Playing hardball with China

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh once again pooh-poohed the threat from China, this time on Dec 14 in Parliament which undercuts the raison détre  for the India-Japan-United States strategic discussion. Originally planned for mid-October, it was postponed at the eleventh hour because, predictably, the Indian Government felt queasy about angering China.  An alternative explanation is that, in order to multiply Beijing’s apprehensions, this trialogue was deliberately slated for December 19 to serve as curtain raiser for the state visit by the Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. It suggests a Machiavellian or, more appropriately, Chanakyan move of a kind Manmohan Singh has, by and large, foresworn. Last year, it may be recalled, the former Japanese premier, Shinzo Abe, had pleaded with the Indian government not to feel “shy” about cooperating with Japan and the United States to prevent a “strategic void” from developing in Asia that, he feared, China would fill.

It is, alas, not so much shyness as the prospect of militarily having to tangle with China that buckles the knees of Indian political leaders and our military brass, who alike have been accustomed to the huffing and puffing against Pakistan that passes for this country’s security posture, but which is plainly inadequate to meet the real security challenges posed by the no-nonsense Chinese People’s Liberation Army, Navy and Air Force. It is a forlorn hope that even at this late date, the Indian Government and Armed Services will begin seriously to reprioritise defence expenditures and capabilities to enable India to “act east” rather than merely “look east” as it has done for the last twenty years.

At the heart of the Japanese and American importuning, and also of the Indian wariness, is the recognition that China may be impossible to handle by any one country alone, but major states working together can prevent Chinese hegemony in Asia-Pacific. Except, the “panda huggers” running Delhi’s China policy are, for dubious reasons, convinced that tippy-toeing around the trialogue would fetch better returns. This is to assume that the strategically ruthless Chinese policymakers will not capitalize on Indian weakness and, worse, it is to believe that India has less at stake in this tripartite military engagement than Japan or the United States. Such thinking indicates a disconnect from reality, considering that the threat to India’s energy interests — ONGC Videsh Ltd partnering OilVietnam in exploring and developing oil fields in the South China Sea falling within Vietnam’s territorial claim line, is immediate. While the Chinese Navy feels it is in no position yet to take on the might of its US and the Japanese counterparts, it feels confident of giving the Indian Navy a drubbing. This much can be gleaned from an authoritative commentary published by Xinhua news agency which talked of dealing harshly with an “ambitious” but “immature” India should it dare cross, what it called, “an insurmountable red line”. The red line, presumably, refers to the expansive Chinese claims in the South China Sea, and the implied punitive action to the capabilities of the powerful South Seas Fleet assembled on Hainan Island. This development, moreover, is in the context of President Hu Jintao’s recent exhortation to the Chinese naval commanders to be ready for war.

With the Indian Navy apparently doubting its own capacity to tackle China, a trilateral arrangement is obviously in India’s interest. MEA can make peaceful noises even as the country generally follows a two-pronged strategy of the kind Beijing has specialised in. Simultaneously talking peace and taking every possible action to strategically discomfit and politically and militarily to neutralize China, makes sense. Dissuading and deterring China is best accomplished by firming up a bloc of nations bothered by China’s rise. As far back as January 2000, NDA defence minister, George Fernandes, talked of a strong India as a “very solid agent” to ensure “that the sea lanes [in the South China Sea] are not disturbed and that conflict situations are contained”. Given the UPA government’s “appease first” tendency, this commitment has not gained momentum. China has since grown too powerful and joining up with Japan and the US will afford this country a measure of safety and policy latitude. Japan is the trump card. Beijing respects America’s military muscle but is hugely disconcerted by the emergence of an assertive Japan, one that in the future could be nuclear-armed. After all, Japan by its own reckoning is ä “para-nuclear state” — its vast holdings of fissile material being easily convertible, as Ichiro Ozawa, president of the Liberal Party, reminded everybody in 2002, into “thousands of nuclear warheads”. It is an eventuality to chill the hearts of even the most bellicose PLA Generals marinated in tales of excesses, such as the Nanjing massacre, by Imperial Japanese forces during the Second World War. It is a visceral Chinese fear of Japan that India needs to psychologically unsettle Beijing. To this end, playing up the prospective collaboration with Japan in nuclear, space, and military high technology fields, and engaging in more frequent military exercises with the Japanese Self-Defence Forces, helps.

It is time to play hardball because that is what China does. Delhi so far has neither shown the foresight nor the stomach for it. Nevertheless, India has triggered concern in Beijing by its initiative in consolidating the Buddhist nations and peoples at the Global Buddhist Conference against Tibet’s oppression. Delhi should now ramp up its security ties with Taiwan by immediately rescheduling a visit by Dong Kuo-yu, Adviser to the Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou that was planned for mid-October but abruptly cancelled by MEA, arm Vietnam and Indonesia with the Brahmos cruise missile that can later be replaced by the nuclear warheaded version, and begin diplomatically to equate “genuine autonomy” for Tibet with Chinese claims on Arunachal Pradesh. The collective security scheme with Japan and the US, that Australia is keen to be part of, will, moreover, reassure ASEAN and firm up an Asian consensus that a China, strategically and militarily subdued by whatever means, is the best bet for long term peace, security, and stability in the continent.

[Published in the ‘New Indian Express’, Friday, December 16, 2011 at]


About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian Navy, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons, Strategic Relations with South East Asia & Far East, Strategic Relations with the US & West. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.