Sino-Indian differences, one would have thought till just a few moments ago, were being successfully managed, and the Chinese dragon was said to have been virtually dormant as far as India was concerned. That is, till the irrepressible George Fernandes, with all the responsibility of a minister of defence, targetted a battery of accusations against China and singled it out as India´s “potential threat number one”.
Apparently, while we were talking peace, the Chinese have been busy militarily encircling us, from Pakistan all the way across the Himalayan rimland to Burma, and into the Bay of Bengal. The disputed border, which we thought had been becalmed, is menacingly alive with Chinese incursions and Tibet is bristling with nuclear missiles targeted at the cities of the Ganga plains. India is talking troop withdrawal, and the Chinese are building a helipad in Arunachal Pradesh! While we are shifting troops away from the east, China is elongating its airfields in Tibet so that they can handle more lethal jet fighters.
So, at least, says the new defence minister of India. Which makes one ask why has South Block been pulling the wool over the eyes of the people about the nefarious Chinese intentions. Good for George, to take the people of the country into confidence. “National security”, he says, must become the “people´s concern”. How else will the people be imbued with the spirit of self-sacrifice to safeguard our frontiers?
Fernandes´ gaffe-a-day had been a matter of ridicule. But now, it turns out there was a method in the adventurist outspokenness of the maverick minister. No sooner had the tremors subsided from the Indian blasts than Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee wrote to the United States´ president citing the Chinese nuclear threat as the rationale for the explosions. A riled China hit back, opening up the ´healed´ wounds of the 1962 war, charging India with occupying 90,000 sq kms of Chinese territory. Within weeks of the BJP taking over the government, the carefully nurtured framework of confidence building measures to manage the Sino-Indian relationship had come crashing down. India risked becoming China´s “number one threat”.
But a smiling Fernandes continued to reiterate his “personal” opinion that China was the potential enemy.
Fernandes´ trumpeting the Chinese threat has come as music to the ears of the defence hawks. Manoj Joshi, an influential strategic analyst, welcoming the “right chord” struck by Fernandes, wrote, “India may well snap out of its self-imposed trance on matters relating to the Middle Kingdom.”
The Indian establishment is fond of remembering how India was foolishly caught off guard by the bonhomie of the Hindi-Chini bhai bhai period, to find itself unprepared when China attacked in 1962. However, fully convinced about the Chinese perfidy, it conveniently forgets the documentation which indicates Nehru´s role in fanning the flames. For example, Indian analysts routinely neglect reference to how the jingoistic public debate, of a predatory China about to swallow up India´s northern frontiers as demarcated by the MacMahon line, trapped Nehru in Parliament, leaving him in the end with little room for manoeuvre.
A revitalised China threat provides the perfect rationale to lobby for higher defence spending at a time when the guru of the Indian strategic community, K. Subramanyam, has himself acknowledged that inter-state wars are no longer a Clausewitzian option. Indeed, the proposal for a 25 percent cut in the force levels of India and Pakistan has picked up support, and it seems increasingly untenable to justify ever-larger expenditures on the army, air force and navy on the basis of the India-Pakistan war theatre. Step in Fernandes, then, with his finger pointed at China.
Low-intensity wars to fight insurgencies, which was what the analysts told the Indian policy-maker to expect rather than inter-state hostilities, required a different force structure. Significantly, counter-insurgency operations would be funded not through the Defence Ministry, but via the Ministry of Home Affairs and the state governments. Given the competitive pulls on the state exchequer, it was not surprising that the defence establishment was losing out.
Alarm over a revived military threat from China could reverse the trend. The Indian Navy particularly, could be saved from atrophy by newfound Chinese sea threats. In the India-Pakistan theatre, the navy had little strategic relevance, and the downsizing of India´s regional ambitions over the 1980s had mothballed its blue water ambitions. The so-called Chinese threat also could breathe life back into India´s naval dreams of a three-carrier navy.
The bomb lobby, which had been crying itself hoarse over the need to expand India´s nuclear strategy beyond Pakistan to take in China as well, now finds a sympathetic ear. Little wonder that Indian strategists have enthusiastically clambered on to the BJP wagon. China is a fitting match for India, Pakistan never was, and the analysts have always bitterly resented Western powers which have boxed India in with Pakistan.
We have the word of, first, the defence minister and, later, the prime minister that Chinese capabilities and intentions are threatening. Why then did the responsible Ministry of External Affairs project Sino-Indian detente as a shining example of “step-by-step” diplomacy, that is, pushing forward on areas where cooperation was easier, building trust and confidence so as to be able to push through on the more difficult areas of settlement such as the border dispute? Certainly, there was no whiff of menace when Chinese President Ziang Zemin visited India in November 1997. Trade has been slow to take off, but the flurry of high-level military visits held out the hope that the ghost of 1962 was finally buried. In fact, the Sino-Indian approach was even held up as a model for managing the Pakistan-India relationship.
Be it the border question or Tibet, there seemed to be no intractable issue left between China and India. As far as the border was concerned, to all appearances, China already had got what it claimed in Aksai Chin, and India would be left alone on Arunachal Pradesh.
As for Tibet, the special operations cell that Indira Gandhi maintained in the 1970s has long been disbanded. India has moved from recognising China´s suzerainty to recognising its sovereignty over Tibet. Although the Dalai Lama lives in India, New Delhi has been diligent in not encouraging anti-Chinese political activity on its soil. (Fernandes, however, is a well-known supporter of the Tibetan cause.)
Coming to the encirclement thesis, it is more neat than accurate. The defence minister, with his wide-ranging reach to militant groups in the Indian Northeast, must be aware that China has given up supporting insurgent groups in that region. There is no “enemy action” there. Nepal and Bhutan dearly wish that they could play off China and India against each other, but the fact is that since the early 1990s, China has abstained from playing competitive politics in the Himalayan kingdoms.
Watch it, George
Fernandes, the socialist, insists on seeing international relations as a zero-sum game. He refuses to see the possibility that China may have two independent and not necessarily competitive strategic relationships with India and Pakistan. Will it make any difference if someone reminds him that on the Kashmir question – the litmus test for India – China has backed away from open support of Pakistan to recognising it as a bilateral dispute and even urging a “step by step” approach a la Sino-Indian detente.
But the mind of Fernandes is crammed with the image of a Tibet full of nuclear-tipped missiles pointed at India. This is curious, because Chinese strategic analysts like Hua Hun suggest that since the mid-1980s military strategy in China has shifted from planning for a large-scale war to planning limited wars or low-intensity or medium wars on China´s borders. These do not require nuclear weapons. There is also reason to believe that the Chinese nuclear systems which are of greater concern to India are atrophying as a result of military reform. Tactical nuclear weapons are being dismantled, and one IRBM project has been cancelled.
The George Fernandes who once threw the US multinationals Coca Cola and IBM out of India, will now in all likelihood be remembered as the defence minister who fitted India into the US gameplan of countering a rising China.