At the dawn of the new millennium, there were many influential Indian voices that backed the Congress Party’s resident intellectual, Jairam Ramesh’s notion of “Chindia”. Suffused with hopes for regional and international peace and a peaceful economically interdependent world order, they predicted that this unbeatable twinned duo of Chindia — China and India would make the 21st Century an “Asian” one. Implicit in this cooperative concept is the notion of a stable Asian order. A decade on that optimism is gone. This is so in the main because India has fallen so far behind China in every respect and finds itself so unable to cope with it that, realistically, it is not even in the big power game. China seems both driven to reach the acme of global power and realize its ambition to dominate Asia and to replace the United States as the numero uno power the rest of the world takes its bearings from. In the event, stability in the Asia-Pacific Region (APR) takes on a different hue and mandates a realpolitik strategy to balance China’s power by any and all means that, at the same time, preserves and enhances India’s freedom and latitude of action.
There is also the fact that with the abrupt ending of the short era of geo-economic interdependence spurred by the imperatives of global trade, industry, and commerce, the international system based on sovereign states is reverting to its original nature, rediscovering the need for countries to find themselves by turning inward. This has resulted in a return to hard nationalism, and seeking of ties with the external sphere only insofar as it serves the state’s interest in the narrow sense of directly benefitting its citizens in the here and now. The evidence of this is everywhere. Early in 2016 summer, the Brexit phenomenon saw the British masses voting to exit the collectivist-minded European Union (EU). It was a referendum the then prime minister, David Cameron, had confidently called to secure a popular mandate for his policies seeking even closer relations with the EU.
Across the Atlantic, the Republican Party presidential candidate Donald J. Trump vowed to withdraw the US from all treaty alliances, security arrangements, and free trade regimes. Call it Amerexit; it reflects the isolationist impulses of the American people similar to those of their British counterparts and for many of the same reasons of too much of the outside world intruding too egregiously in the lives of the common folk. Except US’ distancing itself from the international mainstream is more consequential. Additionally, there is palpable fatigue with foreign entanglements and wars that over the past two decades have cost thousands of American lives, drained the US treasury, and sapped that country of its gung-ho interventionist spirit (several trillion dollars for the war in Iraq, a like sum spent in the conflict against the Taliban in Afghanistan). The traditional US desire to change the world in its image, save democracy everywhere, etc. is unlikely to come into play in saving friendly Asian states from China. The Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe, for example, failed to secure support from the Barack Obama Administration for its claims on the Senkaku/Diaouyu Islands.
In the event, whether or not the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) survives and the American enthusiasm for containing China wavers, it will be imprudent for India to do other than assume that it will have to count mostly on itself, secondarily on friendly states on China’s periphery, especially in the Southeast and East Asian littorals and offshore, including Japan, and only tertiarily on the out-of-area US, whose vast cross investments and economic, trade and investment interlinks with China, render it an unwilling and unreliable “strategic partner” in the strategy to challenge that country’s hegemonic designs in Asia making for instability in the continent.
To counter China and neutralize its gains in Asia, India needs to shape a comprehensive strategy that is mindful of certain aspects of China and Chinese policy, is imaginative, multi-pronged, nimble and, above all else, disruptive, geared to throwing Beijing off its stride. With the challenge being as much ideological, military and geopolitical as it is economic and cultural, it will not be an easy task. But equally, it is not a route India can escape taking as an up and coming power.
Many countries have paid the price for being inattentive to or simply misreading the ideological motive behind the actions of adversary states. India has from the beginning made the mistake of ignoring this component in Chinese foreign policy. China’s emergence as global power began under the helmsmanship of Dengxiaoping. While his policy thrust was rapidly to lift the country economically, his ideology of state-managed rise driven by limited free market leeway (‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’), nevertheless retained the foundation of historical grievance from the Maozedong period. It constitutes a national ideology that has helped the Communist regime in its nation-building activity and firmed up the modern Chinese national identity. It has to do with the “Century of humiliation” when a technologically and military-wise backward China was reduced by Western imperial powers into a virtual colony.
