Over the years, the Indian armed services have become more and more like the Indian government — cautious, defensive, incremental in thought and action, and risk-averse when it comes to China, an adversary that is, perhaps, better endowed, if not more competent in fighting wars. Willingness to tangle with an equal or superior foe is the measure by which would-be great powers are judged; it is also a reasonable criterion for the citizenry to gauge whether the country, in fact, has secured military value and muscle for the vast monies expended on national defence. Except, as soon as China heaves into view, our military leadership, much like the Indian government, freezes up, its reluctance reflecting less the actual correlation of forces than a deep down conviction that it cannot cope. This “establishment” attitude is everywhere, reflected most recently in former national security adviser Brajesh Mishra saying point blank on a weekend television show that India should do nothing by way of riling China until it is economically in a position to offer resistance, which is a recipe essentially to do nothing.
The Army Chief, Gen. V.K. Singh, has talked forthrightly of Chinese violations of the disputed border but, like his predecessors, done precious little to rid the Army of its Pakistan fixation and transform it into a land force capable of taking the fight to the Chinese on the Tibetan plateau. To crow about two mountain divisions and two additional divisions under raising as meaningful offensive warfare capability in the Himalayas, is misleading, as these constitute a force that is neither large enough, nor potent enough, to do more than beef up the defensive line 40-50 miles behind the Line of Actual Control, which pre-positioning ends up ceding this wide belt of border land to China before the hostilities even begin. The Indian Air Force, likewise, is air defence minded in the eastern theatre, despite its having the largest complement of Tezpur and Chabua-based Su-30MKI, arguably the best combat and strike aircraft flying bar the F-22 Raptor that can, if offensively deployed, keep the Chinese PLA on tenterhooks.
But whatever the Army and Air Force dispositions, the Navy is at the sharp end of imminent military confrontations, which are bound increasingly to determine the nature of the Sino-Indian strategic equilibrium obtaining in the future. But the Indian Navy seems to be in no frame of mind to proactively protect national interests in the South China Sea, or anywhere else that Chinese ships may venture. This much may be gleaned from an article by retired Adm. Arun Prakash (“Where are our ships bound?”, Indian Express, October 1, 2011). Astonishingly, Adm. Prakash blames ONGC Videsh Ltd and MEA for trying to precipitate a confrontation in the South China Sea which, the former naval Chief deems too distant for Delhi to “take a stand on principle or adopt an assertive posture vis a vis China”, particularly in the absence of “a viable trans-national capability”. His reference is to the mid-July challenge by a suspected Chinese naval vessel to the amphibious assault ship INS Airavat steaming north from Nha Trang to Haiphong that went unreported until, possibly, Hanoi, mindful of the fact that an aggressive China has the effect of leaving the Indian government and the armed services in a tizzy, sought to test Delhi’s resolve to help protect India’s energy stake in the South China Sea and Vietnam’s “territorial integrity”, by leaking the news of this non-incident to the international press. The Indian government and MEA’s instincts to run away from a fight with China were forestalled by the then impending, and now underway, state visit of the Vietnamese President, Truong Tan Sang, resulting in surprisingly strong statements supportive of Vietnamese interests by external affairs minister S.M. Krishna.
The more troubling thing is Adm. Prakash’s implied contention that the Navy, in effect, ought to be allowed to choose its fights. That’s not how it works. Wars are imposed by situation and circumstance or triggered by sustained violation of sovereignty or chance trampling of national interests. The military, Navy included, better damn well be prepared for any contingency at all times.
There is no excuse for trying to escape a fight by pleading logistical void and absence of wherewithal. Because then the question will be asked: What exactly has the Navy, which ballyhoos its strategic mindset as much as it does its blue water capability build-up, been preparing for?
The military’s unwillingness to tangle with China, the only consequential foe India faces, is rooted in a host of reasons, among them the fact that the country is still to get a Service Chief of Staff who calls a spade a shovel, and shakes up the national security establishment by ruthlessly restructuring his Service with the Chinese threat primarily in mind, thereby seeding an operational reorientation of the Indian military as a whole north and eastward — something desperately required if it means to be relevant in the unfolding geostrategics of the extended region and Asia. Dealing with China demands finesse and forcefulness. So far what has been on view is the former, as configured by the ingloriously ambivalent MEA and a little known body of appeasers comprising the China Study Group. Too much nuance and too little counter-force has resulted in China gaining massive psychological and political advantage, further encouraging it to do as it pleases.
Whatever the Indian military’s level of eagerness or the lack of it to go toe-to-toe with China, it may be prudent to arm on priority basis a bold and plucky Vietnam, that has repeatedly shown it takes no guff from anybody, with everything Hanoi desires, including the nuclearised Brahmos supersonic cruise missile. If we lack the stomach for a fight, let’s at least equip a country that does have the guts to take on China. It will keep a worried Chinese South Seas Fleet tied to its Sanya base on Hainan Island because, sure as hell it won’t be the Indian Navy which shies away from stressful encounters east of Malacca.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi