Geopolitics

The Prime Minister at Shangri La: Reading between the Lines for a National Security Strategy
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Issue Vol. 33.3 Jul-Sep 2018 | Date : 23 Aug , 2018

The Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivering the keynote address at Shangri La Dialogue, in Singapore on June 01, 2018.

 “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. A time to be born and a time to die.”

— Book of Ecclesiastes (3: 1-2)

The above quote is relevant as much to human beings as to ideas, concepts, technology and nations.

Prime Minister Modi’s keynote address at the inaugural session of the Shangri La Dialogue on 1st June this year has been hailed by many as pragmatic, balanced and visionary while others have termed it as “discursive” and “emollient” and “skirting the real challenge”. James Mattis, US Secretary of Defence said of the Address – “Prime Minister Modi’s commitment to common values must be a foundation – or even the foundation – upon which we build a shared destiny”. He was also polite to say that the Address “…underscored India’s role as a leader and responsible steward in the Indo-Pacific region. The US values the role India can play in regional and global security and we view the US–India relationship as a natural partnership between the world’s two largest democracies based on a convergence of strategic interests, shared values and respect for a rules-based international order.”

But to me it indicated a strategic reluctance for accepting a leadership role in the Indo-Pacific region and having deftly projected ASEAN to shoulder the responsibility of being the major entity representing this region. Therefore, to identify the role India is willing to play would be gauged only by reading between the lines of this Keynote Address.

The Prime Ministers address did recount from history the Indian links with countries on its near periphery particularly in South East Asia. Just to pause here a while, if we think about the way the word “history” is used today, it becomes evident that in most cases we are referring to the “history of mankind”. So, with that word: the ascent and decay of civilisations, rise and fall of empires, revolutions, charismatic politicians, dictators, wars, reforms and inventions are associated. The Prime Minister mentioned that “For thousands of years, Indians have turned to the East. Not just to see the Sun rise, but also to pray for its light to spread over the entire world”. This “history” is a record of trials, tribulation and turmoil. The reality is that mankind has not witnessed prolonged periods of stability, peace and harmony. By invoking the “light of the sun” to change this human reality may, therefore, borders on the melodramatic.

Can the modern world expect to be spared these challenges that countries pose to each other under the guise of the overarching ideas of “national interest” and “nationalism”?

In a philosophical mode the Prime Minister also stated that “The human-kind now looks to the Rising East, with the hope to see the promise that this 21st century beholds for the whole world, because the destiny of the world will be deeply influenced by the course of developments in the Indo-Pacific region.” There was, however, no enunciation of any measures India or these countries in the region would need to take which will set an example for others to emulate.

Can the modern world expect to be spared these challenges that countries pose to each other under the guise of the overarching ideas of “national interest” and “nationalism”? Today leaders are being presented by the media as entities larger than the people who they are supposed to represent. And leaders seem to wallow in this limelight!

The Roman Emperor Hadrian (reigned CE 117 – 138) is attributed to have initiated the concept of “Peace through Strength”, but it is as old as recorded history. The Egyptian god Ptah says that to Ramses II’s (1279–1213 BCE) “strength” causes every country “to crave peace”:

“I have set for thee the might, victory and strength of thy mighty sword in every land … I assign them to thy mighty sword … I have thy terror in every heart … I have set thy fear in every country, thy fear encircles the mountains, and the chiefs tremble at the mention of thee…; they come to thee, crying out together, to crave peace from thee.”

It is no coincidence that at Shangri La Prime Minister Modi stated – “The new age of promise is also caught in the shifting plates of global politics and fault lines of history…..[W]e live on the edge of uncertainty, of unsettled questions and unresolved disputes; contests and claims; and clashing visions and competing models.” In a similar genre, Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier, in his report at the 19th Party Congress, mentioned – “The World is amidst profound and complex changes. China is still in an important period of strategic opportunity for development; the prospects are bright but the challenges are severe.” Susan Gordon, Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, US, also echoed similar sentiments at the Shangri La Dialogue – “This is a fascinating world, where not only is it fraught and complex and dynamic, but I believe there are forces at work that are causing it to be different than the world we have ever seen before.” There appears to be a common sinew of uncertainty and complexity in the global reality as contemplated in these three statements.

