An out and out army fiasco

LAC row | India, China agree to ease standoff - The Hindu

[Confrontation in the high desert]

Inattentive to satellite intel, lacking proactive thinking, absent preemptive action and now silk-gloving China’s occupation of Indian territory, the army has to explain this fiasco.

What’s the first, most basic, thing the Indian army should have done once the Border Roads Organization (BRO) began constructing the Siachen lifeline and access road to the strategic Karakoram Pass at the confluence of India and China — the Karakoram Pass-Daulat Beg Oldi-Murgo-Dubruk-Tangtse highway? Why, secure the heights on the approaches to the proposed Karakoram-Tangtse route on the Galwan, Chang-chenmo, and Shyok rivers, of course! Was this done? No! And why weren’t such basic precautionary protection measures taken?

The latest territorial grab by China has gone unaddressed by the army and is particularly egregious in the light of a similar earlier mistake made in Kargil. Except then following the intense 1999 “border war”, the Kargil heights were retaken from the Pakistan army’s unit that had sneaked in during the previous winter months when the Indian army had affected a seasonal withdrawal from the ridge. That war cost the country an awful lot in terms of lives, and military and financial resources. If the army went to war to recover the Kargil heights because otherwise the supply line to Leh would be imperilled, why did it do nothing preemptively to protect the border road, and why is it not enthused about forcibly evicting the PLA from the Galwan, in particular, to guarantee that Indian access to the Siachen Glacier and to the Karakoram Pass remains unimpeded in perpetuity?

Study the map below to identify what lies where.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is UxQt3GI2ytqVPCSI0giIpgvAyNQoNoiR-uz-U6WT4SoM6E3alRymbjLQ8L4h_C4MlVfbkjY6FoPUsI6d45i2MJxQpfGbt_bJ2Zpvq3VbCv3FKJbUxVKVsA0xenZryquqeQnNg9SV
[A map with the main sites in contention clearly marked out, courtesy Lt Gen Oberoi’s piece mentioned in an earlier post]

The army apparently learned nothing from its Kargil experience, because it is being replayed today on the Ladakh front. Far from moving expeditiously and in tandem with the BRO construction to occupy the high points on the mountainous terrain adjoining the proposed highway, XIV Corps and Army HQrs failed to even heed, leave alone react, to the imagery generated by Indian satellites available for a long time now showing PLA construction crews building the infrastructure in the Galwan Valley, for instance. So now India is faced with the entrenched Chinese positions from where PLA can at any time interdict the Siachen supply line and otherwise sever the lines of communications to the Karakoram Pass.

The same do nothingness informed the Indian army’s inaction further south in the terrain stretching from Finger 4 to Finger 8 on the northern shore of the Pangong Lake; this even though the process of the PLA units ensconcing themselves there, like on the Galwan, was no doubt flagged early by the Delhi-based DIPAC (Defence Image Processing and Analysis Centre). By May this year when the army finally stirred into action, it was too late for it to do anything. Because unlike in Kargil, the army was unprepared for and unwilling to undertake hard action. Hence, the army neither advised, nor sought approval, from the Modi government to initiate military operations to rid the Galwan and Pangong Tso heights of the aggressor PLA units. An even worse spin in the context of the availability of the satellite imagery intelligence is that the army knew all along about the PLA build-up to dominate the heights but did not have the stomach for a fight, and so did nothing.

It may be argued by the army that preemptive action of the kind here outlined to occupy the Galwan heights and the areas Finger 4 to Finger 8, on the Pangong would have been a hugely arduous task because it would have involved moving considerable military mass to logistically difficult-to-maintain mountain sites. Except the army has been sustaining and supplying a force deployed in the still more inaccessible Siachen post at a higher altitude for nearly 40 years now. And there are Indian army units continuously undergoing acclamatization for rotational posting on the glacier. So, the army had both the wherewithal and the trained forces to occupy the mountain tops now in Chinese custody.

At the heart of the issue is the apparent unwillingness of the army and government to take actions, whether preemptive or post-PLA ingress, that could escalate into war with China, whence the Indian government and army brass’ inclination from the beginning to rely on diplomacy. Whatever the policy deficiencies of the panda-huggers in Modi’s PMO and the MEA, active monitoring of the Line of Actual Control, being proactive in the field, and making military moves to preempt China, and with the PLA in occupation of Indian claimed territory, to embark on remedial military action, are no part of their remit. At the nuts and bolts level, this is Indian army’s fiasco through and through. Because had the XIV Corps HQrs and the army been on their toes, paid more attention to the PLA activity in the Ladakh region and taken the obvious precautions to secure the heights abutting on the newly-built highway, thereby preventing the PLA from doing what it has done on the Galwan and in the Pangong Tso area, they would have had the Modi government’s approval for it. After all, what choice would the “nationalist” prime minister have had in that context? Instead, India is saddled with a situation.

What exactly was said during the over-long (3 hour) flag meeting June 6 at the Chushul-Moldo post between the Indian army and PLA delegations led by the XIV Corps Commander Lt General Harinder Singh and the PLA South Xinjiang Military District Commander Major General Liu Lin respectively may never be known, because the anodyne statement about an agreement to keep the peace isn’t especially enlightening. But the meeting and its context has highlighted two things: (1) The Indian army dispatched its commander of the entire Ladakh front, the Chinese only its sector commander — a Major General to India’s Lieutenant General, revealing the differing weight and importance attached by the two sides to the matter at hand, and (2) a parting of the views of the army and the ministry of external affairs (MEA).

“Both sides are disengaging in a phased manner. We have started from the north, the area of the Galwan River. A lot of disengagement has happened,” said the army chief General MM Naravane. “We have had a fruitful dialogue with the Chinese, it will continue and by and by the situation will improve.” He added: “It started with corps commander level talks …which has been followed up by a number of meetings at the local level between commanders of equivalent ranks and as a result of this lot disengagement has taken place. We are hopeful that through this continued dialogue, all perceived differences that we have will be set to rest.” [https://www.newindianexpress.com/thesundaystandard/2020/jun/14/lac-standoff-india-china-disengaging-in-phases-says-army-chief-naravane-2156261.html]

Naravane’s disengagement spiel seems to apply to all the friction points on the LAC including Naku La in Sikkim and Galwan and Pangong Lake in Ladakh. His tone, moreover, hints at this whole ruckus being due to some small misunderstanding over an indistinct border, nothing that a bit of pow-wowing won’t clear up. The reality, however, is that there is now permanent stationing of PLA troops deep inside Indian territory in the Galwan and the Pangong sectors. As far as the Chinese are concerned the newly realigned LAC is something India can take it or lump it. There’s no third option, all the talks and negotiating will end up doing is embroider this fact. But it does indicate an Indian army that’s not only not up for a fight to restore the status quo ante but one that is reconciled to accepting the ever newer territorial status quos China with its expansionist actions will keep presenting it with.

The MEA’s unresponsiveness to a pointed question about troops on both sides moving back from their “standoff positions” in Galwan and the Hot Spring areas is puzzling. It also did not refute the fact that the PLA is not allowing Indian patrols beyond Finger 4 on Pangong Tso, which is 8 km from Finger 8 that India considers the LAC, meaning the intervening area (between Fingers 4 and 8) is now effectively under Chinese control (https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-china-ladakh-border-standoff-mea-6454345/) It directly contradicts Naravane’s statement that the two sides are “disengaging” along the length of the LAC.

This difference in views could mean that while the army, in order to show itself in better light, is deliberately ambiguous and opaque about Chinese annexation, the MEA with less of its reputation to lose is sticking to the reality on the ground indicating ample loss of territory to China, along with India losing face in Asia.

Posted in asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, Central Asia, China, China military, civil-military relations, Culture, Cyber & Space, Decision-making, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Army, Intelligence, MEA/foreign policy, Military/military advice, SAARC, satellites, society, South Asia, space & cyber, Tibet | 102 Comments

No control, actually

LAC standoff: Indian, Chinese military initiate disengagement near ...
[Lt Gen Harinder Singh, XIV Corps commander with his PLA opposite number at their talk venue two days back]

India has no answer for China’s creeping annexation

———

For China, the unarmed skirmishes on the disputed border with India do not merit notice. The May 26-28 meeting of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference ignored them. But the Ladakh confrontation is a muddled preoccupation of the Indian government with no clarity about what happened, how many People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops violated the 2005 Line of Actual Control (LAC), and the extent of territory illegally occupied by them.

