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Disarming rhetoric

As our China debate continues,we must thank Defence Minister A.K. Antony for injecting a new word into the argument — capabilities...

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
October 3, 2009 3:56:36 am

As our China debate continues,we must thank Defence Minister A.K. Antony for injecting a new word into the argument — capabilities — and facilitating a long overdue shift away from New Delhi’s anxious talk about Beijing’s intentions.

If India’s military capabilities and security infrastructure were in better shape,New Delhi would have no reason to be surprised by Beijing’s many moves — including the most recent one on issuing visas on separate pieces of paper for Indian citizens from Jammu and Kashmir.

According to Antony,who has held the defence portfolio for some time,India did not invest adequately in military modernisation in the past,it was doing it now,and there was no reason to worry. His remarks amount to a confession,policy affirmation and public reassurance all rolled into one.

The minister’s remarks reveal the different policy universes that China and India inhabit. China’s national security elite has learnt the art of talking softly but acquiring bigger and better sticks. India,as a collective,in contrast,talks loudly,non-stop,and carries a small stick.

Take,for example,our nuclear debate. No other country in the world is as obsessed as India is with the “text” of the nuclear treaties and agreements. As a result,it spends so little time on the “context” of the changing nuclear and missile capabilities of other powers and the shifting balance among them.

Our Parliament repeatedly debated the civil nuclear initiative with the US during 2005-08 and came close to pulling down the Manmohan Singh government,thanks to the tacit partnership between the CPM and the BJP.

The Karat-Advani combine had not once sought a parliamentary debate on the first ever agreement on the principles of a border settlement that the UPA government signed with China in April 2005.

It is easy to understand why Karat did not,but certainly not why Advani chose silence on the China border issues.

No one,least of all China,stops us from modernising our armed forces and defence infrastructure. Consider the Chinese reaction to our nuclear tests in May 1998. Beijing was relatively mute when the first round of tests was announced on May 11. It went ballistic on May 13,when Beijing concluded that Delhi was using the “China threat” to justify its tests.

If Beijing has not and cannot prevent us from building our defence capabilities,the defence minister will have to offer a little better than the casual remarks that his government has a policy to match China’s infrastructure on our borders.

We certainly know that the UPA government had taken a policy decision a few years ago on upgrading India’s civilian and military infrastructure all along the China border. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself went to Arunachal Pradesh,days after returning from a trip to Beijing,to announce a massive aid package on improving the infrastructure on the frontiers.

We presume it is the Border Roads Organisation under the defence ministry that is responsible for building,maintaining and upgrading transport infrastructure on the borders. As the minister in charge,could Antony tell us why the government cannot implement its own decisions on the China border?

It is nearly three years since China tested an anti-satellite weapon — in January 2007. That test certainly woke up Delhi into recognising China’s expansive military space programme. At that moment there were calls in Delhi for setting up a “space cell” to facilitate a focused Indian response.

Could the defence minister tell us what happened to that somewhat minimalist response to the dramatic transformation of China’s space strategy? Could Antony explain why he is not pressing for an explicit military space programme that his three services consider so necessary?

Staying with space,did the defence minister ever ask the Defence Research and Development Organisation and his public sector undertakings why India is so far behind China — in terms of both quality and quantity — on missile production? Has anyone told him that China is making big strides on using ballistic missiles for conventional military missions?

For nearly half a decade,the world has been abuzz with China’s rapid advances in cyber-warfare. China has made a strategic decision to focus on asymmetric warfare and has developed capabilities to hack into the computers of even the United States on a routine basis. Could Antony tell us what the government has done in response? Or why India,an alleged superpower in the IT domain,is lagging behind China on cyber-warfare?

Across the full spectrum of defence — from road building on the borders to missile production and from space technology to cyber-strategy — there is nothing in the public domain to suggest that our defence ministry is on top of its China game. As the minister responsible for the security of this nation,Antony owes the nation a serious explanation on how he proposes to address China’s widening lead on all major indicators of defence and military technology.

China,with its enduring tradition of respecting the logic of power,may be more sensitive to India’s concerns if it finds out that New Delhi has the will to power.

If New Delhi embarks on purposeful military modernisation and is open to constructive negotiations,it might discover interesting trade-offs with Beijing on Kashmir,Tibet and the entire Himalayan frontier.

But if the Indian establishment continues to oscillate between the loose talk on television and the perfunctory official assurances,China is bound to turn up the heat on a range of difficult issues and the UPA government will soon find there is no place to hide.

The writer is Henry A. Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the Library of Congress,Washington,DC

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