Us special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the founders of the Afghan Taliban, set the stage for US withdrawal from Afghanistan on February 29 by signing ‘Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan’ in Doha. The agreement was signed with much fanfare, in the presence of representatives of US allies. Others present included representatives of India, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours and Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
The agreement reflects yet another failure of US military intervention in foreign lands, similar to what transpired in Vietnam. The conflict in Afghanistan was triggered by terror attacks on New York and Washington DC on September 11, 2001. Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was the honoured guest of Taliban leader Mullah Omar in Afghanistan, was the mastermind of the attacks. The retaliatory US attack on Afghanistan has cost around $2 trillion, including $140 billion for training and equipping Afghan armed forces and on economic assistance. Over 1.11 lakh Afghan soldiers, civilians and Taliban fighters have been killed in the conflict. President Trump believes that his chances of re-election will be enhanced by withdrawal from a seemingly endless conflict.
The agreement proclaims that the US will reduce its forces to 8,600 in the first 135 days and complete withdrawal of its remaining forces within the next nine and a half months. US allies in Afghanistan, mostly from NATO countries, will follow suit. This, in effect, means that the US will withdraw all its forces by April 2021. Trump was earlier keen to get all forces out before the presidential elections. He has been compelled by internal pressures to postpone the date for full withdrawal. The agreement, which was literally thrust down the throat of the Afghan Government, has faced challenges. The Afghan Government refuses to abide by the schedule to hand over captured Taliban fighters. The primary emphasis of the US is to ensure a quick and safe withdrawal.
The government, headed by President Ashraf Ghani, faces serious internal challenges from his former ‘chief executive’ Abdullah Abdullah. The political situation is murky, as the presidential elections which pitted Ghani against Abdullah were marked by irregularities, leading to questions about the legitimacy of Ghani’s narrow victory. The first deputy chairman of Afghanistan’s Senate, Mohammad Alam Ezdyar, recently noted that the political and security crisis during and following the separate swearing-in ceremonies of Ghani and Abdullah had put Afghanistan on the edge of the precipice, ‘amidst foreign intervention, corruption and poverty, emanating from this political instability’. The Senate has urged Ghani and Abdullah to sort out their differences. In the meantime, the Taliban refuses to accord legitimacy to the Kabul government.
Pakistan is determined to enforce its writ in Afghanistan by assistance to its proteges in Taliban’s Haqqani network that operates from Pakistani soil. The network will seek to take control of large tracts of territory in southern Afghanistan. Moreover, JeM leader Maulana Masood Azhar, who masterminded the attack on India’s Parliament in 2001 and the Pulwama massacre, has now ‘disappeared’ from his home at Bahawalpur. Azhar has close links with the Taliban leadership. A recent edition of the JeM publication, Medina, Medina, averred that the US-Taliban agreement was ‘victory’ of the Taliban jihad against the US. As fellow ‘Deobandis’, the Jaish will remain closely allied to the Taliban for promoting radicalism and terrorism in India. The regional and international situation is also taking an interesting turn, amidst this political chaos. While Iran has historically been anti-Taliban, it has changed tune now and interacts regularly with the Taliban. There appears to be an understanding that the Taliban will no longer persecute Afghanistan’s Shia Hazaras.
US special envoys to Afghanistan and Russia — Khalilzad and Zamir Kabulov — met in Doha, when the agreement was signed. Reports suggest that there was a meeting of minds that Russia would cooperate with the US to deal with the emerging challenges in Afghanistan. Russia retains a crucial security role in its former republics bordering Afghanistan, like Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which have concerns over Taliban links with Islamic extremists in the region. Russia faced internal threats from armed Chechens, supported by the Taliban. China, however, will be largely influenced by Pakistan in its approach to developments in Afghanistan. China maintained economic ties with the Taliban leadership, even before the Taliban was ousted in 2001.
