[ US Navy’s USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier strike group]
There are some very nervous people in Washington and Beijng, each wishing the other side regains good sense in time and backs down. The person who will decide the direction the latest Taiwan crisis will take is the powerful Speaker of the Lower House of the US Congress — the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, a plucky 80 + year old California Congresswoman, who has always been a drama queen. She means to pay the Taiwan a visit. The Biden Administration tried to deflect this political venture by asking her to postpone her visit for the nonce on some trumped up reason or the other, not cancel it. This would save both America’s face and China’s and put off the crisis to another day.
Till last heard, Pelosi will have none of it; her trip is on. She revealed to the media that the Biden Administration fears the aircraft carrying her could be be ambushed, shot down by Chinese combat aircraft in the air corridors cleared for her flight to Taipei. This assumes that Beijing will, in fact, follow through on its promise of severe response in case Pelosi disregards the “One China principle”, proceeds on her Taiwan goodwill mission, and precipitates a crisis. While it will prove that Beijing’s huffing and puffing wasn’t all bluff, the shooting down of Pelosi’s aircraft will quickly ratchet up the crisis to a flashpoint.
The US military is rounding into business. The USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier strike group left Singapore July 27, heading towards Taiwanese waters, no doubt to be on hand to, among other things, provide Pelosi’s plane, which will have US aircraft ex-Guam for protecton, augmented fighter escort if needed for her flight into Taipei, and otherwise to be in the van of the US military units in the area in case President Xi Jinping decides he has too much to lose domestically by allowing the American leader to carry on unhindered after instructing his regime to make so much hoo-ha about it, and orders the PLA air force and PLA navy into action.
A tense General Mark Milley, Chairman, US Joint Chiefs of Staff, flanked by the Commander-in-Chief US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Chris Aquilino, in Sydney to attend the 24th Indo-Pacific Chiefs of Defense Conference, said: “We will do what is necessary to ensure a safe…conduct of [Pelosi’s] visit…I’ll just leave it at that…what that results in we’ll have to wait and see.”
This is too delicious a strategic crisis to ignore, It pits America against China in a test of wills with the prospect of only one side coming up tops. It is a test case of future confrontations in Asia. On two previous relatively recent occasions, China thought better of it and withdrew. In response to PLA’s firing surface-to-surface rocket and missile barrages, President Bill Clinton in 1995 ordered the USS Chester Nimitz carrier strike group into the Taiwan Strait. In 2007 the USS Kitty Hawk strike group loitered in the same Strait without eliciting any Chinese response. That Beijing reacted so strongly this time around, thereby deliberately and with forethought raising the ante, suggests that Xi and his military commanders in the Central Military Commission are confident that the PLA forces, much improved, can take on the US.
How will this crisis pan out? There are only two possibilities,
Pelosi decides this is all too much and scrubs the Taiwan trip handing Beijing a political victory it will milk to the max reinforcing. in the process, China’s tendency, in General Milley’s words, to “bully or dominate” other nations. The fiasco will further erode what credibility America has left as ally and strategic partner, and showcase Washington’s unwillingness to stand up to the emerging Asian behemoth, and likely provide not only Taiwan, but also Japan and South Korea, with more motivation to acquire nuclear weapons and, security-wise, become independent of the US.
The second possibility is that Xi will recognize that all the Chinese angst and vituperation against Taiwanese secessionism and American provocation is not going to raise the fighting quality of the PLA forces, and any hostilities may prove to the world what many already suspect that China is not a peer rival of the US, that the Chinese navy’s shiny new aircraft carriers — Liaoning and the Shandong (sans aircraft!), for instance, are like the rest of the PLA, paper tigers, good enough only to scare, say, India with!
In this confrontation with so much riding on it, there will be a winner. My money is on China getting cold feet because, by my reckoning, PLA, PLAAF, PLAN are still 20 years away from being America’s military equal.
‘This reluctance to respond forcefully to Chinese PLA provocations and outright aggression has as much to do with Prime Minister Modi personally, as with the institutional mindset of the MEA or even the Indian Army.’ ‘They are scarred by the 1962 War and are still cowed by China.’
IMAGE: General Manoj Chandrasekhar Pande, the chief of the army staff, on his visit to Ladakh in May. Photograph: ANI Photo
Dr Bharat Karnad, Emeritus Professor at the Centre for Policy Research, the New Delhi-based think-tank, analyses why there has been a muted Indian response to the Galwan clashes which took place between Indian and Chinese troops two years ago.
“Let’s be clear: It is Modi, and Modi alone, who is responsible in toto for India’s foreign and military policies. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar is just the medium and has no say in these matters other than overseeing their conduct and implementation; and army generals have even less of a role,” Dr Karnad tells Rediff.com Senior Contributor Rashme Sehgal.
Two years after the Galwan clashes, there is an accusation by some analysts that China continues to steadily encroach on Indian territory and has taken over almost 4,000 km of Indian territory. How far is this assessment correct?
Given the 24/7/365 surveillance via various sensors, including those mounted on Indian and friendly foreign satellites, it is unlikely India has lost territory to this extent since the Galwan incident.
That said, the 1,000-odd sq kms in the area northeast of the Y-Junction on the Depsang Plain the PLA occupied much before the clashes on the Galwan river remain in China’s possession.
A large part of this Chinese deployment has reportedly been in the Depsang Plain. This continues to be a dangerous development given that the Chinese aim to build a connecting road up to PoK.
The significance to India of the territory China now occupies is that this traditionally Indian area is alongside the arterial Xinjiang Highway that branches off southwards at the Karakoram Pass to constitute the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
This territorial loss means the Indian Army is blocked from moving northwards from Daulat Beg Oldi to apply military pressure at the conjunction of the PLA-Pakistan army interests on the Karakoram Pass, and thus threaten the CPEC.
This is what the Chinese People’s Liberation Army intended with pre-emptively capturing that swath of land.
The Chinese are building another bridge over the Pangong Tso lake to improve their logistics in countering our troops positioned there.
The Chinese plan obviously is to have redundancy in connectivity by building a number of roads, shunts and bridges linking the northern and southern shores of the lake under their control.
It enables them to consolidate their logistics infrastructure, and launch a concerted military action on either shore at a moment’s notice.
IMAGE: Indian and Chinese troops and tanks disengage from the banks of the Pangong Tso lake area in eastern Ladakh in February 2021. Photograph: ANI Photo
We have had 15 rounds of border commander talks since April 2020, but there is little talk of a reversion of positions to status quo ante pre April 2020 when these talks first started. Analysts believe we are back to the 1959 position.
The periodic field commanders’ meetings are a waste of time and of no real account other than affording these uniformed folks some downtime with tea and samosas!
I long ago suggested that the Indian Army should not partake of these conferences the PLA does not take seriously.
I had warned precisely of such a denouement at the very beginning of this confrontation in eastern Ladakh.
It was Pollyanna-ish of the Indian government, in any case, to expect China would ever agree, for any reason, to the restoration of the status quo ante.
Why is there no White Paper on these talks providing the public at large details about what was discussed and what were the lessons learnt from the tragic death of our 20 soldiers on the night of June 15-16, 2020?
There’s no White Paper because it will have very little to report other than that China has not, and will not, move an inch from their proclaimed 1959 claimline which, by the way, Beijing never formally resiled from.
IMAGE: Indian Army soldiers stand guard at the Zojila Pass. Photograph: ANI Photo
Nor is there any clarity from the government or the army about what led the Chinese army to occupy Indian land. Or is this just a Chinese continuance to continue with their objective of ‘salami slicing’?
The PLA is into ‘salami slicing’ of Indian territory with a definite design (such as blocking Indian access to the Karakoram Pass). Such activity is not purposeless.
Why has the government’s response to China been so muted in contrast to the chest thumping that goes on each time something happens along our border with Pakistan?
This reluctance to respond forcefully to Chinese PLA provocations and outright aggression has as much to do with Prime Minister Modi personally, as with the institutional mindset of the MEA or even the Indian Army.
They are scarred by the 1962 War and are still cowed by China.
