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India Changes Tack in Dealing with China

India Changes Tack in Dealing with China

Relations between India and China can best be described as tenuous, beset with mutual suspicion and distrust. A quick review of the relations between the two countries over the last six decades or so shows that India had been contending with an ever-increasing trajectory of belligerence and threats to its economic interests and territorial integrity. China has always perceived India as a potential competitor and a threat. Hence it has used every trick in the book to erect roadblocks in India’s path either directly or indirectly through its proxies.

India has long been aware of China’s support to Pakistan – from building nuclear weapons to tacit encouragement of terrorism against it. Its intelligence agencies have also long been aware of Chinese involvement inside India – from funding communists to maintaining a bevy of friendly journalists on its payroll to promote its point of view. But that is par for the course in today’s pernicious international ecosystem and India has no reason to complain but rather realign its own strategic policy responses that safeguard its interests.

Of course, there have definitely been several individual instances of India standing up to China – in military responses to border incidents prior to Dokhlam (2017) or while negotiating border disputes. But overall, it conspicuously lacked the sting to deter China. That would explain the condescending attitude and a second class treatment towards India.

This has largely been attributed to the fact that India for over three decades had coalition governments that were by definition weak. Hence in international affairs, more so with regards to its neighbors, India continued to punch below its weight. But that explanation is not convincing, given that many countries with far more unstable governments have stood up to their aggressive neighbors.

All that seem to have slowly but surely changed under Prime Minister Modi. After an initial but short-lived honeymoon with both Pakistan and China, India has displayed a nuanced ratcheting up of assertiveness. There are ample pieces of evidence that point in this direction. This piece will highlight three recent reports that have attracted immense interest that attest to India’s emerging assertiveness.

Firstly, the political crisis in Maldives brought the navies of India and China to a near confrontation in the Indian Ocean. In what is seen as blatant gunboat diplomacy, China had dispatched a flotilla of several vessels (some reports have said eleven) including missile destroyers to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). But the Indian Navy threatened action and fired warning shots that stopped the flotilla and forced the Chinese Navy (PLAN) to retreat. (Nikkei Asian Review 3/23/2018)

Secondly, India has beefed up its military along the Chinese border in the north from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh in the north east (Times of India 3/31/2018). Not only has the density of troops been increased in these sectors, but also a comprehensive upgrade in defense infrastructure is evident – roads, bridges, advanced landing ground (ALG), military hospitals, etc.

Thirdly, in an apparent reversal of its earlier stand and much to the annoyance of the Chinese, a government minister and a senior BJP functionary attended the 60th anniversary of Dalai Lama’s arrival in India (Economic Times 3/31/2018).

These diplomatic incidents or updates to its statecraft, if you will, should be seen as outcomes of an inner overhaul of the operating guidelines for handling China under the Modi dispensation. Clearly a confident India has come up with its own answers to the management of a pernicious neighborhood. India is now seen as able and willing to match the belligerence from Beijing in equal measure.

It must be noted in this context that China’s rise as a global power has been punctuated by bulldozing   civil societies, grabbing others territories, defying judgements of the International court of Justice (ICJ) among others. In the same breadth it has diabolically quoted historical treaties and international law to justify its land grab frustrating many of its neighbors. Unlike India, its rise has hardly been peaceful.

With several countries bristling against China – Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, India, and Japan and of course the US, the writing on the wall is self-evident. China’s belligerence and open defiance of international law – as demonstrated in the case of the South China Sea dispute – is the raison d’etre for the formation of a loose coalition-of-the-aggrieved against it. If China continues to pursue its current course, this loose coalition could solidify into a formidable alliance that would only bode ill and spell disaster for China even in the span of a decade.

For a dictatorial and authoritarian state, where hundreds of millions of people continue to be denied basic civil liberties, the domestic situation in China is indeed fragile at best. For any nation this is a veritable internal time bomb. Any misstep or social crises like the “Arab Spring Uprising” could be irretrievable and have disastrous consequences for that country.

China’s troubles are not limited to its immediate neighborhood. As China and the US are continue to  engage` in a war of words and slapping sanctions and counter sanctions at each other, it is difficult to read the tea leaves to determine if an early rapprochement is in the horizon. But whatever be the outcome of this incipient trade war, it does provide India a window of opportunity to expand and deepen its relations with likeminded countries that perforce have to counter and stand up to China.

The regular military exercises by India’s armed forces with their counterparts in other friendly countries designed to expand its influence appear to be paying dividend. Inviting the ten heads of states from ASEAN to Delhi for Republic Day celebrations in January 2018 is another initiative designed to contain China. Although it is anybody’s guess as to how ASEAN nations will reciprocate, India has made the right moves.

In hindsight, India’s refusal to back down in heights of Dohklam in 2017 is indeed an inflection point. The rout of 1962 or the sense of inferiority perceived by the Indian political establishment vis-a-vis China are now buried in history. For now, India seems to be energized and arming itself to its teeth and flexing its muscles.

However, there will be more Dokhlam type “salami slicing” situations for India to encounter – be it in the heights of the Himalayas or the depths of the Indian Ocean – but the response will be unprecedented and definitely not to China’s liking.