This was the Nineteenth Century when China repeatedly suffered military defeat — in the two Opium Wars (1839-42, 1856-60) when Beijing was sacked, the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), the invasion by eight Western countries during the Boxer Rebellion (1900), the Japanese occupation of Manchuria (1931), and in the anti-Japanese war (1937-45). It was a period when unequal treaties were imposed on China, territory lost, whole provinces taken over and quisling regimes installed, and the country compelled by the victorious powers to open up the country to Western trade or, as the official phrase puts it, “to surrender sovereign rights and bring humiliation to the country” (sang quan ru guo).
Reversing this historical trend, righting the power imbalance, recovering the traditionally Chinese territory, and making China the zhung guo – the central power in the world once again is the ideological and non-negotiable predicate of Chinese foreign and military policy. This last is something New Delhi has failed to appreciate. The Indian government’s belief from Jawaharlal Nehru’s days has been that, as in all negotiations, there’ll be “give and take”, and China will eventually compromise. This may eventually turn out so, but Beijing will be more inclined to “give” and peacefully resolve its territorial dispute with India and other states it has disputes with if it sees the political-military “correlation of forces” in the extended region and globally tending decisively against it. It is this situation that the Indian government should try and bring about as a means of constraining China and realizing a stable and peaceful order in Asia.
Rejigging the Geopolitical correlation of forces
The phenomenal accretion in the economic and military power of China up until the entry into the scene of Xi Jinping was a low-key affair. In the new century, however, Deng’s “hide and bide” strategy has been replaced by Xi’s openly assertive stance, which seeks to translate the country’s comprehensive prowess into dominance in Asia. Indeed, the goal is expressly to pursue policies to replace the United States in the global arena and, more indirectly, to undermine the security of its two main rivals on its flanks – India and Japan using client states, Pakistan and North Korea, respectively. It is a game plan that is paying off.
The clearest sign of this is that in the wake of the July 11, 2016, South China Sea verdict by the International Court of Arbitration at the Hague going against it, Beijing threw down the gauntlet with live fire naval drills and the imposition of the air defence identification zone in the contested waters and met with no resistance whatsoever, with the Chief of Naval Operations of the US Navy, Admiral John Richardson, merely reiterating Washington’s wish to “avoid conflict” with China. Beijing’s other policy stream of weakening India and Japan is evident in the activity of, what I have elsewhere called, the “rogue nuclear triad” of China, Pakistan, North Korea. Nuclear technology, materials, and expertise flow between these proliferating states with Pyongyang acting as the testing site for weapons designs conjured up by Pakistani nuclear weaponeers with Chinese assistance. It serves the separate interests of the three countries – China’s diplomatic value to contain nuclear proliferation is increased vis a vis the US, Japan, and South Korea, and with India, owing to its leverage with North Korea and Pakistan.
The solution is to hem China in with the help of the states bordering it on land and sea. The American geostrategist Nicholas Spykman in the late 1940s first conceived of containing an Asian heartland power by the ”rimland” states of Southeast and East Asia, including the offshore ones, such as Japan, Taiwan, and Australia, cooperating with each other. That solution still holds for checkmating China and blunting its attempts to project power and spread its influence. True, Beijing has utilized its economic heft in recent years to deter these countries from making common cause against it. As the biggest trading partner of almost every adjoining country, even those with unresolved disputes with some of them, China has managed to prevent a ganging up. This has happened, for instance, with regard to Southeast Asia. Beijing has succeeded in separating the more economically dependent states (Laos and Cambodia) from joining the other ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) members in collectively opposing China’s “nine dash line” claims in the South China Sea. By insisting on bilateral negotiations with each disputant state in the region, China hopes to extract a series of deals from all of them that serve its interests better.