In retrospect, what exactly was discussed between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping at their 18 meetings prior to this standoff? Can this be seen as another betrayal by the Chinese as happened in the case of Jawaharlal Nehru in 1962?
Look, the Chinese negotiating tactics are always to first delineate the border as per historic claims and then to change the status quo on the ground to conform with those territorial claims.
The rest is artful waffling and stretching the negotiation in time and space to hope that the other side loses patience and gives in.
Zhou Enlai in the 1950s did offer Nehru a territorial swap — recognition of the McMahon Line in Arunachal Pradesh for Indian acceptance of the Aksai Chin the PLA had built the Xinjiang Highway through.
That was not a bad deal for Nehru to have accepted then. He didn’t.
IMAGE: General Pande interacts with Indian troops posted in Ladakh. Photograph: ANI Photo/Indian Army twitter
Was it a prudent decision to have given up the Kailash Range getting little in return? What is our actual position today in Hot Springs and the Depsang Plain?
IMAGE: Prime Minister N D Modi and Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Chinese Communist party and president of the People’s Republic of China, at their informal summit in Mamallapuram, October 12, 2019. Photograph: Press Information Bureau
Trade with China continues to grow with India hardly being in a position to stop its dependence on Chinese imports. Is there any serious attempt to curtail Chinese imports?
Indian imports in trillions of rupees from China are growing by nearly 50% annually, and the repatriation of profits in billions of dollars in hard currency by Chinese companies is keeping pace.
It is among the bright spots in the current Chinese economy and something Beijing would not like to disturb.
Reason why the PLA is pretty quiet in Ladakh even in the summer military campaign season.
Delhi can change this situation in a trice, but percieves Chinese exports to India as negotiating leverage with Xi Jinping, which it is loath to give up.
Is it not time for the political leadership to come forward and take charge instead of leaving this issue to the generals especially given the fact that China has changed the goalposts?
Let’s be clear: It is Modi, and Modi alone, who is responsible in toto for India’s foreign and military policies. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar is just the medium and has no say in these matters other than overseeing their conduct and implementation; and army generals have even less of a role.
Just how nonexistent gun violence is in Japan can be guaged from the astonishingly lax security provided the former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. There was no security cordon worth the name — with the few tasked with protecting him, apparently standing around the place unconcerned, letting the assasin approach from the most open and vulnerable entirely unsecured area behind Abe. The manifestly unprofessional Japanese security police are blameworthy, of course. But the fact is the use of guns is entirely unknown in Japanese society (except by the yakuza — the criminal underworld, who gun down each other). Even so, there was just ONE gun use-related death in Japan last year compared, say, to some 15,000 deaths in India (and according to CNN, 45,000 in the US)!
The loss to Japan of Abe is immeasurable and on several counts. First, he ended the era of apology, of 70 years of Japanese remorse, for World War Two excesses, which China relentlessly milked. The Nanjing wartime massacre was perennially used as a moral cudgel to beat up on Japan and to extort from Tokyo hundreds of billions of dollars in reparations post-1945 in the form of cash, grant-in aid and assistance, massive investments to build up the Chinese economy, and of technology transfers. Think Shinkansen Japanese high speed rail technology that the Chinese ingested, developed further, and applied to now field, perhaps, the largest high-speed railway network in the world! No more bowing and scraping to Beijing, Abe decreed, leave alone paying China exactions!
Secondly, and with more long lasting effect that had China sweating with fright, he spearheaded the successful effort to get the Japanese Diet in 2014 to reinterpret the non-belligerancy clause — Article 9 — in the so-called ‘peace Constitution’ imposed by the US, which prohibited Japan from arming itself with offensive weaponry, to now permit the government more flexibility in the use of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces, preemptively if necessary and in support of allies and friendly states. Considering the absolute unreliability of its ally US’ extended deterrence, it paves the way for Japan sometime in the future to go in for nuclear weapons. This, from India’s perspective, will be a very good thing to happen.
But most importantly, Abe conceptualized the ‘security diamond’ — later formalised into what is now the Quadrilateral of Japan, India, Australia and the US. He did so publicly in a 2007 address to Indian Parliament, indicating at once just how much significance he attached to having India as one of the four pillars of a collective security scheme he was putting together to secure Asia’s future and blunt China’s coercive edge.
His immense respect, regard, love and warm feelings for India were for intensely personal family reasons. Shinzo Abe was the scion of a powerful political dynasty with pre-War roots founded by his maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who was the economic czar of the Japanese puppet regime of Manchukuo that the imperial Japanese government established in the 1930s to colonize eastern China. Kishi barely avoided being branded a war criminal by the post-War International Military Tribunal in Tokyo — the Asian version of the Nuremberg Trials, which decided to imprison/hang a dozen of the senior most Japanese wartime leaders. Of the eleven judges on the Tribunal, only the Indian judge, Justice Radhabinod Pal, refused to return a guilty verdict on the Japanese leaders, earning for himself and for India eternal gratitude of the Japanese nation. Indeed there’s a monument to Justice Pal at the controversial shinto Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo where the war dead are venerated, and which temple Abe made it a point as PM to visit (as few of his predecessors in office had dared to do). Kishi’s career revived in the 1950s; he founded the Liberal Democratic Party and as Prime Minister led the country for three years, 1957-1960. His father, Shintaro Abe, was a leading member of LDP and foreign minister in 1982-1986 and was among the first to evince substantial Japanese interest in strong ties with India.
The fact is Shinzo Abe was the strategic brain and the driver of the Quadrilateral — the one person most responsible to try and get the disparate interests of the four pillar countries of the Quad to mesh. US President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” and Washington’s interest since in containing China through such an arrangement was in no small measure due to Shinzo Abe’s private and public Quad advocacy and persistence in pitching this arrangement as a much needed strategic and economic counterweight to the emerging colossus in Asia and the world — China. Moreover, the successful policy of Japan joining India to provide quality infrastructure buildup on concessional credit terms but minus potential debt traps to African countries to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, has made inroads and manifests Abe’s foresight.
His keenness to make India a hefty maritime power eventuated in his offering India the US-2 multi-role flying boat — inarguably the finest such fighting machine in the business, complete with its manufacturing technology and processes that included the shifting of the entire Shinmaywa design and production capacity and plant to India, to set this country up as the sole producer of this aircraft in the world. In a pinch, Abe would have gladly arranged the funds to subsidize this entire deal. But then the Indian Navy stepped in, rejecting the aircraft deal in a mindboggling show of such utter shortsightedness as to make the decision reckless, bringing into question that Service’s basic intent and institutional mindset. No explanation was available from the Defence Ministry other than that the deal exceeded the Navy’s requirement of 12 such aircraft!!
This when there’s no better weapons and transport platform anywhere with potential for immediate strategic impact in the Indian Ocean region, and good for all sorts of maritime ops ranging from island defence, anti-piracy action, dropping Indian Navy’s marine commando on a dime in the vast oceanic expanses for any purpose, shutting down contraband trade by interdicting smuggler vessels/dhows, to anti-ship strikes besides the more mundane roles ferrying crews to oil rigs, search & rescue missions, etc.. As the sole manufacturer of this plane, moreover, the prospect was for all countries with seaward exposure lining up to buy ithe US-2.
The point to make is the Modi government could have reversed the Navy/MOD’s idiotic — there’s no other word for it — decision and plonked for the Shinmaywa transaction as a readymade building block of an indigenous arms industry that the Prime Miister has been talking about from his earliest days as PM. But there was no one, not a single person anywhere in the extended Indian government’s security apparatus and in the military or even the Coast Guard, with a small fraction of the strategic sense of Shinzo Abe to see the merit in this deal and to seal it! (Instead, the billions of dollars in Japanese funds are being invested in Modi’s vanity project — the Shinkansen high speed Mumbai-Ahmedabad rail link, which after all these years of construction is stuck, unable to acquire some piece of land.)