India has been prudent and restrained in commenting on the recent developments in Afghanistan. It would only be appropriate for India to continue its economic assistance, if it is assured of the safety and security of its citizens in Afghanistan. It should join others in ensuring that differences between Ghani and Abdullah are resolved and a united front presented to deal with the Taliban. Violence in Afghanistan will inevitably continue, as the Taliban will almost certainly seek to control more territory in Afghanistan. Should the need arise, India could, at a later date, consider boosting the strength of the Afghan armed forces — after close consultations with the Afghan, US and Russian governments. Developments in Afghanistan are inevitably going to require continuing high-level attention in New Delhi. India should remember the role of the Taliban in colluding with the hijackers of IC-814 in Kandahar and its continuing association with Pakistan’s ISI and the JeM.
With US-China relations deteriorating, President Trump tweeted that the US will be ‘powerfully supporting’ those across the world afflicted by the ‘Chinese virus’. Republican Senator Tom Cotton spoke of the ‘Chinese coronavirus’, adding that the US would hold ‘those who inflicted it on the world’ accountable. During angry exchanges on the Wuhan tragedy, Secretary of State Pompeo labelled the tragedy as resulting from the ‘Wuhan virus’. What followed, was a no-holds-barred exchange, with the US apportioning blame on China. Beijing, in turn, held that the crisis could well have ‘come from the US’. With the infection spreading across its cities, people in the US have been subjected to severe ‘lockdowns’. The Sino-US war of words has only grown stronger.
China’s intolerance of any criticism is evident. Apart from crossing swords with the Trump administration, arising from US criticism of China’s delays in revealing what was actually happening in Wuhan, Beijing has astonishingly sought international recognition and praise for ending the crisis. This weird effort was led by President Xi Jinping, speaking to the UN Secretary-General. The Chinese media joined the chorus of praise, claiming that the situation had been handled brilliantly. While China’s success in ending the crisis is laudable, Beijing would do well to ensure that it does not trigger more crises, after what it was responsible for, in Wuhan. This is also not the time for playing ‘blame game’. It is time for countries to unite, to overcome what could be the greatest challenge that humanity has faced.
PM Modi took a statesmanlike approach to the looming crisis, both in his address to the nation and approach to his South Asian neighbours, and indeed, the world at large. The government has handled foreign policy skillfully by initially convening a video-conference of South Asian leaders to discuss the challenges facing SAARC countries. At the same time, the government also moved decisively to meet these challenges globally, in the G20. India’s role in working quietly and behind the scenes with Saudi Arabia and others to convene a tele-conference of G20 leaders during the crisis merits special mention. It signalled the will of the entire comity of nations to confront the challenge unitedly. Modi’s address to the people of India was reassuring, while being blunt about the serious challenges the people of India face.
All SAARC countries, except Pakistan, were represented at the video-conference by their heads of government. Imran Khan chose to nominate an official in his office, Dr Zafar Mirza, to represent Pakistan. Not surprisingly, Dr Mirza had nothing to offer by way of what Pakistan’s contribution would be to deal with the crisis. He chose to pontificate on some cases which had been reported in J&K, linking these to what he claimed were restrictions on telecommunications and movement of people. Modi, however, focused on the seriousness of the problem, offering $10 million to assist neighbours in their efforts.
India is convinced that Pakistan has nothing worthwhile to offer to SAARC partners. Islamabad is only interested in propaganda. New Delhi has, therefore, decided that no further time should be wasted on meaningless Pakistani rhetoric. Afghanistan is facing problems because of the movement of possibly infected people across its border with Iran, while the Maldives and Sri Lanka need assistance urgently. The Maldives, with its tourism industry virtually destroyed by the pandemic, has been sent essential medicines. Medical equipment and experts are being readied for early dispatch to SAARC members. Preparations are underway to send to Nepal, Bhutan, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan surgical masks, digital thermometers and surgical equipment, besides medical teams.