According to former northern Army commander Lt Gen H.S. Panag, there is ingress by a brigade-sized PLA force in the Galwan River valley and in the Pangong Lake area, and occupation of some 60sqkm of Indian territory. If one adds the 640sqkm—which former foreign secretary Shyam Saran says India had lost up until 2013, and which may have doubled by now—the total territory ceded to China without a fight may exceed 1,300sqkm!

The astonishing thing is that these developments surprised the Indian government and the Indian Army. Why this should be so is a mystery, considering there was satellite imagery and that Chinese President Xi Jinping objected to the Indian infrastructure construction—never mind that it is a matching but less dense build-up on the Indian side—in his discussions with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Mamallapuram Summit on October 11 and 12, 2019.

Of particular concern to China is the all-weather road connecting Daulat Beg Oldi and Durbuk with Depsang, inclusive of the bridge over the Shyok river, to ease the strain of maintaining the Indian military’s presence on the Siachen glacier. Delhi had six months to prepare for an adverse reaction and to pre-emptively establish forward Indian military posts in the areas the PLA has now advanced into before the summer patrolling season began in April. It should have moved some long-range artillery, even if with an inadequate supply of shells, to put down stakes and show intent. But beating China to the punch is not India’s forte.

The passive-reactive Indian government banks on diplomacy to restore the status quo ante that the Army, lacking the offensive will, wherewithal and endurance, is unable to deliver.

This condition is a boon to the Xi regime, which can withdraw the PLA or not in this or that instance as it suits Beijing’s political purpose, while inexorably pushing the LAC India-wards. At each turn then, Delhi is presented with new territorial faits accomplis, reinforcing China’s policy of creeping annexation of Indian territory.

The prerequisite for such policy is an undefined border. To keep it so, but to make it easier for Delhi to swallow the incremental territorial losses, Beijing promises more productive talks—the next round will be the 22nd in the series—between the special representatives to exchange maps and resolve the dispute. The Indian government will again fall for it, hail it as a great diplomatic achievement. The excitement will abate until next summer when evidence of new encroachments will trigger armed face-offs along the LAC, and this unvirtuous cycle will repeat itself until China realises all its claims.

——

The above piece is published in The Week, current issue dated June 21, 2020, at https://www.theweek.in/theweek/more/2020/06/12/no-control-actually.html

Posted in asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, Central Asia, China, China military, civil-military relations, Culture, Decision-making, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Army, MEA/foreign policy, Military/military advice, society, South Asia | 26 Comments

The end of Trump

Mattis breaks silence, harshly condemns Trump's actions — 'He ...

[Defence Secretary Mattis and Trump]

Sometimes you know when a political leader’s career has ended. Losing an election, of course; in Donald Trump’s case, however, when General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, the former US defence secretary, published a damning essay yesterday in the Atlantic magazine. The presidential election will just be a formality, clearing the White House of Trump. The Donald is a lame duck.

In the critical part of his article, Mattis says of Trump that he has “made a mockery of the Constitution” and “is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership. We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society. This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it to our fellow citizens; to past generations that bled to defend our promise; and to our children.” This is a straightforward plea to Americans to vote out Trump.

From the time of a rising Athens, the military has always been held in the highest regard in democracies because it represents in the most basic sense the people’s voluntary participation in their own defence and as the means to realize their ambitions for the nation. This slight digression about Athens is because US Marine General Mattis, known in the American military as the “warrior monk” and with a personal library of some 7,000 books, always carried into battle copies of Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War and Herodotus’ The Persian Wars. Any military man so aware of Athenian history would be only too conscious of how great a liability a half-literate demagogue and, by definition, incompetent leader is for a democratic country. The prompt for Mattis’ sounding the tocsin was Trump’s calling out US military units to deal with citizens taking to the streets in most large American cities to protest the public murder of an unarmed, unresisting, black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis.

Mattis’ slamming Trump has particular significance because the President had wrapped himself round the General when he inducted him in his cabinet in the first year of his term. His charge of the president undermining the Constitution arises from the 1st Amendment right freely to peacably protest. As many American stalwarts expect, Mattis’ coming out openly against Trump will motivate more senior military officers to do the same and undercut the incumbent president’s nationalist credentials. Moreover, so many and so highly regarded retired military leaders emerging in opposition will have a multiplier effect of influencing millions of military veterans — a large domestic constituency, to mobilize against Trump.

He has specialized in fakefully building up a reputation as a successful businessman, but it is unravelling. His flagship Trump Hotel in Washington, DC, for instance, is up for sale, he paid millions to the gullible who sought real estate business wisdom from his scam Trump University and paid very high fees, and threatened to take Trump to court, etc. Politically, other than his base — less than 30% of the white, evangelical, less educated crowd, he is becoming anathema to everybody else.

And things are not smooth sailing on the other fronts that matter either. There is Trump’s usual bluster but neither he nor his Republican Party have any solution for the corona pandemic, a slumping economy, trade war with China, 30 million unemployed, internal unrest owing to the racially-motivated police and vigilante killings, and alienated allies in Europe and Asia. In the event, the US presidency will be handed to Joe Biden of the Democratic Party on a platter along with control of the US Senate.

To paraphrase John Milton’s line, all Biden has to do to gain is stand and wait!

Posted in asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Europe, Geopolitics, United States, US. | 53 Comments

Band aid, tactical non-solutions, for China’s policy of creeping territorial grab

China increases military presence along India border » Sirf News

[Indian troops on LAC]

Strange, but there was no mention of the troubles the country is facing on the disputed border with China by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his latest monthly edition of radio talk “mann ki baat” on May 30. It is as if all is normal on the national security front and Beijing, emulating the Modi regime, has fully imbibed the Wuhan and Mamallapuram spirits and is committed to resolving all issues peacefully. Except, a month plus into the confrontation with China, Beijing’s territorial grab at various points on the 3,800 km disputed border, especially in the western sector, is reality.

The Narendra Modi government and the Indian army’s response to this aggression has been along predictable lines. It is being officially stated that (1) there has been no territorial loss, (2) India has adequate forces to deal with any China front-related contingency, and (3) existing negotiation mechanisms at various levels ranging from field commanders at one end, MEA, to the hotline connecting the Prime minister and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the other end, are working to defuse the situation.

The third factor — diplomacy and negotiation — that the army and the government are stressing and is being publicized is possibly because that’s what they are relying on to restore a modicum of peace but on Chinese terms — meaning Delhi’s acceptance of the new territorial status quo, because the Indian army, honestly speaking, is in no position forcefully to restore the status quo ante. As regards, the first two assertions — well, to put it bluntly, they are false.

There has been serious and extensive capture of territory over time on the Indian side of the claim line by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), most recently and egregiously in the eight terrain features, called “fingers” abutting the Pangong Lake (discussed in the preceding post) . The wide-area satellite imagery that has been available to the Indian government since well before Narendra Modi became prime minister ought to have alerted the army and government to the larger picture of relentless expansion of its presence on the LAC but did not. Why not, is a legitimate matter for investigation. It proves not just the loss of valuable real state elsewhere, but particularly here in one of the most strategically sensitive regions.

The government’s military pointman on the China border issue, the Mandarin-speaking Lt Gen SL Narasimhan, one-time commander XXXIII Corps, Military Attache in Beijing, and presently a member of the National Security Advisory Board, firstly voiced the unexceptionable opinion that the reason PLA has acted up is to hinder military-use border infrastructure construction proceeding apace on the Indian side. Like the long, high altitude, Chewang Rinchen bridge across the Shyok River in eastern Ladakh connecting Durbuk with Depsang via Murgo. Secondly, he attributed the clashes on the LAC to the summer patrolling season, and conceded that territory may have been lost owing to an undefined border. He then adopted a variant of the MEA line that nothing’s amiss to make a perplexing statement: “I think [the Chinese] are trying to lay claim to their perception of LAC. I don’t think it should be seen as if they want to pick up territory or otherwise. It should be seen as they are trying to lay claim to their perception of the LAC.”