Indeed, the rejection by the Indian Navy of the US-2 available on the most favourable terms imaginable ranks with the Indian Air Force’s even more incomprehensibly foolish rejection (first detailed in my 2002 book — Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security) of the Tu-22 Backfire strategic bomber that was offered by the Soviet Union as far back as August 1971 to top off, as it were, the Treaty of Cooperation and Friendship signed at the time that made the unhindered prosecution of the Bangladesdh War possible, notwithstanding the US attempt at military coercion (USS Enterprise aircraft carrier Task Group in the Bay of Bengal). If the legendary Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Navy, and Defence Minister, Sergei Gorshkov, was the man who failed in his efforts to gift the Tu-22 longrange strategic bomber to the Indian Air Force — think how this would have beefed up the Indian nuclear deterrent vis a vis China, it was Shinzo Abe’s proffered gift of the US-2 the Indian Navy turned down earlier in the new millennium. Talk of spurning gift horses!
And this is the Indian military that aspires to be strategic, and wants to be taken seriously as a strategic force? And this is the Modi government that hopes to carry strategic weight in international councils, make India a power of strategic consequence? Really?
Little wonder then that the Indian government under Modi, as under previous prime ministers, remains as stubbornly unstrategic as the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force, and has simply not risen to the scheme that Shinzo Abe articulated and, other than bilateral and multilateral naval exercises (Malabar) and endless jaw-jawing at ministerial and foreign ministry official levels, has done nothing of note in operationalizing the Quad or, over the years, realizing a hard Indian and collective Asian response to China’s interminable provocations and acts of belligerance. This trend is something Abe no doubt regretted to his last day.
What to speak of military countermoves, the Modi government refuses to curtail Chinese exports to India touching Rs 7.02 trillion in 2021-2022 — a 45% increase over the previous year! And Chinese firms operating in India are repatriating profits totaling billions of dollars without much let or hindrance. So, the situation is Beijing, military-wise, slapping India silly but below an all-out conflict threshold, and is rewarded with letting its companies make outlandish profits! How could things be any better for Xi? Why would China want to change the situation even a bit?
Let me illustrate the problem. The Modi government has got up the gumption, finally, to at least do innocuous things that Manmohan Singh regime didn’t do because Beijing frowned upon them. So recently HH the Dalai Lama was felicitated on his 87th birthday by Modi, and his trip to Ladakh is being facilitated by the government. This is fine. But Beijing studiously takes no notice of Indian concerns about Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism and is bent on easing that country out of the Financial Action Task Force’s Grey List, and will likely succeed the next time FATF meets in Paris. It continually burnishes Pakistan’s military capabilities with top-end advanced radar and avionics suites for its PAF’s JF-17 fleet, and augments the Pakistan Navy with Type 054 frigates (Taimur and Tughril) with sophisticated sensors and anti-ship and anti-submarine weapons. It is also hellbent on somehow completing the CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) to take a stranglehold on the Baloch coastline radiating east and west from the Gwadar port. Further, despite the Pakistan army’s reluctance, one hears Beijng has succeeded in armtwisting Islamabad into stationing a Chinese security force in Pakistan to protect Chinese engineers and expat CPEC labour force. This force can become a nucleus of an expeditionary Chinese formation inside Pakistan that India may have to contend with, and is a troubling development. And in eastern Ladakh, it launches taunting aircraft sorties that have repeatedly flown over Indian posts and deep into the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control. This is the context in which Beijing publicly berates Delhi for bilateral relations taking a dive.
The Modi regime. meanwhile, rather than instructing the Indian forward air defence units to shoot down any intruding aircraft as warning to China and to show India’s willingness to escalate, swallows these insults, and is content with the army and IAF’s inaction. On the diplomatic front the Modi dispensation is just as passive. It hasn’t reacted by, say, the PM inviting the Taiwan ambassador (passing off as trade representative) for tea at 7, Race Course Road, and the external affairs minister S. Jaishankar or even the NSA Ajit Doval initiating a chinwag in Taipei as an incentive for Xi Jinping to order the PLA to vacate the 1,000 sq kms of Indian territory it has occupied on the Galwan and in areas northeast of the Y-Junction on the Depsang Plain. So India’s image in the Chinese mind as an easily intimidated dormouse around a snorting and stomping dragon, is cemented, motivating still more outre Chinese behaviour.
The irony is the strategic space in southern Asia is daily becoming less receptive to Chinese interests — a situation Delhi should speedily exploit. Consider Sri Lanka – not too long ago a leading Chinese outpost. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s fleeing from his official residence in Colombo in the face of protesters breaking through the security cordon means an end to the Rajapaksa family government that over the last decade reduced Sri Lanka to penury, not little owing to the debt racked up with China to fund rank unprofitable projects in the Rajapaksa home ground around Humbantota, including modernizing the port that sees little traffic. Wisely, the Modi government has been generous in routing energy supplies to that country and opening multi-billion dollar lines of credit to enable essential purchases of foodgrains, etc. But Jaishankar & Co. in MEA have to ensure that whatever the agreement signed with the new Colombo government, it should ruthlessly require the ditching of accords with China that permit Chinese naval and other forces to access Sri Lankan bases or to stage out of them, and to begin zeroing out the Chinese economic presence from that country. The question is will Delhi move rapidly and with great resolve to help Sri Lanka become independent of China for good to India’s strategic benefit?
The despiriting reality, however, is that while India has been presented with ample opportunities to strategically discomfit China, Modi has not availed of them because, for some unfathomable reason, whenever Beijing hoves into view the Indian government seems to get cold feet. The sturm and drang that Modi so effortlessly summons to beat up Pakistan, rhetorically and otherwise, turns to jelly when confrontng China.
In the event, is it even fair to expect that Modi will suddenly shake off his apprehensions and the deep down unwarranted fear of China to tackle Beijing boldly, for a change donning Shinzo Abe’s mantle, and taking up where his good friend left off, as leader getting up an Asian coalition to pin China down?
Amongst a host of idiotic policies the Indian government followed until at least the turn of the Century was to shun arms exports. High-minded reasons were trotted out — India, a moral and responsible state, couldn’t possibly be in the dirty business of selling arms, etc. Never mind that we were onpassing small arms, ammo, 105mm field guns, and so on — but on a small scale — to friendly states and countries in the neighbourhood.
There were more practical reasons, however, that KC Pant, defence minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet in the mid- to late-1980s, alluded to. He once told me of the issue he was then wrestling with relating to, yes, “commissions”, bribes, call it what you will, that needed to be liberally handed out to all manner of people up and down the procurement systems in potential customer countries who had shown interest in this or that piece of Indian-produced military hardware. It is a mirror image, incidentally, of the tandem system of defence sales-bribes worked by foreign arms suppliers pushing multi-billion dollar arms deals to the Indian military. Names like Bofors, HDW, AugustaWestland have passed into lore, symbolizing the extraordinary levels of corruption that are endemic to big arms contracts. The evidence of corruption has upended governments (Rajiv Gandhi’s), implicated armed services’ chiefs of staff (Air Chief Marshal ‘Bundle’ Tyagi) and otherwise made the public aware of the seedier aspects of arms transactions, including, allegedly, the government-to-government deals such as the one that fetched the Indian Air Force the French Rafale combat aircraft.
So the question is, if bribing is de riguer and almost a standard operating procedure in the arms business, how’s the Indian government formally to account for the taxpayer’s money thus spent even if in a good, national, cause of making friends and influencing countries by selling them arms and, by the by, generating revenues and giving a fillip to the indigenous arms industry? Such was the dilemma Pant struggled with. He also wondered about nut & bolt issues involved, such as whether a separate sales agency needed to be set up in the Defence Ministry, but worried that civilian officials and military officers manning it would, on the one hand, be hamhanded in the delicate business of bribe giving and taking that could blow up in the Indian government’s face and, on the other hand, whether these Indian arms sales personnel would have enough integrity not to pocket some of the hard currency commission-funds that would have to be set aside for this nefarious purpose! In other words, some kind of ‘black budget’ outside parliamentary and other scrutiny of the kind, say, RAW, the external intelligence agency, operates.
