BY: ASHOK CHOUDHARY
India cannot address its economic and security concerns about China in the absence of an enabling strategic environment.
No one in the country denies that we must engage with China. However, it need not be an aimless exercise for the sake of showing continued diplomatic efforts by the government to either avoid uncomfortable questions or to glorify the existence of our diplomatic corps. If we critically analyse the various senior-level talks in the last few years, it emerges that these engagements have failed miserably in achieving the desired results. The prime minister’s visit to China is no exception. The timing of the visit gives an impression of filling the blanks created by the concerned ministry as our leadership lacks credibility and conviction in its last leg and the Chinese will be unable to take it seriously.
It is disturbing to note that our policy has always been reactive and lacks any evidence of long-term planning. Policymakers have become too bookish and developed a sense of inflexibility and arrogance due to their self-acclaimed view of being the only ones who understand foreign policy. The notings on government files, which are analysed and later approved, reflect the same hackneyed view, so they do not tackle dynamic challenges facing the country.
China is an enigma to our politicians and diplomats; so much so that they become incomprehensibly cautious in their approach during every routine or exclusive interaction, whether in-house or at international forums. It is time that our politicians and diplomats got over the 1962 “syndrome” and evolved a national vision to fashion and project our national capability towards ensuring adequate security and economic growth at the level we deserve.
Why are we unable to deal with China as a neighbour with equal reciprocal respect? Why do our leaders and diplomatic corps exhibit an embarrassing inferiority complex while dealing with China? There is an overpowering section of officials who successfully create a façade of likely strong reaction from China and its extraordinary capability, which inhibits the government from projecting our national personality as per our actual standing. Let us avoid overblown scenarios of what might happen if China flexes its muscles. Many such scenarios are grossly overstated and used to support a specific point of view that is neither realistic nor dynamic.
China is an upcoming international power and well understands its place among the comity of nations. Therefore, we need to continue our growth process along with the development of national power to be able to deal with our economic and security concerns with dignity. Let us reflect on the important issues that need to be considered while dealing with China.
First, border management. The world knows, as does China, that we are a peace-loving nation and do not have territorial ambitions beyond our borders. But they must also understand that we possess the requisite expertise and power to defend our motherland.
It is in this light that we have to manage our borders with China while ensuring dignity in dealing at the political as well as the functional military level. Weak and extremely cautious approaches at the political and diplomatic levels that permeate down to the troops, allow China to inch forward and consolidate its claims. Experience shows that whenever we have dealt with China in a professionally firm manner with clarity on functional issues, our stand has been respected and proven effective.
Second, infrastructure development. China has been actively engaged in substantially upgrading its military infrastructure in Tibet including all-weather railway lines, new roads, military airfields, military camps close to the border, upgraded communication systems and induction of a large number of ballistic missiles. Our endeavour in this regard is plagued by bureaucratic hurdles and lack of strategic understanding, as well as clarity at the directional and functional levels. The pace of development cannot be maintained at the requisite level till the urgency is understood and appreciated by the functionaries at the ministry as well as service headquarters. It is only then that appropriate directions can be issued with conviction by political heads.
Today, all government functionaries are happy to play safe and avoid recommending or clearing any project as it does not affect them directly during their respective tenures. Nor are they accountable for their inefficiency or misdeeds. They are sheltered by the accepted wisdom that a conflict is unlikely in the near future. However, they do not seem to understand the basic security norms of preparedness for war and exhibit an immature strategic and operational outlook by overlooking the ground reality of the process of planning and executing infrastructural projects and the need for continuous training.
Third, consolidation and modernisation. We also need to understand and appreciate the requirement of ensuring the availability of complete authorised arms, ammunition and equipment, along with phased modernisation, to meet operational requirements. Equipping of armed forces must not be compared with other sectors where one can afford to procure new equipment after the old has outlived its utility.
Training and familiarisation of new equipment by troops must be done prior to phasing out the old so that operational preparedness is not compromised. It would be prudent to understand that while dealing with national security, the finance ministry must not impose arbitrary cuts and issue directions to bureaucrats to delay clearance. Let everyone ensure that budgeted amounts are spent in a timely manner, as per planned service requirements, and not left at the mercy of authorities.
Since Independence, our armed forces have credibly defended our national and territorial integrity. It is our national duty and honour to provide them with the requisite wherewithal to deal with challenging security concerns. Mere exhibition of anxiety among the strategic community while dealing with China will not suffice. Let us create institutional arrangements and processes with adequate decentralisation of powers that can cope with the complexity of national security planning and execution. Talks and superficial engagements to project a sense of maturity and diplomatic security will not suffice till these are backed by real hard power.
The writer, a retired lieutenant general, has served in all command appointments on the borders and been a former director general of military operations.