Propping up Proxies: India’s Inimical Neighbourhood
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Issue Vol. 30.4 Oct-Dec 2015 | Date : 09 Dec , 2015

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend” seems to be the quintessential truth with regard to India’s neighbourhood, despite the well-meaning olive branch extended under the initiative of “neighbours first”. Pakistan has the all-weather friend in China; Nepal has big brother China to hold its finger; opinion has it that northern Myanmar is virtual China; Sri Lanka has one foot in a Chinese submarine in Hambantota; Maldives is obligingly accommodating China by generously leasing out its uninhabited islands. The common sinew is that all these countries are looking to China to hedge against India. What the compulsion is for these countries to do so is the multi-million rupee question.

…all these countries are looking to China to hedge against India.

It is well understandable when Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives fall to China’s overtures as the latter is flush with funds and readily helps develop the much-needed infrastructure in these countries – roads, power plants, power lines, ports, a fresh water plant in the Maldives and a range of such assistance. China claims it is pursuing a defensively oriented ‘cohesive strategy’ for the region improving its standing with these countries through varying degrees of economic, military and diplomatic ties.

China expresses concern about security with regard to Nepal and Bhutan due to its “border vulnerability” in Tibet – whatever that means is a mystery or more it is just plain diplomatic obfuscation. It claims that Bangladesh has emerged as its ‘solid’ economic and defence partner despite the initial setback in relations due to China not recognising Bangladesh in 1971. Sri Lanka is ever grateful for the military weapons and wherewithal it received from China helping it to totally annihilate the LTTE. It had sought similar assistance from India; but did not receive it due to the compulsions of India’s domestic coalition politics.

Now with both India and China increasing their development efforts in the region, it may, counter intuitively, improve the internal connectivity within these countries and also inter-country connectivity in the region. However, in the event of an adverse situation between India and China arising as a consequence of the disagreements on the border issue, these smaller countries in India’s neighbourhood will have to bandwagon with one or the other – choose India or China!! And as a corollary, perhaps staying neutral would be a serious long term strategic miscalculation. Chinese analysts, however, opine that these countries are likely to largely fall behind India due to their strong historical, ethnic and cultural ties and its traditional economic, military and diplomatic support. Pakistan will be the exception.

Indian analysts often state that India’s foreign policy has been a success in East and Southeast Asia with a well-calibrated long term strategy for favourable gains. However, India has been totally outmanoeuvred by China’s ‘grand’ strategy and proactive diplomatic moves in South Asia. The Chief Ministers of India’s states bordering these smaller South Asian countries have contributed to this state of affairs due to local political pandering of the vote bank in these areas over the larger national security and strategic interests. As a result, the professional inputs and advice of the Foreign Service are summarily dismissed. Given its attributes of power, India could re-order its neighbourhood to create requisite political, economic and strategic leverages to back a more robust policy in South Asia. In Asia, Japan and India are two states that China feels the need to check. For this, it has sought to employ “proxy spoiler states” – North Korea against Japan and Pakistan against India.

Bangladesh has emerged as its ‘solid’ economic and defence partner despite the initial setback in relations due to China not recognising Bangladesh in 1971.

Pakistan’s relations with China have registered an upward trend since Xi Jinping took over as President. China’s support is more open and broad based with her move to block sanctions on Pakistan for harbouring the notorious terrorist mastermind Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi – a blunt dismissive action to remind India of the growing strength of the China-Pak axis. Thrice before in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks case, China blocked India’s efforts to designate the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JUD) as a terrorist group. Now the centrepiece of China’s commitment to Pakistan is its investment of $46 billion for the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to connect Kashgar in Xinjiang to Gwadar port in Pakistan on the Arabian Sea coast.

The power projects, fibre optic link, roads and energy supply lines involved in the overall scheme of things, will transform the Pakistan economy when it is completed in 15 years. Pakistan is also raising a 10,000-strong division of Special Services Group (SSG) personnel to ensure the security of the project especially in Baluchistan and though not stated, probably in Gilgit-Baltistan too. If these regions do not get similar benefits as a fallout of these projects as compared to what Pakistan’s heartland will get, there is every possibility that the restive population in these regions will seriously hinder the successful completion of the whole set of projects and the CPEC may be impeded considerably which in turn may bring Pakistan’s internal situation to the boil. India’s protests to the project in the POK region were brusquely brushed aside by China who lumbers ahead indifferent to India’s sensitivities.