Thank God, the Indian government (in the Modi years) has matured in its thinking, entered the real world, and authorized the defence manufacturing units to sell their wares, however they are able to do so, with the necessary diplomatic/military and other assist from Delhi easing the way to the extent possible. Defence Attaches in Indian embassies, expressly tasked to “sell” Indian-made military goods, do the early spadework, and the Indian defence public sector units follow up, what with the government urging a ramping up of exports to amortize the enormous public investment in the DPSUs.
The DPSU Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) knew, once the Tejas light combat aircraft had reached prototype stage, that it had a winner on its hands. The showcasing of this 4.5 generation Indian designed and developed delta wing supersonic fighter aircraft in air shows starting with the one in Bahrain in 2016, in Dubai in end 2021 and, most recently, in Singapore in February this year, was followed a month later by five LCAs from the Sulur squadron deployed to an international air war exercise (Cobra Warrior 22) conducted by the RAF in Britain involving many advanced air forces. All this has has padded Tejas’ reputation as a fast, agile, and highly maneuverable and modern combat aircraft. Moreover, with a competitive price advantage it has obvious attractions for countries with limited means or limited needs. After Bahrain, over a dozen regional air forces showed interest. Air force chiefs from several of these interested countries, including from Central Asia, have flown the LCA and are admirers of the plane’s handling characteristics.
For starters, Malaysia, after a fly-off, has indented for 18 Tejas (with 18 more as possible future buy). It beat the far costlier Russian MiG-35 and the South Korean FA-50, the manifestly less capable Chinese L-15 & JF-17, the Turkish Hurjet still only a prototype, and the Italian Leonardo M-346 trainer jerryrigged to pass off as a fighter/attack LCA M-346FA but minus an AESA (active electronically scanned array) radar, which’s standard equipment on Tejas. (The Leonardo LCA features a mechanical scanning radar.) Should the deal for Tejas be sealed, it will highlight an ongoing policy of military cooperation. In 2017, a complicated deal was hammered out involving the transfer to IAF by Malaysia of all 12 MiG-29Ns in its employ in exchange for Indian HAL spares and assistance to upkeep its Su-30s fleet — an arrangement that apparently built up trust between the two air forces.
Impressed as much by its quality as by its relatively economical cost, Egypt has a more ambitious Tejas programme on its mind. The Egyptian Air Force wants to produce this aircraft in their own country to meet a much larger requirement of 70-odd aircraft. HAL’s sweetener is a package deal involving Tejas LCA technology transfer and a parallel assembly line for the Dhruv utility helicopter. It was too good a deal for Cairo to refuse. In any case, the successful culmination of the Egyptian Tejas programme will be an ironic counterpoint to the joint project with Egypt mooted by Jawaharlal Nehru to produce a “nonaligned” combat aircraft. India was tasked to produce the airframe which it did — the HF-24 Marut; Egypt failed to develop an appropriately powered jet engine, leaving the IAF to manage with a flying-wise fine fighter plane but with an underpowered, make-do, Orpheus jet power plant taken from the Gnat.
Argentina is in the market for 12 LCAs and has sequestered some $700 million for the deal. The only other planes in the race are the Russian MiG-29 and MiG-35 and the Chinese JF-17, which no one wants. The niggle here is Britain — its 1982 Falklands War animus still simmering — has vetoed the sale of Tejas because it has British components, in the main, the Martin-Baker zero-zero ejection seat system and the Cobham radome of composite materials for low observability. But HAL has conveyed assurances that it has designed and is well on its ways to testing and producing an indigenous zero-zero ejection seat system as also a quartz radome. Further, the Argentinian insistence on tech-transfer in any case is easily met.
The trio of Malaysian, Egyptian, and Argentinian Tejas deals located on three different continents should hopefully spark an interest in this aircraft in the rest of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
The fly in the ointment, however, is this: Does HAL have a large, ready to go and comprehensive after-sales service setup? This is a void HAL better fill up fast as priority because the LCA sales will amount to a frustrating nought if the Malaysian, Egyptian and Argentinian Tejas end up being grounded or fail in flight because of local perceptions of bad spares support and servicing flaws/failures by the supplier firm as happened with the HAL supplied Dhruv helicopters to Ecuador. That pioneering venture to prise open a new market soured because of Ecuadorian dissatisfaction with the spares and after-sales service, which were blamed for the crash of 4 of the 7 Dhruv helicopters delivered between 2007 and 2009. Quito scrapped that contract.
Agnipath – the scheme for a four-year ‘tour of duty’ as the mainstay of recruitment into the military services announced by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh the other day, alas, has more negatives attending on it than clear-cut benefits.
Shedding Colonial Structures
The pros first: It is a seminal attempt at reconfiguring the imperial-era structured mercenary army that had won for the British their globe-girdling empire. In its post-1947 avatar, the Indian Army continued with its colonial institutions and affectations, such as the officers’ mess and cantonment culture, that has long irked Prime Minister Narendra Modi and is, perhaps, the prompt for this underway policy to ‘Indianise’ the military.
National armed forces comprising sometime soldiers, Agniveers, may constitute—in one sense—a genuinely citizen military. But whether it will obtain an effective modern army, navy, and air force is an issue deserving attention.
It will be intriguing, in any case, to see how the army chief, General Manoj Pande, a veteran sapper, proposes to re-engineer the infantry-heavy army dominated by proud, single class, regiments (Gurkha, Sikh, Jat, Madras, Maratha, etc.) deliberately designed during the British Raj on the politically astute but divisive myth of the ‘martial races’ into an army of Agniveers.
Three Vastly Different Services
Rajnath Singh was joined at the podium by the three services’ Chiefs of Staff. But let’s be clear that it is the infantry-heavy army – the least technical among them, that will mainly take in the short service recruits because the navy and air force simply cannot be expected to do so. Their relatively small manpower requirements coupled with technology-based wherewithal and war fighting concepts deter them from following Agnipath.
Ironically, it is precisely the technical expertise imparted to entrance-level sailors and airmen in esoteric technologies to enable them in peacetime and war, to operate systems of all kinds (sonar, avionics, radar, communications, etc.), to run and maintain warships and aircraft, to upkeep powerplants and weapons and secondary systems onboard varied platforms, and otherwise to keep the Indian Navy and the Air Force in play, that makes them more readily employable in the civilian world should any of them seek an early exit from military careers or a second career post-retirement.
In other words, many of the positives Rajnath Singh claimed for the Agnipath programme, such as producing technically competent, high-tech workers that industry would gladly offtake and who will end up increasing labour productivity, and spurring industrial and GDP growth, etc., are an exaggeration. Because it is certain that the 25% of the Agniveer cohort who show any talent for technology will be retained by the army to run its high-tech equipment.
The reason for this is because of the differing nature of warfare the three armed services prepare for. While air and naval warfighting are, as mentioned, machine-intensive, land wars are manpower weighted. An army needs unending hordes of preferably youthful ‘boots on the ground’ to fight for and hold mountainous territory against a hostile China.
Moreover, training a person with a high school or higher education to handle an assault rifle and to master basic infantry tactics is manifestly easier, takes less time, and costs far, far less than getting a newly minted sailor to become an expert, say, in sonar operations or to turn an airman into a proficient combat aircraft jet engine mechanic
What After The Four Years?
The average Agniveer may join with the idea of achieving some technical competence at the end of four years of service, but will soon discover he is only another passed-over infantry grunt with no marketable skills to sell, other than—as is the case now—as a hire for the proliferating private agencies in the business of providing ‘security’ to buildings and compounds.
In the event, how much of an incentive is the Rs 12-14 lakh bounty promised the Agniveer at the end of his brief army tenure? Of course, Rs 12-14 lakh is not a sum to be sneezed at. For the masses of otherwise inadequately-educated and unemployable youth, this money is magnet enough. But as roughly 30,000 of each year’s Agniveer cohort—the current level of army retirees—is disgorged into the society two things might happen, neither of them good.
Discontent will spread fast among them once they realise their job prospects are as bleak as ever. The frustrated among them, now trained to use small arms and chemical explosives, may choose to use these newly acquired skills for criminal, even insurrectionary, purposes and emerge as a major law and order-qua-internal security problem for the country.
