India’s Geostrategic Imperatives in 2017
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Issue Vol. 32.1 Jan-Mar 2017 | Date : 05 Mar , 2017

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?”
— John Maynard Keynes

With the dawn of every New Year, experts of the strategic community undertake an exercise to take stock of how the year gone by had fared in comparison to their assessments at the beginning of the previous year. Unmindful of the inaccuracies of the comparisons they venture to take a shot to forecast how major global events would unfold in 2017 and what their strategic imperatives would be. As Dan Gardner in ‘Future Babble’ says, “As social animals, we are exquisitely sensitive to status. An expert, in appropriate circumstances, has considerable status. We respect that even defer to it, whether consciously or not, sometimes with bizarre results.”

Forecasting is based on a dynamic linear progression of known parameters pertaining to an issue or a set of connected issues which would unfold in an expected logical sequence. It emanates from an accurate analysis of the present. However, this applecart of logic and linear progression is horribly toppled over when human behaviour and politics comes into play. So while it is easy to identify an issue of strategic import, the final solution is contingent on intangible abstracts. That notwithstanding, an assessment of the probable outcome in these situations, still needs to be undertaken. It would obviously be contingent on pragmatic measures having been taken to address the issue. However, there is a serious limitation on expert opinion. Experts are domain specialists. They know more and more of less and less. They do not have the capacity to compensate for the demands from the other conflicting domains in the larger context of governance by the government, more so in the chaotic ultra-liberal ‘free for all’ democracy of the Union of India. The voice of ‘Civil Society’ came to the fore during Anna Hazare’s ‘anshan’ (hunger-strike); it was looked at with disdain by the then-government who scoffed at it with a condescending smirk. In the electronically connected environment, the weight of this apolitical opinion is set to grow in the future.

Terrorist funding must be squeezed and their communication networks need to be constantly monitored…

Globally, some bolts out of the blue in 2016 were – BREXIT, Donald’s trump, President of Philippines Rodrigo Duterte’s U-turn on South China Sea issue, the Islamic State’s continuing to resist annihilation and the persisting Syrian crisis. In the Indian context, the event that took even the experts by surprise was the ‘surgical strike’ as retribution to the terrorist attack in Uri; and the unexpected announcement of demonetisation took the cake. Both these events startled experts of all hues.

Looking at certain issues that have confronted India’s security scenario and likely to continue in this year, are being analysed to make a sort of forecast for 2017. Taking these on in a sequence from the geographical North, these are discussed in the following paragraphs.

Chinese Presence in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK)

The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) witnessed its first convoy which came from China on its Silk Road Economic Belt, carrying almost 250 containers meant for export to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the UAE and the EU. The convoy arrived in Gwadar on November 13, 2016. On December 02, 2016, the first cargo train, launching the direct rail route and sea freight service between China and Pakistan, departed from Yunnan. A cargo train loaded with 500 tonnes of commodities left Kunming for the port city of Guangzhou from where the cargo will be loaded on ships and transported to Karachi, marking the opening of the 21st century Maritime Silk Route. It is claimed that the new rail route and sea freight service will cut logistics cost including that of transport by 50 per cent. But CPEC passes though the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), referred to as Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) where Indian and Pakistani border troops have occasionally exchanged fire across the Line of Control LoC). However, no CPEC project is located near the LoC.

Chinese intelligence agencies reportedly also shared information with Pakistani authorities regarding alleged efforts by India’s Research and Analysis Wing to subvert the project. Apprehensive of the possibility of disruptions by armed groups, China compelled Pakistan to raise a special force of 12,000 personnel, an infantry division without its combat arms and support elements. Since China has 8,100 personnel working on this project, it has also deployed troops for their protection. In the process, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had moved in its troops in the area. China had even brushed aside India’s initial protests which were mild.

The J&K separatist group, the Hurriyat Conference, did not object to this presence and said it had no problem with the presence of Chinese troops in POK as China, unlike India, had not “attacked Kashmir”. The Hurriyat went on to state that the presence of the PLA in POK is under a “mutual agreement between Pakistan and China”. China’s stance in this instance is significantly different to what it had in March 1963 when Pakistan ceded Shaksgam Valley of Ladakh to China under Sino-Pakistan Frontier Agreement. Article 6 of the Agreement mentioned of reopening negotiations on final settlement of Kashmir issue. (Article 6: The two parties have agreed that after the settlement of the Kashmir dispute between Pakistan and India, the sovereign authority concerned will reopen negotiations with the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the boundary as described in Article. Two of the present agreement, so as to sign a formal boundary treaty to replace the present agreement, provided that in the event of the sovereign authority being Pakistan, the provisions of the present agreement and of the aforesaid protocol shall be maintained in the formal boundary treaty to be signed between the People’s Republic of China and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.)