In the case of India, its trade with China is in excess of $70 billion and expected to touch $100 billion by 2020. The promise of infrastructure investment in tens of billions of dollars and of access to the Chinese market for its services has persuaded New Delhi to be quiet even in the face of niggling provocations (such as frequent armed intrusions across the Line of Actual Control on the Indo-Tibetan border). Smaller countries have a bigger incentive to toe the line as they are extensively integrated into the Chinese supply chain. Thus the increase in Chinese exports increases revenues of these countries. Security concerns, however, trump the mutually beneficial economic intercourse. This is now happening in Southeast Asia – China’s soft underbelly, where the danger from a belligerent dragon is too worrisome to ignore. Whence, the growing interest in the region for cobbling together flexible, collective security, arrangements
Except, the Bharatiya Janata Party government has shown little strategic imagination and, even less, urgency, in being proactive and building a Spyman-ian coalition of rimland and offshore states to constrain China and limit its options. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is still more talk than action when it comes to translating the country’s “look east” policy into “act east” policy, which has been on the anvil from Manmohan Singh’s days. It has also not followed up on Abe’s concept of the “security diamond” involving India, the US, Japan, and Australia, even as the other three states, US-Japan-Australia, have beefed up their triadic connections.
To the lack of strategic imagination may be added the absence of political will and drive to be disruptive. Indeed, New Delhi has so far played softball with China rather than pay it back in its own hard coin – by transferring nuclear missiles to Vietnam and other states on the Chinese periphery who fear China’s aggression. It would mean merely following China’s precedent; after all it nuclear missile armed Pakistan. But the Indian government seems unable to muster the gumption for even arming Vietnam with conventionally warheaded Brahmos supersonic anti-ship missiles. Unlike India, Vietnam has stomach for a fight – something Beijing hugely respects, one reason it does not want to test Hanoi’s mettle. While Vietnam’s longstanding demand for the Brahmos has been agreed to and, offensively deployed by the Vietnamese forces, can by itself deter and defeat the Chinese tactics of intimidation in the South China Sea, and help India’s maritime military interests west of the Malaca Straits, the Indian government has yet to get the Brahmos into Hanoi’s hands. The Indian government’s risk-averse, passive-defensive, attitude compounded by its complacent mindset, are the reasons why Asian countries doubt India’s ability to provide them security.
Perils of the tilt to the US
Actually, the situation is worse. India’s bonafides as an independent player in the big power game are coming into question because of the Modi government’s tilt towards the United States with consequent loss of its “strategic autonomy” and its status and standing in the extended region, and all this will be for short term gains. India will be drawn formally into the American orbit with its signing the three so-called “foundational” accords that the US insists upon with all treaty allies, namely, the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), which is a slightly modified version of the standard Logistics Support Agreement, the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA), and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) pertaining to geospatial information.
Banking on the US to balance China in Asia is a losing game because the US is a declining power without the political will or the wealth to sustain an aggressive forward policy in Asia. The “pivot to Asia” during the Barack Obama presidency has been only partially realized as US military resources have been stretched and differentially allocated to three regions of concern – Eastern Europe with a resurgent Russia, a West Asia in turmoil with sectarian violence and conflict radiating outwards from Iraq, Syria, and the Islamic State to the Maghreb, sub-Saharan Africa (Boko Haram in Nigeria), and Southeast and Northeast Asia where an ascendant China makes trouble directly or indirectly through its proxy, North Korea. Had the evolving situation been properly assessed and the costs of siding overtly with the US calculated, the conclusion would have been reached that India would be better off treating America as an opportunistic offshore balancer, and forging — as suggested earlier in this article — strong military-to-military links with the ASEAN, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Australia to stretch China politically and militarily in its middle and at its two ends, something India has been slow in doing. It is still not too late. Even if LEMOA is signed, New Delhi can tarry over its implementation and case-by-case approval for logistics support reinstituted.