With the US and its European allies stricken down by the horrendous tragedy, the only countries, apart from China, which have recovered quickly are in the Asia-Pacific —Japan, South Korea and Singapore. While PM Modi has provided a road map for the way ahead, there is still a long way to traverse before our people can be confident about limiting the damage caused by the coronavirus. Much needs to be done for strengthening our medical facilities by acquiring additional hospital space and mobilising medical personnel, together with acquiring essential equipment, like ventilators, to meet the likely, and indeed, inevitable challenges ahead, which should not be underestimated. The impact of these events will be felt internationally by an entire generation, and even beyond, as the world seeks and moves to restore normalcy.
As the coronavirus poses a serious threat to humankind, one can be gratified at some of the efforts for globalising the quest for a cooperative remedy. This situation has also to be analysed as one looks at China’s present outreach to cooperate with countries ranging from Italy and Spain on the one hand and to Cyprus and Pakistan on the other. China, whose actions triggered this crisis, appears ready to provide what every country now desperately needs, particularly by way of equipment and machinery. While China’s industrial progress since the 1980s has been path-breaking, there have been complaints about medical and other equipment it has supplied recently, which it will have to address quickly to maintain its credibility as a reliable supplier of sophisticated machinery, equipment and know-how.
The Chinese refusal to accept responsibility for the impact of what transpired in Wuhan is unfortunate, and for many, unpardonable. In response to US queries and requests for samples of relevant material from Wuhan, China claimed that it had ‘no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission’. It denied US experts access to Wuhan. President Trump has faced considerable criticism that he was ‘taken for a ride’ by the Chinese, who stalled US efforts to ascertain full facts. Wuhan is the hub of China’s industrial, technological and educational development. It is also a major centre internationally for educational and technological development. The tragedy that the world faces today is widely and almost universally accepted as having emerged from the wholesale seafood market in Wuhan.
The Trump administration has been outraged by the absence of Chinese actions to immediately bring these developments to the notice of the world. Around 38,000 US citizens and residents were flown back from China to major American cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco, in the weeks following the Wuhan shutdown. This was inexplicably done without comprehensive medical checks of passengers. The tragedy that has befallen Americans, as their cities are ravaged and thousands have died, is the direct outcome of these developments. China, now confident that it will emerge as the unquestioned No. 1 power in the world, is in no mood to express any regrets to the US, or to the world at large. While it could take years for the US to recover fully, China appears determined to establish its dominance globally. It is challenging US power by flying in ‘relief supplies’ across the world as the US looks on. Not surprisingly, Putin’s Russia, which shares a long common border with China, has acted quietly, clinically and decisively to deal with the issue.
With Trump and his political associates going ballistic over what is unquestionably Chinese responsibility and culpability in handling the Wuhan crisis, relations between the two foremost powers have sunk to a new low. Moreover, Trump has echoed misgivings, shared widely, about the role of the Director General of the WHO, who is accused of not only being ineffective but also is regarded as a virtual apologist for China. The US has threatened to end all funding for the WHO, which would render the organisation dysfunctional. Rather than showing understanding and promoting cooperation, the US and China appeared determined to confront each other. India is, however, playing its cards carefully — indeed skillfully — to avoid getting drawn into the vortex of Sino-American rivalry. At the same time, an outraged Indian media is focusing on the blatant Chinese efforts to disclaim responsibility.
China also appears to have concluded that it should not get into a position of totally alienating India and Indian public opinion. Following a tele-conversation with the otherwise none-too-friendly Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, External Affairs Minister Jaishankar made it clear that India was not in the business of pointing fingers at China. Jaishankar merely noted that following his discussions with Wang Yi, both sides had agreed to work together to combat the Covid. China and India also indicated that they were ready to cooperate in the G20 Summit convened by Saudi Arabia.