At the strategic level, it is necessary to clearly identify the enemy – the terrorist groups or the State that is sponsoring terrorism. If the enemy is terrorism…

China has not cared to even erect such a semblance of a façade to its recent actions. This time around, it has insouciantly trammelled upon the sensitivities of India in pursuit of its own interests. The action of strategic consequence now will be how India legitimizes its claim on POK as it perceives it to justify its future actions. Except for moral support to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, does it have the capacity for more substantial action?

Terrorism in J&K

India has maintained that Pakistan is sponsoring terrorism against India. Eliminating terrorists in encounters on own side of the LoC keeps the Indian Army and the administration in a continuous state of war. Clarity in defining the enemy is essential to waging war. At the strategic level, it is necessary to clearly identify the enemy – the terrorist groups or the State that is sponsoring terrorism. If the enemy is terrorism, then the enemy is not a political movement; but merely a method of waging war by the State that uses the method. If it is terrorist groups with an agenda of Islamic jihad, then the question that needs to be addressed is whether the non-state actors have acquired a stature bigger than the State where they have their bases.

If yes, then the distinction with regard to identifying the enemy becomes clearer. This would make it a tougher war to fight. Defeating a religious movement is much more difficult than eliminating individuals. In many ways, it is not a military operation at all. It was President George W. Bush who referred to the “axis of evil” – Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Incidentally, it is said that North Korea was added just to make it appear that the US action was not a campaign directed against Muslims as a religious community.

Back in 1997-1998, consequent to a spurt in Pakistan Army-supported terrorist infiltration across the LoC (then not fenced) in J&K, the then Director General of Military Operations called together all Officers of the Directorate to seek views on the action to be taken to check these incidents. Incidentally, the author was one of the Directors attending the meeting. There was a unanimous view that to curtail Pakistan Army support to terrorist infiltration attempts, the Pakistan Army must be hurt. Evidently, this was the response of the Army consequent to the Uri action by terrorists on 18 September 2016. 18 years down the line neither the Pakistani Army nor the terrorists seem to have been ‘hurt’ enough to be deterred. The question then arises is, “Was the ceasefire agreement of 2003 a correct decision?”

India’s neighbours are seeking greater contact with China particularly in military-to-military cooperation and acquisition of defence equipment…

The ‘surgical strikes’ conducted by the Indian Army on 28 September 2016 owe their success to the availability of continuous, accurate and precise actionable intelligence of the planning and preparation of launching of terrorists for infiltration across the LoC. The current year, in all likelihood, will see some major terrorist incidents in J&K or even deep in the hinterland. Having gained success in its acquiring dynamic intelligence, India has to activate all available means to monitor all terrorist related activities so as to pre-empt and undertake punitive measures to destroy the group before it is launched for its mission.

Also, as an ongoing process, terrorist funding must be squeezed and their communication networks need to be constantly monitored. For too long the government has been turning a blind eye to the menace of terrorist funds because of the active and passive involvement of politicians of all hues in J&K. In case in future the terrorists succeed in their destructive mission, India will have to take a more stringent action than the last one. Hopefully, preparations for such contingencies are underway.

It is time for some strong political decisions with regard to J&K. The first step should be to trifurcate J&K into two States and one Union Territory. Next should be to remove Article 370 and all connected provisions so as to integrate these territories seamlessly into the Union of India. A handful of separatists holed up in the Kashmir Valley must not hold the rest of the present State and the Nation to ransom.

Eastern Ladakh and the Line of Actual Control (LAC)

The spate of incursions by the People’s Liberation Army Ground Force (PLAGF)/ Border Guards (BG) personnel across the Indian perception of the LAC and face-offs between the PLAGF/BG and the Indian Army/Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) patrols is a matter of concern. Back in 1999, under the aegis of the Joint Working Group, the process of both countries exchanging their respective perceptions of the LAC had got underway with strip maps of the Middle Sector (Himachal Pradesh, erstwhile Uttar Pradesh boundary with Tibet region). The process got stalled when it came to the Western Sector (Eastern Ladakh). The Chinese contented that Indian LAC was not the correct depiction of a Line of ‘Actual Control’, but that it was de facto the boundary claim. In response, India had stated that Chinese claim goes beyond the line where the Chinese forces were physically present and deployed before the border war in 1962 and that China had kept changing its claim lines Westwards right up to 1962.

It is sad commentary on the diplomatic community that the brightest amongst them do not opt for difficult and challenging assignments…

The need is to maintain status quo along an alignment of actual control that was existing prior to October 1962. No cognisance should be taken of the creeping encroachments made in the intervening period in the process of negotiations of the final alignment of the LAC in this Sector.