Well, what is it, General Narasimhan? Has the PLA ventured onto the Indian side and captured territory, or not? China’s laying “claim to [its] perception of LAC” surely amounts to its creating a new LAC and “picking up” Indian territory, no? Or does he think the enemy’s “perception of LAC” can be abstracted from his activity to realize his perception on the ground? In any case, what kind of hair splitting is this, and that too by an army general? In the event, nothing good can be assumed about the quality of his advice to the government. (https://indianexpress.com/article/india/face-off-along-lac-in-ladakh-chinese-build-up-will-be-matched-says-nsab-member-6432174/)

Narasimhan’s confused and confusing statements notwithstanding, there’s in fact a methodical buildup by the PLA of staging areas, including a forward air field in Ngari, shelters for infantry combat/light armoured vehicles and associated stores, permanent shelters for troops, etc. on India’s side of the claim line that leaves little doubt as to Beijing’s intent to convert this line into the new LAC, one from which it will not withdraw.

But this is not the sensible conclusion reached by the government. Modi’s thinking, embellished by MEA and the likes of Narasimhan, is reflected, for instance, in today’s newspaper op-ed by the ex-foreign secretary Shyam Saran, also Mandarin conversant, who believes that despite the construction by the PLA of military facilities on various sites on the LAC, China will withdraw upon a negotiated settlement. (See https://www.hindustantimes.com/analysis/as-the-lac-heats-up-reading-china-s-playbook/story-0b7pzNwsL282ktzMsj5YWK.html). It is an MEA pipe dream the Indian government has long been lulling itself into quiescence with. On the ground though, per Saran’s own report India as of 2013 lost 640 sq kms of territory — a loss that may have doubled by now with China’s policy of creeping occupation of contested and strategically important territory.

Recent writings by senior retired army officers attest to this territorial loss. The outspoken Lt Gen HS Panag, Northern army commander 2006-2008, is forthcoming on this score. Panag, it may be remembered, was transferred by the then army chief General Deepak Kapoor to the Central Command to serve out his career for initiating an investigation into the so-called “eggs and tents” scam occurring during his predecessor Kapoor’s tenure in Udhampur, (See https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Army-chief-gets-his-way-Panag-shifted-out-of-JK/articleshow/2814108.cms)

Panag writes that “the PLA has crossed the LAC and physically secured 3-4 km of our territory along Galwan River and the entire area between Finger 5 and Finger 8 along the north bank of Pangong Tso, a distance of nearly 8-10 km. There also seem to be minor incursions in the area of Hot Springs, in Ladakh’s Chang Chenmo River valley and at Demchok.” More worryingly, the territory the PLA has actually secured may be many times more because, he asserts, “the intrusion by regular troops is not linear like normal border patrols going to respective claim lines. If a brigade size force has secured 3-4 km in Galwan River, it implies that the heights to the north and south have been secured, thus securing a total area of 15 to 20 square km. Similarly, along Pangong Tso, the PLA brigade having secured 8-10 km on the north bank would have also secured the dominating heights to the north to physically control 35-40 square km. And if China subsequently realigns its claim line based on the areas secured, the net area secured would increase exponentially.” [Refer https://theprint.in/opinion/china-believes-india-wants-aksai-chin-back-thats-why-it-has-crossed-lac-in-ladakh/430899/].

Labeling the slow but deliberate occupation of Ladakhi real estate as “provocations”, the more cautious vice chief of the army Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi, 2000-2001, writes, that on the 489 km-long LAC in Ladakh, the “traditional disputed points” at Trig Heights and Demchok, are “now expanded to ten” with China raising fresh disputes on the Pangong Tso and at Chumar. Oberoi also recalled from his time as member of the China Study Circle, the apex China policy-making body, that MEA’s accommodationist ideas invariably prevailed over the army’s views. (https://www.thecitizen.in//en/NewsDetail/index/4/18814/The-Many-Reasons-For-Chinas-Transgressions-Across-LAC).

Interestingly, while both Oberoi and Panag blame the dual-control the army wields on the LAC, and particularly in the Ladakh sector, with the paramilitary Indo-Tibetan Border Police for the surprise the PLA was able to spring on the army, the latter also rounds off on the external intelligence service RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) for the fiasco. “At the strategic level, it was the failure of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) to detect the build-up of the PLA formations from the rear bases to replace the border defence units”, avers Panag, before admitting that the army’s “tactical surveillance with UAVs and patrols has been inadequate to detect this large-scale movement close to the LAC.”

According to Panag, brigade-sized PLA forces are deployed in the Galwan valley and the north bank of Pangong Tso, and possibly “precautionary deployment…at likely launch pads for offensive and other vulnerable areas along the LAC”, with adequate reserves no doubt placed to be readily at hand “to cater for Indian reaction/escalation”. In support are the upgraded Ngari base hosting fighter aircraft, with “additional troops” posted in the Depsang plains, Hot Springs, Spanggur Gap, and Chumar. This is a good reading of the state of affairs in Ladakh.

[Reproduced below are the two maps, perhaps, with his own markings that General Panag attached with his article.]

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Likely-area-secured-by-PLA-in-North-Bank-Pangong-Tso.jpg
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Likely-area-secured-by-PLA-in-North-Bank-Pangong-Tso.jpg

But what is transparent to Panag is not so plain to Narasimhan. According to the latter, it isn’t at all clear to the government and the army brass just how many PLA troops there are on or proximal to the LAC, nor the specific numbers of PLA troops that may have transgressed into Indian territory to set up camp. “I have heard variations from 500 to 5,000 to 10,000. It will be extremely difficult to predict,” he states. But the adversary’s force strength is not a matter of “prediction” but a conclusion to be reached on the basis of multiple-sourced information and intelligence, lot of it available in the open realm. But this only points to the larger problem — the Indian military’s inability to estimate the kind of forces the PLA High Command can bring to bear against it, in this case, what forces can be detached at short notice from the 200,000-strong main force based in Tibet to partake of contingent hostilities on the LAC. Without this predicate, plans cannot be made for resisting the operational punch of such PLA deployment. In the circumstances, Narasimhan’s comment that “It is not required to predict the numbers…. if there is a build-up from Chinese side, there will be an equal build-up from our side” is less than reassuring.

In the event, is it the army’s contention that it will be able to summon a Tibet-based PLA sized force if and when it is needed? If so, then unbeknownst to many of us we, the armed services included, are inhabiting cloud cuckoo land where military prowess can be conjured out of thin air, the country is ‘atm nirbhar’, and there’s nothing the country needs to do save await the multi-trillion dollar economic great power status round the corner. Alas, in the real world, the severely depleted War Stock of ammo, artillery shells, and chemical explosives means the movement of guns and longrange artillery to the Ladakh frontlines is of little avail. A down-to-earth assessment would question the Indian army’s ability to survive 6-7 days hostilities against the PLA conducted at full tilt, even if restricted to the LAC.

The still grander malady lurks elsewhere. Here I can do no better than revert to my pet theme of two-odd decades that the army, because it disproportionately stresses the minor Pakistan threat, has lacked the resources to invest in comprehensive capabilities to fight China defensively on the LAC and, even less, offensively across it, leave alone take on China and Pakistan in a two-front war — an unwarranted boast the Indian military brass routinely make. It was a case last iterated in my India Today column of January 26 this year [Refer https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/up-front/story/20200203-two-front-war-a-convenient-fiction-1639507-2020-01-24; it was posted on this blog].

As detailed in my earlier writings and at length in a chapter in my 2015 book Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet), there is a practical solution, the only one, staring the country in the face, short of the Modi sarkar committing 3%-4% of GDP every year for the next 15-20 years for the purpose of achieving an all-aspect force for the China front that is as large as it is sophisticated, and matches up with the PLA on all counts. Such gigantic fund sequestration being unlikely, my solution is unavoidable. It requires the implementation of far reaching measures — the army reverting to 5-7 year colour service for jawans and in lieu of pensions a one-time grant to demobilized jawans (to slice the pensions/payroll expenditure by half or thereabouts), majorly derating the Pakistan threat, rationalizing the three strike corps into a single composite corps, and diverting the freed up manpower and relevant war materiel to raising two additional offensive mountain corps equipped with light (30-35 ton) tanks, for a total of three such corps each with, among other things, integral air assault/air cavalry units for taking the fight to the PLA on the Tibetan plateau.