While there is desire for peace in the pronouncements by these leaders but means to achieve it are vastly different. President Xi Jinping has linked a modernised military to achieve the ‘Chinese Dream’ – “With a view to realizing the Chinese Dream and the dream of building a powerful military, we have developed a strategy for the military under new circumstances, and have made every effort to modernize national defence and the armed forces…… We have strengthened military training and war preparedness, and undertaken major missions related to the protection of maritime rights, countering terrorism, maintaining stability, disaster rescue and relief, international peacekeeping, escort services in the Gulf of Aden, and humanitarian assistance. We have stepped up weapons and equipment development, and made major progress in enhancing military preparedness. The people’s armed forces have taken solid strides on the path of building a powerful military with Chinese characteristics.”

There appears to be a common sinew of uncertainty and complexity in the global reality as contemplated in these three statements.

Prime Minister Modi has sought the cooperation of regional countries through dialogue and by appealing to their conscience and moral values to secure the interests of the nations against disruptive forces of various sorts – “There are shifts in global power, change in the character of global economy and daily disruption in technology. The foundations of the global order appear shaken. And, the future looks less certain. For all our progress, we live on the edge of uncertainty, of unsettled questions and unresolved disputes; contests and claims; and clashing visions and competing models. We see growing mutual insecurity and rising military expenditure; internal dislocations turning into external tensions; and new fault lines in trade and competition in the global commons. Above all, we see assertion of power over re-course to international norms. In the midst of all this, there are challenges that touch us all, including the un-ending threat of terrorism and extremism. This is a world of inter-dependent fortunes and failures. And, no nation can shape and secure it on its own.”

The cultural ethos in these two world views is evident. China believes in peace through strength and India believes in evoking the higher sense of moral values of humankind!!

Historically too, India has been reluctant in relying on military force to conquer lands and subjugate populations. That was because this land was always blessed with plenty. There was no economic incentive to venture beyond the mountain barriers of the mighty Himalayas and Hindu Kush to the stark lands beyond with its harsh hostile climates or to venture across the formidable Indian Ocean. Also, interestingly, it emerges that it took an emperor a lot of time and effort to consolidate his reach and hold in the Indian subcontinent itself, so that, by the time he did, he had little inclination, interest or energy left to expand outward. Indian history mentions of only the rulers of the Kushana’s, Maurya’s, Gupta’s and Chola’s dynasty’s who had ventured beyond the natural land and maritime frontiers of the subcontinent and briefly established their rule or influence in those foreign lands. Historically, India’s soft power was always more enamouring and all embracing. However, in the real world the insecurities and uncertainties’ that Prime Minister Modi has suggested may require more than merely appealing to higher moral values of humankind.

India has always desired to maintain and retain its political and strategic autonomy. It has been averse to allying or bandwagoning with any country from the point of regional or global security. It has resorted to such security ties only to hedge against aggression. Non Alignment has been a major strategic plank and seems to still be lurking in the background. Therefore, it does not come as a surprise when the Prime Minister says – “When nations stand on the side of principles, not behind one power or the other, they earn the respect of the world and a voice in international affairs. And, when they embrace diversity at home, they seek an inclusive world outside”. What principles was India standing for during this recent ‘Cave Rescue’ operation in Thailand? India did not offer any help by way of sending its Naval and Special Forces divers. Ten countries and a thousand volunteers participated but a diffident India refrained from being part of the rescue operation. Was India going to be behind any power by being present there? How can these ASEAN countries have faith in India’s assistance of any sort?! Flowery and rhetorical speeches are all balderdash.

