Arun Prakash has analysed the strategic implications of China’s ingress in India’s neighbourhood (‘A strategic encirclement’, IE, April 25), suggesting the possibility of China inflicting a “Pearl Harbour” in the Andamans. News about China “Mandarin-ising” the names of towns in Arunachal Pradesh and the launch of its indigenous aircraft carrier has caused anxiety. Will this percolation of “China” in the nation’s psyche have deleterious consequences? That it may already be happening is typified by the effect, even in strategic circles, where some see the PLA soldier as 10 feet tall while his Indian counterpart is perceived as being devoid of military and strategic wisdom. This self-deprecation needs to be disabused.
China’s power projection has three aspects and follows Sun Tzu’s dictum that “to subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill”. First, an “in your face” attitude as it transits to great power status, aided by influence-gathering through “loan warfare”. Island-building in the South China Sea is ongoing while the promulgation of an Air Defence Identification Zone could be next. Its short-shrift to India’s opposition to CPEC passing through PoK falls under this category. Second, its frenetic ship-building indicates a shift from land centricity to one that recognises sea power. Third, its attempt to rewrite the rules of the world order through institutions like the SCO, BRICS Bank, et al.
To India, China is a live challenge, but not a threat, yet. However, the Indian military is alive to the issue. Presently, India’s sea front is safe as the PLA Navy is at least a decade away from becoming a true blue-water force in the Indian Ocean; its supply line is unsustainably long and while steps to build bases have been taken (Djibouti/Gwadar), their operationalisation needs time. And the Indian Navy is modernising as well. Up north, Indian Army assets are being strengthened, connectivity improved and the IAF’s operational capability boosted. The landing of a C-17 at Mechuka in Arunachal signalled India’s air power.
What is it about Indian air power that instills such confidence? First, its well-developed airfields have the advantage of low altitudes enabling aircraft to carry full weapon loads. Chinese airfields, being widely dispersed, are not self-supporting and have no hardened aircraft shelters yet. Second, the IAF’s strike fleet is potent enough to take the battle deep into the Tibetan plateau. Third, Indian aircrew training is more advanced; our tactics incorporate the individuality of the war fighter, unlike the PLA Air Force which has the centralised ethos of the Soviets. Lastly, the PLA Rocket Force has been unrealistically elevated to mythical status: Scores of missiles would be required to knock out just one airfield, but there is runway rehabilitation equipment and a multitude of airbases. And surely, the IAF’s Sukhois, Rafales, Mirages and Jaguars, supported by the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), would not be sitting idle.
This advantage, however, has limited shelf life as China is moving fast to operationalise its modern assets. As China transits from being a challenge to a threat, India has a 10-year window to act. Action must begin with capability building. The Ministry of Defence must push indigenous defence R&D and manufacturing. An MoS for defence production is an immediate necessity, while the impetus imparted by Manohar Parrikar must not flag. The thrust to artillery, ship-building, etc, signal a pursuit for hard power capability. It is good that ammunition manufacturing has been opened to private industry. However, the IAF’s squadron strength needs attention and other services must be tended.
The reality is that we are not bad but must get better. That we are seized of China’s “strategic encirclement” is indicated by a renewed thrust to parleys with Japan, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Let’s do a “China” on China by calling the seas on its coast East of China and South of China Seas.