When PM Modi visited Houston for his ‘Howdy, Modi!’ Summit last year, an important item on India’s agenda was to promote energy cooperation by investments and imports of natural gas from the US. New Delhi was putting in place plans to diversify its energy imports, as the earlier monopoly of traditional exporters like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq was coming to an end, with the discovery of vast reserves of shale gas in countries like the US and Canada. Russia was also emerging aggressively on the world stage with its vast energy resources, and arrangements were underway for increasing imports of Russian natural gas by India. The OPEC countries were finding it difficult to charge extortionist sums for oil and gas. Energy cooperation with India was an important item during Trump’s visit to India last year. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, meanwhile, had agreed to make substantial investments in developing the oil and gas sector in India.
Global oil production was keeping pace with international demand, even before the Covid crisis broke. It was, however, becoming evident that with Russia and the US entering the global supply chain, OPEC would be compelled to cede greater space in determining oil prices. Things reached the breaking point when Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Salman decided to challenge Russia’s demands for higher prices by suddenly increasing production a few weeks ago. He bit off more than he could chew, as Russia responded with increased production which sent global prices on a downward spiral. Coming under pressure from US producers of shale oil and gas, President Trump, who needs their financial support for the forthcoming presidential elections, caved in to the pressures. He forced Saudi Arabia and Russia to reach a compromise that would not undermine the US oil and gas industries.
Not surprisingly, the agreement brokered by Trump amidst the usual fanfare he is given to, soon collapsed. What has followed is an unprecedented fall in global oil prices, which has shaken not only major traditional producers like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and other Gulf monarchies but also countries like Iraq, Nigeria, and Venezuela. Global oil consumption arises primarily from road, rail, and air transport, which are today used minimally, or not at all. Oil storages worldwide have hardly any capacity left. While OPEC was expected to reduce supplies because of falling demand, global demand has fallen well below what was expected.
Trump’s efforts to provide some respite to his potential electoral backers in the US oil industry are now in tatters. Large sections of the oil and gas industry are now fast running out of potential buyers. Covid has resulted in the prices falling from $60 a barrel in January to around $20 a barrel. It is going to take quite some time before the US, Russia and OPEC can restore some semblance of earlier normalcy in prices. With over six million Indians living in Arab countries, our foreign exchange reserves received $83 billion remittances last year. These remittances are expected to fall by 20% this year. We will be able to balance our books, because the drastic fall in demand globally will significantly reduce the massive amounts spent annually on energy imports.
What is adding to the problems that have accompanied the oil crisis is the whimsical approach of President Trump. His sole priority today is to ensure that he is re-elected President. When the crisis broke out in January, he refused to take any action against China, with his attention then focused on a trade ‘deal’ with it. Covid had picked up momentum by December 2019, yet, on January 24, he proclaimed: ‘China has been working very hard to contain the coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency.’ Adding to the confusion in the US was his propensity to make sweeping proposals, which were at total variance with reality. One of these proposals, which he initially pushed, despite strong expert opposition, was his belief that the virus could be eliminated by people consuming hydroxychloroquine. Much time and efforts were expended in importing large quantities of this drug, to little or no avail.
The US is now going through a situation, where rather than dealing seriously with immense challenges, its President is virtually at war with his own advisers and America’s best experts. He is isolated and opposed even within the White House, because of his readiness to back Conservative State Governors and his party’s right-wing, which wants a rapid drawdown and end of restrictions on the movement of people.
Xi Jinping, meanwhile, appears determined to replace the US as the most formidable power. There should be no illusion that China will give minimal strategic space to India in a world order it dominates. PM Modi has handled the diplomatic crisis following the coronavirus challenge skillfully. India played a constructive role in persuading Saudi Arabia to convene both a summit and a meeting of health ministers of G20 — the most representative global economic grouping. Modi is among the very few leaders in the world who has a good personal equation with the mercurial Trump. One is looking forward to a carefully calibrated phase to reduce the rigours of the present restrictions on movement and economic activity in India. While global industrial and energy cooperation can realistically move only in a measured and slow manner, India can be very satisfied if its agricultural sector successfully meets national needs. How we handle the coming harvest seasons is of crucial importance. One hopes that in the meantime, research by scientists across the world will find remedies to overcome the dangerous challenges we now face from Covid.
