Modi government put out that forward field commanders are now free to initiate such retaliatory actions as they deem fit without first getting clearance from Leh or, perhaps, even Delhi.
But — and this the real difference — the Indian army is in no position logistically to escalate the hostilities in kind and to the levels the PLA is capable of doing owing to the dense border military-use Chinese infrastructure in place for some two decades. The Indian buildup has been hesitant, tardy and is, as yet, too thin on the ground to support the forward units engaged in aggravated tit-for-tat actions from spiraling into something more serious in the Galwan Valley and the Pangong Tso. Per a story in the Global Times — a Chinese government rag, in response to the killing of two Indian jawans and a Lieutenant Colonel, five PLA troopers were terminated and 11 more injured. While this is somewhat satisfying at a base level, it is small consolation considering the Indian army, lacking the wherewithal to fight a long duration war in the mountains, is plainly over-matched.
Military folk generally seem to have no bright ideas about what to do next other than, yea, sit down with the Chinese to resolve immediate issues. Lt Gen DS Hooda, the former Northern Army commander and presently adviser to the Congress Party who, along with me, was on an NDTV news programme earlier this afternoon to discuss these latest incidents, after saying the PLA’s violent actions constituted escalation — because for the first time there were fatalities, fell back on that tired old solution of talking this situation out with the Chinese. Implicit in his view that one finds mirrored in the thinking of a number of other retired senior army officers (such as Lt Gen Jaiswal, another ex-GOC-in-C, Northern Command, tapped by another TV channel) is his assessment that the Chinese having taken the measure of India will now relent and stick exclusively to the negotiating table without simultaneously pressing Indian forces militarily in eastern Ladakh and elsewhere on the LAC. How realistic is that?
As I pointed out in my preceding post, the Indian army finds itself in these straits because it committed the cardinal military mistake of not securing the heights in the Galwan, Cheng-chenmo, and Shyok river valleys fronting on the newly built Karakoram Pass-Daulat Beg Oldi-Durbuk-Tangtse highway supplying Bana Post on the Siachen Glacier, that affords India proximity to the Karakoram. Beijing, mindful of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, its gateway to the warm water port in Gwadar, being vulnerable to Indian military actions off the Karakorum Pass, moved to preempt India from utilizing its new road for the purposes of interdicting CPEC traffic by all but annexing the Galwan Valley areas deep inside the Indian claim line and, in fact, acquiring the location and the means to counter potential Indian pressure on CPEC.
There’s a price to pay for the army’s blunder in this respect. Unless Delhi ups the ante, and threatens to use the brahmastra it has had in its policy quiver but for incomprehensible reasons shied away from using, India will be permanently handicapped. Modi must now use this weapon and threaten China with the loss of access to the vast Indian market in which Chinese companies selling light manufactures, consumer durables (Haier home appliances, air conditioners, etc.), mobile telephony (Huawei, Xiaomi, Gionee, etc) and computer hardware (Lenovo), have acquired a near stranglehold. Modi has talked, as the predecessor Manmohan Singh government did, about requiring China to correct the completely unbalanced trade (with $70 billion Indian trade deficit) but has done precious little over the last six years to force the issue.
Moreover, owing to the Indian government and military’s sub-strategic, small country, mindset, India is hugely disadvantaged all long the LAC. Indeed, as I have argued in my book ‘Staggering Forward’ it is because of the widening military disparity with China that India needs to now go in for atomic demolition munitions in the mountains to stop any serious PLA ingress across the LAC in its tracks, and otherwise adopt a nuclear first use posture featuring forward deployed canisterised nuclear-warheaded Agni missiles that for the first time provide India with launch-on-launch and launch-on warning capability.
The current crisis should be prevented though from getting to beyond that fail safe stage. Modi can do this by publicly raising the economic stakes for Beijing by banning Huawei for security reasons from the Indian telecommunications sector altogether, and by imposing prohibitive tariffs — justified in any case because of the hidden subsidies that all Chinese exporting companies benefit from — on all China-sourced goods without exception, and barring Indian trading outfits — big and small — from buying any products whatsoever from China. The complete cutoff of access to the Indian market should be held in reserve as the ultimate punitive measure. To incentivize Beijing to act “responsibly” on the LAC, phased removal of the newly imposed tariffs should be predicated on complete and verifiable withdrawal of the PLA to well forward of the Indian claim line in eastern Ladakh.
Such hard decisions are bound to surprise Xi and induce in Beijing a sense of caution in dealing with India. Delhi has to use whatever works. India’s conventional military challenge such as it can muster is, from China’s perspective, laughable. The loss of access to the Indian market, however, is whole another matter altogether, and not something Xi will risk, given that Trump is closing off the American market to Chinese exports, and the Chinese economy is slumping. Now is the time for Modi to stop fooling around, stop pulling India’s punches.
