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Premvir Das: Rethinking the China threat

India needs to be more rational in its strategies to cope with the Chinese military challenge

Premvir Das 

Newspaper reports and television discussions over several months have stressed increasing concerns over potential military threats from China and India’s inability to cope with them. Several weaknesses are cited; poor infrastructure in the border areas is one, the inadequate number of army troops another. There is talk of a new Corps being raised. It appears that we are back to the 1960s when readiness for a two-front war was mandated. While the security scenario is indeed disturbing, the suggested responses merit more reasoned discussion.

It is absolutely true that China has improved infrastructure on its own side of the border considerably. The railway network, non-existent until a few years ago, can facilitate deployment and redeployment of troops and equipment much faster. At the same time, runways of airports in the region have been lengthened and strengthened to enable heavier aircraft to operate with greater payloads. These will enable the Chinese military to mobilise in larger numbers, if and when needed, and deploy air power more effectively. These are capabilities India cannot afford to ignore. Lately, the need for better infrastructure on our side of the border has been recognised and efforts are underway to improve it. This will facilitate quick and easier movement of men and materiel. As for deployment of air power, India has always been better placed with its airfields capable of operating every kind of aircraft optimally. However, positioning an additional 60,000 troops on the north-eastern border on the assumption that unless this is done, the Chinese will not be sufficiently deterred is an argument that borders on the facile.

First, while planning for the adversary’s capabilities rather than his intentions (which may change) is a standard feature of military planning, to expect that in any confrontation, large formations of Chinese soldiers will or can come marching into India, without opposition, is absurd. For one, it will have to involve its air power fully since any serious military ingress will invite strong response from the Indian Air Force, a capability China will be silly to overlook. Therefore, a major war will ensue in which both sides will engage fiercely, quite unlike that of 1962. As Vietnam showed in 1978, even its limited capability was enough to send the Chinese back. In any land war, the aggressor needs to deploy many more troops than the defender, so the decision to recourse to military conflict with India will not be an easy one for the Chinese; better infrastructure will also enable India to redeploy forces from other sectors with greater ease. The concept of being ready for a two-front war at all times is not only going to be enormously expensive, but is also irrelevant in today’s networked world. Even in 1971, China rejected overtures from Pakistan to open a second front against India. Even in the worst case, while India may take some losses, the penalties on China will be much greater. Its assertive posturing has already alienated several regional countries and this will only be further aggravated. Its goal of seeking parity with the US will be put back several years, if not decades, and instead of putting India down, it will ensure a much more powerful US military presence in the Asia-Pacific in a grouping of which India will, inevitably, become an important player. No right thinking government in Beijing is likely to risk this scenario, when that is exactly what it is trying very hard to limit.

In fact, it is at sea that China is seeking to expand its presence because this is the arena where it is not only much weaker than the US but also India, the major Indian Ocean maritime power. Its continuing deployment of some ships is not just a response to Somali piracy but even more important, to demonstrate its ability for work far removed from homeland, something that all major sea powers, including India, have shown they can do for decades. The building of aircraft carriers and enhanced engagement of island nations such as Maldives and Seychelles is part of this strategy. However, while China can send its ships to distant places, it will not be able to operate them credibly unless it has recourse to some major naval base facilities in the Indian Ocean where ships and aircraft can be repaired and turned around. Its assistance in building ports in some countries of this region may well be a precursor to that possibility. India must keep a watchful eye on these developments and prepare for a situation in which Chinese naval forces are more active and in greater strength in the Indian Ocean littoral than is currently possible. Maritime security concerns are, therefore, now becoming increasingly important and to remain fixated on the 1962 border conflict is naïve. Things seldom happen the way they did.

Coming back to our military plans, it should be clear to any rational planner that the most productive deterrence in the context of any possible confrontation with China will lie in air and sea power. To configure our military strength on a two-front war and, consequently, spend large sums of money on manpower-intensive deterrence will act to our disadvantage since the same resources could be spent on capabilities that would be more useful. The flaw in the Indian military planning system is that each Service plans for itself and a holistic view of the capabilities needed is never made. Ten years ago, a Group of Ministers recognised this serious inadequacy that was resulting in cost-ineffective and wasteful expenditure, and recommended that the entire business of military planning should be concentrated under a Chief of Defence Staff. Unfortunately, the then prime minister did not catch the bull by the horns and his successor has not been able to do any better. Unless this is done, India’s investments in military deterrence will remain “ad hoc” and without sufficient rationality. Boots on the ground are no doubt necessary but the ability to get them quickly where needed is more important than to leave soldiers to cool their heels awaiting the Chinese. They may not be coming…

The author is a former Director General Defence Planning Staff. He has also been a member of the National Security Advisory Board

First Published: Sat, November 19 2011. 00:34 IST