Indian cricket teams have traditionally been sponsored by leading Indian business houses. And cricket has never been played in China. One was, therefore, surprised to learn that the sponsor for the Indian team this year was to be OPPO, a Chinese smartphone maker. OPPO had just won a five-year sponsorship worth over Rs 1,000 crore for the Indian cricket team, for 34 matches at home and abroad. The Indian smartphone market is rapidly expanding at 7% annually, at a time when smartphone sales elsewhere in the world have fallen by 6%. But it is not OPPO alone that sells Chinese cellphones in India. India’s smartphone industry is dominated by three other Chinese brands — Xiaomi, Vivo and Huawei, with some competition from South Korea’s Samsung. The combined sale of Chinese smartphones in India is estimated to exceed Rs 50,0000 crore. Chinese telecom companies openly and aggressively operate and compete in India. India’s concerns, however, arise from moves led by Huawei, for domination of its entire communications infrastructure.
Huawei is Beijing’s principal instrument to increasingly dominate global communications by promoting its 5G telecommunications networks. Huawei has over 3,000 employees in its Research and Development Centre in Bengaluru. The higher management and planning structures of Huawei, in India and elsewhere, are exclusively Chinese. As an Indian scientist remarked, Huawei, like other Chinese companies, uses Indians as ‘cyber coolies’ doing the routine legwork, while Chinese management personnel control, work out and implement policies. This is not surprising. It is an exploitative practice the Chinese use worldwide, particularly in developing countries. Their policy is one of ‘zero transfer of technology’. Cheap Indian labour will be used for high-priced Chinese 5G smartphones, while China makes ‘smart’ money! Huawei also has an agenda of promoting its expertise in AI in India, doubtless in a similar manner.
The Chinese are now in a no-holds-barred struggle with the US and some of its European allies for promoting their 5G networks and appliances worldwide. India is caught in the crossfire. It is time India understood and acknowledged that all its aspirations of being a significant high-tech player globally will remain a pipedream, unless it develops a self-reliant electronics industry, spearheaded with indigenous research and manufacture of semi-conductors and computer chips. We are unduly worried about Chinese expressions of concern at our cooperating with Taiwan in such areas. Moreover, it is time to see that we do not close any options, while seriously building a high-tech industrial base. We surely do not need a setup, where Chinese companies use India as a base for their assembling components and devices, and producing goods with Chinese brand names, while marketing them as ‘Made in India’. Lauding the concept of international ‘supply chains’ does not mean we become cyber coolies. It remains to be seen how we handle the introduction of 5G.
China’s economic interests in India are not confined to electronics and communications. It has also taken a keen interest in entering other key spheres like construction, transportation and energy. There has been substantial involvement in the power sector, too. Chinese companies appear set to provide an additional 20,000 MW across India. Chinese companies are now moving significantly into the solar energy sector in Andhra Pradesh. These companies have pledged investments of $3 billion in wind and solar energy development. While there is presently no reason to deny China a legitimate share in projects, when the bids are competitive, India should insist on giving preference to equipment designed and manufactured by its engineers and entrepreneurs.
China will inevitably remain mercantilist, while increasing its economic influence by using its surplus construction capacities for infrastructure projects abroad. Mercifully, our eastern neighbours like Bangladesh, Myanmar and Indonesia appear to understand larger Chinese objectives, and do take preemptive action to guard against Chinese ambitions. While Russia, weakened by falling oil prices and a growing Covind-19 challenge, appears reconciled to being a Chinese partner, the Russians are far-thinking. They will keep open their links with countries like India, Vietnam, and even Japan.
