There’s not a thing China does wrong strategically and not many things India does right. Whence my advice to the government in my 2015 book – Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet), that owig to its institutionalized inability to think and act strategically, it should merely imitate whatever China does.
What China is doing is building up its nuclear forces, reaching the threshold of 1,000-odd deliverable nuclear weapons and still larger numbers of missiles. The Pentagon in its 2021 (annual) report to the US Congress on Chinese military power conveyed this piece of information with as much alarm as surprise. Why so? Because successive US administrations have trusted in the line taken by the likes of Jeffrey Lewis rather than the assessments of experts like Lawrence Korb and the Pentagon’s own intel supplied by the US Defence Intelligence Agency, who counted the missile silos, the very long tunnels bored into mountain sides as missile emplacement and firing sites, monitored the traffic to them as picked up by satellite imaging and other sensors, and came up with more realistic numbers of nuclear missiles with the PLA Second Artlliery Strategic Forces (SASF). Indeed, the US DIA had concluded by the late 1990s that China had some 800 nuclear weapons and missiles. The 200 or so added since then is par for the course.
This was the SASF figure I based my analysis on and suggested in my 2002, (2nd edition in 2005) book — Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security, that because the likely operational strength of the Chinese arsenal would be some 500 missiles, with the rest held in reserve, and because a goodly number of these are India-targetable medium range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) and intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), the minimum Indian strategic force size needs prudently to be around 475 thermonuclar weapons and delivery systems, without counting the reserves. And that, this force size should be elastic enough and automatically increase to be within striking distance of whatever weapons level China attains over the years. This was necessary I argued to ensure that (1) notional strategic parity is maintained, (2) the Chinese conventional military prowess is blunted, and (3) China is never able to wield the psychological edge of thermonuclear superiority in any prospective confrontation. By my 2002 standard, the Indian SFC should now have a minimum of approx 900 nuclear weapons.
But with the “minimum deterrence”-wallahs having the ear of the government from the beginning and convincing all incoming PMs about the supposed wisdom of small nuclear forces, successive governments have thought nothing about taking an axe to India’s own nuclear weapons manufacturing capability to please and pacify external powers, chiefly the US. So, the civilian nuclear deal was negotiated with America and the option of resuming testing signed away. In keeping with the minimalist thinking, the freedom of policy choices and military options too was surrendered by agreeing to the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Wassenaar Arrangement. And by seeking membership in NSG, New Delhi will ensure India cannot respond, even if it wanted to in the future and belatedly, to Beijing’s nuclear weapons and missile proliferation to Pakistan by hurting China in equal measure by arming its neighbours with like strategic armaments. Having thus painted itself into a corner, Manmohan Singh and now Narendra Modi are embarked on a policy, as I have argued, that is tantamount to outsourcing India’s strategic security to the US.
As if to prove that this is indeed the case, India has let Pakistan outpace it in producing nuclear warheads and bombs. The Pakistan army’s Strategic Plans Division has in excess of 150 nuclear weapons; India’s Strategic Forces Command, on the other hand, has apparently leveled out at 110 weapons or thereabouts. And as mentioned in a previous post, India has been even more niggardly in producing and fielding Agni-5s and, more detrimental to the national interest, has consigned the indigenous MIRV-technology that enables a single missile to carry multiple warheads to the rubbish heap. What else does refusing to test and induct the MIRV system mean?
But minimum this, and minimal that, sort of thinking fits in with the advice on China given by an unending line of foolishly optimistic mandarin-speaking diplomats, intel types, and their ilk crowding the China and East Asia Desks in the MEA, the Beijing ambassador and Foreign Secretary posts, and the apex level policy forum — the ‘China Study Circle/Group’ (CSC). CSC and all within it are terminal misreaders of Beijing’s intentions, underestimators of Chinese military strength, and unapologetic surrenderers of India’s military and other initiatives because they value Sino-Indian relations more than they do the national interest. The CSC has been so wrong about China so often, it is a surprise anybody takes it seriously. But hark, the Indian government does! Even though, no Prime Minister in his right mind should have done other than terminated this cabal long ago and those within it dismissed from service with extreme prejudice. Instead, CSC continues in its merry way — pushing India deeper into the hole it has dug for the country and the Indian military.
The last such bit of harmful counsel was the negotiating parameter that resulted in the pullback of the Special Frontier Force units from the Kailash range — the only Indian action that showed initiative and was of some consequence, in exchange for the PLA withdrawing from ‘Finger 3’ on the Pangong Lake. These worthies expected that the Chinese, suitably softened, would suddenly start behaving like a good neighbour and withdraw from the Y-Junction on the Depsang Plain, to allow the Indian army to once again patrol Gogra, Hot Springs, and other points proximal to the Karakorum Pass. Predicatbly, India fell for a Chinese mirage and, thanks to CSC, lost the slight leverage it had with the occupation of the Kailash heights.
