Last week, the Pentagon released a report that spoke about China’s enhanced military capability and deployment of more troops along the Indian border, raising a momentary alarm in New Delhi but a closer analysis of the report made it clear that the US Department of Defence (DoD) was not in possession of any new startling facts that Indian decision-makers are not already aware of. For instance, India already knows that the Tibet Military Command will now function directly under the jurisdiction of the PLA Army, the ground forces’ central command; the TMC won’t be a district of the defunct Chengdu Military Command Areas anymore.
Earlier, the Central Military Commission had reengineered the seven Military Area Commands into five Military Theatre Commands, with the entire Indian front, from Arunachal to Ladakh coming under the same command (Western Theatre), instead of Chengdu and Lanzhou MACs. So when a Pentagon official said: “We have noticed an increase in capability and force posture by the Chinese military in areas close to the border with India,” it wasn’t clear if he was referring to these changes or something more than available in public domain.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for East Asia Abraham M. Denmark was speaking to the media during a news conference after Pentagon submitted its annual 2016 report to the US Congress on ‘Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China.’ However, Mr Denmark said it was difficult to conclude on the real intention behind this.
The US, engaged in a battle of attrition in the South China Sea (SCS), has been pursuing India in a clear attempt to build some kind of an anti-China alliance but the Indian establishment has been cautious in responding to the aggressive US wooing since New Delhi wants to deal with China bilaterally and does not welcome any attempts to be roped in by Washington as a junior partner in any counter-China grouping. Pentagon is however relentless.
“We’re going to continue to enhance our bilateral engagement with India, not in the China context, but because India is an increasingly important player by themselves. And we are going to engage India because of its value,” Denmark during last week’s briefing. The Defence Department also warned of China’s increasing military presence including bases in various parts of the world, in particular Pakistan — with which it has a “longstanding friendly relationship and similar strategic interests.”
On this count Pentagon is right. India is more concerned about total, unconditional support China provides to Pakistan in international forums like the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) or in the UN apart from keeping up the uninterrupted weapons supply as well as hand-holding Pakistan’s nuclear programme. India has to be mindful of China’s increasing forays into its immediate neighbourhood in countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives.
At the same time, it must recognise these smaller nations will play the China card to derive maximum benefit from both India and China and therefore must play its diplomatic cards accordingly. There is no denying that China’s military modernisation and rapid build up of military grade infrastructure in Tibet over the past two decades has forced India too to abandon its decades-old policy of not developing the frontiers with China. In effect, India is playing catch up with China.
But it will take almost a decade for India to come anywhere near the infrastructure that the Chinese have built in TAR. Since the 1990s, China has built a network of roads, airports and railway in the sparsely populated TAR which gives the PLA a distinct advantage when it comes to mobilizing its forces if needed in double quick time. By 2020, a rail link to Nepal’s capital Kathmandu is also planned. According to an Indian assessment, there are 15 airfields in the TAR, 12 of them meant exclusively for military purposes. The Indian military on the other hand, is still dependent on old airstrips and a couple of airfields built in the 1960s.
Aware of these shortcomings, Indian policymakers have decided to build military infrastructure but also to simultaneously engage the PLA more frequently across the border. In 2014, New Delhi and Beijing earmarked four locations along their contested border in Ladakh for holding emergency meetings to quickly resolve possible standoffs.
The locations, mostly in areas that witness frequent face-offs, were finalised when a Chinese PLA delegation led by one of its most senior military leaders, the deputy chief of general staff (operations) Lieutenant General Qi Jianguo, with an Indian Army team. Frequent visits by top officials and even defence ministers to each others’ country have meant that the confidence building measures are the big focus between the two militaries.
At the same time, India is pushing in more troops closer to the border across the 4,000-km odd border with China, stretching from Ladakh in north-west to Arunachal Pradesh in the east. Roads, airfields, new facilities for additional troops are being built with greater alacrity than before all along the border. Although India’s much-touted Mountain Strike Corps has become a bit of a non-starter for lack of adequate funds, redeployment of existing resources has mean that Indian defences along the China border are fairly robust.
India’s aggressive push along the border seems to have raised curiosity if not alarm in Beijing, at least sufficient for top-ranking Chinese generals and party officials to step up the frequency of their visits to cantonments bordering Ladakh and Sikkim. In conclusion, India must adopt a dual track approach with China—deal with it diplomatically but also build credible deterrence without getting unduly perturbed by some of the alarmist postulates coming out of the United States.
(The writer is a well-known defence and strategic affairs analyst)