The real giveaway of American intentions is Obama’s policy of
“strategic patience” which, in its essentials, is a policy to do the minimum little when doing nothing at all just so Beijing is not riled. Hence, Washington’s big talk about contesting China’s control of the South China Sea notwithstanding, its warships and carrier task groups in the area pulling freedom of navigation patrols in those waters have been careful not to violate the 12 mile “territorial sea” around the artificial islands Beijing has constructed out of cement and coral. America’s caution is reciprocated by Beijing, because both are eager to redefine in Xi’s words “a new special big power relationship”, constituting in effect a G-2 to oversee the affairs of the world. A G-2 is simply not in India’s interest any more than China’s predominance in Asia is. And acquiescing in the US designs for Asia will perforce require India to accept China’s supremacy. How’s that going to help India?
Contesting the strategic space
Geographic spaces are linked to constitute a strategic whole. The APR, Latin America and Africa are linked, with the latter two continents being the prime spaces for contestation. China has invested in the natural resources-extraction sector in a big way on these continents and, to consolidate its presence in these parts, is offering arms sales on concessionary terms. It is one-two punch India cannot match, not because it doesn’t have the wherewithal but because there’s insufficient appreciation of the hard power of the state in all its manifestations, including arms exports and the country thus lacks the administrative and policy infrastructure to pursue policy thrusts. What India can do is to capitalize on the goodwill, especially in Africa, by fleshing out its role as a niche supplier of financial and information technology, and IT-enabled services. Also, tailored military training programmes for officer rank personnel and those from the non-commissioned officer cadre from the African and Latin American militaries, such as for peace-keeping (the first batch of African militarymen trained as peacekeeping passed out in the summer of 2016), counter-insurgency warfare, commando/special operations, etc. will be welcomed by these countries.
These training stints can be followed up by pitching Indian made armaments, such as infantry weapons, artillery, warships and Tejas combat aircraft to these states. It is a policy that can be furthered with generous grants to buy Indian-made military hardware and to sustain army, naval, and air force connections, particularly with states in the Indian Ocean littoral states in East Africa and Southeast Asia. Permanent Indian Military Training Teams such as in Bhutan may be configured for individual African states to suit their particular needs and milieus. This more than any other single policy set will block the entry into this crucial military space by China, and limit its growing political and economic influence in these regions. It will be an apt response to China’s “check book diplomacy”.
Again, all this doable but it is not being done. Mozambique has been asking for intimate Indian military engagement. In 2000, it asked for the Indian Navy’s help in founding, training, and equipping a Mozambqiue Navy and, in its initial tears, to also officer it. It is a request New Delhi has still to act on. The interest of Mozambique and other African countries in having India as its military mentor was piqued by the very effective offshore perimeter security the Indian Navy provided the Organization of African Union summit in July 2003 in Maputo. The Mozambiqan government thereafter offered a site on its northern coast for India to set up a naval base, which has not been acted on. Nor has New Delhi firmed up long term arrangements for the North and South Agalega Islands as forward naval and air bases in the Southwestern Indian Ocean as envisaged by the Mauritius. It is the sort of disinterest in strategic imperatives by the Indian government that borders on the criminal, this even as China swoops in when it detects even a sliver of opportunity. Like elsewhere, in the natural resources field too, India is myopic and lethargic. Mozambique and Tanzania were eager that India mine the richest coal seam in eastern Africa that spans the two countries. Their request was that, along with the mining concession, India construct a rail line from the coal-head to the coast. Apparently this was too good a chance to not miss out on. There’s a cost to the turgid pace of policy and decision-making in government and India has paid heavily for it in the past and continues to do so.
India made a breakthrough sale of the indigenous HAL-built Dhruv advanced light helicopter to Chile and Ecuador. Had this export programme been supported by strong product servicing and support, the helicopter deal would have led to follow-on buys of Indian-made arms. Instead, after thye first crash on one of these aircraft, the contract was negated by Chile, and prospective sales to other South American states cooled off. This episode is a guide on how to lose friends and influence.