China and Myanmar have had a mixed post-war relationship, ranging from warm to hostile. Burma was the first non-Communist country to recognise the People’s Republic of China in 1949. However, it then expelled much of its Chinese population following anti-Chinese riots in the 1960s. Since the repression of pro-democracy riots in 1988, Myanmar has sought a closer relationship with China as the then government wanted to strengthen itself in the process. As energy security became a dominant influence in China’s foreign policy, it became a driving force in its relationship with Myanmar. China views Myanmar as important to its own strategic objective of having access to more ports in the Andaman Sea and the Indian Ocean.

The Shwe Gas Pipeline (also known as Myanmar-China Oil and Gas Pipeline) which commenced operations in 2013 symbolizes China’s interests in Myanmar to secure its energy acquisition objectives. Although built by a consortium that includes India and South Korea, the pipeline is an important component of China’s ability to deliver oil and gas to Southwest China. This 478-mile (765 km) crude oil pipeline, that runs the length of Myanmar from the deep water port and oil storage facility on Maday Island, will transport Middle East and African oil to Southwest China. The completion of the Port was also a long-held strategic ambition of China in terms of its ability to project power in the region. China did face a temporary setback when Myanmar halted the construction of the Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy River in the country’s Northern state of Kachin. However, China seems to have taken this in its stride and moved on.

China’s collusive support to Pakistan will be evidenced by it ratcheting up activity along the Line of Actual Control in Eastern Ladakh.

The Kachin state in the North bordering Arunachal Pradesh, Sagaing opposite Nagaland and Manipur and Chin state bordering Mizoram have been out of effective control of the Myanmar Government. The Kachin Independence Army has an uneasy peace relationship with Tatmadaw (government forces). In the Sagaing region, the narcotics dealing United Wa State Army is poised to resume its fight with the Tatmadaw. The Chin region is hilly, sparsely populated, severely lacking infrastructure and the least developed having the highest poverty rate in the country. Given such an environment, the area has been used as a safe haven by the numerous militant groups of India’s North East Region.

The inroads made by China into these smaller South Asian states are part of a deliberate well-thought out game plan. The poor connectivity of the Central region of Nepal with the Eastern region is being addressed on priority. This will enable China to threaten India’s weakness in the Siliguri corridor from the West. When seen in conjunction with its claim on the Dolam plateau and the Western ridges of Bhutan along the Yatung highway running South towards the Torsa Nature Reserve, it makes the Nagarkata-Jalpaiguri areas vulnerable and a sinister pattern emerges. Interference of all movement in this narrow corridor by Special Forces can undermine India’s effectiveness of its defensive reactions in the whole of the North East Region (NER).

There is a similar situation emerging in the Tawang region of Arunachal Pradesh. By exploiting the available valleys of the rivers of Eastern Bhutan a repeat of the 1962 debacle can be re-enacted. Reasonable size forces can bypass the main defensive deployments in Tawang and North of Se La. Along with a simultaneous major thrust from the North, defensive operations in the whole of Tawang region will be severely jeopardized. The Southern Fish Tail in Eastern Arunachal Pradesh is a salient feature that enables force to build up and completely isolate the Dibang and Lohit valleys. Such an exploitative operation in conjunction with a manoeuvre from further to the South through Kachin state of Myanmar will render the defensive posture in these valleys precariously ineffective.

All this military action on the borders can be orchestrated with premeditated covert assistance to the rebel groups thus heightening the level of militancy in the hinterland in the whole of the NER. Such a situation will suck in a large quantum of Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) to secure the Lines of Communications (LoC) and the Vital Points and Areas (VPs & VAs). For Pakistan not to undertake a similar exercise along the Western border and add to India’s woes would be unbelievable. To successfully meet such a challenge the CAPFs and the Ministry of Home Affairs have a lot to do and prepare. Piecemeal reactions will not yield results. Homeland Security has to be delinked from Home Affairs. China’s collusive support to Pakistan will be evidenced by it ratcheting up activity along the Line of Actual Control in Eastern Ladakh. Such an overt collusion should now (when the China-Pak relations are ‘higher than the mountains and deeper than the oceans’) be more or less taken as a “given” – borrowing the term from golf. To believe otherwise would be astoundingly blundering strategic naivety.

It is a fact that militaries cannot be raised overnight; that modern weapons, ammunition and equipment and warlike wherewithal cannot be bought off the shelf.