Or, and this is more likely, political pressure will begin brewing – grassroots up, almost from the programme initiation stage, especially in the population-dense, voter-rich, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where the Agnipath intake can expect to be the largest – to convert the four-year contracted tenure of the Agniveers to 15-year military service with pension.
This is the usual end-state of all supposedly ‘temporary’ government workers ranging from clerks, school teachers, safai karamcharis to anganwadi helpers.
Compounding The Problem You Set Out To Solve
Is there a politician alive who will be able to resist such pressure, in an election year (which is nearly every year)? And, lo and behold, the army will become still more bloated, and the defence pensions budget more distended. The harbinger of things to come is the violent anti-Agnipath protest in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The youth demographic seems to be saying that patriotism and military service are good but they prefer pensionable jobs anywhere they can get them.
The Agnipath scheme designed to solve the problems of an aging army and ballooning defence pensions could end up, at best, only compounding them.
More immediately, assuming General Pande needs six months to firm up the new recruitment process, the Agniveer army could begin forming up only by next year or even by 2024 when the next Lok Sabha elections are due. Who is to say Agnipath won’t win Modi yet another term in office with a bigger majority, even if it means succeeding governments and the Indian taxpayers are left holding the can?
An attribute of a poor over-populated Third World India, where a majority of the people still eke out a marginal existence is that no job, however dangerous, goes unfilled. It matters little if that vacancy is in the public or private sector, or how menial and risky it is. For those living hand to mouth — some 70% of the population of 1.3 billion, any job is better than not having one.
The most sought-after jobs for the masses of the barely literate unemployables, including cleaning sewers, sweeping city lanes, laying railway tracks or dumping hot bitumen to make roads in the heat of the noonday sun, are where the government (central, state, municipal) is employer. Because they promise a steady income and pensionable retirement.
Then there are the railways and the defence services — the two biggest central government employers.
The railways have 1.26 million persons on the payroll. The railway retirees totaling some 1.55 million people exceed the 1.25 million in active service, and the pension costs amount to some Rs 53,000 crores — fully 25% of the revenue of the railways (in 2021), with monthly pension averaging Rs 9,000.
55,000 personnel retire annually from the 1.4 million strong armed services, with defence civilians being in larger proportion. (The defence civilian was discussed in the previous post.) It has resulted in a perpetually growing defence pensioner community that has now ballooned to 2.6 million retirees. The average annual defence civilian pension is roughly Rs. 5.38 lakhs versus Rs. 1.38 lakhs for military pensioners, reflecting longer career spans for the former.
The trouble is public and political pressure is the greatest on the railways and, especially, the armed services, to if not increase their manpower requirements than NOT to reduce them, nor in any way to restrict youth offtake from the traditional recruiting areas of Punjab, Haryana, et al. It is one of the reasons for India remaining stuck with a populous, industrial age, army that seems incapable of transforming itself into a force capable of cyber age warfare of the near future featuring Artificial Intelligence (AI), drone swarms, and autonomous weapons systems. This is so as much for want of political will as of financial and technological resources. The choice therefore is between investing in growingly expensive manpower, or in new fangled technology and exhorbitantly-priced in-date armaments.
Now collate the fact of a resource-constrained army with the nature of the youth demographic in the country. The “youth bulge” of a few years ago is flattening out. Young men and women below 25 years of age comprise half of India’s population. But of this 50%, the cohort in the 19-23 years age group — the feedstock for the army, actually peaked at 127 million last year (2021). Decreasing fertility rates owing to increases in education levels of women and their entry into the workforce is why. That is good news.
But this development in no way lessens the impact of the factors exacerbating the unemployment problem. The most devastating of these is the sub-standard education system mass-producing, for all practical purposes, illiterates. Instead of citing bone dry statistics, let me reproduce here an illustrative example of the tragedy being played out all too often in this country of too few even lowest category government jobs being chased by far too many supposedly well-degreed youth, featured in a monograph on India’s “demographic burden” by a French political scientist, Christophe Jaffrelot. “When the Indian Railways announced that it would create 63,000 jobs – all situated in the lowest level of its employment ladder”, he writes, “20 million candidates applied, including 419,137 BTech degrees holders and 40,751 people with master degrees in engineering.” That is 318 applicants for each of the 63,000 “trolleyman” or track labourer jobs on offer! He doesn’t mention the riots that occur, albeit irregularly, at railway and army recruitment centres and rallies.
What this says about the “BTech” and “Masters” degrees liberally dispensed like so much confetti is best left unsaid. But the effect on those 19 million odd youth in the above railways case who failed to get even the meanest job they applied for, must be devastating. It highlights what I have in the past written about — the urgent need for the government to stress vocational training obtaining persons with skill-sets ranging from the quotidian (plumbing, electrician work) to really high-value (high-pressure welding, care and maintenance of robotic machines, etc.) with strict professional certification standards geared to industry needs. Instead, thanks to government policies a fairly unregulated educational sphere thrives with literally hundreds of thousands of colleges in just as many rinky-dink universities yearly pushing out into the labour market unimaginable numbers of unemployable youth with degrees in all sorts of disciplines that count for less than nothing. The analog here of students at the lower secondary level (according to newsreports regarding Delhi government schools which, incidentally, are among the better-run school systems in India!!) — Class 5 students unable to read Class 2 texts, or to do a simple division.
In any case, it is the 19-23 year old youth cohort at the centre of the latest army recruitment policy innovation that’s apparently being considered by the government. In order ostensibly to curb the defence payroll and pensions spend, it proposes a binding contract for all army recruits of four years service, with only a quarter of every cohort being retained after the initial 4-year tenure for longer service with the proviso that the time pulled upto that date of service extension is not counted for purposes of remuneration, seniority, promotion, retirement benefits, etc.
This is, for obvious reasons, a singularly silly scheme and has the fingerprints all over it of the Niti Ayog caboodle run by that glib, voluble, jargon-spouting super-annuated civil servant — Amitabh Kanth, heading it. It is unlikely any uniformed brass took it seriously. In any case, it was leaked to the press to ascertain the public reaction — the usual kite-flying exercise the government occasionaly indulges in. It has elicited a lot of heated responses.
Particularly noticeable was the reaction of a retired armoured corps officer, Major General Bishambar Dayal, in a May 29 Hindi TV news programme debate on the subject. He was so agitated, it is a wonder he wasn’t marched off from the TV studio to the police station charged with violating the infamous sedition law — Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code.
Dayal first hinted reasonably that army HQ had no part in cobbling this 4-year “tour of duty” service concept. He then ranted — going seriously akilter as he went along — that the Indian army has never relied for success on technology as much as it did on highly motivated jawans. And how this idea of short term trooper level service system being proposed would blow up the traditional “naam, namak, nishan” basis of unit proficiency. He topped it by well, inciting — there’s no other word for it — the youth to come out on the streets to compel the government and the army to back down. When questioned he sheepishly acknowledged, however, that the prevailing policy of 15-year colour service with lifelong pension to follow of a manpower-intensive fighting force may not, after all, be sustainable. (Refer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OnsqzvCkezA )!
The most alarming aspect, even more than his call to arms, as it were, to Indian youth, all rendered in thunderous fashion, was his view that the army had to retain its basic nature as primarily an employment generator and social escalator particularly for rural youth — because, he raved, the jawan is the “brahmastra”, not weapons or technology, and that, by implication, that any army plan to transition to a more compact, technologically in-date, fighting force, is to go down the wrong track! His opinions, perhaps shared by many other officers and Other Ranks, reveal the inertia the army appears to be cocooned in.
But in one respect Dayal is right. Right-sizing the army cannot be effected on the basis of a slapdash proposal sans thought such as this one, put together by God knows who, but needs to be done on the basis of a detailed study by the CDS secretariat to see the extent to which the current strength of the army and of specific combat arms and technical and other cadres can be pruned partially or fully to accommodate automated weapons systems driven by AI in the order-of-battle. Decisions will also have to be made about such parts of the military’s functioning that can be out-sourced based on their econo-military effect and consequences, and accordingly to alight on a force restructuring plan and programme.