There is a dire need to accelerate work on the alternate road alignment to Ladakh from Manali in Himachal Pradesh to Upshi in the Ladakh Valley. In addition to the tunnel under Rothang Pass (3,980 m), similar tunnels under the four other Passes – Baralacha La (4,890 m), Nakee La (4,740 m), Lachalung La (5,079 m) and Tanglang La (5,328 m) need to be planned for. With these tunnels the average height of the road could be maintained at 3,000-3,500 m and should be planned to be kept open for eight to nine months of the year if not more. Modern technology enables such engineering options. It is only due to existing passive conservative mindsets that these challenges are not being taken head-on.

Indian decision makers often go for short-term options. Case in point, after the 1962 debacle when constructing the road to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, a tunnel below Se La and Bombdi La would have made access to Tawang much easier but it was not done. The Indian Army’s grandiose plans of employing the Mountain Strike Corps will remain an illusion with the present state of infrastructure in both these sectors. It is worth noting that it took the US three months to transport a mechanised heavy Corps by sea from Europe for the liberation of Kuwait. That was where they had the entire wherewithal and equipment to handle such heavy loads. It is a different ballgame at high altitudes with poor infrastructure. To induct one armoured regiment into Ladakh, it took sixty days through the Srinagar-Zoji La-Kargil-Leh route. Due to passivity in all quarters in these last seventy years India’s periphery still remains very, very remote.

Inimical Neighbourhood

India’s neighbours are seeking greater contact with China particularly in military-to-military cooperation and acquisition of defence equipment. It is true that sovereign nations will pursue an independent foreign policy to further their own national interests. China has common borders with Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives do not have common land borders with China, but still vive for closer relations with China. The extended neighbourhood that includes Afghanistan, Central Asian Republics, Seychelles and the Indian Ocean Rim (IOR) countries also are the focus of China’s attention. These countries are seeking to exercise their option of developing broader relations with China and India. While it is understandable that China has its set of interests, these cannot be at the cost of India. India cannot be expected to compromise her interests to accommodate any other country’s interest. Moreover, any policy by the neighbours that is being exploited to undermine the interests of India needs to be firmly dealt with. This is a diplomatic challenge for India.

China has increased its naval activity in the Bay of Bengal. The frequency of its naval ships and submarines making port calls in Sittwe in Myanmar; Chittangong in Bangladesh; Hambantota in Sri Lanka; Gwadar in Pakistan, Bagamoyo in Tanzania being completed in 2017; Port de Djibouti a naval base in the Gulf of Aden; Port Sudan in the Red Sea, Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia in South of South China Sea and Maldives having given the Marao Atoll on lease and the development of the canal across the Kra Isthmus to bypass the Strait of Malacca more than adequately indicate China’s ambitions.

India’s domination of the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Seas should be at such a level of Sea Control so as to provide a sustainable level of deterrence. Andaman and Nicobar Islands is a vital strategic asset for India. The facilities and forces levels (Naval, Air and Army) in Nicobar need to be bolstered substantially. Due to ‘moral’ reasons India had imposed restrictions on the export of weapons and military equipment. The limited installed capacity could barely meet indigenous demands. Weapons and equipment sought by Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka were rationed and subject to myriad restrictions by the Foreign Ministry.

On the other hand, China had a legacy of the Mao era to fully support ‘proletariat’ uprisings, which, however, were   done away with by his successor Deng Xiaoping. Today, with surplus funds and also surplus capacity of its indigenous defence industry, China can meet the demands of these countries with no strings attached. So logically, they have turned to China for procurement of military hardware for their perceived security requirements.

Click to Buy: IDR Jan-Mar 2017

This is more of a diplomatic challenge. It is sad commentary on the diplomatic community that the brightest amongst them do not opt for difficult and challenging assignments. While an Armed Forces Officer on commissioning takes an oath to, “go wherever ordered, by land, sea or air” no such oath is taken by those joining the Indian Foreign Service (IFS). There are numerous cases where IFS personnel do not go, when posted, to difficult places. As a result, India tends to lose out on its soft power and its global effectiveness. It is indeed a precedence which needs urgent attention of powers that be. The diplomatic community cannot merely advance their personal agendas and seek ‘cushy’ posting to some European or North American country.

Protecting India’s Progress Agenda

India’s progress can easily be undermined by Indians themselves. The debate on ‘guns versus butter’ is specious in the current regional security environment. Also, it is of paramount importance that the source of funds of political parties, media houses and Non-Government Organisations are made known and audited. Subverting the democratic process through cyber and social media is a reality. If the US can accuse Russia of interfering in its Presidential election process, how do gullible Indians believe that India’s systems are secure from any such serious interference from inimical forces? Transparency in funding and monitoring the cyber space is necessary across the board to truly protect India and its development agenda.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen (Dr) JS Bajwa

is Editor Indian Defence Review and former Chief of Staff, Eastern Command and Director General Infantry.  He has authored two books Modernisation of the People's Liberation Army and  Modernisation of the Chinese PLA

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