These and other recommendations were featured in the classified report I authored, as adviser, defence expenditure, and which report was ceremonially submitted along with the main documents by KC Pant, chairman, 10th Finance Commission, to the then President Shankar Dayal Sharma in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, and hence to the (Narasimha Rao) government, exactly 25 years ago. That report, relegated to a back shelf in some office in the Ministry of Defence, must by now have collected a heap of dust.

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A Cowering Response To China’s Provocations May Lose India More Territory

Pangong Tso, in eastern Ladakh, on the border with Tibet. (Photograph: Government of India)

[Pangong Tso]

It is not hard to see why China decided at this time to pick at the scab of disputed border with India by starting ruckuses along the length of it at Daulat Beg Oldi, Galwan Valley, the Pangong Lake, Bararahoti, and Naku La in Sikkim. Xi Jinping and his ruling cohort find their pretense to Asian hegemony challenged in their own backyard. Developments in Taiwan and Hong Kong have shred China’s “one country, two systems” policy. President Tsai Ing-Wen, elected to a second term, has made it clear that Taiwan is separate from China and sovereign. The people of Hong Kong, with less latitude, are fearlessly resisting rule by Beijing’s puppets.

     Elsewhere, the United States is embarked on a Cold War that is halting China’s economic gravy train. By pouring advanced weaponry into Taiwan America is making the difficult task of invading that garrison-state People’s Liberation Army (PLA) generals dream about, unthinkable. Japan is waving China off the Senkaku Islands, and the freedom of navigation patrols by several extra-territorial navies in the South China Sea and assertive actions by littoral states are making nonsense of China’s “nine dash line” claims.

That leaves the big, cowering, India an easy target for Beijing to coerce to show other Asian countries who is boss.

What is unusual about the latest Chinese provocations are the medieval arms the PLA wielded in the encounter in the Pangong Tso area of eastern Ladakh. An Indian army colonel and a major accompanying a small patrolling unit were grievously injured early May by Chinese troops swinging solid wooden batons with protruding nails! Perhaps, it is time Indian soldiers are armed, other than the standard infantry weapon, with hefty wooden clubs with embedded steel spikes for free use at close quarters against PLA soldiers.

The still greater surprise was the nonresponse of the Indian army and government. The spokesman of the army’s Eastern Command, almost condoned Chinese provocations saying “Temporary and short-duration face-offs between border-guarding troops do occur as boundaries are not resolved.” The Ministry of External Affairs, equally conciliatory, conceded PLA had disturbed India’s “normal patrolling patterns” in Ladakh, but referred to the “established mechanisms to resolve such situations peacefully through dialogue.”

It is as if the clubbing of senior Indian officers is normal and the Chinese are amenable to quiet persuasion. No hint here of what this portends for the armed monitoring of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) or of the potential for such designed eruptions to escalate into war.

Such anodyne statements, moreover, do three things. They demoralize the frontline troops, hide from the public the seriousness of India’s deteriorating military situation vis a vis China, and by reflecting the acute timidity characteristic of the Indian government and army leadership when confronting China, encourage Beijing to be even more obstreperous. Aggregated, such reactions only reinforce Beijing’s contempt for India and convince it to push India around some more.

Rajnath Singh interacts with Army Chief General MM Naravane, in Delhi, on Feb. 21, 2020. (Photograph: PTI)

[ Defence Minister Rajnath Singh with General MM Naravane]

The latest events on the LAC may have shaken Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s confidence in his policy of rapprochement with China that pivots overmuch on his personal relations with the Chinese President Xi Jinping. Otherwise the apex meeting of the principals called by Modi on May 26  would not have so quickly followed the May 23 briefing of defence minister Rajnath Singh by the army chief General MM Naravane who bore ill-tidings from his Ladakh trip, with national security adviser Ajit Doval and chief of the defence staff General Bipin Rawat in attendance.

Obviously, the situation is grim and getting worse. While the decision by the PM forcefully to oppose the Chinese changing the status quo on the LAC and especially in the sensitive Daulat Beg Oldi sector is reassuring, it fails to address the central problem of sustained piecemeal territorial aggrandizement by China.

Just how much territory has been lost is revealing.  Punchok Stobdan, a native Ladakhi and former ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, refers to a 2013 report by Shyam Saran, former foreign secretary (2004-2006) that indicated China had until then annexed 640 sq km of Indian territory deploying  “area denial” measures that, in effect, changed the alignment of LAC on the ground. It is an activity, incidentally, that has proceeded unmolested by Indian forces. With China creating new status quos and Delhi accepting them there’s every incentive for Beijing to persist with this “no cost” policy.

Invariably there’s strategic intent behind Chinese moves.

Regarding the Chinese claim of 80 sq kms in the Chumur region containing the Tible Mane (stupa) holy to Tibetans, for instance, Stobdan points out that its control is “critical” for the safety of the Leh-Manali road. And, in an extended geographic context, why the PLA is “desperate” to grab the Lukung Lake area to stage operations from to cut off Indian access to the Chip Chap plains, the Aksai Chin in the east and the Shayok Valley to the north, and how this will create a new LAC bracketed by the Indus and Shayok rivers. Gaining control thus of the southern side of the Karakoram range China, he explains, can then reach the Siachen Glacier from Depsang and cover “the Tashkurgan junction from where the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) crosses into Gilgit-Baltistan”. It will weaken India’s proximity to, and leverage over, CPEC, the Indian military’s hold on Siachen and, according to Stobdan, permit the diversion of the waters of the Shayok, Galwan and Chang-Chenmo rivers to Chinese-occupied Aksai Chin.

Army Chief General MM Naravane meets jawans during his visit to the base camp in Siachen, on Jan. 9, 2020. (Photograph: PTI)

[Army Chief General MM Naravane in Ladakh]

China’s “occupy, build-up, intimidate, occupy some more, build-up”-policy begun in the early 1950s and proceeding apace has hollowed out India’s paper claims. More brazenly, Beijing is justifying PLA actions on the basis that India is constructing roads, bridges and airfields on its side! If the Modi government fails to implement a policy of absolute reciprocal actions, such as filling vacant spaces beyond Indian claim-lines with  armed encampments, allowing the Indian army to blow-up offending Chinese infrastructure and, by way of retribution, ambushing passing PLA troops, and relies only on endless and futile negotiations, then India should be prepared for a map thoroughly changed by  China.   


Published in my ‘Realpolitik’ column in BloombergQuint.com, May 28, 2020, at https://www.bloombergquint.com/opinion/india-china-tensions-cowering-response-to-chinas-provocations-may-lose-india-more-territory

Posted in asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, Central Asia, China, China military, civil-military relations, Culture, Decision-making, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Army, Japan, MEA/foreign policy, Military/military advice, Northeast Asia, SAARC, society, South Asia, South East Asia, Strategic Relations with South East Asia & Far East, Strategic Relations with the US & West, Taiwan, Tibet, United States, US., Weapons | 46 Comments

Why China is doing what it is doing and Delhi is doing little

[An Indian soldier stopping a PLA soldier — a mobile pic hurriedly snapped]

The Press reported that on Saturday May 23 the Army Chief, MM Naravane, briefed Defence Minister Rajnath Singh about the state of affairs in the Ladakh sector of the Line of Actual Control he visited in the days previous. That the National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat attended this briefing suggests the situation is more worrisome than the army has let on.

Indeed in a short interview carried by Indian Express May 14, (https://indianexpress.com/article/india/army-chief-mm-naravane-downplays-india-china-border-skirmishes-in-ladakh-and-sikkim/) Naravane was complacent, pooh-poohing the violently intrusive tack the PLA has taken in asserting China’s territorial rights to the detriment of India’s claims. “All such incidents are managed by established mechanisms where-in local formations from both sides resolve issues mutually as per established protocols and strategic guidelines given by the PM after the Wuhan and Mallaparam summits,” he averred. He clarified, helpfully, that such confrontations arise due to the unresolved “differing perceptions of the alignment of boundaries”. To tamp down on speculation regarding the potential for such incidents to snowball into active hostilities, he added that the Chinese aggression in the Pangong Lake region of eastern Ladakh and on the Sikkim border in the Naku La section (on May 5-6) are not “co-related nor do they have any connection with other global or local activities”. In other words, that these were one-off incidences with no connecting policy skin and that the Indian media would do well not to play them up.