Then again, if economizing on the forces and curbing expenditure on payroll and pensions is the immediate and urgent goal, why not revert to the original 5/7 year colour service the army had followed up to the 1970s before the lifetime employment notion was implemented, hurting the army’s agility, stamina and edge on the battlefield?
Indeed, in the classified report on defence expenditure as Adviser, defence expenditure I had prepared for the 10th Finance Commission chaired by the former defence minister, the late KC Pant, I had flagged the issue of pension costs soon outpacing the combined military modernization costs on capital account and the running/maintenance costs on revenue account. I had outlined a schemata for streamlining manpower management and flow from the army to the paramilitary forces and state police armed constabulariries. The Narasimha Rao government in 1995 had accepted that report in toto,
It was really a simple arrangement that was articulated. An average jawan after 7-year colour service would join the reserve but concurrently, after a short reorientation training for civilian law & order duties, join the paramilitary organization with vacancies for service until retirement. Because the demobilized and already skilled jawans would need no weapons, tactical, or technical training (signals, maintenance, logistics, etc), it would save the national exchequer huge sums of money currently spent on training and on related establishments of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, Border Security Force, Central Reseve Police Force, Industrial Security Force, et al all controlled by the Home Ministry. It would result, I contended, in these paramils becoming more effective in the field and displaying unit coherence and discipline — an inherent carryover from army service, that is not as readily evident in these paramilitary organizations. The financial benefit would be that the pension payout on military account would be deferred, leading to considerable cuts in defence pension allocations.This plan, suitably amended, deters pension-seeking by men in their late twenties, and needs only to be dusted off, fleshed out, and brought up-todate.
The core idea in it is to establish the army as the sole source of trained and skilled armed manpower for not just the central paramils but all state armed police units, including the police Special Forces (such as the Andhra Pradesh state police’s Greyhound force) active in counter-insurgency role. There is an in-built integrity to this scheme of armed manpower management that’s missing in current atomised arrangements that end up being a drain on financial resources and a waste of skilled military manpower — neither of which India can afford.
The positives of this model notwithstanding, it has no chance realistically of being adopted by the governments at the centre and in the states all of whom zealosuly guard their separate recruiting turfs because it is in the paramilitary and state police recruitment that politicians can exercise their power of patronage, besides having armed forces they can command and control.
So, the present way of doing things will be persisted with. Myriad paramils each with its own “culture” and “ethos” and, ironically, a desperate desire to be like the army in all respects — arms training, uniforms, insignia of rank, procedures and protocols end up being what they are — bad copies of the original. Moreover, because the paramils are run by Indian Police Service officers, these domestic law and order forces responsible for internal security end up with the characteristic ills of the Indian police, including corruption, lax operating style, and a “dheela-dhala” attitude.
Under the Narendra Modi-led government, we have seen a refreshingly bold departure from the past when governments seemed unwilling to deal with two defence-related problems: the pension issue, and the more debilitating matter of reliance on foreign arms
May 26 marks eight years since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister of India, and since 2014 a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has been in power at the Centre. Where defence and national security are concerned, the people of India have been told that this government is sufficiently alert and effective in protecting national interests and territory.
The government has proved particularly adept in wrapping itself around the flag and associating with the military. Unwittingly though while resolving some longstanding issues, other equally baffling problems have been created.
The government has delivered, for instance, on its ‘One Rank, One Pension’ promise — a nettlesome issue previous governments kicked down the road for want of financial resources. In the 2022 defence budget of Rs 5.25 lakh-crore, the Rs 1.19 lakh-crore pensions bill combined with the outgo on payroll expenses exceeds the spend on force modernisation and maintenance costs. Should this trend continue, India will soon be able to afford either an adequately sized force, or the weapons to equip it supported by minimal stocks of spares and ammo — not both.
It may be recalled that based on the projected economic growth rate, and assumption of annualised 10 percent increase the defence budget was expected to reach the 3 percent GDP level recommended by the 11th Finance Commission by 2004. In reality, the defence budget has stagnated at the 2-plus percent of GDP level, and budgetary increases have barely kept pace with inflation. The result: No buck, no bang! Still the armed services have managed somehow to contend with live, disputed, borders with China and Pakistan. How well? Don’t ask.
There is a simple two-pronged solution that has not so far occurred to the Government of India. First, to match the military manpower cuts, the strength of 400,000 ‘defence civilians’ employed by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) should be slashed by half. India needs DRDO scientists, engineers, and the like, but can do without the horde of peons, clerks, stenographers, and section officers clogging up the MOD and other government offices everywhere. Official business conducted through a safeguarded computer network will eliminate the hopeless files-system and the endless numbers of babus associated with it, and coffee/tea machines can replace peons, and improve the MOD’s dismal operating efficiency.
Second, the defence civilian pensions should be shifted to the Government of India administration pensions account, thereby, at a stroke, freeing up roughly 80 percent of the defence pensions bill monopolised by retired defence civilians. It is monies the armed services can utilise to sharpen their war-fighting capability.
Through these two steps the Prime Minister can be credited for, (1) modernising the Indian military, making it razor-sharp, without raising the defence allocation, (2) digitising and de-bureaucratising the MOD (as a test bed for upgrading the government’s conduct of business), and; (3) removing the demeaning caste-like hierarchy featuring low-grade workers.
The other major change in the defence sphere is the drive to make India self-reliant in armaments. Again, Modi had the right idea with his aatmnirbharta policy. Except, in the years since he mooted it, there has been more confusion and drift than genuine progress; a situation not improved by a series of updated defence procurement procedure documents issued by the MOD that regularly trip up Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and ministry officials as much as they do the military brass and public and private sector defence industrial companies.
No one is quite sure what aatmnirbharta means. Do foreign companies producing dated military products (F-16 fighter plane, say) fit the guidelines? But doesn’t that undercut the objective? To compound the confusion, Singh in the past year has released lists of military goods the armed services can no longer import, including major weapons systems such as helicopters, artillery guns, warships, and submarines. It is supposed to encourage in-country research, design, development and production of advanced weaponry, and support systems, save the country tens of billions of dollars in hard currency, seed a vibrant defence industrial ecosystem to meet the armed services’ equipment needs, to generate export revenues, and have a multiplier effect on the rest of the economy.
Singh’s negative lists, prima facie, suggest the government wants results fast, to obtain which it is prepared to throw all concerned parties into deep water, and hope they learn to swim. This, incidentally, is the correct approach to shock the armed services, the MOD, and defence public sector units, habituated to weapons systems screw-drivered from imported completely knocked down (CKD) and semi-knocked down (SKD) kits, out of their licensed manufacture comfort zone.
Denied the import option, the military will have to take ownership of indigenous weapons projects and, crucially, prepare to fight with Indian-designed armaments that may not initially meet the foreign weapons standard. It is an unavoidable stage in making aatmnirbharta work.
The Modi years to-date have seen a refreshingly bold departure from the past when the government seemed unwilling to deal with the two main tasks at hand, namely, the pensions issue that had the entire military community up in arms, and the more debilitating matter of reliance on foreign arms.
The solution for the first problem was enabled by the government’s readiness to sequester the necessary funds and take a financial hit, and for the second, was the decision to kickstart the Indian defence industrial economy by closing off the imports channel, and incentivising the public sector and private sector companies with promise of full order books. India may finally be on the way, hiccups apart, to consolidating its military power.
[Modi and the new Australian PM, Anthony Albanese]
One of the reasons the outgoing Conservative party prime minister Scott Morrison quickly conceded the elections was to give Canberra the time to prep the incoming Labour party PM, Anthony Albanese, for the Tokyo summit of the Quadrilateral heads of government, May 23-25. But, however, successful the Australian Foreign Office is in bringing Albanese upto speed, it is unlikely he will have crystalized his party’s views on anything as to begin negotiating substantively with his Quad counterparts, even less to commiting Australia to new initiatives. Especially because, it is still not certain that the ruling Labour Party will have a majority and have its own government, or whether Albanese will have to make-do with a coalition government with smaller parties and independents, which will necessitate policy compromises.