The American National Security Strategy has identified the Indo-Pacific Region as where “the geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place”. A perception which, is not endorsed by India. It further states “The US interests in a free and open Indo-Pacific Region extends back to the earliest days”. By making the connection to “earliest days” the ‘Pivot to Asia’ by America can visualise the militarisation of the region with a clear intention to keep China at bay. It also states – “We welcome India’s emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defence partner. We will seek to increase quadrilateral cooperation with Japan, Australia and India”. The National Security Strategy and the National Defence Strategy affirm that Indo-Pacific is critical for America’s continued stability, security and prosperity. James Mattis, US Secretary of Defence went on to say –“Standing shoulder to shoulder with India, ASEAN and our treaty allies and other partners, America seeks to build an Indo-Pacific where sovereignty and territorial integrity are safeguarded; the promise of freedom is fulfilled; and prosperity prevails for all.”

Is India truly ready to take up a leadership role in the Indo-Pacific region where the only country having contrarian views and interests is China?

To pursue a development agenda in an environment where there is free access to sources of raw material and that manufactured goods are transported to markets of choice and nations are free from coercion of any sort no matter their size. Any such security insurance is invariably underwritten by the presence of a military force and the will to use if need be. Small countries seek such a commitment to hedge against a larger neighbour which is not always benign. Presently, India has serious limitations in accepting any such role in the Indo-Pacific Region.

However, the reality of India is that today it has 21.3 percent of its population – approximately 20.3 percent of the world’s poor – (over 179 million people, by conservative estimates) living below the poverty line – calculated at $1.90 per day and in PPP terms $3.20 per day.

Extrapolating from Maslow’s hypothesis of the hierarchy of individual human needs, Kathryn Exon Smith expounded a conceptual model on hierarchy of national needs. Like Maslow’s personal needs hierarchy, the national one assumes that lower-level needs must be met before progressing to the next level. And like Maslow’s pyramid, the upward progression through the different kinds of needs is one from physical security/territorial necessities to more psychological or social ones. In both, the apex represents the fulfilment of potential and is the optimal state. The highest-order national need, which occupies the same place as “self-actualization” on Maslow’s pyramid, is that of global leadership. At this point, a nation achieves the pinnacle of influence. It will probably exert extensive “hard power” through cooperation to protect freedom accorded by international conventions and agreements and equal right to the common heritage of mankind. But more importantly, it will have soft power in the form of a defined image outside of its borders which other individuals and nations respect.

However, the reality of India is that today it has 21.3 percent of its population – approximately 20.3 percent of the world’s poor – (over 179 million people, by conservative estimates) living below the poverty line – calculated at $1.90 per day and in PPP terms $3.20 per day. India is deeply mired a level below the middle level in such a pyramid of national needs. Which is why every government in power at the Centre has had to accord the highest priority to alleviate this oppressive human tragedy. With a slow rate of economic growth till the 1990’s, poverty alleviation and basic development projects connected with improving the Human Development Index took the major share of the annual budget. No government can gloss over this stark reality or ignore it. The current per capita income of US$ 1900 has to be raised to at least US$ 19000, ten times the current level. That will place India in an acceptable category of being a middle level developed country. An extremely daunting task, by any measure. India punches well below its weight. Therefore, it will be utopian to expect the government to allocate larger share of the Union Budget for defence. The Ministry of Home Affairs should also be subjected to such austerity measures in the budgets of the Central Armed Police Forces. The expenditure is decentralised to the Director Generals of each force. Force augmentation through raising of new battalions is done in a adhoc way as also procurement of weapon and equipment with no questions asked and sans any red tape.

Comparison of the level of development in India is generally made with that of China since both countries took off from the starting blocks near about the same time with India having a miniscule lead. In the formative period China faced two great human tragedies in the form of the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) and The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) which resulted in the death of over 70-80 million people. It was only in 1977 when Deng Xiaoping took over as President that he instituted a plan for modernisation of the Chinese economy – The Four Modernisations programme. He accorded priority to agriculture, industry, science and technology and national defence – in that order. Deng had said that “poverty is not socialism” and ushered in an “open door” economic policy. When he stated “how does it matter if the cat is white or black as long as it catches mice”, he redefined socialism and coloured it with Chinese characteristics. Since defence modernisation needed big funds it was to wait till the other three modernisations had achieved their initial goals. To the military he advised – “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.”

