New Army chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane’s suggestion that India should have greater vigilance on its northern border is significant for several reasons. Not only does it show a shift in the defence stance, but his statement is also a clear indication that under his leadership, the Army plans to enhance its capability in the northern borders, including in the northeast.
Even though there is no immediate threat of any kind – conventional or non-conventional – on the northern front, where India shares a border with China, Bhutan, and Nepal, the Army chief’s statement cannot be dismissed as simply “taking over office” speech.
“We have been giving attention to our western front in the past. The northern front now also requires an equal amount of attention,” he told the media after taking over as the 28th chief of the Indian Army, succeeding General Bipin Rawat, who is now India’s first Chief of Defence Staff.
Equally significant was Gen Naravane’s assertion that the force is capable of dealing with any security challenge. The warning from the chief of the second-largest army in the world – nearly 14 lakh active personnel, 11.55 lakh reserve forces and an additional paramilitary force of 20 lakh recruits – should be taken seriously by our errant neighbour, Pakistan. The Army chief’s reference to Balakot strikes while reiterating that “India reserves the right to pre-emptively strike” at the sources of terror assumes greater importance.
The Narendra Modi government has since 2014 demonstrated that while there is no drastic change in New Delhi’s foreign or defence policies, the response mechanism has surely changed, and for the better. The Army chief’s reiteration that a “new normal” in India’s response mechanism to acts of cross-border terrorism has already been “emphatically” displayed will be adequately taken note of not only by Islamabad but also the string-pullers in Beijing.
It should be noted that China’s response to Balakot airstrike was muted, to say the least. While Beijing refrains from condemning Pakistan for using terrorism as a state policy, it took a neutral position over the February 2019 strike in response to the Pulwama attack and merely called upon India and Pakistan to show restraint. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who had at the time stressed on the need for preventing escalation and solving the matter through dialogue, met National Security Adviser Ajit Doval in December to present China’s border talks plan with India, almost indicating how Beijing would react in the event of another such “pre-emptive” strike.
After that meeting, China proposed a fairly new draft framework to resolve the long-pending boundary dispute that India is now going over.
Since that proposal, the Army, following change of guard at the topmost level, has outlined not only the focus area – the northern border – but the ‘how’ as well. On Friday, Gen Naravane told ThePrint that India needs to be “firm” in dealing with China. “We don’t want to be aggressive but firm.” Clearly, the Army is laying it out how it would go about achieving what the chief had earlier described as “eventual solution” along the India-China border.
But is it needed?
India-China border dispute has a number of strategic locations all along the non-demarcated former India-Tibet border – from Aksai Chin to Arunachal Pradesh. Aksai Chin, the uninhabited high altitude wasteland that lies in Ladakh and Xinjiang province connects China to six countries and to India through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK). The province is also the entry point for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which takes China all the way to the much-coveted Indian Ocean.
China has refused to include Aksai Chin in border talks under the pretext that the area, ceded to it illegally by Pakistan, is part of the “disputed” area of POK. New Delhi has repeatedly reminded Beijing that India’s stand on Aksai Chin remains unchanged from the time Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had described Aksai Chin as “part of the Ladakh region of India for centuries” and that this northern border was a “firm and definite one which was not open to discussion with anybody”.
This explains China’s discomfort over India’s move regarding Article 370 and the creation of two Union Territories out of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state followed by the subsequent statements on POK by External Affairs Minister Jaishankar – “PoK is part of India and we expect one day that we will have physical jurisdiction over it.”
Army chief General Naravane, when asked about these frequent statements on “taking over POK”, said that “the Army analyses all threats and strategises accordingly”. In simple English, it only means that the Army is ready to execute any strategy that the security and political establishments would prepare for it.
No need to rush
In this context, it would be prudent to refer to the guidelines agreed upon in 2005, based upon which Beijing has proposed new plans to resolve the border dispute. The proposals include a new set of code of conduct to maintain peace along the border and setting up a hotline between the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) so as to avoid Doklam-like incidents in the future.
New Delhi has consistently adhered to its stand that the India-China border issue has to be resolved in one go and not in a piecemeal process as suggested by China. Beijing holds the view that border dispute could be resolved in parts by agreeing on “early harvest areas” of lesser dispute and greater agreement. Incidentally, there is a view that until as late as 1963, when the Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) was raised, India had a border with Tibet, not China. This means that this border ‘dispute’, as it is now called, didn’t exist until it simply emerged as one in popular discourse, taking the centre stage in India and China’s relationship. Therefore, India would do well to keep that in mind and hasten slowly until the Tibet freedom issue is settled.
Traditionally, the Army in India has always taken a back seat and left the decision-making process to the political establishment. But it is becoming increasingly important to improve all aspects of operational readiness and modernise all the three wings of the armed forces (Army, Navy, and Air Force).
To that end, the creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff adds significant strategic depth not only to the ongoing border talks and the relentless fight against cross-border terrorism but also on the future agenda of the political establishment.
The new roles of both Gen Naravane and Gen Rawat will be very crucial in the coming days.
The author is a member of the National Executive Committee of the BJP and former editor of Organiser. Views are personal.