However, on May 13 newspapers had reported serious injuries to a Colonel and a Major in the Pangong Tso environs because they were clubbed by the intruding Chinese troops with a new version of a medieval weapon — nail-studded wooden batons — that were being swung freely and with intention to do harm. In short, it was not latest in the series of mildly frictive pushing and shoving matches (as at Dok La in 2017) that have to-date typified Sino-Indian border interactions.

Apparently, General Naravane and the Modi government do not consider the use against senior Indian field officers of long nail-studded wooden clubs by Chinese troops an escalation nor perceive such incidents to be other than of little account because their public statements seem to be drafted by the worst of the panda-huggers in the Ministry of External Affairs. The best possible spin on this is that Army HQrs have imbibed a bit too much of the Wuhan and Mallapuram spirits brewed up by Modi than is good for India’s security, thereby indicating that they cannot be relied upon to call a spade a shovel where China and LAC are concerned, let alone to respond heftily in kind. Not for the forward deployed Indian units then the retaliatory joys of cracking open a few senior Chinese officers’ heads with a policy of ambush and hammer.

A weak-kneed Indian government has long been suspected as infecting the Indian military with its preference for shambolic gestures instead. So, two Su-30s were dispatched from the Leh air base to patrol the skies around the Pangong Lake located at 5,000 metre altitude to do what good is anyone’s guess. Because a Sino-Indian agreement to peacefully manage the LAC bars combat aircraft from flying within 10 kms of it. If an aerial gesture had to be made, why did the PMO (which has to clear any and every proactive measure or meaningful action and reaction on the 3,800 km-long China border) not deploy an armed helicopter or two for low-level flying the PLA troops could see to deter them from physically belabouring Indian soldiers in the cruel manner they did? Helicopters are permitted by the same accord to fly within one kilometre of LAC. In any case, the minimum response to such PLA atrocities should have seen Naravane decree that, along with normal infantry weapons, every Indian soldier be armed with a heavily weighted baseball-type bat with sharp protruding metal spikes he can pull out and smash PLA troopers’ faces with with at the first hint of trouble at close quarters. This, of course, hasn’t happened.

Indeed, Indian army brass have taken great care to mention that these border ruckuses also involve Indian troops, thereby in effect equating Indian soldiers guarding the peace on LAC and the Chinese troops disrupting it, perhaps, because they expect the Indian jawans to stand still while getting whacked in their faces. In fact, the over-conciliatory tone adopted by Naravane with subdued action in train may now be the military’s norm. This even when PLA troops seem at liberty, when not wielding their 5.8 mm QBZ-95 assault rifle, to clobber Indian soldiers with metal spiked clubs. The Indian political and military leadership alike take comfort, ironically, from the short duration of these faceoffs, little realizing that such PLA actions can, when not meant to intimidate, instantly lead to unanticipated but planned follow-up actions. Absent the sort of dense military use infrastructure buildup on the Chinese side of LAC and beyond into Indian territory, the Indian forces, will find such moves hard to resist.

Ponder, for the nonce, the PLA’s modus operandi. The Pangong Lake terrain features 8 hilly features, referred to as “fingers”. The western side of the lakefront is claimed by India, with Delhi stating that the LAC, running alongside these fingers, “co-terminates” with Finger 8. China, on the other hand, asserts its rights to almost all of the lake barring the 45 km lakefront held by India. By Delhi’s reckoning, Finger 2 lies wholly within Indian territory, except PLA built a 5 km motorable road in this area in 1998 when the Indian army was busy evicting the Pakistan army’s Northern Light Infantry from its redoubts in the Kargil heights, and which road the Chinese have patrolled with light vehicles ever since. There’s similar construction, for instance, in the Finger 4 area. In other words, even as China has constructed such roads, the Indian army and government contend that no such infrastructure has come up! The better, presumably, to deny that any violation of the LAC has taken place at all!

Does this not mean that anytime the PLA aggressively stakes its interest in a piece of contested territory, Indian army and government all but readily concede it? So, the likely future is for a slow territorial aggrandizement by China — an exercise in which the Indian army and government are and will, in equal parts, be complicit and for which they are culpable.

That leads us to the issue of why it is that Beijing decided to stir up trouble in the first place along the entire LAC, including the Central Sector, with armed interventions even in and around Barahoti, which until now was considered “settled” border, meaning about which neither side had any problems? There are two sets of reasons — one military-political, the other internal.

“It has come to our attention that some political forces in the US are taking China-US relations hostage and pushing our two countries to the brink of a new Cold War,” declared Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi last evening at a press conference in Beijing. The possibility of a Cold War of the kind that brought down the Soviet Union in the early-’90s and which the Xi Jinping regime believes Trump’s America can unleash, is very much on Zhongnanhai’s mind. The vilification campaign against China as the locus genesis of the COVID-19 global pandemic, the closing off of America to Chinese travelers and most exports, and the sanctioning of Chinese high-tech companies (Huawei, et al) is perceived by Trump as only the opening shot in this war. The undertaking by the World Health Organization to examine the coronavirus spread and to assign responsibility for it, will provide Washington with the ammunition to begin orchestrating a much wider, more telling, international political criticism and effort to quarantine and globally sideline China by cutting off its revenue stream, market access, and strategic reach.

In just the first two months of 2020 China’s exports, according to the South China Morning Post, dropped by 17.2% with that country for the first time since 2009 experiencing a trade deficit of US$7.09 billion, compared to the surplus of US$41.45 billion over the same period last year. This could be a prelude to a plummeting of the Chinese economy, a process that could accelerate should Beijing reject the demands by disparate countries of sub-Saharan Africa and even states like Pakistan to write off infrastructure projects-related debt totaling hundreds of billions of dollars that have have so far been racked up. In that case China stands to lose both goodwill and markets and still be saddled with unserviced debt that Beijing can do nothing about short of wiping it off its slate at heavy cost to itself.

Along with a downward spiraling economy, there’s the military angle. The US Navy has increased its freedom of navigation patrols through the waters of the South China Sea at a time when Vietnam and Malaysia at the two ends of the Southeast Asian littoral, far from backing down, are actively protecting their maritime assets and brown water and blue water territories. And as if to worsen the situation from the optics as well as the substantive ends, Taiwan has resoundingly re-elected Tsai Ing-Wen to, in effect, sound a death knell for the “one country, two systems” conceit Beijing has nursed all these years. “We hope that this election result”, said President Tsai, “can give the Chinese government an accurate message: the Taiwanese people reject ‘one country two systems’. We value our democratic lifestyle, and we defend our sovereignty.” Complicating the situation some more for China, Tsai has promised help to Hong Kong. Taiwan will, she said in a Facebook post, “even more proactively perfect and forge ahead with relevant support work, and provide Hong Kong’s people with necessary assistance”. In the last four months, there has been a 150% increase in immigrants to Taiwan from Hong Kong.

The murmurings inside PLA circles about forcefully stopping the Independent Taiwan wagon in its tracks, now that it might pick up speed, by invading that fortified island-nation is mired in serious doubts about whether the Chinese military, despite the out-sized growth in its capabilities, can pull it off. Worse, the relative pimple of a problem — Hong Kong, is proving nettlesome; its people long used to democratic rights and freedoms are resisting Beijing’s attempts at curbing them. It prompted Beijing to simply end that erstwhile British colony’s status as an entity separate from China — no pretense here about two systems, etc. The President for life, Xi Jinping, suddenly finds his dilemma to be like the proverbial frog’s in the warming bowl of water — unable to jump out because China still benefits all round from propping up the current international system, but facing far too many challenges to do nothing.

