Sunday, January 23, 2011

Time To Redraw Nation's Defence Strategy : INDO - CHINA RIVALRY INTENSIFIES

A number of glaring testimonies of looming military danger make it incumbent upon our defence policy makers to update the nation's war book, or re-write a new one altogether in light of the intensified Indo-Chinese rivalry and the Indian distinctive strategic alliance with the USA.

The security ambiance of the region plunged deeper into a danger zone lately with reports in the US and the Indian media of Islamabad's handing over of the Gilgit-Baltistan region of the Pakistan-administered Kashmir to China and China's deployment of 11,000 troops in that region.

Coupled with other recent geopolitical developments, these reports indicate the re-shaping of the regional strategic landscape and of Delhi's dogged determination to challenge Beijing's pre-eminence in regional and global politics, with help from Bangladesh.

Besides, the intensified Indo-Chinese tension seriously undercuts efforts by people of India, China and Russia for greater regional collaborations; despite the foreign ministers of the three nations slated to meet in Bangalore on October 26-27.

Denial unheeded
Reacting to the reports that started to make headlines in late August, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Jiang Yu said on September 2, "We believe these attempts of some people to fabricate stories to provoke China-Pakistan or China-India relations are doomed to fail."

Pakistan too issued similar rebuttal. A Pakistani Foreign Office spokesman, Abdul Basit, strongly denied the news being circulated in the American and Indian media and said on August 31, "The Chinese were working on landslide, flood hit areas and on the destroyed Korakoram Highway with the permission of Pakistani Government."

All such denials did little, however, to assuage Indian concerns. India's ambassador to China, S. Jaishankar, met with the Chinese vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, Zhang Zhijun, on September 3 in Beijing and conveyed New Delhi's concern over the presence of Chinese troops in Gilgit-Baltistan. India also further reinforced its military capability along the 2,521 mile China-India borders.

Historical animosity
Although a recent New York Time report had linked the Chinese military presence in Kashmir to China's plans to gain a "grip on the strategic area to ensure unfettered road and rail access to the Gulf through Pakistan," the animosity is rooted in historic claims and counter claims made by the two nuclear armed neighbours on each other's territories.

 The New York Times report said there were two important new developments in Gilgit-Baltistan; a simmering rebellion against the Pakistani rule and the influx of an estimated 7,000 to 11,000 soldiers of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) in the area.

In reality, these reports are tied with recent Indian war preparation and entrenchment of military capability along mutual borders on which the two nations had fought a brief but bloody war in 1962.

The border dispute dates back to 1914 when the colonial Britain hosted a conference with the Chinese and the Tibetan governments to demarcate the Tibetan border along the so called McMahon line. China never recognised the McMahon Line and claims 90,000 sq km, nearly all of what India now calls Arunachal Pradesh (about 2000 sq kms), its own territory. Besides, India accuses China of occupying 8,000 sq km of its territory in Kashmir.

The latest spark also emanated from Delhi's upping the ante on August 26 following Beijing's refusal to grant a visa to Indian army's Northern Command Chief, Lt. Gen. BS Jaswal, to visit Beijing as an Indian military delegation member, saying the officer oversees Jammu and Kashmir which 'is a disputed area.'

The incident left Delhi snubbed, insulted and injured; more so when Beijing asked to replace Lt. Gen. Jaswal, something India refused to comply and ordered instead a demarche by cancelling a scheduled visit by a Chinese military delegation to India's National Defence College. Delhi also ordered cancellation of another scheduled visit by Indian military officials to China.

Offensive postures 
The ongoing rivalry may end up with another war, according to many analysts. Since 2007,India has been aggressively racing to match China for regional and global power, building and bolstering airstrips and army outposts along the common borders and rebuilding run-down roads and infrastructures. In June 2009, it started building a tunnel to bypass the virtually impassable Rohtang Pass to ensure all-weather access to Ladakh, which abuts the Tibetan Plateau.   Coupled with recent procurement of huge state-of-the-art military hardware and Delhi's strategic alliance with the USA, these moves kept Beijing busy in shoring up its own deficiencies, tactically and strategically, while Delhi replaced its 'cold start' strategy with an aggressive doctrine to confront both China and Pakistan simultaneously.

