China experts feel Indian defence strategy treats China, not Pakistan, as priority target, which they also believe provides for a partial border war, writes D S Rajan.
Reports on India's revision of its defence doctrine to meet the challenges of a 'two front war' with Pakistan and China have of late received media focus. Pakistan has been prompt in its response, describing India's reported move as 'betraying hostile intent' and reflecting a 'hegemonic and jingoistic mindset'.
The People's Republic of China does not appear to have come out so far with any official reaction on the subject; interesting however is that the same theme of India's 'two front war', worded a bit differently as 'two front mobile warfare' has figured in an in-depth authoritative Chinese evaluation of India's defence strategy, done as early as November 2009; it raises a question whether or not Beijing already knew about India's reported revision of its defence strategy. This apart, it would be important to have a close look at what has been said in that analysis, for drawing meaningful conclusions. What follows is an attempt in that direction.
Titled 'Great Changes in India's Defence Strategy -- War objective shifts to giving China importance, while treating Pakistan as lightweight', the analysis contributed by Hao Ding, a researcher of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, published in the Party-affiliated Chinese language organ, China Youth Daily, on November 27, 2009, identifies following five shifts that have taken place in India's defence strategy:
'In terms of goals, India now aims at becoming a global military power in contrast to its earlier objective to acquire a regional military power status.' (The author's comments say in this connection that prior to end of the cold war, India followed an expansionist and hegemonic policy in South Asia, dismembered Pakistan, annexed Sikkim kingdom and dispatched troops to Sri Lanka and Maldives.
In the 21st century, India's national interests are expanding and accordingly, it is striving to protect its strategic superiority in the South Asian sub-continent as well as the Indian Ocean region. Simultaneously, India is actively projecting its power into the Asia-Pacific region, attempting to gradually become an Asia-Pacific power instead of being only a South Asian power. It is taking efforts to emerge as 'a major and positive geo-strategic player' in the Eurasian political chessboard. For this, India would require to work towards achieving strategic balance of power with countries outside like the US and China, operate beyond South Asia and Indian Ocean region and develop as a world military power.
'From the point of view of strategic guidelines, India has shifted to a line of 'active and aggressive defence', as a departure from the past position of 'passive defence'. (The analysis views that India has realised that in the 21st century, security threats to it are coming from 'three evil forces' -- the low intensity conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir which can trigger a large scale conflict, the risk of a nuclear confrontation among the two nations and terrorism in South Asia.
The Indian defence strategy has been revised in such circumstances; The 'active defence' concept has replaced the old line of passive defence, the basic 'regional deterrence' principle has been given a new meaning with 'punishment deterrence' concept taking place of the old principle of 'only deterrence'. India is stressing on taking initiatives so as to be able to conduct a hi-tech 'limited conventional war' against the enemy 'under conditions of nuclear deterrence'.
'Looking from the angle of war objectives, India is now laying emphasis to giving China importance while treating Pakistan as lightweight, as compared to the past equal emphasis to China and Pakistan.' The write-up says that in 21st century, India has done a reassessment of the military threats coming from Pakistan and China. It considers that in Pakistan, the internal situation has become unstable, economic development has slowed down, development of military faces restrictions and the overall national strength and military capabilities show a downward trend, in comparison to the situation in India. India believes that as such, there is a weakening of real threat to it from Pakistan.
On the other hand, in China, there is stable political situation, a fast developing economy, a continuously accelerating military modernisation drive and growing comprehensive national strength. India thinks that therefore, the potentials of 'China threat' to it are on the rise. It wants to correctly treat the dialectic relation between the changes that have occurred in military threats posed by Pakistan and China and prepare for all types of military struggles. Based on such reasoning, India has proposed the doctrine of 'two front mobile warfare'.
'In matters of strategic deployment, India has shifted to a strategy of stabilising the western front and strengthening the northern front as well as giving equal emphasis to land and sea warfare, in contrast to the earlier stress only on land warfare.'
The Chinese scholar elaborates this theme under three points (1) in recent years, India has carried out adjustments in its defence system to suit to the new needs. 'Stabilising the western front and strengthening the northern front' is a step in this direction. India has already made plans to dispatch additional forces- two mountain divisions- to the Sino-Indian border and deploy Su-30 fighter aircraft as well as missiles there in order to further strengthen its 'partial military superiority' vis-à-vis China, sufficient to fight a 'middle or small-scale partial border war under hi-tech conditions', (2) India is increasing its deployment of mobile warfare-capable troops. Some units, on 'double combat missions', can launch mobile operations in both China and Pakistan fronts and (3) India's past attention only to land warfare is now getting shifted in the direction of the Indian Ocean, creating a deployment position capable of paying importance to both land and sea. A part of Indian troops so far located in the rear of the borders is being diverted for coastal defence purposes and a new naval fleet has come up in the south to increase strength in respect of the Indian Ocean.
'India is making efforts to create long-range mobile operational strength and gain capacity to launch cross-combat missions.' The Chinese military expert comments that structural adjustment of the Indian military is in progress with focus on building Indian Navy and Air Force as well as rapid action troops, leading to building up of global combat capability of Indian armed forces. The expert cites in this connection the war doctrines of the Indian Army (2004), Indian Navy (2005) and Indian Air Force (2007).
