China’s military showdowns on Indian border are not new. The last one was in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley in June 2020. Now, in Yangtse area of Tawang sector in India’s Arunachal Pradesh on 9 December. This is a wakeup call, too loud to ignore. China’s repeated military adventurism does not portend well for dragon-tiger ties and peace in the region.
Continual standoffs between Chinese and Indian forces have their genesis in a geographical reality. The Indo-China boundary is undefined in the Arunachal sector. With such a blurry boundary line before them, Indian and Chinese units end up in standoffs as their regular marches are misinterpreted as breaches. This is not to absolve China of wanton incursive aggression.
The Problematic Line
There is more to China’s military showdown on Indian soil. The Indian and Chinese forces are positioned eyeball-to-eyeball on multiple points along the Indo-China border. Though these points are no-patrol zones, they are not tension-free. This ignites frequent clashes between the two. Such clashes are quite common along India’s western border. Now, as the Tawang incident shows, they may become more frequent along the eastern border as well. This is worrisome.
The boundary line between India and China has been problematic. This is called the Line of Actual Control, aka LAC. This LAC is the disputed border between Indian Ladakh and China’s Tibet and Xinjiang provinces. LAC is divided into three strategic sections – the western sector called Ladakh, the middle sector which is Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, and the eastern sector which includes Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Line_of_Actual_Control#:~:text=The%20Line%20of%20Actual%20Control%20(LAC)%20is%20a%20notional%20demarcation,the%20Sino%2DIndian%20border%20dispute.&text=PPs%20within%20the%20LAC%20and,known%20as%20limits%20of%20patro lling.
Frequent clashes on this LAC are feared for their potential to flare up into a full-scale war between India and China. This raises two questions. In the event of a full-fledged war, can India fight China with shipshape military preparedness? Can India avoid such a war going the way the Sino-India conflict did in 1962?
A full-throated war between China and India can be avoided, if both of them patrol the LAC unarmed, as per mutual agreement. This does not happen. Plus, Chinese and Indian forces may foray into the buffer zone to thumb their noses at each other. This nose-thumbing can spiral out of control to end in clashes and casualties. Reason why, India has been treating the presence of Chinese forces, in buffer zones included, seriously. https://www.telegraphindia.com/india/unarmed-training-for-indo-tibetanborder-police/cid/1898518
The Post-Galwan Awareness
Against such a bellicose backdrop, India is keen to become battle-ready, military-wise and tech-wise. The ban on Chinese apps was one step. However, India wants to move beyond bans and get into constructive strategies for battle-readiness. As the Chinese and Indian forces resort to regular realignment among themselves on the northern front, such strategies have become the need of the conflict-filled hour.
To begin with, India has redeployed with success six army divisions from the Line of Control, aka LOC, between India and Pakistan. They are deployed now in northern Ladakh. As a sign of moving to the battle-ready mode, India has been proving it has become aware China is its bigger threat, bigger than Pakistan, its traditional foe. Post-Galwan, this awareness has grown for sure. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/chinaupgraded-firepower-on-lac/article65567560.ece
Battle-Readiness an Immediate Need
With Tawang now, this threat has come closer for India. India needs to factor in China hiring civilians for its army from the villages it is building along LAC. This is in addition to its furious infrastructure build-up along the Indian border. These ground realities make India’s battle-readiness an immediate need.
In realisation, India has hiked its defence outlay by more than 50 per cent during the last decade, from USD 49.6 bn in 2011 to USD 76.6 bn in 2021. During this period, India took lead over Russia and the United Kingdom to qualify as globe’s third-largest defence spender, after the United States and China. In the interest of national security, India will maintain this trend.
Over-Dependence a Thorny Issue
Of late, defence expenditure planned for 2021-22 is USD 49.6 bn. This represents a rise of USD 3.4 bn over the budgetary estimates of FY 20202021. https://www.delhipolicygroup.org/publication/policy-briefs/indiasdefence-budget-beyond-the-numbers. html#:~:text=Defence%20Budget%202021%2D22&text=The%20overall%20defence%20expenditure%20planned,the%20current%20allocations%20become%20Rs
Much of this incremental defence expenditure of India is directed towards army modernisation and maintaining its military industrial capacity. This strategy has been dovetailed with India’s Make-in-India pitch. Yet, excessive reliance on Russia for defence supplies should make India vulnerable. Being overly dependent on Russia is sure to prove a thorny issue for the Indian defence and political establishments.