With the welcoming world order China exploited since Dengxiaoping’s time in the late 1970s collapsing around it, and Taipei and the Hong Kong people throwing down the gauntlet, Xi no doubt feels uneasy and, therefore, senses he has to do something. More so because internally there are sections within his support base in the PLA and the Communist Party which are inclined to blame Xi, in the instance of Taiwan and Hong Kong, for doing nothing and doing something a little late respectively, and on the other hand, for needlessly goading America into action by disregarding Deng’s aphorism about “hiding your strength, biding your time” by openly flexing China’s military and technological muscles guaranteed, even without an impulsively bellicose Trump in the White House, to get the US all riled up and ready to get at China’s throat.

So, PLA felt compelled to let off steam safely and a calculating Beijing to allow it, but against whom? Hong Kong is in the bag — small change, Taiwan cannot be invaded, Japan cannot be run out of the Senkaku Islands, Russia cannot be pushed around, Vietnam cannot be browbeaten, and taking on the US is surely to end China’s dream run. That leaves the usual target — the weak-willed, strategically dim-witted, India to pick on. But this too is a balancing act. Beijing has to calibrate the hostilities in a way so as to not precipitate a war and lose a huge market that grows more precious by the loss of markets elsewhere, but nevertheless to show up a big India and America’s friend as a country without a fight in it, and to hold out this non-confrontation as an episode for other Asian states watching the show to learn from.

In the circumstances, what should a self-respecting India do, assuming such an avatar emerges by magic?

Well, Delhi can follow what I have been advocating over the last 20-odd years. In no particular order (1) ask Beijing to shut the f…k up on Kashmir, and take to wagging an admonishing finger at Beijing on every forum now that it has tethered the freedom loving Hong Kongese to the Chinese Communist totalitarian yoke; (2) publicly initiate negotiations with Taipei to upgrade the extant trade and consular relations into a full fledged diplomatic relationship with the sovereign state of Taiwan, and use Taiwan’s manifest superiority in high-technology to upgrade India’s manufacturing base, and industrial and military wherewithal — a perfect riposte to Beijing’s recently raking up the Sikkim status issue; the “virtual participation” in President Tsai’s investiture ceremony by BJP MPs Meenakshi Lekhi and Rahul Kaswan ought to be a precursor event; (3) officially bury China’s spurious “one country, two systems” policy by withdrawing support for it with respect to Taiwan, Hong Kong and also Tibet, the last on the legally sound basis, I have long advocated, of Tibet not being genuinely “autonomous” in any way and hence no part of China as Delhi had originally recognized it, thereafter India should spearhead a worldwide “free Tibet” Movement; (4) openly support the Uyghur cause and use the OIC to mobilize the Islamic opposition to China’s systematic denigration of the native Muslims there and for turning Xinjiang into a vast prison camp for the natives; (5) cutoff imports of all goods from China, and having done that negotiate small incremental increases in access to the Indian market in return for strict reciprocity in trade and commerce combined with a heavily punitive regime to prevent small and big time traders within India from transacting any goods from China, and the formalization of LAC as formal border; (6) as current chairman presiding over WHO, use the underway scrutiny of China on the Covid-19 issue to skewer China and pillory it as an opaque and irresponsible state not worthy of respect from the international community; (7) for God’s sake, use the precedent of China’s secretly transferring nuclear weapons and missile technologies to Pakistan to pay back Beijing in the same coin, even if 40 years too late, by onpassing the very same technologies, or better still, the nuclear warheaded Brahmos cruise missile, to any state on China’s periphery desiring the ultimate means of militarily keeping Beijing quiet. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, are you listening?!, and (8) by way of meta-strategic arrangements, minimize China’s global salience by weaponizing BRICS by excising China from it and getting Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa (BRIS) into a loose and informal security coalition; and to complement it by sewing up a similar coalition to India’s east — the ‘Mod Quad’ — the Quadrilateral of India, Japan, Australia, and a group of rich and capable Southeast Asian countries minus the unreliable United States. It is an organic security scheme that will permanently box in China politically, militarily and economically with a marginal, extra-territorial, role for the US should it want one.

What India will actually do owing to a long habit of slavish thinking and a self-abnegatory mindset is this: It will continue doing what it is doing — trying simultaneously to curry favour with both Beijing and Washington — a high theme of the late K. Subrahmanyam’s supposedly superlative thinking Modi subscribes to and is now bureaucratically furthered by his son, S. Jaishankar as MEA minister. It is a policy previous governments, for reasons that are incomprehensible, have been entranced by and which Modi feels will serve him as well. But he does not see, as Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh did not in their time at the helm, about what will, in fact, transpire. In attempting to be too clever by half, India will end up getting sucker-punched by both. But to be laid low thus requires India to be a sucker, and that is what India has time and again proven to be. And a sucker, as WC Fields reminded us, never gets an even break.

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Uncertain outcomes from Sitharaman’s latest Defence industrial reform announcements

Broadsword: DRDO looks beyond HAL for Tejas production

[Tejas assembly line]

The announcement by Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman that there would be a “ban” on imports of armaments was music to my ears and meant that something I have long been advocating had finally come to pass. This was so until she qualified her remark by adding that the Defence Ministry would produce a negative list of weapons systems whose imports are barred and that there’d be deadlines for each of these items from when this ban will come into effect. So an escape hatch has been left open for the armed services to continue sourcing their high-value hardware/software requirements and keeping them out of this list. Should the Services fail to convince the defence ministry on this, they will no doubt endeavour to extend the deadlines so that most of the arms import transactions in the pipeline come in under the wire.

The point is not that reasons cannot be adduced for this or that military product to not be on this list. But rather that such a course of action will be used by the armed services habituated to “buying foreign” to persist with this habit. As a result, even a modicum of self-sufficiency will be hard to achieve. Because it is certain the Services HQrs will fight tooth and nail to ensure that their main weapons platforms — main battle tanks, combat aircraft, diesel submarines, helicopters and ballistic missile defence systems and the like, inclusive of their associated electronics, and systems and sub-systems, remain outside the negative list. It could, in effect, leave the country still forking out enormous amounts of hard currency to foreign suppliers even as the process to make India self-reliant stays unachieved.

One can only fervently hope that the Modi government will be rude and ruthless in first enlarging the list of defence items that cannot anymore be bought from foreign vendors and, simultaneously, nullifying or at least drastically pruning the underway deals.

Given the capabilities especially in the private sector — navy’s Project 75i cannot, in the context of nuclear submarine building wherewithal in-country, be permitted to import other than the design and certain highly specialized technologies, such as mast optronics from competing submarine builders (Rubin Bureau of Russia or DCN of France or ThyssenKrupp Marine of Germany); there’s absolutely no need for importing self-propelled and towed artillery, or tanks when there’s the Arjun MBT to refine and design-wise down-scale to obtain a 30-ton light tank for Tibetan plateau use prospectively by the offensive mountain corps; and even less point to flying in foreign combat aircraft to fill the IAF’s MMRCA fleet when there are Tejas derivatives, such as the AMCA to fast forward. For sure, there’s need for foreign assistance in re-working the Kaveri jet engine and there’ll be no dearth of companies competing for India’s custom. But that doesn’t mean the country has to buy a combat aircraft with it. Which is to say that the procurement principle the defence ministry should follow is to buy the specific technology India is deficient in, not the whole damned weapons system package that gets us nothing and in the bargain loses us our purse!

Moreover, with the private sector leading the charge the country is primed to realize inside of 5-7 years Prime Minister Modi’s goal of ‘atm nirbharta’ in weaponry if he is serious about it. But this will require the Indian military and government, as I keep iterating, to trust in Indian talent and invest in Indian programmes to deliver the most sophisticated military goods.

The danger to attaining the above goal is in Sitharaman’s announcement of the other defence industry-related reform, namely, the raising of FDI limit to 74%. The expectation apparently is that foreign arms manufacturers allowed to set up shop freely and with no prior authorization, will jump at the opportunity. Not so fast, Speedy! There would be no problem and such ventures would be welcome if foreign defence companies set up their arms production plants here, and benefit from labour cost advantages, using India as a manufacturing hub mainly for exports. They may be induced to do that only if GOI also allows them guaranteed sales in India. This could lead to foreign vendors setting up factories to dump a whole bunch of obsolete or fast obsolescing weapons/platforms by assembling them here for the Indian armed services, thereby pushing off into the indefinite future the possibility of the Indian military becoming technologically in-date and consequential.

