A message for the planners in dealing with the Dragon

As power is not just about possessing capability but also about the ‘capacity-to-last-the-distance’, India’s defence acquisition plans need to be oriented suitably

Published - April 19, 2023 12:08 am IST

‘India needs to be prepared for the tenor of the proclamations getting converted to kinetic activity’

‘India needs to be prepared for the tenor of the proclamations getting converted to kinetic activity’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images

China’s recent move to ‘allocate’ names to places in Arunachal Pradesh is proof that Beijing wants to keep the India-China relations pot simmering, just short of a boil. While we have the Chinese Foreign Minister say that “... As neighbouring countries and major emerging economies, China and India have far more common interests than differences”, we also have , besides the ‘naming’ farce, the denial of visas to some Indian media personnel who the Chinese consider to be ‘unhelpful’ in their reporting; this behaviour is nothing but ‘creeping warfare,’ perhaps a la the Sun Tzu kind.

Sun Tzu wrote that the acme of skill is winning without fighting. Should we then deduce that China is doing just that — a malicious engagement in a surreptitious manner? Or, are we giving more credence than is due to Beijing’s supposed inclination to follow Sun Tzu’s thoughts?

Articulations at the People’s Congress

A commentary in the U.S. Army’s West Point Modern War Institute, titled, “Sun Tzu’s trap: the illusion of perpetual competition”, considers China’s President Xi Jinping as less of a Sun Tzu follower and cast more in a Maoist mould — a form that believes in power flowing through the barrel of a gun. And it is here that another recent article in the prestigious Foreign Affairs magazine (by two noted columnists, John Pomfret, a former Beijing bureau chief of The Washington Post, and Matt Pottinger, former U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser) gains credence.

The authors argue that Xi Jinping should be taken seriously when he says that he is preparing China for war. The article mentions war in relation to Taiwan, but a careful reading would show that Mr. Xi’s articulations at the National People’s Congress in March this year point more towards the larger implications of the thinking at the highest level in the Chinese government, i.e. the exhortation to work together, “dare to fight and be good at fighting”, to break out of dependence on foreign technologies, and to get society to rally behind the People’s Liberation Army and use the thrust towards ‘unification of the motherland’ as a stepping stone to making China great again. These statements are unexceptionable for any head of government to make, except that we need to be prepared for the tenor of the proclamations getting converted to kinetic activity vis-à-vis our own border problems with Beijing; remember, intentions can change overnight.

There have been border talks with China (the 17th instalment on December 20, 2022) and the by-now-usual post-talks statement of ‘working together to maintain peace’. Such long-drawn out negotiations for what appear to be purely tactical positions, have a different hue when viewed through a strategic prism. In a lecture in 1986, titled ‘Moral principles and Strategic Interests’, the then U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, speaking on interlocution for advancing national interests, said that “negotiations are an euphemism for capitulation if the shadow of power is not cast across the bargaining table”. He added that for authoritarians, the gun is always on the table and for the side without cards or a hand to play, negotiations are an illusion. Is there a message in this for New Delhi vis-à-vis its hard power preparations, in the midst of the meandering talks, to meet Beijing’s challenge?

Defence committee’s remarks

In the recent past, there has been exhaustive media coverage on arms procurement by our services from domestic players. However, closer scrutiny would show that assets that would carry the war to the adversary are missing from the publicity blitz underway. This has been critically commented-on too by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, in its March 2023 report. The Indian Air Force (IAF) is a case in point, whose deterrent and striking power would be vital in any India-China conflict. The committee has commented adversely on the slow production rate of the Tejas fighter by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and noted the IAF’s urgent need to make up its dwindling squadron numbers through the 114 Multi Role Fighter Aircraft project. Similar observations have been made for hardware procurement for the Indian Army (modernisation of 45% equipment which is in the vintage category) and Indian Navy (requirement of a third aircraft carrier). The committee has acknowledged that funds are scarce, but has recommended that allocation for defence should be 3% of GDP to maintain India’s deterrent posture.

What is odd, however, is the statement of the Defence Secretary (responsible for acquisitions and for the defence of India, as per allocation of business rules) who was of the opinion that the current allocation is sufficient. This is indeed surprising, for if it is true, then why the utter scramble for emergency armament purchases from abroad after every skirmish on the border?

As we enter another election year, the decision makers are sure to be aware that power talks — and talks decisively. The ongoing one-year-plus Russia-Ukraine conflict has shown that power is not just about possessing capability but also about the capacity-to-last-the-distance too. India’s acquisition plans must be oriented accordingly.

Manmohan Bahadur, a retired Air Vice Marshal, was Additional Director General, Centre for Air Power Studies. The views expressed are personal

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