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India’s Surgical Strike – Calling Pakistan’s nuclear bluff

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A lot has been written about the surgical strike carried out by the Indian army deep inside Pakistan occupied Kashmir (POK) on September 29th. Media reports have indicated that India is likely to share more details of this daring operation. But first things first. India needs to be congratulated on the planning, flawless execution, post-strike information and media management of a surgical strike that changed everything about India forever. It was a retribution for the attack on the Indian Army Brigade Headquarters at Uri in which 19 soldiers were killed. It was a punishment that a resurgent India handed out that Pakistan will not forget for a long time to come. Experts believe the strikes are only a preface to more such operations that India will impose on Pakistan.

Concern has been raised in the media about Pakistani response. There are justified apprehensions about possible tactical nuclear strikes. While nothing can be taken for granted, there are reasonable grounds to believe that a possible retaliatory nuclear strike would have been factored into India’s strategic calculations. India’s readiness to respond would be a given.

How Pakistan reacts, and suffers the consequences of its response will be seen in the coming days. For now, they clearly seem to have been severely whipped. It has also left the door wide open for future cross border strikes by India.

A central piece to this episode is the message it has delivered. The optics of the strike itself have unambiguously broadcast India’s larger strategic intent to the world – Pakistan in particular and through it, China.

Some analysts have expressed the view that India has turned a new leaf only after the dastardly attack in Uri. A closer observation of available pointers paints a different picture. In fact, the writings were on the wall soon after Prime Minister Modi took office. Many may not even recall that Modi’s first visit outside Delhi in June 2014 was to the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya. He also spent Diwali with the Indian troops in the rarefied heights of Siachen Glacier.

Modi’s top priority was to focus on India’s military strengths and vulnerabilities that play a pivotal role in his grand vision to transform India, particularly the economic transformation. As the Chief Minister of Gujarat, he became painfully aware that any such vision would be susceptible to terror campaigns from across the border.

It was no surprise then that Modi upped defense spending making India the world’s largest defense buyer. The massive arms purchases have yielded important diplomatic dividends – a huge leverage with major powers that came in handy in pursuing India’s regional and global strategic agenda. The recent US smack down of Pakistan, for voicing a nuclear threat against India was no accident. It was a well-deserved end result of two and a half years of dogged diplomacy.

In retrospect, the twin focus – building military competence and refurbishing diplomatic ties with key nations and international institutions – was a deeply thought out strategy that became a keystone to Modi’s pet initiatives.

Many only see Modi’s focus on rapid economic growth and miss the underlying twin focus. But a sufficient and necessary condition for India’s economic transformation is military might and relief from cross border terror.

While the painstaking preparations were afoot over two and a half years, the killing of Indian soldiers on Myanmar border in the east created an opportunity for India to test its new doctrine. The much acclaimed ‘defensive offense’ mandated a new normal involving hot pursuits and strikes on foreign soil. But Pakistan failed to see the writing on the wall and continued to live in a la-la land of bogus nuclear deterrence. They even mocked India retorting that “Pakistan was no Myanmar”.

The Uri attack provided a perfect opportunity for India to execute an already fine-tuned and tested doctrine on its western front. It was ripe and ready for whipping Pakistan and calling its nuclear bluff. However, it has to be mentioned that the Uri brigade camp had shown surprising incompetence in allowing the attack – given that post-Pathankot, there was sufficient intelligence to up the vigil.

On another front, India’s self-imposed taboo on mentioning Balochistan, POK, Gilgit, Pashtun etc. together with the lobby of peaceniks, Aman ki Asha types, et al had succeeded in holding back the country. But Modi’s Independence Day speech on August 15th this year actually broke this shackle. It succeeded in opening the flood gates of discontent in the local population in those areas, encouraging them to rise against an oppressive state. It has provided India a new set of levers against Pakistan.

The optics of the surgical strike referred to earlier, as well as the Independence Day speech, have helped launch the country into a new international orbit. This molting of India has provided three key visuals for Pakistan, China and the West, in that order.

First, India has called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. Any future terror attacks on the country will invite retribution that will impose high costs on Pakistan. However, there is no guarantee that Pakistan will cease and desist its cross border terror. But there is no doubt that there will be a befitting retaliatory strike deep inside its territory.

Secondly, it had a powerful message for China. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) runs through territory over which India has legitimate claim. China is investing over US $46 billion in the project and has been concerned about the constant security threats from unrest in Balochistan and POK. By raising the Balochistan issue, India has successfully put a spoke in China’s wheel. It has raised serious doubts about the security and hence the very viability of the project. It is a warning for China not to fish in troubled waters. Again, it has opened new bargaining positions for India against China.

Striking deep into enemy or foreign territory is a capability that currently only the US and Israel are known to possess. The surgical strike into POK announced India’s entry into this elite club. India can execute hot pursuits or deep strikes in enemy territory to enforce its regional agenda and achieve strategic objectives.

India’s surgical strike shows a new and assertive paradigm where terror attacks will no longer be business as usual, notwithstanding Pakistan’s nuclear fig leaf. Burying the now dead self-imposed ‘strategic restraint’, India seems determined to act upon safeguard its strategic interests.

 
 
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