To counter China, look for options beyond LAC | Opinion
India and China are currently engaged in an opaque military stand-off across the contested Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the eastern Ladakh region. The meeting between the two general officers from both nations on June 6 ended inconclusively. This was predictable and part of a familiar pattern. This amounts to no breakthrough or breakdown and a bland official statement on what is essentially “stasis in glacial progress” — as it has been since November 1962.
Towards the end of May, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi met with his core security team to review the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) incursion, while Chinese President Xi Jinping called upon his military to “think about worst-case scenarios” and “to scale up battle preparedness”. As part of this resolve, Beijing announced a $178 billion defence budget for 2020, and asserted that the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic would not adversely impact military preparedness.
The outcome of the latest talks is that while neither side wants military escalation leading to the exchange of ordnance, the “perception” of LAC in eastern Ladakh may have been altered in China’s tactical favour, pending the final resolution of the seemingly intractable territorial dispute between the Asian giants.
Reviewing the current LAC impasse against the larger historical context and examining some structural trends may allow for a better understanding of India’s options and the more viable way ahead to manage the China challenge.
The contested LAC is symbolic of the decades-old territorial dispute, and from the Indian perspective, the October 1962 border war remains a stark reminder of the “humiliation” heaped on former PM Jawaharlal Nehru.
However, at a deeper level, the discord between the two nations has its roots in their pedigree and self-image, that of ancient civilisations recast by the vicissitudes of history as modern nation-states now seeking to realise a glorious past.
The paths chosen were different and the contrast is striking. While Delhi opted for the yet unpaved road of democracy, diversity and Gandhian pacifism, the Chinese path to independence was through Mao’s long march and a communist template. Thus, India will remain the eternal “other” in the Chinese calculus where the success of democracy and memories of Tiananmen 1989 remain the core concern for the ruling elite in Beijing. Thus, Taiwan and Hong Kong are high-octane issues that need to be resolved by President Xi lest the “democracy” virus, symbolically, reaches Tiananmen again.
Thus, while LAC and the surge in PLA presence in some areas of eastern Ladakh are causes for concern, the more relevant strand for India to be cognisant of is the unwavering Chinese focus on acquiring comprehensive military power, particularly the trans-border dimension of this military capability.
China pits itself against the United States (US) in its quest for great power status and this tape is to be breasted before 2049 — when Beijing will celebrate its centenary. The extended US-China tussle lies in the oceanic global commons, where Beijing perceives a vulnerability: The Malacca dilemma. This refers to China’s marked dependence on the sea lines of communication for its vast trade and energy imports. The Indian Ocean is the critical maritime domain and China is aware of its constraints as a Pacific Ocean power — geographical, political and naval, and the inherent US advantage in this spectrum.
It is instructive that China has maintained a steady uptick in its annual defence budget and the current allocation of $178 billion is an increase of almost seven per cent over the last year’s allocation. Within this , PLA navy budget is 30% or $54 billion.
The contrast with India is more than stark. The $46 billion Indian allocation for defence was disaggregated to less than 14% for the navy, with the army and air force receiving major part of the defence budget. Thus, with the maritime domain presenting a range of opportunities and challenges for India, the annual naval budget is under $7 billion — and due to the pandemic, this is likely to shrink even further.
Steady fiscal support has allowed China to embark on a blistering pace of platform acquisition over the last few years. The PLA navy has been launching as many as 25 new vessels a year and hopes to be a 550-ship navy by 2030. As for the Indian navy, even a 175-ship figure is considered “optimistic”.
The PM outlined his maritime vision in 2015 in his first term when he referred to security and growth for all in the region (SAGAR) in the Indian Ocean region. Unfortunately, this remains a vision and the fact that he did not have a full-time defence minister at that time was a major institutional constraint. Now, India has a revamped higher defence structure and one hopes that the engagement with China will be reviewed holistically and options beyond LAC considered .
Investing in the long-term acquisition of trans-border military capabilities that subsume emerging technologies is the key to managing the relationship with China. Modi has outlined the SAGAR objective. It needs a capable team that can implement this without resorting to quixotic statements. Sea blindness should not remain a permanent characteristic for Delhi.