The Modernise vs Indigenise Debate
A thornier issue is India’s slow progress on diversifying its defence supply sources and accelerating military indigenisation. India has moved towards non-Russian suppliers. Among others, they include France, Israel and the United States, albeit on a limited scale. However, on indigenisation, India’s progress is tragically patchy. Unless India steps on the indigenisation gas, its ability to stop China on its incursionary tracks will be fraught with frustration. https://eurasiantimes.com/india-avoids-the-big-clash-ofrussia-with-us-israel-france-at-defexpo-2022/
As a step towards avoiding such frustrations, India needs to strike an optimum balance between military modernisation and indigenisation. India may find it more profitable to choose the quick-dividend strategy. By this yardstick, modernisation should take precedence over indigenisation. This will be the most practical solution for India as indigenisation calls for huge investments in money, time and skill-building.
Two Parallel Strategies
Worse, indigenisation means a long pre-production gestation period. Thus, indigenising first and modernising later mean loss of ground. Moreover, undoing India’s excessive public-sector focus of the past will not be easy. The concept of modernisation and indigenisation, as two parallel strategies, is foolhardy. Such a strategy will end in dissipation of resources. https://www.pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1846129
Putting its best foot forward, India began staggering its clamp-downs on defence imports in August 2020. But, the process will not end before 2032. This means India cannot be battle-ready immediately. Dovetailing military indigenisation with the Make-in-India programme may help to an extent. Yet, modernisation may move faster than indigenisation in India.
Entry of Private Players
In this modernisation vs indigenisation debate, India should not overlook diversifying its sources of defence supplies. This is imperative for India. Not alone for battle-readiness, for other benefits as well. Diversifying defence supply sources will pre-empt supplier-nations from meddling in India’s defence policies and strategies. Russia is cost-competitive. Yet, this should not be the primary factor to rank before India’s national security. https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1805750
A welcome development here is the entry of major Indian private players into defence production. The Tatas and Adanis for example. This will enable public-sector producers, the likes of Hindustan Aeronautics, get support. India should help these private firms build capacities, despite lack of pre-orders. This will be one more enabler of India’s battle-readiness. https://www.adani.com/businesses/defence-and-aerospace
Correction of Aberrations
Sure, India has the indigenous ability to build a range of battle equipment, combat helicopters to rockets. But, more actions are needed in the area of their quality. In addition, budgetary hiccups should get the boot. More than 65 per cent of India’s defence budget goes for salaries and pensions. A mere 35 per cent or less goes towards acquisition of defence equipment. This is an aberration and it needs to go.
Towards correction of these aberrations, India launched its Agnipath plan in June this year. The plan intends to hire armymen, evocatively called agniveers (fire warriors), for short periods and offer full-time defence jobs for a mere 25 per cent of them. This will slash the State’s pension bill. However, making this plan a success will be difficult, given its unpopularity with the Indian youth. https://www.mygov.in/campaigns/agniveer/
Exposing India’s Achilles’ Heel
This creates a dilemma for the Indian government, whose focus is now more on the economy. Hikes in defence expenditure will conflict with the immediate economic goals. But, the hike has become essential with China snarling at the border. Anyway, India will find it nearly impossible to match China’s annual defence outlay.
Undaunted, India will prefer to focus more on immediate military objectives. In the quick run, India likes to avoid Tawang-like situations. Skirmishes can make the incumbent government unpopular. Over a longer haul, India will aim to build its military hardware and software, men and military infrastructure. Long-term conflicts can expose the Indian Achilles’ heel. Worse, stretched-out conflicts can destabilise popular incumbent governments. https://www.orfonline.org/research/fighting-future-wars/
Beefing up the Naval Forces
Immediate considerations are thus more important for India now. China continues to claim Arunachal is a part of Tibet and this is cause for worry. Alongside, China is executing its designs, with limited success, in the Indian Ocean region. Reasons why India needs to focus more on immediate military preparedness.
Finally, India needs to beef up its naval forces. The Indian navy is a midget against China’s and needs huge investments for upkeep, modernisation and upgradation. This is why, despite cries from China, India should continue with its joint military exercises with the United States. These exercises should infuse Indian navy with the defence-readiness spirit to an extent. https://newsonair.gov.in/News?title=India%2C-US-successfullyconclude-18th-edition-of-joint-military-exercise-%26%2339%3BYudh-Abhyas%26%2339%3B&id=451782#:~:text=Exercise%20Yudh%20Abhyas%2C%20conducted%20annually,(USA)%20in%20October%202021.
The debate on India’s war-readiness may turn pointless in the end. All said and done, China will not step back from large-scale upgradation of its defence preparedness. China will upgrade continually and its goal is to match the defence standards of the United States. The dragon’s logic is simple: America is a foe, bigger than India.
Here is why China’s continuous military upgradation to counter America is bad news for India too. The same expanded resources can be directed towards India as well. What use is India’s military preparedness then? What should India do now? Use diplomacy or dire warnings? India should not worry much. The tiger needs to work towards avoiding skirmishes, showdowns and full-blown wars. At all costs. There is no alternative to work aimed at peace.