Addressing a webinar organized by the College of Defence Management (CDM), Secunderabad on March 4, 2021, Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat stated that a belligerent China will continue to assert itself by seeking to establish dominance in countries surrounding India along land borders as well as the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). He further said that the Armed Forces need to be prepared for military threats from both China and Pakistan by transforming themselves into integrated war-fighting machinery through the setting up of unified theatre commands and other such measures.
It is good that Rawat has spoken about the dual China-Pakistan threat, which was being played down in aftermath of part disengagement in Eastern Ladakh. But unified theatre commands, which we seem to be hurrying into without a national security strategy, is only one part of meeting the rising threats. There will no doubt be a massive media blitz when the proposed theatre commands come up, same as it happened when the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) came up. But what teeth will these theatre commands have with continuing poor allocations for defence?
Consider the high rhetoric about the Armed Forces Special Operations Division (AFSOD) when it was established and an odd exercise thereafter. It continues with its pathetic organization of not even two battalion worth and without integral elements such an organization should have? To top this requirements projected by AFSOD after raisings were brushed aside by saying “just relax, no one will use you”? Who will know better about this than Rawat?
China seeking dominance in countries surrounding India is no doubr important. But as important, if not more, is China seeking domination over India using direct and indirect means, also through influence operations. As of now, the disengagement in Eastern Ladakh is only partial, which has resulted in India giving up its strategic advantage in Kailash Range while China retains its strategic advantage in the Depsang Plains. Moreover, China will demand buffer zones at friction points, forcing us to withdraw more in own territory in case there is further disengagement at all. Yet opinions are being aired that options for China are closed. Is this the result of Chinese influence operations, own obfuscation or a combination of both?
A report by the US Department of Defence (DoD) to the US Congress titled ‘Military and Security Developments involving the PRC 2020’ includes following: CCP has a strategic end state that it is working towards, which if achieved and its accompanying military modernization left unaddressed, will have serious implications for US national interests and the security of the international rules-based order; China’s leaders stress meeting key military transformation markers set for 2020 and 2035, seeking to align PLA transformation with overall national modernization and field a “world-class” military by 2049; PRC conducts influence operations to achieve outcomes favorable to its strategic objectives by targeting cultural institutions, media organizations, business, academic, and policy communities, and; PRC has likely considered Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan as locations for PLA military logistics facilities.
It is often said that war is not an option for China. No doubt China would like to win a war without fighting but does that mean China will not go to war when it infers it cannot achieve its objectives without fighting? The US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) is asking for an additional $27 billion from 2022 to 2027 to contain China, including an additional $4.6 billion for the 2022 tax year. According to Admiral Philip Scott Davidson, Commander (INDOPACOM), the time has passed when the US tried to concentrate its main forces “on just a few bases in the region.” INDOPACOM is wanting additional money to deploy new missiles, air defense systems, radars, and test ranges in the region to meet China’s advanced missile capabilities.
China’s new Coast Guard Law authorizes opening fire on vessels entering waters illegally claimed by China. Witness what is happening around the Senkaku Islands presently. Some Chinese Coast Guard cutters are larger than PLA’s naval frigates, designed for prolonged stays in the East and South China Sea to harass, and ram their opponents. Otherwise who needs 10,000-ton ships to police small fishing boats? Besides, not only the Coast Guard vessels but even China’s boat militia and so called hydrographic survey vehicles have offensive weaponry like lasers and can launch drones – both aerial and underwater. The cumulative military threat is enlarging rapidly.
China has announced a 6.8 percent hike in defence budget over 2020, which comes to $209 billion – the highest ever. This is just the official part whereas actual defence budget may be much more. Many scholars are opining that India should consolidate its power before confronting China. By when is that consolidation likely to happen on peanuts category defence budgets and the widening gap in hard power between the militaries of both countries? Incidentally, the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has recently stated that the main geopolitical challenge for the US in the 21st Century is China, against the background of which Russia or the Middle East fade. Blinken said that Washington will act in relations with Beijing from a position of strength. This brings us to the question how seriously are we taking the China threat other than relying on diplomacy and media manipulation for consumption of public at home?
In an article titled “An Iron Friendship Firming in a New Era” published in Pakistani media on March 2, 2021, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi explained that no matter how regional and international landscapes may evolve and what challenges and risks may arise, China will continue to work with Pakistan to strengthen their iron friendship. Yi noted that relations between the countries have become a strategic asset that both sides cherish, and added, “In difficult times, one always reaches out a helping hand to another as early as possible. Such mutual support and assistance are not bound by any conditions and are pure acts of goodwill and friendship. Let us clarify that this year marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Pakistan.”
On March 2, a virtual ceremony was held simultaneously in China and Pakistan to officially start celebrating the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. It would be naïve to think that the China-Pakistan dual threat has mellowed in any manner. On the contrary, it is on the increase with PLA presence in Pakistan and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK). We do need to look at this more seriously. Finally, much more is likely to be in media in future about the theatre commands in the making. In this context, it would do good to examine PLA’s Strategic Support Force that combines intelligence, technical reconnaissance, electronic warfare, cyber warfare and space warfare, deriving its merits for inclusive transformation.