Thus, Lockheed, for instance, which has already tied up with Tata to produce in India the F-21 (the vintage F-16 by another numeric) will come in fast and try and seal a deal with the IAF. From the Washington end Trump can be relied on to do the pushing which our main man, Modi, is unlikely to resist, he being only too eager to please Trump at every turn. (Refer the PM’s expressing his gratitude yesterday to Trump for his promise to send, unbidden, some excess ventilators the US has no use for possibly because these Chinese-produced items have been found to be defective!)

But there are larger issues here that remained unaddressed by Sitharaman. 70% equity and controlling shares is all very well, but before foreign Original Equipment Manufacturers take up the offer, won’t they insist, as regards labour, on hire and fire practices prevailing in the West and elsewhere so they don’t ever get stuck with a low productivity workforce they can’t be rid off? And won’t these foreign firms also insist on ‘one window’ clearance for all permits, local level up, so they aren’t mired in red tape nor compelled to function at the sufferance of defence production babus as Indian companies are forced to do? And further, will the potential investors not demand that the land acquisition be simplified and facilitated which will need the centre and the state governments to be on the same page? The Finance Minister said nothing about any of these things. Result: There’ll be some uptick in foreign interest but no rush into India from foreign quarters, unless they too get the sort of consideration that Lockheed is banking on.

Revamping the land and labour laws, rules and regulations, is a prerequisite for the country becoming a workshop to the world. The Modi regime has done next to nothing in the last 6 years in these respects, other than floating the ‘Make in India’ rhetoric, but still wants India to become a manufacturing station servicing global needs. So much for building a house roof down!

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An “atm nirbhar” (self-sufficient) India, great! In armaments too, Mr Prime Minister? – Augmented

[Modi at the DefExpo 2020]

Whether by coincidence or design, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two most recent speeches — first on the National Panchayat Day and the second, the TV address yesterday which, incidentally, was the third one on the coronavirus crisis and the first in terms of promising a comprehensive economic package, had a common theme. It was self-reliance. “The global contagion has …taught us”, he said April 24, “a very important lesson; that we have to be self-reliant and self-sufficient. It has taught us that we should not look for solutions outside the country” and added that the fact that “we should not depend on others for fulfilling our needs is centuries old…”

Sure, he then veered off, as the occasion demanded, into suggesting that villages should become self-sufficient in their needs raising, in the process, the Luddite nightmare that Mahatma Gandhi — who had strange ideas and did even stranger things — had conjured up when he talked of India as a collection of “village republics”!!

In the address last evening there was considerable confusion — which is increasingly the hallmark of the PM’s public utterances. His khichdi speech mixed self-reliance with global welfare and with India making a place for itself in “the global supply chain” before turning 180 degrees and urging the strengthening of “the local supply chain” and the Indian people needing to trust and buy Indian products as a first step towards making them “global brands”. Modi concluded by saying that “Self-reliance leads to happiness, satisfaction and empowerment” and how “Our responsibility to make the 21st century, the century of India will be fulfilled by the pledge of self-reliant India.” He ended with an exhortation: “Now we have to move forward with a new resolve and determination. When ethics are filled with duty, the culmination of diligence, the capital of skills, then who can stop India from becoming self-reliant?”

Who, indeed? Unless it is the government itself.

Coroniavirus vaccine is fine. Supply-chain aspirations are good. It is a pity though Modi did not in his speeches once touch on the one sphere, that of armaments where India absolutely has to become self-reliant to maintain its sovereignty which has been sliced away over the last 60-odd years due to the military’s relentless hardware buys from abroad for which the politicians, bureaucrats, DPSUs and Ordnance factories and the armed services’ brass are almost equally to blame. It is a vicious circle any of the numerous PMs in power could have broken, but did not.

So, Indian politicians’ blathering on and on about self- reliance is a bit rich and counter-pointed most glaringly in the country’s almost total, abject and shameful dependence on foreign armaments. This last, moreover, is at the cost of indigenous effort, talent, and capability richly available if the government only looks for it outside the waste and corruption-ridden defence public sector units (DPSUs) and Ordnance factories. To put these latter wretched, money guzzling, government-owned defence ministry-run agencies, maintaining whose health at whatever cost is the defence production department’s sole remit, in-charge of the task to achieve arms self-sufficiency is to take the axe to national interest. It is to put a partially blind man at the steering wheel of a bus and expect he will take us to the destination, when the surprise will be if India gets to the gate without mishap.

After almost surrendering the telecommunications future to the PLA outfit, Huawei, and China, the government, prompted by organizations such as SITARA (Science, Indigenous Technology & Advanced Research Accelerator), is finally permitting Indian private sector high-tech achievers to enter the field of 5G and potentially even 6G systems. SITARA is headed by an unusual former Indian diplomat, Smita Pushottam; unusual because the Indian Foreign Service usually breeds foreign arms lovers. Similar telecom sector type thrust will have to be given by the Modi regime in defence, aerospace, and electronics sectors generally, lest national security continue to be willfully compromised. There is more than critical mass of Indian companies with skills and competences in these fields to free the country from the “commissions and considerations in kind”- racket within the portals of government that lubricates the present procurement system.

The danger though is that Modi, who is his own and only adviser, will decide to buy antiquated fighters (F-16-F-21) and such and compel Indian industry to produce this trash item just so his ‘Make in India’ programme is not seen as an out and out fiasco.

The only consolation is the treasury will be emptied out with 10% of the GDP or Rs 20 lakh crore ($260 billion) staked by Modi to revive a moribund economy, with industrial output down by 16.7% and sliding downwards, and an annual growth rate estimated at best to be no more than 1%-2% this year and at the worst decline to negative growth in this fiscal.

In the event, now may be the time, if he is really serious about self-reliance, for Modi to announce an end to all purchase of armaments, and aerospace systems and sub-systems, and high-value electronics components, as I have been advocating, and for his government to stop dilly-dallying [detailed in my 2015 book Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)] and put up the money for establishing a high value microchip fabrication facility to drive the technology sector. It will mean, by way of a beginning, the long overdue dismantling of the extant procurement processes and systems in the defence ministry and the departments of Space and of Electronics.

We may do well to recall as a cautionary tale the country’s sorry condition in the electronics field being the result of the historic blunder committed by the late MGK Menon-led electronics commission in the 1970s, which advised the Indian government to concentrate on developing software capability while ignoring development in-country of computer hardware capability. It allowed companies like TCS, Infosys, et al to grow and prosper, of course, and all to the good, but did not help India become comprehensively independent in high-technology. Whence the awful state the country is in with Huawei and China lording over us in the telecom sphere, as does every half-way industrialized state supplying India where armaments are concerned.

In the defence arena the indigenous capabilities that produced the Tejas LCA, the nuclear-powered submarine, and the Arjun MBT as the principal technology programmes can be enabled to seed design-to-delivery projects for future advanced manned and unmanned combat aircraft, conventional diesel submarines, and various infantry combat vehicles, including a light tank derivative (for Tibetan plateau use) for the mountain corps, for instance. This is the time for Modi to take such disruptive measures and bring the armed services forcefully in line and ensure the success of his government’s “atm nirbharta” policy.

But, as I conclude in my latest book — ‘Staggering Forward’ Modi may not be the leader to take hard decisions to realize technological autonomy because, among other reasons, he is too besotted by the US and the West to not sustain the entrenched import culture inside the government which benefits them, his rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding.

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Pakistan’s diplomatic counter-offensive

India has feasted diplomatically on Pakistan’s complicity in terrorist acts over the past two decades. There was a credible enough case made for the UN Financial Assistance Task Force (FATF) to put Pakistan on its sanctions’ ‘grey list’ owing to Islamabad’s well-known role in mobilising Islamist militants from West Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa to replicate the Taliban success in Afghanistan in Jammu and Kashmir.