These bellicose postures are heading toward the outbreak of another major war among the two regional giants.   Besides defending the sovereignty of the Arunachal Pradesh, Delhi wants to recover the Chinese-administered Aksai Chin, which India claims as part of its territory. Along the Kashmir frontier, north of Ladakh stands the disputed Siachen Glacier, an ice-capped river basin that had provoked both India and Pakistan to claiming and fighting over, almost frequently since the 1980s. Both India and Pakistan maintain military outposts on the 20,000 feet high altitude of the Siachen's glacier- capped ranges.

Bangladesh's concern 
Having lost Tibet to China in 1959, India took over Sikkim's sovereignty in 1975, but the predicament posed by the Siliguri Corridor in West Bengal, with an average width of 21 km to 40 km only, in connecting the north eastern region with the Indian mainland could not be reconciled as yet.

That is what makes Bangladesh an integral part of the Indian and the Chinese defence priorities and makes it extremely difficult for Dhaka to maintain either a neutral stance, or align militarily with either of the protagonists.

It also gives birth to a cliché, if not a strategic doctrine, that "He who controls Bangladesh will control north east India," making Bangladesh susceptible to pre-emptive military invasion by either of the protagonists.

Geopolitically, China has two major claims over territories that India claims to be its own. The claim in the western sector involves Aksai Chin in the northeastern Ladakh District in Jammu and Kashmir.

The eastern sector claim involves the territory belonging to the British era North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) abutting Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar; including the Tibetan-Naga-inhabited Arunachal Prades which Delhi has turned into its 24th state on 20th February, 1987.

These lands were fought over before. During the 1962 Indo-China war, the well-trained and well-armed PLA troops overpowered the ill-equipped Indian troops, who found themselves not properly acclimatized to fight at high altitudes.

Following initial setbacks, Indian troops desperately sought to regroup and the Indian army strengthened its defensive positions in the NEFA and Ladakh to repulse possible Chinese attacks through Sikkim and Bhutan.

The Indian attempt failed and the war reached close to Bangladesh frontiers (then East Pakistan), despite many Indian army units having moved from Calcutta, Bihar, Nagaland, and Punjab to guard the northern frontiers of West Bengal and Assam. The western NEFA witnessed deployment of three Indian brigades while two other brigades were deployed in Sikkim and the West Bengal border with Bhutan.

Light Stuart tanks were drawn from the Eastern Command headquarters at Calcutta to bolster such deployments.

Yet, an unrelenting Chinese onslaught wiped out virtually all Indian resistance in Kameng and, by November 18, the PLA had penetrated close to the outskirts of Tezpur, Assam, a major frontier town within the artillery range from Bangladesh and barely 50 kilometres from the Assam-NEFA border. Sensing Indian helplessness, China declared a unilateral ceasefire on November 21.

 Beijing also respected the McMahan line and withdrew troops beyond what it regards as 'unaccepted' Line of Actual Control (LoAC).

The big picture 
There are those who blame the USA for the latest escalation in tension and military preparedness in Asia.

They say the US department of defence annual report's claim that 'the pace and scope of China's military modernisation have increased over the past decade' has scared Delhi. The report cautioned that 'extreme secrecy is increasingly difficult to reconcile with China's role in the integrated global economy, which depends on transparency.'

That is perhaps part of the story. Beijing's quest for access to the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf regions for much needed energy resources lay at the centre of its alliance making in the region, although the Indian story is rooted more in geopolitical quest for land.

Although other intelligence reports indicate Beijing is constructing over 22 tunnel and a rail link between Pakistan administered Kashmir and China, and further extending the Karakoram Highway that connects China's Muslim predominant Xinjiang province with Pakistan, the tunnel construction is related to a projected gas pipeline from Iran to China that would cross the Karakorams through Gilgit. India, however, fears they could be also used for missiles storage sites.

They plausibly could, but such Indian fear is grossly misplaced. Given that Beijing has financed the construction of Pakistani naval bases at Gawadar, Pasni and Ormara in Balochistan, such connectivity aims mainly at transporting cargo and oil from the Persian Gulf to eastern China within 48 hours.   While those could be least of our concerns, Bangladesh must prepare not to get overrun by any of the contending armies of the region in the instance push come to shove. That is why it must devise a full spectrum defence capability of its own as a sovereign nation state of 150 million strong.