…disband the horsed cavalry unit 61 Cavalry; it has no relevance in modern war… either designate all Mechanised Infantry battalions as The Brigade of Guards or all as Mechanised Infantry. It is ridiculous to have two separate training centres for these. Emotional attachments or sentiments are no excuse for such waste.

India too developed along similar lines and chose to maintain a low military profile. Defence Public Sector Industrial Units were developed but these units were content with manufacturing products which the private sector was also able to provide and probably of better quality. A liberally funded Defence Research and Development Organisation was also set up but it has not lived up to its expectations. The recent “Make in India” initiative has not gathered pace and momentum as was envisaged, the private sector defence industry is on the ventilator gasping for breath. In these circumstances the military is only generating Long Term Integrated Perspective Plans and periodically revising and updating them without any commitment from the government with regard to procurement or finance for these. Even a decade of double digit economic growth will not make substantial difference. At least the military can take internal reforms. The first should be to disband the horsed cavalry unit 61 Cavalry; it has no relevance in modern war. Second, either designate all Mechanised Infantry battalions as THE BRIGADE OF GUARDS or all as MECHANISED INFANTRY. It is ridiculous to have two separate training centres for these. Emotional attachments or sentiments are no excuse for such waste.

It is intriguing of how the world expects India to shoulder responsibilities which involve joint security!! Evidently the façade is very real. A case in point, the Shangri La Dialogue is a forum for the meeting of Defence Ministers and senior military officers. Speakers from the various militaries who attended spoke of how every time they attended this forum it was a learning experience and added to their knowledge. India, unfortunately, has a deliberate policy of not permitting military officers to attend such forums. It would have been a positive “signalling” had the Prime Minister included a senior military officer in his entourage at the Shangri La Dialogue!! Unfortunately the bureaucracy rules the roost and will never allow them being sidelined. Visiting heads of regional and global ‘powers’ are, invariably, accompanied by senior military officers. It is an indication that a ‘smart power’ has the military on its right side. Lesser nations or reticent ‘powers’ shy away from such “signalling” and therefore are not taken seriously in matters relating to security.

Today, the very concept of nuclear deterrence through the ‘triad’ is under revision. Space and cyber are the new dimensions of deterrence. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is marked by emerging technology breakthroughs in a number of fields, including robotics, artificial intelligence, blockchain, nanotechnology, quantum computing, biotechnology, The Internet of Things, 3D printing and autonomous air, land and sea vehicles. The fourth wave of the industrial revolution is expected to see the heavy implementation of several emerging technologies with a high potential of disruptive effects and disrupting almost every industry in every country. And the breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management, and governance. India is not fighting enough to stay ahead. The Public Sector Units are content with old world ways; their Trade Unions will brook no modifications to meet future disruptive challenges. As a consequence the military will continue to be training to fight wars based on doctrines and equipment of a bygone era. Importing weapon systems and second hand technology are not the attributes of a power waiting in the wings preparing to take center stage.

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For a large country vying to become the world’s fifth largest economy by 2019-20, and having the fourth largest standing army in the world sending a Committee to scout the international arms markets for an assault rifle is ignominious by itself. It is indicative of the shoddy procurement process and of course, the state of the Defence Research and Development Organisation. Interestingly, local gun makers in the ‘gullies’ of Peshawar are able to handcraft firearms of all sorts. If the government allows matters military to drift with regard to formulating a precise role for the forces which, in turn, will give a direction for research and development to meet those requirements, it will be at its peril. Politicians will come and go but it will be this country and the people of this country who will pay the price for their complacence and negligence.