The troubles began for Pakistan with the 9/11 strike in 2001, propelling to the forefront terrorism and Islamic extremists as existential threats to int­ernational order. Islamabad’s use of jihadis began to draw censure and, in the wake of the 26/11 seaborne attack on Mumbai by Pakistan-based terrorists in 2008, sealed that country’s standing as a sponsor of terrorism, legitimating India’s ret­aliatory actions. For Pakistan, the political and economic costs began to outweigh the politico-military gains from using terrorism to wage asy­mmetric warfare. Once the pariah status took hold, foreign countries became wary of dealing with Pakistan, a Pakistani passport became a liability, foreign direct investment dried up, its economy plummeted, exacerbating, in the pro­cess, societal faultlines. Even the Gulf countries, hitherto staunch supporters, began to distance themselves.

This allowed Prime Minister Narendra Modi to pitch India as a partner of choice for these sta­tes, consolidate its position as supplier of cheap labour and safe destination for Arab petro-dollar investment. The warming of ties also permitted these Arab states to leaven their autocratic rep­u­tation by associating with a democratic India. The muted response of the United Arab Emirates to the abrogation of Article 370 and Saudi Arabia’s agreeing with Delhi that it was an “internal matter” crowned India’s West Asia policy, handing PM Modi his only real foreign policy success.

And then the corona pandemic struck. For the first time, Islamabad saw a clear way to not only blunt India’s charge of fostering terrorism but to push Delhi on the back foot. This they did by conflating the actions of local authorities to corral attendees of the Tablighi Jamaat meet in Delhi as potential COVID-19 spreaders with three unconnected issues—alleged human rights abuses in J&K, ill treatment of Muslims under the BJP dispensations in Uttar Pradesh and other states, and the Citizenship Amendment Act, which triggered nationwide protests and was des­cribed by Islamabad as a “pogrom” against Muslims.

It was this storm of supposedly anti-Muslim measures that burst on the Indian government, something Islamabad gleefully capitalised on and Islamic countries could not ignore. Pakistan, in any case, was working since August last year to erode the support for India in the Islamic bloc. In February-end this year, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) urged India to end violence against Muslims, and Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan asked Delhi “to stop the massacre” of Muslims, a phrase repeated by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamanei, on March 5. Following the April 28 release of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) report recommending that the state department designate India as a country of ‘particular concern’, Kuwait condemned the “violence” against Indian Muslims, an emboldened Gulf Cooperation Council may follow suit, and Arab activists are using social media to excoriate the Indian government for fuelling “Islamophobia”.

India is in a pickle, its policy of equipoise between Sunni Gulf states as source of energy and remittances (worth $80 billion annually) and Shia Iran as pivot, and its plan for a south-north road and rail grid out of Chabahar port affording access to Afghanistan and Central Asia while helping the Indian Navy outflank its Chinese counterpart in Gwadar collapsing under the weight of the growing disillusionment of Islamic countries with India. This may also hurt Indian strategic interests in Southeast Asia, especially in Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia. With Al Qaeda and the Islamic State weakening and terrorism off centre-stage, international relations are returning to their old moorings where human rights matter. Which is why Pakistan now has “organised cruelties against Indian Muslims” to bludgeon India with every time Delhi cries “terrorism”. 

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This piece published as ‘Up Front’ column in India Today, issue dated May 18, 2020, at https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/up-front/story/20200518-pakistan-s-diplomatic-counter-offensive-1676132-2020-05-09


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Embraer available, will India grab it? Nah!

Embraer ERJ-145 series - program supplier guide

[ERJ-145 — one of Embraer Company’s bestselling medium haul passenger aircraft]

Twitter has been justifiably agog with the news of Dr RK Tyagi, former Chairman, HAL, writing to minister for civil aviation Hardip Puri, urging him quickly to get the Indian government to bid for control of the Embraer Company of Brazil for as little as $5 billion, Boeing having withdrawn from its 80% stake in it worth $4.2 billion. This Brazilian firm specializes, among other things, in producing various bestselling passenger aircraft (such as 30-110 passenger carrying E2 and ERJ-145 series of single engine, single aisle, transporters) which can also converted to maritime reconnaissance, aerial early warning, cargo, and VVIP flight missions. In fact there are already a number of these aircraft flying in India. Just to provide perspective: India has failed to manufacture any such plane despite a number of underway projects over the past 30 years to design and produce them. Acquiring Embraer will thus vault India into the front ranks of aircraft producers.

In his letter dated 27th April 2020 to Puri, Tyagi mentions that the projected demand by 2035 in India for these types of aircraft is between 350 to 500. So it makes ample economic sense to grab Embraer at this time, and act fast to do so before “other other players, potentially China, enter the scene and pitch for the Embraer stake”. He adds that “Apart from the possibility for phased manufacturing in India, there is also the potential to attract OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) of aircraft engines, wheels and braking and landing gears, avionics, etc to set up MRO (Maintenance and Repair Organizations)/manufacturing in India since the scale and size of the business are potentially sustainable. It will also add to indigenous design and engineering skills.”

Tyagi recommends that (1) “the extant opportunity be [expeditiously] seized”, (2) “An interim Expression of Interest” be “communicated to the Government of Brazil to bid time”, and (3) “India actively considers acquiring a 51% stake into Embraer either through a SPV (Special Purpose Vehicle) created by equity participation by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited acting alone or in partnership with the private sector.” Private sector participation by such Indian firms as L&T and/or Mahindra, or Godrej Aerospace makes ample sense in terms of spreading the risk and distributing the benefits, such as transfer of technology and skills, of this acquisition. Indeed, Indian twitterites have been besides themselves enumerating the immense possibilities of such a deal. Such as producing the Tejas LCA in Embraer production facilities to sell in the promising Latin American market.

In case, his acquisition idea finds favour with the Modi government, Tyagi suggests constituting “a small team of policy/industry experts”, and ends his letter with a warning: “This may be once in a lifetime opportunity for us” and hence, by implication, not to be missed. It is copied to defence minister Rajnath Singh, PK Mishra, principal private secretary to the PM, and Amitabh Kant, ceo, Niti Ayog.

What are the chances this proposal for securing controlling shares in Embraer will be entertained by the Modi government, and these four notables — Messrs Puri, Singh, Mishra and Kant will succeed in speedily getting the Prime Minister’s and, more important, Finance Ministry’s approval and release of the necessary funds, and that in the meantime MEA is tasked to discuss the topic to the Bolsonaro government in Brazil and prepare the politico-economic ground for such Indian investment, and to seek his help in keeping out other potential bidders, especially China? President Jair Bolsonaro, after all, was wined, dined and feted as the chief guest at the Republic Day parade this year and will have warm memories of his Delhi sojourn and, if properly approached, would be receptive.

One wishes though that the Modi regime had by now articulated a strategic vision such as the one proposed in my ‘Staggering Forward’ book of a smaller geostrategic grouping of BRIS (Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa) derived from the purely trade and economically oriented BRICS. An Indian majority stake in Embraer would fit nicely in a BRIS schemata. Any which way, this deal justified by the Indian government, the right touch may be provided by Modi broaching this topic directly and personally to Bolsonaro in a phone call, leaving their respective government functionaries to work out the details.

So what’s the proverbial fly in the ointment? Well, Puri, a former diplomat, Mishra and Kant are all civil servants used to working in a certain leisurely bureaucratic style and pondering procedural hurdles at length, rather than getting on with it and showing some urgency in cutting through the red tape. The mind boggles at the potential of this transaction and how Embraer in the Indian fold would turbocharge Modi’s so far idling ‘Make in India’ policy and programme, generate huge employment, and keep the immense Indian wealth that has to-date been frittered away in arms imports, within the country.

Is all this enough for these durbans (gatekeepers) to Modi to get their political master to act without losing time? And if adequately briefed, will Modi have the foresight to pilot the Embraer company acquisition through the bureaucratic thicket that is the Government of India? Time will soon tell or, as is more likely, when newspapers report that China has already grabbed Embraer even as Delhi is still at the starting gate mulling over the matter!

Posted in arms exports, asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, China, China military, civil-military relations, Culture, Decision-making, Defence Industry, DRDO, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian ecobomic situation, Latin America, MEA/foreign policy, Military Acquisitions, Military/military advice, society, South Asia, Technology transfer, Weapons | 31 Comments