Army chief Gen M.M. Naravane recently said that the force is in the process of re-balancing its deployment against Pakistan and China to cater to any threat that emerges in the future.
And the Indian Army is absolutely right to do so. Gen Naravane has brought national attention to China, which remains India’s invisible but a formidable foe. There is no denying that China, with its huge military and economy, is a bigger threat than Pakistan, though the latter may hog all the headlines.
So, it is a welcome sign to hear a top military commander openly talk about China – that too twice within days of his taking over – and the challenges it poses to India, which has for long kept its focus on Pakistan, both political and military.
All about Pakistan
While Pakistan gets immediate media attention and binds India into a frenzy every time there is some action at the Line of Control (LoC), China remains the silent dragon that could wake up and catch the country by surprise anytime.
This Pakistan-centric focus is evident from India’s reaction to two separate incidents of similar nature involving the Army – the 2015 strikes against Naga terror groups in Myanmar and the 2016 surgical strike in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK).
While the latter received widespread coverage in the media and became part of the national discourse – even inspiring Bollywood into making a film on it – the Myanmar operations have largely been forgotten by the public, despite being the first cross-border surgical strike under the Narendra Modi government.
China, the No. 1 threat
In 1998, when India joined the list of nuclear-powered nations by conducting its first nuclear test, then-Defence Minister George Fernandes had called China the “potential threat number one”.
The defence minister publicly acknowledged the reality, and yet nothing ever really moved on that front.
Attempts have been made in the last two decades to improve the infrastructure along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the north and the northeast. But plans are not even half-complete.
Such is the state of affairs that if you travel close to the LAC, your cell phone will catch Chinese signal because Indian networks are still largely non-active in these areas.
It took a while for the Indian military planners to change their outlook. While China focussed on building infrastructure along the LAC – with special attention on laying concrete roads – the Indian side viewed the existence of rocky terrain as the best form of defence.
Their curious logic was that if there were paved roads, the Chinese could use those anytime to enter deep inside India.
Even though Indian governments and the armed forces started focusing on the Chinese threat over the years, they always made sure not to ruffle the Chinese feathers. So, even as India bought strategic lift aircraft like C-17 Globemaster and C-130J Super Hercules, it took care to ensure that these purchases were not seen as build-ups against China.
Such has been the fear of China that ever since Beijing’s objection to the 2007 Malabar naval exercise involving India, Australia, Japan, and the US, New Delhi has continued to exclude Australia from the tri-lateral grouping despite extensive lobby from the other players, including Washington, to participate in the annual drill.
Of late, Indian military strategists have spoken about the ‘two-front scenario’ (Pakistan-China), and the service chiefs have publicly claimed that they can fight in such a scenario. But the fact is that India cannot. It has neither the military resource nor the economic power to do that.
A new chapter
But things changed after ‘Operation Juniper‘ – when Indian troops moved into Doklam, a small territory in Bhutan, to stop the Chinese army from constructing a road that threatens India’s strategic interests.
As India stood up to the “bully”, it brought itself closer to the reality that China cannot be ignored at any cost and that the defence preparedness has to be sped up.
The fact is that India cannot afford to let its guard down against China like it did in the 1950s, which eventually led to the 1962 debacle. Then-Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon became so focussed on the Pakistani threat that he and others completely lost track of China, which eventually stabbed India. India cannot make that same mistake again.
While the 1962 War should have made New Delhi wake up to the Chinese threat, all the political attention and rhetoric quickly shifted back to Pakistan and it has remained like that ever since.
A foe always on its toes
China has always flexed its muscle and specialises in ‘salami slicing’ – taking over territory in a gradual manner, testing the limits of the opponents’ threshold.
A top military officer once told me that China always takes two steps, and when confronted, takes one step back. This gives the opponent the impression that things have gone back to normal when, in reality, China has taken its first forward step.
China has maintained a frenzied focus on its military, with fresh expansion plans for its Navy and the Air Force, besides bringing in new technology. Such is the pace that China has added 80 ships in the last five years to bolster its naval fleet. No navy has grown so rapidly in the last 200 years as the Chinese Navy.
While China sees India as just one of the chess pieces as it goes about playing its larger global game, Beijing is acutely aware of the fact that India is the only power in Asia that can actually stand up to it without help from another country.
While I am in no way seeking a confrontational and aggressive approach against China – not that we are capable of taking one – there is definitely a requirement to take a firmer stand.
India needs to ensure that its plans against China are acted upon in a focussed manner as against the Indian way of dealing with things – ‘chalta hai, ho jayega’.
Army chief Gen Naravane was correct in saying that one has to stay prepared for any eventuality to ensure peace. A stronger Indian military is paramount for achieving peace in the region and the world at large.