Admiral Sureesh Mehta, who will shortly be retiring as our Chief of the Naval Staff (CONS), made a presentation on "India's National Security Challenges--An Armed Forces Overview" at the National Maritime Foundation at New Delhi on August 10, 2009.
During his tenure as the CONS, Admiral Mehta initiated a number of welcome changes in the policies and planning of the Indian Navy keeping in view the changed national and regional security requirements. Among the laudable steps initiated by him one could mention the Look West projection which he gave to the Navy to correct the over-focus on the Look East projection, the bringing together of the Naval chiefs of the Indian Ocean powers in an exercise to promote a convergence of views and action for strengthening the mutual security of the Indian Ocean powers facing common new threats from non- State actors such as maritime terrorists and pirates and removing deficiencies in our coastal counter-terrorism capabilities.
Admiral Mehta's talk at the National Maritime Foundation was a lucid and frank exposition of the present and future challenges to our national security as seen by him. A summary of his presentation is available on the website of The Hindu. Unfortunately, some sections of the media have tried to misinterpret his remarks on India and China and project them as if the CONS was defeatist in his analysis of the respective capabilities of the Armed Forces of the two countries and particularly their naval capabilities. Far from it.
A careful reading of his remarks would indicate that he has tried to impart a sense of balance to the national debate on Sino-Indian relations and their impact on our national security. The salient points in his presentation are:
- The trust deficit between India and China will persist till the border dispute is settled.
- Cooperation rather than competition or conflict with China was preferable since it would be “foolhardy” to compare India and China as equals in terms of economy, infrastructure and military spending.
- A military conflict would have grave consequences on the economic front for both nations and therefore it would be in the interest of both the countries to cooperate with each other in mutually beneficial endeavours and ensure that the potential for conflict is minimised.
- Both in conventional and non-conventional military terms, India neither has the capability nor the intention to match China force for force.
Since India carried out its nuclear tests in 1998, there has been a national debate on what should be the ultimate objective of our military modernisation--the ability to compete with China in power projection in the region or the ability to deter an external threat to our security and to defend ourselves and our territory if a threat materialises in spite of the deterrent capability built up by us or because of its inadequacy?
The importance of competitive power projection with China was the dominating theme of the debate in our security circles till about four years ago. The Government of Dr Manmohan Singh has sought to change the priority from power projection to our capability for deterrence and self-defence. Once the validity of the changed priorities is accepted, there is no need for us to match China force for force.
India should avoid a policy of military confrontation with China and, at the same time, should develop the capability to defend ourselves and our territory should a confrontation be forced upon us. In the undesirable eventuality of such a confrontation, the military conflict, which will be of limited duration, will be in the mountainous region of the Himalayas and not on the seas. Our ability to repel any attacks and protect our territory along the Chinese border and our citizens living there will depend on the capabilities which we give to the Army and the Air Force more than the naval capability. It will also depend on the state of our infrastructure and our intelligence community, which is presently well-focused on Pakistan and not so well-focused on China.
Till four years ago, in our over-fascination for power projection through the Navy, we failed to pay adequate attention to strengthening the capabilities of the Army and the Air Force to fight in the Himalayan areas and to developing a modern infrastructure without which even the best of Armies will feel handicapped in battle. It will not be an exaggeration to say that the vital Arunachal Pradesh region, so frequently and so vehemently claimed by China as its territory, was in a state of benign neglect with little attention paid to its economic development and military-related infrastructure. So long as this state of neglect of the Arunachal Pradesh region by us continued, China was happy and missed no opportunity to praise India and even made a seeming gesture by giving up its claim to Sikkim. It carefully monitored the strengthening of our Navy and its power projection in the seas to the East of India, but it did not show signs of any undue concern over it.
The Chinese attitude changed from positive to negative after the Government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh--in a welcome and long over-due change of policy-- decided four years ago to shift our priorities from naval power projection overseas to strengthening the capability of the Army and the Air Force for deterrence and self-defence in the areas along the Sino-Indian border. A hostile attitude to India in sections of the Government and party controlled media and in some academic circles became evident after India gave up its policy of neglect of the Arunachal Pradesh area by undertaking a crash programme for the development of the infrastructure and by paying more attention to the views and requirements of the Army and the Air Force in that area such as by placing two more mountain divisions at the disposal of the Army, by improving local airfields and by enabling the Air Force to deploy a squadron or more in the area. The objective of the virulent Chinese campaign against India on the issue of Arunachal Pradesh is to intimidate the Indian political leadersdhip into giving up the new priorities. It is important that we do not let ourselves be intimidated.
It is important for our policy-makers to take note of some of the themes of the debate going on since June,2009, in Chinese non-governmental circles-- India as a paper tiger, the blunder supposedly committed by the Chinese in withdrawing after occupying large parts of the Indian territory in the Arunachal Pradesh area in 1962, the importance of not repeating this blunder in the event of another military conflict, no bartering of territorial sovereignty for friendship, the advantages enjoyed by the Chinese society because of its supposedly homogenous character as against the allegedly fissiparous tendencies in the Indian society etc.
As a result of the difficulties faced by the Chinese in Tibet and Xinjiang, the Chinese are feeling increasingly insecure about their hold on these areas. As a result, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is increasingly in the seat of decision and policy-making in these two areas as also with respect to the border dispute. Even in the unlikely event of the Chinese political leadership wanting to dilute its claims to Indian territory in the over-all interest of the economic ties between the two countries and the stability of their economies, it is doubtful whether the Chinese military leadership will accept any compromise which falls short of Chinese demands.
Against this background, even if India does not want a military confrontation, the Chinese may be prompted to force a confrontation in two scenarios:
Scenario I: If the Chinese military leadership concludes that the strengthening of India's military position in Arunachal Pradesh has reached a stage beyond which it should not be allowed to go lest lt come in the way of the materialisation of the Chinese designs.
Scenario II: If there is serious instability in Tibet after His Holiness the Dalai Lama due to the opposition of the Tibetans to Beijing's attempts to impose on them a successor to His Holines chosen by the Party.
Admiral Mehta is right in saying that the two countries should explore ways of minimising the potential for a military conflict. Avoiding a military conflict by strengthening the present relations and economic ties between the two countries should be important, but avoiding a military conflict should not mean not preparing ourselves to meet successfully a military conflict if our attempts to avoid it fail. For that, it is important for us to continue to strengthen our military capabilities in the Himalayan region in order to make any military conflict an unattractive option for the Chinese. We must examine what kind of armed forces and comprehensive national strength we would need for this objective and relentlessly go ahead in creating the required capabilities.
What should be the role of the Navy in such a contingency and what kind of capability it should have? This is a question which needs careful examination and follow-up action. Any naval plans should have at least two objectives-- to protect our energy supplies and to make it prohibitively costly for Pakistan to indulge in any adventurist actions against us by taking advantage of our preoccupation with China.
Admiral Mehta is again right in pointing out that we have lagged behind China in modernising our Armed Forces. This neglect has to be corrected. What is required is not competitive modernisation to meet force for force, but modernisation in the Indian perspective to meet Indian needs for deterrence and self-defence.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies.
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