Saturday, September 4, 2010

Options we have; have we the will?

Another war with India is unlikely to be on China's agenda. But menacing military build-up and other needling tactics to divert India's energies and attention is central to its agenda. It’s an old ploy. But the level of aggressiveness is new.

India's politicians, the TV channels in particular, have a way of reacting to such unfriendly actions in an emotional, high-decibel style. Which is reminiscent of the Nehru-era cries like “we won't let them get one inch of Indian territory”. If anything, such declamatory posturings only reduce our own ability to work out counter-strategies in a cool and calculating manner.

Actually, we should learn from the Chinese how to be calculating. With a hundred-year perspective, they planned the strategic encirclement of India, with bases in Burma, Sri Lanka and Pakistan – even as we steadily lost our influence in neighbouring countries. With the same long-term view of history, they built up their road and rail networks in the Tibetan territory previously considered inhospitable to such transportation facilities. Recently they successfully tested their strategic airlift capability, an area where they have advanced very far with 450 high-capacity military cargo planes.

India is famous for dithering when it comes to military acquisition. Unseen middlemen still controlling the bulk of the transactions is only half the problem. The other half is our insistence of all kinds of special provisions, from incorporating systems still on the drawing board to establishing joint venture facilities. The result is that in all three wings of the defence forces, our strike capacity is well below the required level.

Sure, we have deployed significant troop numbers along the northern border and mountain road networks are being expanded. There will be no repeat of 1962. But it will take a heavy dose of unilateral patriotism to claim that India is a match to China in the military field.

The Chinese have been very smart in their diplomatic tantrums as well. Look at the calculations that must have gone into the stapled-visa system they invented for residents of Jammu & Kashmir. By introducing that system, China did not deny the validity of Indian passports held by Kashmiris, nor did it debar Kashmiris from travelling to China because of their Indian passports. It merely established that it did not recognise J & K being a part of India either in theory or in practice.

Smartly, again, it made no such distinction vis a vis residents of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir; they continue to have their visa stamped on their passports. By doing so, China established its recognition of the PoK areas as a legitimate part of Pakistan. A cleverly nuanced dual policy that hit India on the head and patted Pakistan on the shoulder.

Pakistan has been no less smart. By pretending to fight the Taliban, it has won the backing of the Americans. It has won also all-inclusive support from the Chinese by giving the Chinese three vital services they need: Keeping India pinned down, providing access routes to Iran and suppressing the Muslim nationalists in Xinjiang. While it encourages and finances Islamist groups, it suppresses the Uighur Islamists who are fighting the Chinese. It gets full help from China and the US at the same time.

India is demonstrably friendless because (a) we do not have a bold enough political leadership and (b) we are too obsessed with the US. We should be having a stridently active programme in east and Southeast Asia. From Japan and South Korea to Indonesia, all the countries of the region have been angered by China’s claim that all of the South China Sea is its territorial waters. This is a theatre where India would be warmly welcomed.

The first thing to do is to have a military-strategic action plan with Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. As China’s economic power grows, its ambitions to dominate the world are also growing. This is the explanation for its newfound haughtiness. India has options in such a context – if it has the will to use them.