The expertise of these desi China specialists and professional policy bunglers stops at a benign reading of the Chinese threat. They mirror the kind of nonsense the China lovers in the US have been spewing for decades. These MEA mandarins and CSC members propagate the view about the Chinese Communist party leadership being driven by the purest of motives, and believing in “no first use”, and in “minimum deterrence” and, despite the altercations on the border and PLA’s relentless massing of forces in the Tibet theatre, why the Modi regime should talk it out with Beijing, and similar piffle. Those more besotted among them try to display their deep understanding of everything Chinese by citing all kinds of supporting evidence — gobbeldygook references to party plenums, Confucius, “warring kingdoms”, Suntzu, and obscure warriors, strategists and whatnot, that while, perhaps, plausible sounding, are usually off kilter. In the main because their rationalizations and justifications of Chinese actions are informed more, it seems, by sentimentalism and delusions of what could have been if only Xi Jinping had not sported his hardline approach. Dengxiaoping’s “long handshake” with Rajiv Gandhi in 1986 is still recalled, and the illusory promise of ‘Chindia’ — the combined Asian powerhouse of the two countries in the new Century is mulled over.
Characteristically, these thinly veiled China sympathizers have habitually missed out on the traditional animus fueling Beijing’s India policy. Lest it be forgottgen, Deng strategically screwed India; he was the architect of the policy that has proved the most strategiclly damaging — establishing Pakistan as a nuclear weapons state. Except, it is only another version of Maozedong’s clear-eyed ruthlessness in pulling India down by showing up the Indian army in 1962 as an imperial era ‘paper tiger’ with pretentions. If Rajiv Gandhi was taken in by Deng’s avuncular behaviour, Atal Bihari Vajpayee (and his alter ego — Brajesh Mishra) by Jiang Xemin’s promise of peace, and if Modi, had drunk a little too much of the Wuhan and Mamallapuram “spirits”, he is now sobered enough to crash down to the earth, what with his government seemingly so bewildered by Xi’s actions in eastern Ladakh and along the Line of Actual Control that his China policy is stranded in a “no man’s land”. Who is to blame for this state of affairs other than the consistently gullible Indian leaders and their compromised advisers in MEA and CSC?
Just how confused the Modi government is is plain from the non-use of the weighty economc leverage provided by denying Chinese exports access to the Indian market. It has resulted, ironically, in Chinese exports touching a new high (some $67 billion in 2020!), further skewing the balance of payments problem already hugely favouring China. It is not as if Indian exports to China are high value or big revenue earners as, say, German exports to China are — some 700,000 Mercedes Benz passenger cars were reportedly sold in 2020. So, India has little to lose by legally restricting Chinese exports. After all, China is the prime enemy country, is it not? Then why accord it favourable treatment? Shouldn’t Chinese exports to India be severely curtailed, and Indian retailers, including petty shopkeepers, deterred from stocking and selling Chinese goods and light manufactures, on the pain of punitive fines and even jail time? Why this has so far not been done is a mystery, considering such measures are legitimate under the GATT and Doha Round provisions for fair and equitable trade, and because it is the right of countries to protect their economies from being inundated with cheap goods and stuff produced by heavily subsidized Chinese industries.
A fearful Indian government shies away from undertaking even reciprocal actions in the economic, diplomatic and military spheres in response to Xi’s precision targeted policies and actions. In the event, for Modiji to believe India can become China’s equal by carrying on strategically as it has these past few decades, is to do a lot of day dreamin’. But, dreams cost nothing.
The news about Wing Commander Abhinandan making a time-grade promotion to Group Captain made me think about what brought him notoriety. He is perhaps the only fighter pilot in history to be awarded a gallantry award — Vir Chakra, for being shot down over enemy territory after a questionable, if not imaginary, kill by him of an enemy warplane. The IAF and the Indian government doubled down on the story that the combat aircraft Abhinandan shot out of the skies was a Pakistani F-16 even when it had too many holes in it. He was welcomed back, feted as a war hero with the then Air Chief, BS Dhanoa, even flying a celebratory sortie with him in a twin-seater MiG-21 Bison. Such are the small successes IAF is now reduced to.
Not to go into the details of this episode, but what really happened? In broad brush terms, Abhinandan was obviously hotdoggin’ it, picked up an adversary aircraft on his radar, went after it in hot pursuit, fired off a shortrange R-60 air-to-air missile. That missile hit something; he claimed it was an F-16. In the heat of the pursuit, he little realized he had intruded into Pakistani airspace and, too late to maneuver and scoot out of trouble, found himself and his MiG-21 shot down by a PAF plane that had him in its “cone”.
But it was not an F-16. The fact that no team from Lockheed Martin — producer of the F-16 aircraft, hightailed it to India or Pakistan to ascertain the details of that engagement is proof enough that no hardware of their’s was involved.
If it was not a PAF F-16, many IAF veterans speculate what Abhinandan had in his sights was an ex- Chinese-built JF-17. Two parachutes were observed floating down after that fighting incident, conforming to the fact of two pilots of two downed aircraft. So, why have Abhinandan and the IAF stuck to the F-16 story? Because, well, there is more glory in shooting down a frontline F-16 than a Chinese ripoff of a Russian MiG-21 — the JF-17.
And why was Abhinandan so speedily released? For one thing because, it is said, the IAF, backed by the Modi government,warned PAF that should anything happen to Abhinandan in captivity, or he not be returned forthwith, it was prepared to go to war — a threat that worked, especially on the Imran Khan government. The question arises: Why did the IAF make such a threat? Because, Abhinandan’s father, also a MiG fighter pilot, Air Marshal Simhakutty Varthaman, retired in 2012 as commander-in-chief, Eastern Air Command, and the IAF brass had made his son’s expeditious release by Islamabad, its personal business.
The troubling question: Would the IAF HQ have gone to bat for Abhinandan as aggressively, and decorated him with a VrC, had he not, in a sense, been IAF royalty?