This means playing hardball. But there’s no indication Modi has the political will and gumption to play it as Xi does, or the Indian army the will and endurance to fight it out against the PLA. This leaves India in a bad place.
Inattentive to satellite intel, lacking proactive thinking, absent preemptive action and now silk-gloving China’s occupation of Indian territory, the army has to explain this fiasco.
What’s the first, most basic, thing the Indian army should have done once the Border Roads Organization (BRO) began constructing the Siachen lifeline and access road to the strategic Karakoram Pass at the confluence of India and China — the Karakoram Pass-Daulat Beg Oldi-Murgo-Dubruk-Tangtse highway? Why, secure the heights on the approaches to the proposed Karakoram-Tangtse route on the Galwan, Chang-chenmo, and Shyok rivers, of course! Was this done? No! And why weren’t such basic precautionary protection measures taken?
The latest territorial grab by China has gone unaddressed by the army and is particularly egregious in the light of a similar earlier mistake made in Kargil. Except then following the intense 1999 “border war”, the Kargil heights were retaken from the Pakistan army’s unit that had sneaked in during the previous winter months when the Indian army had affected a seasonal withdrawal from the ridge. That war cost the country an awful lot in terms of lives, and military and financial resources. If the army went to war to recover the Kargil heights because otherwise the supply line to Leh would be imperilled, why did it do nothing preemptively to protect the border road, and why is it not enthused about forcibly evicting the PLA from the Galwan, in particular, to guarantee that Indian access to the Siachen Glacier and to the Karakoram Pass remains unimpeded in perpetuity?
Study the map below to identify what lies where.
The army apparently learned nothing from its Kargil experience, because it is being replayed today on the Ladakh front. Far from moving expeditiously and in tandem with the BRO construction to occupy the high points on the mountainous terrain adjoining the proposed highway, XIV Corps and Army HQrs failed to even heed, leave alone react, to the imagery generated by Indian satellites available for a long time now showing PLA construction crews building the infrastructure in the Galwan Valley, for instance. So now India is faced with the entrenched Chinese positions from where PLA can at any time interdict the Siachen supply line and otherwise sever the lines of communications to the Karakoram Pass.
The same do nothingness informed the Indian army’s inaction further south in the terrain stretching from Finger 4 to Finger 8 on the northern shore of the Pangong Lake; this even though the process of the PLA units ensconcing themselves there, like on the Galwan, was no doubt flagged early by the Delhi-based DIPAC (Defence Image Processing and Analysis Centre). By May this year when the army finally stirred into action, it was too late for it to do anything. Because unlike in Kargil, the army was unprepared for and unwilling to undertake hard action. Hence, the army neither advised, nor sought approval, from the Modi government to initiate military operations to rid the Galwan and Pangong Tso heights of the aggressor PLA units. An even worse spin in the context of the availability of the satellite imagery intelligence is that the army knew all along about the PLA build-up to dominate the heights but did not have the stomach for a fight, and so did nothing.
It may be argued by the army that preemptive action of the kind here outlined to occupy the Galwan heights and the areas Finger 4 to Finger 8, on the Pangong would have been a hugely arduous task because it would have involved moving considerable military mass to logistically difficult-to-maintain mountain sites. Except the army has been sustaining and supplying a force deployed in the still more inaccessible Siachen post at a higher altitude for nearly 40 years now. And there are Indian army units continuously undergoing acclamatization for rotational posting on the glacier. So, the army had both the wherewithal and the trained forces to occupy the mountain tops now in Chinese custody.
At the heart of the issue is the apparent unwillingness of the army and government to take actions, whether preemptive or post-PLA ingress, that could escalate into war with China, whence the Indian government and army brass’ inclination from the beginning to rely on diplomacy. Whatever the policy deficiencies of the panda-huggers in Modi’s PMO and the MEA, active monitoring of the Line of Actual Control, being proactive in the field, and making military moves to preempt China, and with the PLA in occupation of Indian claimed territory, to embark on remedial military action, are no part of their remit. At the nuts and bolts level, this is Indian army’s fiasco through and through. Because had the XIV Corps HQrs and the army been on their toes, paid more attention to the PLA activity in the Ladakh region and taken the obvious precautions to secure the heights abutting on the newly-built highway, thereby preventing the PLA from doing what it has done on the Galwan and in the Pangong Tso area, they would have had the Modi government’s approval for it. After all, what choice would the “nationalist” prime minister have had in that context? Instead, India is saddled with a situation.
What exactly was said during the over-long (3 hour) flag meeting June 6 at the Chushul-Moldo post between the Indian army and PLA delegations led by the XIV Corps Commander Lt General Harinder Singh and the PLA South Xinjiang Military District Commander Major General Liu Lin respectively may never be known, because the anodyne statement about an agreement to keep the peace isn’t especially enlightening. But the meeting and its context has highlighted two things: (1) The Indian army dispatched its commander of the entire Ladakh front, the Chinese only its sector commander — a Major General to India’s Lieutenant General, revealing the differing weight and importance attached by the two sides to the matter at hand, and (2) a parting of the views of the army and the ministry of external affairs (MEA).