In these circumstances, one can expect significant changes in the present approach of the US and its European allies towards China’s assertive quest for dominating world markets. India must devise incentives to get these countries and their partners to view it as a good location for investment. We should also secure major investments in petrochemical industries from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait. We are already a major exporter of petroleum and petrochemical products. China has been threatening its maritime neighbours on their maritime frontiers. India would, however, be well advised to avoid confrontational posturing. The Covid challenge has led to widespread anger across the world, at what is now perceived as China’s quest for hegemony. These sentiments need to be exploited.
India needs a more assertive approach to promote economic self-reliance. This could be undertaken in partnership with countries like South Korea and Japan. ‘Self-reliance’, which we discarded in favour of ‘globalisation’, needs to return to centre stage in our economic and strategic thinking. Self-reliance does not mean autarchy, or state-run monopoly. Nor does it require resort to excessive protectionism, which destroys our global competitiveness. At the same time, an annual trade deficit of around $60 billion with China is neither desirable nor sustainable, especially at a time when markets are shrinking.
Fingers were soon pointed across the globe at China, as being responsible for causing severe damage and suffering, globally, by delaying the provision of information about the threat posed by Covid-19 to the world at large. The Ethiopian Director-General of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom, who is regarded by some as a Chinese protégé, faced scathing criticism from the Trump administration for the delays of the WHO in acting expeditiously. It is universally acknowledged that the virus emerged either from a laboratory at Wuhan, or from the seafood market there. The Chinese have, however, been less than forthcoming in throwing light on the origins of the virus.
The EU countries led by France and Germany soon put together a formidable grouping to bring the Chinese to book. African countries, outraged by racist attacks on their countrymen, and also by high-interest Chinese loans getting them into debt traps, joined the demand for an investigation. The US supported this effort from the sidelines, while India discreetly mobilised worldwide support. What followed was a resolution sponsored by 130 of the 194 WHO members, calling for an independent probe into the origins of the virus. Moreover, India has become the chair of the WHO Executive Board at its 147th session.
Rattled by the strong world opinion, President Xi Jinping hurriedly addressed the WHO conference, promising $2 billion in aid to the organisation. New Delhi had, meanwhile, moved initially with the US, Australia, Japan and the EU, and then with friends in Asia and Africa to get the end result. China should realise that India can move dexterously and decisively on such issues when required. Beijing’s belief that it could buy its way out of the corner it was pushed into has been shaken. The $2 billion aid offered by Xi was largely aimed at assuaging African countries. Chinese ‘aid’ is, however, now looked at by many developing countries as an instrument of Chinese exploitation.
China has, meanwhile, sought to provoke India by aggressive deployment of its forces in Sikkim and Ladakh and provocative use of force to hinder the movement of Indian forces in Ladakh. India has reciprocated in a measured manner, while keeping the doors for dialogue to settle differences on the border open, like it did in Doklam. Responding to India’s actions in the World Health Assembly, the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece Global Times ridiculed India’s economic ‘ambitions’. It noted disparagingly: ‘India has been dreaming of becoming the next world factory, and the Modi government has launched various initiatives to forward that goal, such as the “Make in India” campaign, which has done little to impress the world. Observers have generally attributed India’s manufacturing woes to its failure to conduct pragmatic reforms.” But it was careful not to alienate India beyond a point, also noting: ‘Countries like India haven’t followed the US in jumping on the China-bashing game regarding the pandemic issue. They are seemingly not as hostile to China, as the US and Australia.’
China has now signed an agreement with Pakistan for building a 4,800 MW hydel project, the Diamer-Bhasha Dam, in Gilgit-Baltistan. One can only conclude that this $14 billion project will eventually lead to a physical Chinese presence in commercial and economic activity in Gilgit-Baltistan, together with a military presence there, adjacent to the Kargil sector. China has also pledged to strengthen Pakistan’s navy through the supply of frigates, submarines and missiles, while establishing a physical presence in the Gwadar Port. Interestingly, like Sri Lanka and many African countries, Pakistan is finding it very difficult to repay its accumulated debts to China, for the much-touted CPEC.
