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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Commentary: Who Shall Guard The Guardians Of India?

By Aruni Mukherjee (Guest Writer)

Not many of us know of the words, originally espoused by Thomas Macaulay in the context of ancient Rome, inscribed on the war memorial in the tranquil Buddhist monastical town of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh:

''How can a man die better than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers and the temple of his Gods''

- To the sacred memory of the Heroes of Rezang La, 24 martyrs of the 13 Kumoan, who fought to the last man, last round, against hordes of Chinese on 18 November 1962

Better known among Indians is the bravery with which the country's soldiers defended their territory against invading People's Liberation Army (PLA) forces despite being hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned.
Some of us are also aware of the impotence, ineptitude and leaden footedness of India's political leadership in 1962, which failed to foresee the knife inside the velvet gloves of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, and then failed to back the military to the hilt; for example, with the decision not to use the air force despite repeated requests from a struggling army. 

History is about to repeat itself - and Indians seem terribly apathetic about it. Last week, it was reported that Indian soldiers had been stopped from patrolling right up to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, and the PLA had occupied 1,657 square kilometers on the Indian side of the LAC. When opposition parties created a furor in parliament, the Defense Minister A K Anthony simply issued a denial that any such incursion had taken place, and that "this government keeps a constant watch on India's security and takes all necessary measures to safeguard it''. That was hardly specific, was it? 

Reports of Chinese occupation, if true, make a lot of sense. India has built a landing strip near Daulat Beg where it can land C-17 Hercules transport aircraft that can carry a large number of troops, and it makes sense for the Chinese to snoop around this area. Back in April, the PLA had intruded yet again, destroying a few surveillance posts and stealing a surveillance camera. Even then, the PLA had set up camp around 20 km inside the Indian side of the LAC and had demanded that the Indian Army dismantle an advanced border post as a quid pro quo for them returning to their side of the LAC. India obliged. 

All of this resonates with Defense Minister Anthony's statement, which accepted that India had neglected the border infrastructure for several decades and in recent years had been strengthening it with new roads, airstrips and raising of new mountain divisions. This, Anthony said, has irked the PLA into doing its best to thwart progress. That may well be, but China's behavior appears awfully similar to someone turning up in your home and refusing to leave unless you demolish your garden fence - why is India not telling them to get lost? 

China and India set up a committee in the late 1980s with a view to finding a peaceful resolution to their border dispute. After several rounds of negotiations it is clear that nothing has been achieved. Both countries still show the full extent of their territorial claims on their maps, albeit China's are the most outrageous (for example, all of Arunachal Pradesh is shown as south Tibet). You get the sense that China would much prefer if India kept on talking without an end in sight - online forums often mock the Indians' love for an argument or a discussion - many in China view this as an aptitude for blabbering versus their propensity for action. 

And what might action look like? Very simply, the PLA might change the reality on the ground, and in so doing shift the basis upon which any future discussions on the border may be held. Through its small-scale incursions, the PLA is at present testing the mettle of the Indian political leadership. Despite its massive military build up and a defense budget three times the size of India's, the PLA does not feel confident enough to undertake a full-scale invasion of the disputed territory. But make no mistake - that day will come. Maybe not in the next 10 years, but it will, unless India shows resolve now to stand up to this menace. 

China has border disputes with other neighbors. But can you imagine the PLA setting up camp on the Senkaku islands, or flying a combat aircraft inside Taiwanese airspace? In addition to maintaining modern and well-equipped armed forces, both Japan and Taiwan have a security agreement with the United States, and the PLA would be loath to take on the 7th Fleet, at least not just yet. Similarly, China would never consider solving its border issues with Russia through the use of direct action. The only countries which China feels confident of pushing around are tiny Vietnam and softly, softly India. 

India's armed forces have modernized over the years, but are not yet a strong enough deterrent for the PLA. In terms of conventional forces, China has many more submarines, destroyers and frigates than India's navy; it has many more combat aircraft and main battle tanks; the PLA has many hundreds of thousands of more armed forces. A couple of aircraft carriers without an adequate carrier battle group are described in military circles as "sitting ducks". In terms of nuclear forces, China has maintained an arsenal of inter-continental ballistic missiles for decades, while India still hasn't got one; the PLA has submarine-launched ballistic missiles that can hit the Indian mainland, while India has only just developed its first nuclear submarine. 

Crucially, China can roll off a horde of domestically produced reverse-engineered military hardware from Russia from the production line in times of war and mass produce its domestic military hardware (eg the J-10 fighter aircraft) at short notice. India's army on the other hand has dithered for years over taking deliveries of a mere 124 Arjun main battle tanks, and the air force hasn't even inducted the Tejas combat aircraft, let alone the country being able to mass produce military hardware. 

India needs to invest in all aspects of its armed forces to be better prepared for the Chinese threat. However, more urgently required is political will and vision. India need to recognize that the PLA is not interested in negotiation and only respects the barrel of the gun. The leadership needs to work hard towards developing a more strategic presence in its neighborhood in order to properly combat the "string of pearls" policy of the PLA which ties neighbors such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to Chinese vested interests, thereby surrounding India with potentially unfriendly countries. 

Personally, I would like to see India develop a much stronger relationship with the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, potentially culminating in a security agreement. The Americans are keen to cultivate their relationship with India, and India should reciprocate. 

China today worryingly displays many traits of Germany in the 1940s. Its hankering after lebensraum - living space - is one such trait. Given its political tradition, it simply does not believe in dialogue and believes strongly in the superiority and correctness of the Middle Kingdom. 

One day, the day of reckoning will come for Tawang once more, and brave jawans will happily walk towards the marauding invaders, heads held high, hands stretched out in front indicating "Thou shalt not pass." India can either back its jawans or abandon them to death like it did in the 60s. They won't mind either way as sacrifice and valor is written in their DNA. But India should. 

(About the Writer: Aruni Mukherjee studied History and Politics at the University of Warwick and has lived in the UK for 12 years)