We can hope that the increasingly harsh tone that had crept into Sino-Indian relations has been checked by the sequence of meetings that Prime Minister Singh and External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna have had with their counterparts in Thailand and Bangalore respectively. Though neither India, nor China can afford a conflict, one side appears as though it is looking for one, and the other side is once again not ready.
Unless they have been changed recently, the political directive that the government has given to the armed forces is to maintain a posture of “dissuasive defence” vis-à-vis the Chinese in Tibet. This contrasts with the directive of maintaining a posture of “disuassive deterrence” in relation to Pakistan. The latter means that the Indian forces plan and equip themselves for possible operations in Pakistani territory. But the import of the former is clear: India has no plans for offensive operations in Tibet in the event of hostilities. Its plans would call for allowing Chinese forces into Indian territory and destroying them in battle there.
A huge component of this strategy devised in the 1970s was firepower. Unfortunately, that is precisely the area where the Indian forces are lacking. China on the other hand, has built up a formidable force of missiles, rocket and tube launched artillery and mobile units, all on display in the recent 60th anniversary parade. On the other hand, India’s missile programme is distinctly limping and laggard, its deployed rocket artillery is confined to multi-barrel rocket launchers and its mountain divisions are in dire need of an overall upgrade. India has no self-propelled artillery and its towed artillery, even the modern Bofors F77B guns, are some two decades old.
The air force part of the equation once favoured India, but this has changed. First, the IAF combat capability has declined because acquisitions have not kept pace with the obsolescence of its fleet. Second, the Chinese air force’s modernisation has advanced with great speed and depth, despite the informal embargo that has been imposed on it by the western countries.
But despite our weaknesses, 2009 is not the same thing as 1962. At that time the poorly equipped and badly led Indian armies literally lacked the knowledge of what was on the other side of the mountain. Intelligence was non-existent. Today, India has a sophisticated system of aerial and ground surveillance of the Tibetan plateau and ought to have enough fore-warning of a Chinese military adventure.
Even at the time, the outgunned and outmaneuvered Indian forces collapsed only in the Tawang sector. At Walong in the east, they were forced to withdraw, but not routed. In the west in places like Chushul, they fought heroically, laying down their lives to the man. Though the military balance is tilting against us, it is just about adequate for the defensive battle that we would fight in the event things get out of hand.
The rise of China is an inevitable reality; the 2008-2009 crisis may have accelerated its growth. But there are also alternative interpretations of the figures of the Chinese economic performance which are not very flattering. But there is little room for doubt over the fact of China’s impressive military build-up. It is, in fact, quite open and purposeful — to ensure the defence of the sovereignty and integrity of China. This means the ability to prevail in the event of a conflict over Taiwan and keep a lid on the separatists of Xinjiang and Tibet. But, as The Economist has pointed out, the build-up has now gained a momentum of its own and Chinese capacities are beyond what are required for Taiwan or the internal security of its western regions. A large and capable military capacity could enhance the risk for countries like India which have disputes with Beijing.
It is through borders with these two regions that India comes into the picture. The recent tensions between India and China can be seen as a function of the latter’s insecurities regarding its minorities who people its geographically vast and resource-rich regions. But there could be other causes as well.
There has been a clear shift in the Chinese position towards India since mid-2005 when the Indo-US nuclear deal was announced in Washington DC. Just months before Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited New Delhi and had signed a far-reaching Agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles to resolve the border issue. It had virtually spelt out the contours of a border settlement on the basis of a mutual exchange of claims — the Chinese would keep Aksai Chin and India would retain Arunachal Pradesh.
In June 2007 at the sidelines of a meeting in Berlin with Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi appeared to resile from Article VII of the agreement which had said that “In reaching a border settlement the two sides shall safeguard populations in border areas.” Mr Yang now told Mr Mukherjee that the “mere presence” of populated areas would not affect China's claims on the Sino-Indian border.
It is from this period that the more strident Chinese line on Tawang, on the visit of Dalai Lama and the like seems to have emerged, though it has been amplified by the Tibetan uprising of last year which took place not only in the truncated region of what is Tibet today, but the large areas that the Chinese have hived away and renamed into other provinces.
Early on, Beijing recognised the Indo-US nuclear deal for what it was: A far-reaching agreement through which the nuclear pill that had been stuck in the throats of India and the US would be washed down and would enable the two to have normal, even strategic relations. Almost transparently, the US was wooing India and the aim seemed to be to balance the rising power of China.
India is unlikely to act precipitously on the border. This is as much a matter of choice as its current weakness. It sees its best option as a need to settle on an “as is, where is” formula. On the other hand, the signals coming out of Beijing are not very good. Its military build-up has gone into overdrive, even as its attitudes towards India have hardened. This is bad news, as much for China, as for India.
A unsettled border only provides opportunity for conflict, notwithstanding the interim agreements to maintain “peace and tranquility” there. China may be thinking that by outpacing New Delhi in building its national power it can get better terms in the future, or hawks in Beijing are contemplating administering New Delhi another lesson.
But things may not work their way. A combination of factors, or a single event could change things: The Chinese economy could stall, India could be provoked into building up its deterrence capacity, Taiwan may act up or the US could elect a hawkish president.
You don’t need Sun Tzu to tell you that it is easier to start a fight, than to predict its outcome.
This article appeared in Mail Today October 29, 2009