In the event, much of the summit will be spent with the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, US President Joe Biden, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who technically is the most experienced of this lot of leaders in both foreign and military policy fields, getting to know the new Australian leader. Kishida was foreign minister from 2012 to 2016 in Shinzo Abe’s government and in 2017 pulled time as Japan’s defence minister.
But niceties apart, there are certain things about Albanese that will help him resonate with Modi. In his acceptance speech, he reminded the audience about his humble background — he grew up with his mother who is a “welfare pensioner” — something that’s bound to stir Modi’s empathy and fellow-feeling. Moreover, his promise to make his country “a renewable energy superpower” — meaning hydrogen, solar and wind power, parallels Modi’s own agenda of making India a leading “hydrogen power” by 2050. This could be the context for substantive collaboration in developing renewable energy technologies and, foreign policy-wise, will be the low-hanging fruit Modi and Albanese can pluck.
However, on issues relating to the Quad’s raison d’etre — containing China by all means, particularly military, there may be chasm between Australia and the other Quad members. With Morrison’s single-minded security-oriented approach missing from the Tokyo pow-wows, a wishy-washy attitude may prevail vis a vis collaring China. The work will thus be cut out for Biden to persuade Albanese to, at least, continue with Morrison’s policy of permitting the northern Australian coast to be built up as an extended staging area for American and other Quad air, naval, and land forces. In fact, to thwart the Chinese PLA, navy and air force from acting up in the South China Sea and, precipitously, against Taiwan, the US Army already has over a thousand troops stationed in Darwin. This port is also being configured to host US navy’s nuclear-powered attack and cruise and ballistic missile-firing submarines. How Albanese will dovetail these aspects with his government’s economic imperative to ease relations with China,is a matter of conjecture.
But given that the Australian economy has slowed down considerably — the main reason for Morrison and his party losing the elctions — and is in need of a quick “pick me up”, reopening the Australian market to Chinese goods is a fix Albanese will opt for. Chinese exports in the last 20 years registered a double digit annualised growth rate, in 2020 touching some $58 billion. In turn, Albanese will hope Beijing opens the tap for Chinese investments in the extractive and other industries and otherwise kick-start the Australian economy. Aware of the wind blowing its way, Beijing has already begun to incentivize this trend by increasing Australian revenues from importing, in the main, Australian grain, gas, iron ore, and coal. The intent, no doubt, being to weaken the security cooperation aspects of the Quad that the Xi Jinping regime has publicly voiced its displeaure against. Indeed, it is the fear of provokng China that thas resulted in both Delhi and Tokyo tippy-toeing around the military objectives of the Quad.
[Prime Minister Fumio Kishida]
And it is precisely this fear of China that has been the biggest stumbling block in ratcheting up the India-Japan strategic partnership. In Japan’s case, because it now also has a potentially rogue Russia run by Vladimir Putin, in a raggedy war in Ukraine in which the Russian army, for whatever reasons, has still not conducted an all-fronts smash-up campaign, potentially lashing out, as Tokyo suspects and, suicidally, opening another front on the Kurile Islands. This in any case is a contingency Tokyo is becoming alive to.
In India’s case, it is because of the Indian government’s and the Indian military’s seeming inability to think and act strategically — now part of their DNA. The chance for a really China-constrictor set-up was provided by Abe — the first Asian leader in recent times with a truly strategic bent of mind. In 2007, in his second year in his first short tenure of 2 years as prime minister he proposed the “security diamond”. He did so not in the US or in any European forum or even from a prestigious platform in his native Tokyo, but in his address to the Indian Parliament. It indicated the centrality he accorded India. Elected back to power in 2012 for a longer run as prime minister, a post he voluntarily vacated in 2020, Abe worked on that “security diamond”, fashioning it with Washington into the more practicable (and less abstract) Quadrilateral.
Tragically, that Quadrilateral, has been running in place and going nowhere since, in part because it lacks a military mission and motor which, in turn, can be attributed to Modi picking the wrong project to prioritise from among the items offered India by Abe during his January 2014 state visit — four months before Modi swept into power. In the following years, as flagship of the strategic partnership, Modi chose to install the Shinkansen highspeed railway connecting Mumbai to Ahmedabad with Japanese credit worth $15 billion rather than use that money to set up a plant to produce the Shinmaywa short takeoff US-2 multirole maritime aircraft and its spares to meet the Indian Navy’s needs as well as the global demand!
Unanimously rated the best such aircraft in the world, the US-2 is adept variously in surveillance and reconnaissance, in the antiship attack role, in landing on a coin anywhere, including near oil rigs carrying provisions, repair material or rotational crews, or next to smuggler dhows or motorised craft carrying terrorists for seaborne attack (as on Mumbai 26/11 in 2008) or Somali pirates operating off Aden, allowing the on-board marine commando (MARCOS) in the latter instances to take care of business, or even to airlift Special Forces for expeditionary tasks on the Indo-Pacific littoral or in protection of friendly island-nations (Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles, Sri Lanka). It can do all this in really rough sea conditions, and is the pluperfect platform for patrolling and protecting 24/7 the country’s 572 widely dispersed island territories in the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman Sea and in the Arabian Sea.
So, what does the most strategic-minded among the Indian armed services — the Indian Navy, do? it rejects Japan’s US-2 project, saying its immediate requirement of just 12 US-2s did not justify such expenditure and that it’d stick with the antiquated Dornier 228s instead. The Navy has understated its US-2 requirement. Just as replacement for the Dorniers, the Navy alone will need 27 US-2s and the Indian Coast Guard another 17, for a total of 44 US-2s — a very respectable first order for the Indian-built flying boat. But no, 12 is the number the Navy stuck to, never mind the full technology transfer and manufacturing wherewithal and training that Japan promised, or the contract for supply of Indian-made spares for US-2s everywhere, and even grant-in Japanese aid to finance the whole deal! (The US-2 fiasco is detailed in my 2018 book — Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition, pp. 256-269.)
Hardly to be wondered then that Tokyo assessed India and its government to be not worth the strategic trouble, and reconciled itself to doing things “the India Way” — playing the short game for small gains. Hence, security cooperation is showcased by joint naval exercises and such. When a project with limited impact and then mostly in Modi’s Gujarat is preferred to one that’d have enabled India to secure a versatile flying boat, establish itself as the sole producer of the US-2 aircraft in the world, and to seed a genuine aerospace industry in the bargain, what’s left to say?
Still, if there’s any residual strategic wit remaining anywhere in the Indian government and the military one prays even at this late hour for that wit to manifest itself in a prompt to Prime Minister Modi to try and revive the Shinmaywa US-2 deal even if now India has to pay for it out of its own pocket.
A 2-part interview in Rediff News published on May 19 & May 20
‘The US will not want to tangle with China landwards.’ ‘Nor will the US confront the Chinese navy seawards on India’s account.’
IMAGE: External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh at a joint news conference with United States Secretary of State Antony J Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin III after the fourth India-US 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue at the US State Department in Washington, DC. Photograph: Michael A McCoy/Pool via Reuters
Dr Bharat Karnad, the national security expert at the Centre for Policy Research, the New Delhi-based think-tank, believes the time has come for the Narendra Damodardas Modi government to draw up a strategic non-aligned policy to suit India’s interests.
“India, its government, and Indians, generally, will have to get out of the debilitating habit of mind of expecting some big power to come to its aid and fight its wars,” Dr Karnad tells Rediff.com Senior Contributor Rashme Sehgal in the first of a two-part interview:
Home Minister Amit Shah said at a book launch in New Delhi on May 11 that Prime Minister Modi has transformed India’s foreign policy and made it subordinate to India’s defence and security interests.
This is true, especially in light of the Ukraine developments when the Modi government successfully resisted the relentless pressure the US and West European States, in particular, put on New Delhi to sever India’s arms and energy supply lines to Russia.