“Both sides are disengaging in a phased manner. We have started from the north, the area of the Galwan River. A lot of disengagement has happened,” said the army chief General MM Naravane. “We have had a fruitful dialogue with the Chinese, it will continue and by and by the situation will improve.” He added: “It started with corps commander level talks …which has been followed up by a number of meetings at the local level between commanders of equivalent ranks and as a result of this lot disengagement has taken place. We are hopeful that through this continued dialogue, all perceived differences that we have will be set to rest.” [https://www.newindianexpress.com/thesundaystandard/2020/jun/14/lac-standoff-india-china-disengaging-in-phases-says-army-chief-naravane-2156261.html]
Naravane’s disengagement spiel seems to apply to all the friction points on the LAC including Naku La in Sikkim and Galwan and Pangong Lake in Ladakh. His tone, moreover, hints at this whole ruckus being due to some small misunderstanding over an indistinct border, nothing that a bit of pow-wowing won’t clear up. The reality, however, is that there is now permanent stationing of PLA troops deep inside Indian territory in the Galwan and the Pangong sectors. As far as the Chinese are concerned the newly realigned LAC is something India can take it or lump it. There’s no third option, all the talks and negotiating will end up doing is embroider this fact. But it does indicate an Indian army that’s not only not up for a fight to restore the status quo ante but one that is reconciled to accepting the ever newer territorial status quos China with its expansionist actions will keep presenting it with.
The MEA’s unresponsiveness to a pointed question about troops on both sides moving back from their “standoff positions” in Galwan and the Hot Spring areas is puzzling. It also did not refute the fact that the PLA is not allowing Indian patrols beyond Finger 4 on Pangong Tso, which is 8 km from Finger 8 that India considers the LAC, meaning the intervening area (between Fingers 4 and 8) is now effectively under Chinese control (https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-china-ladakh-border-standoff-mea-6454345/) It directly contradicts Naravane’s statement that the two sides are “disengaging” along the length of the LAC.
This difference in views could mean that while the army, in order to show itself in better light, is deliberately ambiguous and opaque about Chinese annexation, the MEA with less of its reputation to lose is sticking to the reality on the ground indicating ample loss of territory to China, along with India losing face in Asia.
India has no answer for China’s creeping annexation
For China, the unarmed skirmishes on the disputed border with India do not merit notice. The May 26-28 meeting of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference ignored them. But the Ladakh confrontation is a muddled preoccupation of the Indian government with no clarity about what happened, how many People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops violated the 2005 Line of Actual Control (LAC), and the extent of territory illegally occupied by them.
According to former northern Army commander Lt Gen H.S. Panag, there is ingress by a brigade-sized PLA force in the Galwan River valley and in the Pangong Lake area, and occupation of some 60sqkm of Indian territory. If one adds the 640sqkm—which former foreign secretary Shyam Saran says India had lost up until 2013, and which may have doubled by now—the total territory ceded to China without a fight may exceed 1,300sqkm!
The astonishing thing is that these developments surprised the Indian government and the Indian Army. Why this should be so is a mystery, considering there was satellite imagery and that Chinese President Xi Jinping objected to the Indian infrastructure construction—never mind that it is a matching but less dense build-up on the Indian side—in his discussions with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Mamallapuram Summit on October 11 and 12, 2019.
Of particular concern to China is the all-weather road connecting Daulat Beg Oldi and Durbuk with Depsang, inclusive of the bridge over the Shyok river, to ease the strain of maintaining the Indian military’s presence on the Siachen glacier. Delhi had six months to prepare for an adverse reaction and to pre-emptively establish forward Indian military posts in the areas the PLA has now advanced into before the summer patrolling season began in April. It should have moved some long-range artillery, even if with an inadequate supply of shells, to put down stakes and show intent. But beating China to the punch is not India’s forte.
The passive-reactive Indian government banks on diplomacy to restore the status quo ante that the Army, lacking the offensive will, wherewithal and endurance, is unable to deliver.
This condition is a boon to the Xi regime, which can withdraw the PLA or not in this or that instance as it suits Beijing’s political purpose, while inexorably pushing the LAC India-wards. At each turn then, Delhi is presented with new territorial faits accomplis, reinforcing China’s policy of creeping annexation of Indian territory.
The prerequisite for such policy is an undefined border. To keep it so, but to make it easier for Delhi to swallow the incremental territorial losses, Beijing promises more productive talks—the next round will be the 22nd in the series—between the special representatives to exchange maps and resolve the dispute. The Indian government will again fall for it, hail it as a great diplomatic achievement. The excitement will abate until next summer when evidence of new encroachments will trigger armed face-offs along the LAC, and this unvirtuous cycle will repeat itself until China realises all its claims.