Pragmatic realism is the answer

By Anirudh Prakash


India is increasingly getting concerned about China’s posture on its border and the Indian Army is strengthening itself for a “limited conflict” with China, “despite public statements intended to downplay tensions. Beijing’s perceived aggressive posture in the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific region.”

Director of US National Intelligence James Clapper said in his prepared testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that the Indian military is strengthening its forces in preparation to fight a limited conflict along the disputed border, and is working to balance Chinese power projection in the Indian Ocean. China in 2011 appeared to temper the assertive behaviour that characterised its foreign policy the year before, but the internal and external drivers of that behaviour persist.

Although Chinese leaders have affirmed their commitment to a peaceful and pragmatic foreign policy — and especially to stable relations with China’s neighbours and the rest of the world –Beijing may take actions contrary to that goal if it perceives that China’s sovereignty or national security is being seriously challenged.

Many of Beijing’s military capability goals have now been realised, resulting in impressive military might. Other goals remain longer term, but the Chinese army is receiving the funding and political support to transform it into a fully modern force, capable of sustained operations in Asia and beyond.

China has stepped up incursions across the disputed borders in Arunachal Pradesh, Kashmir and even Uttarakhand, even as talks were under way recently in New Delhi for a mechanism to “resolve” conflicts that occur when Chinese soldiers accidentally start building trenches on the India’s side of the line.

During the month (November 2011 — when Dai cancelled his visit for border talks) there were 20 incidents of LAC (Line of Actual Control) violations by the Chinese. During the last year, 323 transgressions were reported: western sector 194, middle sector-9 and eastern sector-120. In the corresponding period of 2010 there were 324 intrusions: 224 in the western sector, 111 in the middle and 90 in the eastern sector in Arunachal.

India raised the issue of a Chinese trench being built on the Indian side of the LAC in Ladakh — just about the time that China decided to make a stink about the Asoka Mission’s Buddhist conference in New Delhi and drop out of the planned border talks. Contrary to Deng Xiaoping’s advice to his successors to “hide your capacities and bide your time,” China has been rather assertive in recent years in establishing itself as a world power. Chinese belligerence in dealing with its neighbours and, more particularly, in staking its claim to disputed islands in the South China Sea, has sent alarm bells ring across the Asia-Pacific region. The world is no longer sure whether China will continue to behave responsibly while discharging its international obligations and conducting its foreign affairs.

A direct consequence of perceived Chinese assertiveness has been the new strategic guidance for the United States announced by President Barack Obama early in the New Year. Announced during a rare visit to the Pentagon on January 7, 2012, the new strategy is titled “Sustaining US global leadership: Priorities for 21st century defence.”

As the US winds down its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is re-orientating its priorities towards the new challenges emanating from the Asia-Pacific region. Obama said the strategy review centred on creating the future military the country will need after the “long wars of the last decade are over.” The new strategy seeks to find a balance between fiscal prudence and the challenge of passing through a “moment of transition” in global affairs.

Obama also said “Our military will be leaner, but the world must know the United States is going to maintain our military superiority with armed forces that are agile, flexible and ready for the full range of contingencies and threats.” In military terms, the strategic guidance dilutes the current requirement for the US armed forces to be capable of fighting and winning wars in two major theatres simultaneously.

The new strategy states significantly that the US will “maintain its ability to project power in areas in which our access and freedom to operate are challenged.” This postulation probably refers to China’s “anti-access and area-denial” (A2/AD) strategy. China’s much touted A2/AD strategy relies on anti-ship ballistic missiles such as the purpose-built Dong Feng 21-D, conventionally armed attack submarines, anti-ship mines and swarms of small vessels, to attack US aircraft carriers that approach China’s coast in a war, for example to come to the aid of Taiwan during a future Chinese operation to liberate Taiwan.

Another critical aspect of the new strategic guidance is the reduction in force levels envisioned by president Obama. He announced spending cuts of $487 billion over the next 10- years. However, this amount is a small percentage of the current annual budget of $650 billion of the US Department of Defence. This amounts to 45 per cent of the world’s total annual defence expenditure.

The US will trim down its forward presence in Europe, reduce 90,000 personnel and, simultaneously, acquire greater combat capability in the Asia-Pacific region, with new bases in Australia and elsewhere. The US army’s size will be reduced from 570,000 to 490,000 soldiers.

While the president refrained from clearly naming China as a threat, the strategy document said, “Over the long-term, China’s emergence as a regional power will have the potential to affect the US economy and our security in a variety of ways.” The new US strategy identifies the target area for future conventional conflict as “the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia.”

Growing political and economic relations with the US do not necessarily have to lead to a military alliance. India must adopt a hedging strategy in order to be able to deal with the possibility of errant Chinese behaviour in future after China has completed its military modernisation. India should continue to forge a strong strategic partnership with the US while simultaneously pursuing good relations with China. Should a future Indian government decide to join hands with the US militarily, it must carefully guard against being sucked into a new arms race in its quest to provide the support that the new US strategy demands from partner countries. INAV

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