Central Asia, likewise, has suffered strategic neglect. Indian Air Force has a presence at the Farkhor air base in Ainee in Tajikistan, which India refurbished at its own cost, including redoing the surface and extending the airstrip to take heavier aircraft. The Ainee base is significant because it has a virtual line of sight on the Chinese nuclear complex in Lop Nor in Xinjiang. A Sukhoi-30MKI squadron that was supposed to have been emplaced there would have threatened Lop Nor and tamped down on bellicose Chinese behavior across the Line of Actual Control in the Himalayas. Not only are there no Indian Sukhois in Farkhor, Russia has reclaimed the military space in the former Soviet Central Asian Republics.
And, finally, India has left unexploited the Tibet and Uyghur cards to strategically discomfit China. It is willing to raise the issue of Baluchistan to provoke Pakistan, but not to court China’s displeasure by helping the Tibetan and Uyghur national freedom movements. Meanwhile, Beijing has materially supported and continues to upkeep various rebel insurgencies in the Indian northeast. Unless India plays these cards China will be on the offensive, confident that India can’t or won’t react or reciprocatre.
Reorienting its conventional military
Milieus change, threats change, threat perceptions change, and so do the orientation of military forces. China has shifted its national resources and primary adversarial focus from India and Japan to the US. In the new Century, the US has done the same, switching its military emphasis from Russia to China. India, however, remains the anomaly among major powers. Its military stress principally on the smalltime threat posed by Pakistan means it does not have the kind forces and in the numbers required to shove the Chinese People’s Liberation Army on the defensive in land war. Nor does it have genuinely long-legged aircraft to take the fight to the Chinese air space. Only in the maritime sphere, the Indian Navy is capable of putting up a fight because the PLA Navy, despite numerous forays in the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific (to show the flag and conduct anti-piracy missions), has still to acquire competence in operations far from home shores.
The trouble is the bulk of India’s military investment is in an archaic order-of-battle featuring heavy equipment, such as tanks (in three armoured strike corps) that may have made an impression in yesterday’s wars, but are laughably inadequate for the high-technology robotic warfare of tomorrow. But the Indian military seems blissfully outside the military technology innovation mainstream, content to be able to just beat the Pakistan military. Unless there’s a thorough overhaul of the three armed services and proper political instruction to align to China as main threat, the Indian armed forces will be facing in the wrong direction and tuned to fight the wrong war. This makes it easy for the PLA to control the 4,700 kms long disputed border in the mountains.
A major force restructuring would necessitate the rationalizing of the three strike corps into a single composite armoured/mechanized corps to credibly handle every conceivable contingency with Pakistan. The manpower and materiel resources from the two demobilized strike corps could then be shifted to fill two additional offensive mountain corps, for a total of three mountain strike corps to keep the PLA in Tibet on their toes.
Likewise, the IAF rather than have relatively small numbers of many different types of aircraft sourced from a host of different countries, could also rationalize its forces by having a few aircraft types in the fleet, such as the Su-30MKI as the main fighter-bomber, widely acknowledged as the finest combat aircraft flying anywhere for strike and air superiority, the locally designed and produced Tejas for short and medium-range air defence, and a long range bomber, like the upgraded Tu-160 Blackjack on sale/lease from Russia. Presently, the IAF is an ineffective air force with more show than substance, and with just too many different types of aircraft that are a logistics nightmare to maintain.
A foreign and military policy-wise strong and venturesome India will naturally anchor a stable APR. A floundering India, dependent on outside powers such as the US for its security will, on the other hand, lose respect in the comity of developing states and permanently advantage China with the strategic initiative. That will be a bad thing to happen for India, Asia, and the world.
Published in special issue on “Rise of China & Asia-Pacific Stability”, New Approach, Vol. 21, No. 4 & Vol 22, No.1, 2016.