The analysis above needs to be examined together with a very recent Chinese assessment. Given under the title 'Panoramic View of International Military Situation in 2009', the analysis contributed by Ma Kang, deputy director, Institute of Strategic Studies, National Defence University, Liberation Army Daily, December 29 highlights the defence budget increases in the US, Russia and India. It points to India's '24 percent defence budget increase' in 2009 as compared to previous year as well as efforts to build an aircraft carrier of its own, launch of first home made submarine Arihant and goals set towards possessing 'three dimensional nuclear strategic capability.'
What stand out are the unmistakable adversarial tones with which the two highly placed Chinese experts have talked about India. Especially, the evaluation of Hao Ding runs contrary to the officially declared perceptions of India and China that each nation is not a threat to other. Observers in India have reasons to raise their eyebrows on the reappearance of the terminology 'partial border war' after some gap, more so in a contribution made by an academician close to Chinese hierarchy (the last such reference figured in an unofficial strategic affairs website in November 2008).
Also odd is the timing of such comments when India-China bilateral defence, political and economic ties are progressing steadily -- senior Chinese military officers including the Tibet commander have visited India recently, the Indian defence secretary is scheduled to visit Beijing for talks, both India and China have coordinated their actions in the conference at Copenhagen on climatic change, preparations are being made by both sides for the scheduled visit this year to China by the Indian President and lastly, India-China trade volume is slated to touch $60 billion by this year.
A basic question would therefore be what is the real meaning of the latest Chinese assessment of Indian defence strategy as above, which, judging from the affiliation of the analyst concerned, can definitely be considered as reflecting official views, especially that of the military. First comes the apparent dichotomy in the thinking of the civilian and military apparatus in China on relationship with India. However, when looked carefully, the reality looks different.
China has always been encouraging expression of strategic opinions and treating them as inputs for decision making at appropriate times. It has at the same time been taking care to see that the required diplomatic options, whether relating to India or other countries, are not prejudiced by such opinions. Specifically, this premise explains the rationale behind China's support to holding diplomatic initiatives, like talks between special representatives, to solve the boundary issue with India, while at the same time allowing hostile articulations on the subject by its strategists.
Beijing's such two-track mindset may also be seen as setting a context for understanding the opinion expressed by the Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh during his recent visit to the US regarding China's 'assertiveness' vis-a-vis India of late.
Secondly, it is probable that the analysis clearly bringing out the 'India threat' theory, albeit after a gap, has something to do with the US factor. No doubt, it makes no mention of the US, but its appearance subsequent to the issuing of US-China Joint Declaration of November 17, 2009, may have its own meaning. Undeniably, reasons seem to have arisen for Beijing to feel that a qualitative change in its favour has occurred in the triangular China-US-India relations consequent to the opening of a new foreign policy course based on a 'smart power' concept (said to be a mix of hard and soft power) by the Barack Obama administration.
The US imperative towards China has undergone a shift to encompass a wider vision -- from one seeking China's emergence as a responsible stake holder in the international system to that aiming to establish a 'positive, cooperative and comprehensive relationship' in the 21st century. In addition, the US has chosen to adopt a 'pragmatic' approach on human rights issue in China. If China thinks that it has as such come to occupy a superior position in the Sino-US equation at this juncture in the background of it having emerged as America's biggest creditor, the same may not be misplaced.
For Beijing, the same reason may hold good in believing that the US will be inclined to tone down its support to India on sensitive issues like the boundary problem and that the time is opportune to intensify its strategic pressure on India.
Its readiness to agree with Washington to 'cooperate' on India-Pakistan issues, which touched Indian sensitivities, may relate to such thinking. It may at the same time be not wrong to assume that some Chinese pronouncements (official journal Liaowang, December 1, 2009) considering China-US and China-India relations not as a zero sum game, are only for public consumption.
Lastly, China can be expected to factor the latest views of experts in formulation of its own defence strategy vis-a-vis India. The assessment that China, not Pakistan, is India's priority military target is not going to be missed by the defence policy planners in China. But China may not need to make fresh responses. It has already consolidated its troop strength in the border, established firm defence ties with Indian ocean littorals and stepped up military help to Pakistan; On the last mentioned, Beijing's recent justification of its military aid to Pakistan as a response to India's getting arms from the US and Russia, unveils what could be in store for future.
China's occasional talks on partial border war with India need close attention of New Delhi as they could be in conformity with the need expressed by China to 'win local wars under conditions of informatisation' (China's latest Defence White Paper). In a broader sense, trends in China towards enhancing its extended range force projection capabilities and establishing overseas naval bases, may have implications for the entire region, especially for countries like Japan, India and South China sea littorals, all having territorial problems with China.
One has only to take note of the US position that China's military modernisation is changing the balance of power in East Asia.
China is giving mixed signals, but it would be in India's interests to continue 'engaging' China. It should at the same time take all necessary steps to protect its strategic interests; India's revised defence strategy proves that it is prepared to do the same.
D S Rajan is director, Chennai Centre for China Studies.