In the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, has India’s tight rope walking between looking after its interests vis a vis Russia without displeasing the US been a success? In the event of a Chinese attack in the future, will the US come to our rescue? What about Home Minister Shah’s statement made on May 5 where he spoke about India reclaiming Pakistan occupied Kashmir?
India, its government, and Indians, generally, will have to get out of the debilitating habit of mind of expecting some big power to come to its aid and fight its wars.
That has never happened in the past and will not in the future — no matter what is at stake.
The US will not, in particular, want to tangle with China landwards — a policy inhibition nursed from the Korean War (1950-1953) when the US-led Allied forces suffered grievous losses and were pushed by the PLA back down to the 39th Parallel where the lines stabilised on the present North Korea-South Korea border.
Nor will the US confront the Chinese navy seawards on India’s account.
Washington may, however, channel real time intelligence, etc and do things that do not in any way involve American ‘boots on the ground’.
The aggressive ‘recovery of Pakistan occupied Kashmir’ issue raised by the Modi regime seems to be more a provincial and national political ploy to keep Pakistan and the domestic Opposition on the defensive, primarily because militarily it is a difficult goal to achieve what with Chinese strategic interests being directly engaged with the Belt and Road Initiative-related ‘China-Pakistan economic corridor’.
There is an equally strong possibility that with Russia’s increasing dependence on the Chinese, the Russians will also not come to our help in case of a Chinese attack.
Russia will not come to India’s direct assistance either.
It, in any case, will have enough on its hands for the next few decades by way of reconstructing its own economy (sans revenues worth some 300 million euros a day from export of oil and gas to Germany and other European States) and that of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine it will annex.
As far as the Russia-China nexus goes, Moscow is no strategic fool.
It is mindful of not being a cog in China’s hegemonic designs and is as wary of potential territorial inroads by China in mineral rich eastern Siberia as India is about a Chinese imperium in Asia and the PLA occupying Indian land in Ladakh and elsewhere.
IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi hands over the indigenously developed Arjun Main Battle Tank (Mark 1A) tanks to the Indian Army in Chennai. Photograph: PTI Photo
A perception that has gained ground as a consequence of the Russia-Ukraine war is that Russian weaponry has not proved to be all that good and therefore demand for it will be reduced in the future. Do you see that happening in the case of India which remains heavily dependent on Russia for arms supplies?
All weapons systems end up performing less than as advertised in brochures and by arms salesmen.
That said, yes, the Ukrainian partisans have revealed a major design flaw, for instance, in the T-72 main battle tank — the wrong placement of the ammo storage compartment under the crew cupola, which tends to blow up with the first guided anti-tank munition hit midship.
It is a matter of grave concern to the Indian armoured forces featuring the T-72.
Maybe, this will finally convince the armoured brass in the directorate in army headquarters to take ownership of the indigenous Arjun MBT (which handily beat the Russian T-90 and T-72 tanks in test trials in all weather, all conditions, all terrains!), and to buy this Indian combat vehicle in bulk and invest fully in its further improvement.
On the other hand, the Su-30MKI air superiority fighter and the MiG-29 for air defence have no peers.
But even these renowned planes pale in many performance aspects to the home-grown Tejas 1A! If the Ukraine crisis proves anything it is for the Indian military to ‘Buy Indian’ so that Prime Minister Modi’s laudable atmanirbharta mantra does not remain mere rhetoric.
I ask this question in the context that in a recent article, you have very caustically mentioned how the 2008 India-US civilian nuclear cooperation agreement which was supposed to deliver ‘20,000 MW by 2020’ and the 2012 Defence Technology and Trade Initiative to transfer advanced military technologies and high-value tech collaboration have hardly delivered. The only important joint project to-date involving US assistance for developing a combat aircraft jet engine in India was called off by President Trump. Why does the US have reservations in providing advanced equipment and technology transfer to India given that we are a member of QUAD?
The fact is the US does not like to share its top-end technology with anyone, including its closest allies, because it perceives it as the US military’s edge in battle.
For example, the United Kingdom — America’s closest, most intimate, ally invested several billion dollars in the development of the multi-role Lockheed F-35 combat aircraft and expected a wholesale transfer of its technology. But once F-35 got into production stage, Washington refused to pass on source codes for the software driving the onboard avionics.
So, what chance, do you think, India has in securing really high military technology?
May 20, 2022 09:30 ISTGet Rediff News in your Inbox:email
‘For the first time, all major countries are discovering India’s indispensability to their own foreign policy interests.’
IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the federal chancellery in Berlin, May 2, 2022. Photograph: Press Information Bureau
Dr Bharat Karnad, the national security expert at the Centre for Policy Research, the New Delhi-based think-tank, believes the time has come for the Narendra Damodardas Modi government to draw up a strategic non-aligned policy to suit India’s interests.
“Despite being stonewalled by New Delhi on the Ukraine issue, the US, NATO States, Japan, Russia, and even China want India as their ‘best friend’ as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said during his recent visit,” Dr Karnad tells Rediff.com Senior Contributor Rashme Sehgal in the concluding segment of a two-part interview:
You have argued that America and the European Union need India to ring fence China. Considering our close economic dependence on China, is that feasible?
Get the facts right! India does not depend on China for anything that cannot be bought from other sources.
It is China that depends on India’s vast consumer market to keep its industry in clover — the reason why the Modi government has to begin seriously limiting Chinese access to the Indian market.
Even as Indian companies operate under severe regulatory strain in China, Chinese companies are afforded full freedom by the Indian government to mint money, selling all manner of manufactures to Indians.
It is time the Modi regime wised up and did something meaningful to hurt China economically by simply evening out the economic playing field. Is that too much to ask?
Does being non aligned prevent India from evolving a strategic foreign policy to suit its own interests? The Modi government says since India is being wooed by several foreign nations and this is ‘India’s moment’.
Goes without saying that being non-aligned increases India’s options and policy choices.
Good that the Modi government discovered the merits of this stance, even if a little belatedly.
This may indeed be ‘India’s moment’ because for the first time all major countries are discovering India’s indispensability to their own foreign policy interests.
This is why despite being stonewalled by New Delhi on the Ukraine issue, the US, NATO States, Japan, Russia, and even China want India as their ‘best friend’ as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said during his recent visit.
IMAGE: Prime Minister Modi and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, April 22, 2022. Photograph: Press Information Bureau
Do we have the economic muscle to hard talk the US, China and the EU given that our economic parameters are showing a downward slide?
India, because of its vast market, packs an economic wallop.
Ironically, it is the Indian government and trade and commerce ministry, in particular, that refuses to drive hard bargains, time and again succumbing to external pressures and to the institutional desire to be ‘responsible’ and hew to the World Trade Organisation and other norms even when no major power does that.
For evidence, look at all the unrestrained and unfavourable Free Trade Agreements the government has signed with all and sundry in recent years.
IMAGE: Ukrainian soldiers ride an armored vehicle en route to the front in the Donetsk region. Photograph: Jorge Silva/Reuters
How would you evaluate India’s foreign policy especially in its handling of the Russia-Ukraine conflict?
The Modi government has achieved stellar success with its Russia-Ukraine policy — warding off Western pressure with ease while, even if for form’s sake, upbraiding Moscow for the invasion excesses, and otherwise managing to maintain a ‘balance’ between the feuding parties.
Do you see the ongoing crisis in Sri Lanka impacting us in any way?
Hard to take pleasure from a neighbour’s dive into despond. But the ruling Rajapaksa family has been a pain in India’s butt.
The current Sri Lanka president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in particular, having it in for India for its support to the secessionist Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam which he as defence minister ruthlessly crushed in the bloodiest of civil wars.
The good thing for India is that Gotabaya Rajapaksa having pushed his country wilfully into a nepotistic form of government in which family members held all the high ranks and wielded all the levers of power, and worse into a ‘debt trap’ laid by China and into bankcruptcy, all political parties in Sri Lanka including the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party, are agreed that Colombo has to change course.
Here Modi’s far-seeing policy of opening multi-billion dollar lines of credit for Sri Lanka to use to offtake Indian commodities and consumer items to meet shortages and quell popular unrest, will help in getting India-Sri Lanka relations back on track.