The Navy can play a significant strategic dampening role by threatening the Chinese Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs) of its energy supply. The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) where the Indian Navy can control sea space more effectively than the PLA Navy which it will not be able to do even with its enhanced capabilities in mid-term to long-term period. Its interest in Hambantota and Maldives is related to developing this capability. However, to be of significance in the IOR it will first need to secure its exit points from the South China Sea (nine dash line) into the IOR, which, is a long way off yet and the whole process is peppered with big strategic hurdles.

The Indian Air Force Doctrine of 2012 states, “India’s response to external challenges has always been restrained, measured and moderate.” It has deployed its national power to “deter conflict and maintain peace”. Intuitively, therefore, it can be argued that once deterrence has failed and war thrust upon the country, the war should be concluded only when the end state is favourable to the stated national interest and the same is permanently secured. The Indian Air Force would be thus required to deliver optimally over a wide spectrum and range of operations which would include counter air, air defence, counter surface (in high altitude mountainous region) operations. Conventional strategic operations, strategic air transported operations and surveillance, tactical reconnaissance, SF missions and a host of equally important tasks. It is opined that the Indian Air Force needs to reconsider the need for a medium bomber and a reconnaissance aircraft to replace the MiG 25.

Click to buy: IDR Oct-Dec 2015

The Government has evolved its foreign policy philosophy of Five Pillars or “Panchmari” – Samman (dignity and honour), Samvad (engagement and dialogue), Samriddhi (shared prosperity), Suraksha (regional and global security), Sanskriti evam Sabhyata (cultural and civilizational linkages). Isolating Pakistan on the issue of terror through a multi-prong diplomatic offensive in Pakistan’s traditional support stronghold of the West Asia and the hard push for the UN to adopt a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism are moves that will compel Pakistan to rethink the course it has adopted.

In military parlance, the above discourse is an appreciation of a worst case scenario. Militaries the world over always prepare for the worst case; anything less would be leaving the end result to the ‘goodwill’ of the enemy. It is a fact that militaries cannot be raised overnight; it is a fact that modern weapons,ammunition and equipment and warlike wherewithal cannot be bought off the shelf. It is a fact that training the military for a future war is a time-consuming process. It is also a fact that maintaining a well-equipped, tech-savvy operationally ready military force is an expensive proposition for a nation.

It is a fact that the security of a nation is paramount. It is also an undeniable fact that the freedom of our nation is priceless and it needs to be protected above all else, with everything that its people have and everything that its government can muster. And so be it.

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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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One thought on “Propping up Proxies: India’s Inimical Neighbourhood

  1. Sushma Swaraj reopens dialogue with US armed, Saudi funded and China supported Pakistan. Message? Pakistan: “We are going to Islam you”. India: We are going to Salam you”.

    China was active in Africa since the 1990s. They had an operative there in Nairobi who ran the best Chinese Restaurant in town, spoke English with his family and was point man for Chinese plans in Sub-Saharan Africa. He carried a PRC Passport and was close to the Pakistan High Commissioner. He travelled a lot and was quite open about China’s intentions. The plans were ready and waiting for the money to flow from the Chinese export boom to the US. I knew him well in 1995-1999 and was often invited for his soirees, with free food and drink to discuss matters related to the Internet and Information and Communication Technology. Pakistan is a more nuanced case. Pakistan is the sword arm of Saudi Arabia, the long term ally and funder of US opinion and decision makers. It is Pakistan that brokered the US-China entente cordiale. Nuclear weaponisation came to Pakistan from the US (not China) albeit through various routes, including Europe where Holland was an integral part of the CSIR (South Africa) -Israel Nuclear Weapons program and from where A.Q.Khan procured Pakistan’s centrifuges. The US has always played the “Either you are with us or your are against us” card to differentiate between “Good” (our) terrorists and “Bad” (their) terrorists. (I used to be a frequent visitor to the CSIR facility on Meiring Naude Road, Pretoria during the ’90s and was on a Nile cruise in December (Christmas) 1996 watching Egypt’s best belly dancers with Musharaf, Qaddafi and Mubarak on my way back from an Internet seminar at Oxford.

    China is far bigger than South Asia to which India has been confined by its own grotesque Constitution and the sewage of laws, judges, bureaucrats, politicians, police, cronies and journalists who flowed from it for 69 years to construct the Mal Governance and Reservations Corruption Raj.

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