Chinese military operations, in waters far from its shores, in search of the ill-fated Malaysian airliner have demonstrated Beijing’s impressive maritime capabilities and the strong political will to use them. India’s hesitant response to the humanitarian emergency, in contrast, has brought into sharp relief the diminution of India’s defence diplomacy under A.K. Antony’s extended tenure in South Block.
Immediately after the disappearance of the Boeing 777 aircraft, flight MH 370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, on March 8, the Chinese navy embarked on its largest search and rescue mission ever. Beijing deployed four warships and five coast guard vessels along with helicopters and fixed wing surveillance aircraft in the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea. Among the warships were two of China’s most advanced amphibious ships (called landing platform docks). The 20,000 tonne vessels, equipped with helicopters and boats, including hovercraft, can carry up to 20 armoured vehicles and 800 troops.
Once the attention turned to the Indian Ocean, China ordered nine vessels to head to the region. Four vessels led by the LPD Jinggangshan travelled through the Malacca Straits to the Bay of Bengal and five others, led by the LPD Kunlunshan, set sail through Indonesia’s Sunda Straits to the southern Indian Ocean. Once possible debris was sighted west of Australia, the squadron in the Bay of Bengal headed south. A scientific research vessel returning from an expedition to Antarctica was asked to join the Chinese flotilla in the southern Indian Ocean. Imagery from China’s satellites — Beijing has a vast military space programme — confirmed sightings by others and helped limit the search to the southern Indian Ocean. China also deployed two IL-76 transport aircraft of the Chinese air force to Perth in Western Australia to reinforce the search for the remains of MH 370.
The rapid deployment of multiple military assets by the Chinese armed forces in search of MH 370 underlined the People’s Liberation Army’s new emphasis on what it calls “military operations other than war”. After Chinese leader Hu Jintao called on the armed forces to fulfil their “new historic missions” at the end of 2004, the PLA has focused on organising, equipping, training and deploying its armed forces for a range of operations other than war, including humanitarian assistance, emergency rescue and disaster relief.
The PLA’s organisational structure for military operations other than war includes coordination between different military regions and a range of civilian departments to respond effectively to humanitarian crises at home and abroad. It has created five specialised forces in the PLA to conduct operations in the areas of flood relief, earthquake rescue, nuclear, chemical and biological disasters, logistics and peacekeeping.
China believes that peace-time deployment of its armed forces abroad boosts Beijing’s soft power, counters the so-called China-threat theory and helps the PLA gain real-world experience in activity similar to combat operations. Above all, it provides reliable security support to Beijing’s growing overseas interests by building effective expeditionary capability. What began with the deployment of the Chinese navy for anti-piracy activity in the Gulf of Aden at the end of 2008 has now become a systematic and sustained activity for the PLA.
The trajectory of China’s defence diplomacy over the last decade could not have been more different than that of India. At the end of 2004, China was stunned by the rapid international military response to the tsunami disaster in the eastern Indian Ocean. If the PLA was a mute spectator, the Indian navy was among the first to reach the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, delivering aid to these countries even as it responded to the needs of the affected regions in peninsular India. New Delhi’s military response to the tsunami showcased India’s naval power and its potential role in promoting regional security.
Since then, it has been a downhill ride for India’s military engagement abroad. Since he became India’s defence minister in 2006, Antony has consistently constrained the role of the Indian armed forces beyond borders at precisely the moment when the PLA was going out. As a consequence, there has been widespread disappointment among India’s Asian partners seeking greater defence cooperation with Delhi. The Indian armed forces may have significant material capabilities to respond quickly and decisively to humanitarian crises in the Indian Ocean and beyond. But the ministry of defence, during the second term of the UPA, had neither the political will nor the strategic vision.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’.