In summation, reading between the lines of the Prime Ministers Keynote Address at the Shangri La Dialogue brings forth the following:-

  • India is averse in taking on the mantle of leadership in the Indo-Pacific Region.
  • India is prepared to support the countries in the region in global forums but will not underwrite the security component.
  • US Pivot to Asia is contingent on a military presence in the region. It is prepared to use military force to secure its interests in the region.
  • The US interest in the Indo-Pacific is focused on keeping China at bay and less on trade and development.
  • US is keen to see QUAD unfolding – India is reluctant because under the surface it has an anti-China bias.
  • India is apprehensive of the reaction of China and thus is shying away from any leadership role in the Indo-Pacific.
  • India’s economic growth will be viable only when it can lift the very large number of poor out of the demeaning, degrading and dishonourable poverty.
  • From a realist’s point view, India will be forced to allocate substantial funds for basic development needs as also poverty alleviation will always be the government’s priority. Ipso facto, there will be the barest minimum budget for defence.
  • For Make in India, DRDO and PSU’s have to be transformed in totality, not just superficial tinkering. Weapons export is not a sin. Gear up the PSU’s for this.
  • Military modernisation will be a major casualty. However, internal reorganisations need to be implemented. Begin with disbanding 61 CAVALRY and merge GUARDS and ‘Mechanised Infantry’ into one entity, as starters.
  • Joint military training programmes will continue at individual and platoon level with those ASEAN countries that are keen.
  • The government needs to shed petty parsimony and permit representation by military officers at forums such as Shangri La Dialogue.
  • The military leadership needs to realistically asses the threats and prepare to fight a superior enemy and possibly, a two front war with vintage weapon systems and wherewithal – just what they will have then. A reality that will exist for another, at least, two decades.

Paradoxically, the Americans have an “American Dream” the Chinese a “Chinese Dream”; it seems that a diffident India is plagued by an “Indian Nightmare”!?

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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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3 thoughts on “The Prime Minister at Shangri La: Reading between the Lines for a National Security Strategy

  1. It is always of interest to dig into the views and analysis of international politics by high ranking military officials since fundamentally economy, politics and military power projection ability of a modern nation-state are locked together. The columnist here has captured the lacuna in Indian statecraft superbly in the context. But it seems some crucial information re international affairs may be missing to him. It comes to mind Adani’s foray in Australian mining and other entrepreneurial ventures there. By all account, Adani has been rebuffed in securing finance for his ‘mega-project’ by all international banks and financial institutes (eg. Deutsche Bank, Commonwealth Bank of Aus, Swiss Credit Bank …) since these are not economically viable not to mention environment destruction. (Mind you the State Bank of India has already staked US$2billions under the Prime Minister’s authorization). But Adani is going ahead boldly in his venture since China is fully supporting him with Chinese finances and other resources. Strategically, India must pay back to China for all this – there is no free lunch in this world. No wonder the Indian Prime Minister cannot afford to stand firm to China, be it in Doklam, or canceling the other Mountain Strike Corps or else. Another Aksai Chin is in the making in Arunachal-Bhutan area as per satellites imaging, but Delhi is in denial all along.

  2. Nail on the head but what improvement and in what time-frame will remain ambiguous. Poverty elimination and ‘actual’ economic growth is linked to population growth which is not being addressed at all.

  3. Sir, His keynote address at Shangrila Dialogue smacks of Nehruism. He is precisely following the path Nehru followed that led us in to a military abyss. Today we dont have a National Security Strategy to speak off. Even Maldives shows you two fingers. We keep talking of a two front war – sadly we can hardly manage one. We are an under equipped military that has no reach beyond our borders. Where is the Military courage – our generals sadly lay more emphasis on counter attacks in war than of taking the war to the enemy. Our Psychological Military mind is defeatist because every general in heart of hearts know whats the state of the Army and how far it can reach forward or fight rear guard actions. Its an appalling state of affairs today. Basically we are a laughing stock in international circles who cant fathom as to what our country wants and does. We are naive to accept that the Chinese wont challenge us. The Chinese like to push things at the ends that are weak but stay away where the rebuff is strong. An example is Taiwan – a small island stands tall in their face all be it with American backing. Something somewhere is very wrong with this nation. Maybe the Kumbh Mela will sanctify us. Regards.

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