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Op-Ed: An ostrich before the Dragon's roar

October 26, 2009

Bharat Karnad
Express Buzz (India)
October 25, 2009

Brave words and demeanour often cover up for a
weak hand and harsh reality. So when the Chief of
Army Staff General Deepak Kapoor the other day
declared there would be no repetition of 1962,
the tocsin should have sounded about precisely
such a denouement being round the corner! Indeed,
the situation on the ground has worsened so much
from the high point of 1986-87 when, for the
first and only time the Indian Army took the
fight to the Chinese, that a determined push by
massed PLA Group Armies across the Tibet front or
ingress from southern Yunnan cutting across
northern Myanmar into India from a direction the
Indian Army does not anticipate and is unprepared
for, will see the Indian forward units being
stranded in a Chinese sea and the larger units
falling back on the Assam plains damn fast.

The Indian Army’s unexpectedly aggressive
response to a routine Chinese intrusion on that
occasion may be attributed to a no-nonsense
Divisional commander, who was not prepared to
take guff from the Chinese, rather than to any
sudden show of nerve on the Indian government’s
or of guts by the army brass in Delhi.

The consequences, however, were salutary.

A chastened Chairman Deng Xiaoping reportedly
told the Central Military Commission -- the most
powerful military body in China -- that “We
cannot anymore take a chicken knife to a
bullock”. Meaning, presumably, that while in 1962
India was a chicken that could be trifled with,
some 25 years later it had turned into a much
heftier animal requiring lots more to subdue it.
It eventuated in Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s
state visit to Beijing in December 1988 and his "long handshake" with Deng.

However, instead of learning the lesson that
Chinese respect nothing so much as they do
military power and parlaying that success into
beefed up mountain warfighting strength to push
the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army further on
the defensive, the Indian government fell back
into its accommodationist stance even as the army
leadership resumed its familiar activity of
making a lot out of little and keying on Pakistan
as “primary threat." The psychological edge vis a
vis China was thus frittered away.

The pity is that India’s China policy has ever
been made, post-Jawaharlal Nehru, by Indian
Foreign Service-wallahs with long stints in
Shanghai and Beijing and a proven capacity to be
befuddled and mesmerised by all things Chinese.
Instead of emulating the Chinese habit of
strategic visioning and hard realpolitik, our
diplomats learn to kowtow, an attitude that
serves as template for official thinking about
China. To that mix are now added two other
debilitating factors -- Prime Minister Manmohan
Singh’s terminal mushiness and his National
Security Adviser M K Narayanan’s patent
policeman’s inability to see beyond his nose, and
think strategic or even straight.

In the event, their mustering the gumption to
permit the Dalai Lama to visit Tawang has come as
a surprise at the end of a long series of Chinese
insults and provocative behaviour that otherwise
went unanswered. But to believe that the Indian
government will react to Kashmir’s being shown as
an independent country in its maps — the latest
Chinese poke in the Indian eye — by representing
Tibet in Indian maps in a different colour and,
in effect, making the first of many required
moves to de-recognise Chinese sovereignty over
that benighted land, would be to expect entirely
too much of a government that has turned tail
more often than it has stood up for the national interest.

The vice-like grip on policy making by Chinese
sympathisers in the Ministry of External Affairs
is of long standing. It was Sardar K M Pannikar,
it may be recalled, who in direct contravention
of Nehru’s instructions, paved the way for the
abject acquiescence in China’s subjugation of
Tibet by replacing the word “sovereignty” for
Nehru’s choice of “suzerainty” in describing Beijing’s relationship with Lhasa.

The important thing to note is that Nehru did not
pull up the erring diplomat nor correct the text,
which understandably met with Beijing’s approval.
The reason, as this analyst has shown in his book
— Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The
Realist Foundations of Strategy, was that Nehru,
disillusioned by the Indian Army’s poor,
plodding, performance in the minor 1947-48
operations to rid the Srinagar Valley of the
“raiders”, simply didn’t think the Indian armed
forces had the druthers militarily to oust the
battlehardened PLA from Tibet and hence opted pragmatically to placate China.

The Indian military’s role in reinforcing a
manifestly passive-defensive, un-agile, and
unimaginative foreign-military policy versus
China is not talked about much but it is at the
core of the country’s strategic limpness.

Before 1962, there were the likes of Chief of
General Staff, Lieutenant General L Verma and the
Eastern Army Commander Lieutenant General S P P
Thorat who worried about the threat posed by
China. But the drubbing in that war seemed to
leak all the steam out of the military leadership
in taking on the Chinese. This was especially
glaring after the 1971 Bangladesh War when
Pakistan was reduced and there was no remaining
excuse not to begin reorienting the military effort primarily towards China.

Indeed, taking an ostrich-like stand -- that the
adversary you are not prepared to fight is
unlikely to emerge as threat -- the Indian Army
Headquarters single- mindedly pooh-poohed the
China threat for over 40 years, refusing to
prioritise the acquisition of forces for
offensive warfare on the Tibetan plateau. It is
only in the last couple of years of incessant
prodding by a few strategic analysts that the
army has woken up to an aggressively rising
China. A belated attempt is now being made to
raise two light mountain divisions for offensive
operations, but this is too little and bit late.
These divisions will become active only around
2018 and will find themselves overmatched by the
PLA. Because of the Qinghai-Lhasa railway and the
network of nine-tonner roads right up to the Line
of Actual Control, China can muster some 22-25
fighting divisions on the Indian front inside of two campaign seasons.

It is imperative the army begins a meaningful
build-up against China by raising another seven
light mountain divisions for a minimum of nine such formations.

Money for such force upsizing and modernisation
can be found, for a start, by consolidating the
existing three strike corps into one fully
equipped armoured-mechanised corps to deal with
Pakistan in any contingency. Otherwise, the
country will end up with an absolute incapacity
to deter China militarily and Indian army chiefs
will have to continue making excuses for
increased Chinese violations of LAC in the manner
that General Kapoor did recently, saying that the
aggressive actions by Chinese paramilitary border
guards were not ordered by Beijing.
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