Even as these developments were taking place, Nepal’s PM, KP Oli, came out strongly against India, evidently aiming to provoke a diplomatic showdown. Oli displayed new maps of Nepal, claiming a vast amount of India’s territory in Chhattisgarh as being Nepal’s territory. Around 90% of the Indo-Nepal border has been demarcated, with only two areas, Kalapani and Susta, under dispute. These are differences that can be resolved through dialogue, given the goodwill on both sides. Oli has, however, for long been perceived as leading a faction of the Nepal Communist Party, which is bent on provoking India, while cuddling up to China. This has been particularly noticeable after Xi visited Kathmandu last year.
While New Delhi and Beijing are continuing efforts to resolve differences through negotiations, an overly and prematurely overambitious China is constantly resorting to threats and coercion to enforce its territorial claims on its land and maritime borders with countries across the Indian and Pacific Oceans, including India. China believes that the US is going to be seriously weakened by the virus challenge. Beijing thinks it can achieve its territorial and geopolitical ambitions by force.
What happened at the WHO meeting has challenged China’s ambitions. India and others will, however, also have to foster dialogue with an assertive China. India is keen that these issues should not undermine global cooperation to deal with the Covid challenge. But that is easier said than done.
WHEN reports started pouring in recently, of Chinese troops again crossing the LoC in Ladakh, there was a feeling of considerable concern in India. There were queries in the minds of some, on whether our northern defences would be breached yet again by our assertive and ambitious northern neighbour, as it did in 1962. Many in India still remain afflicted by the ‘1962 syndrome’, though there is now better confidence in India’s growing military, economic and diplomatic clout. There now appears to be a better understanding of how a growingly confident India has handled Chinese aggression on its borders in more recent times.
The 1962 debacle has been attributed to a gross misreading of Chinese intentions by the then PM, Jawaharlal Nehru, and defence minister VK Krishna Menon. We went wrong even in military appointments in 1962. Lt Gen BN Kaul, an officer with no combat experience, was appointed to lead the Indian forces in the then Northeast Frontier Agency (now Arunachal Pradesh). Gen PN Thapar was made the Army Chief, overlooking the claims of the highly decorated and respected Lt Gen SV Thorat. Our forces were ill-equipped and outgunned by the Chinese. The Chinese army was battle-hardened, after challenging the Americans in Korea. Successive governments led by Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi built up our defence capacities, which led to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, thanks also to Soviet military supplies.
India’s forces were tested yet again, when Chinese forces crossed the generally accepted international border, and took up positions in an area called Sumdorong Chu in 1986. Then Army Chief, Gen Sundarji, airlifted around 3,000 troops, just south of the border, to areas occupied earlier by the Chinese, leaving the Chinese dumbfounded. China’s supreme leader Deng Xiaoping warned that he would teach India ‘another lesson’. He evidently forgot the ‘lessons’ China received in 1979, after he had similarly warned and invaded Vietnam!
Successive governments have followed up by expanding ties with China. Despite this, the Sino-Indian border remains vulnerable to Chinese moves to expand its influence by probing militarily in places like Doklam, which have been thwarted by India. China has, thus far, refused to discuss, define and delineate the border. Beijing wishes to keep the territorial issue alive to pressure India through cross-border incursions.
Indian forces, including a Mountain Division, are now deployed in Ladakh, backed by tanks, artillery and armoured personnel carriers, and air support. The Modi government is determined to improve the transportation corridors in what is now the UT of Ladakh. Speaking in Parliament on August 5, 2019, Home Minister Amit Shah observed: ‘Kashmir is an integral part of India, there is no doubt over it. When I talk about J&K, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Aksai Chin are included in it.’
The Chinese have protested this statement, given their territorial claims in Ladakh and their concerns about the development of the airport and other facilities at Daulat Beg Oldie. The airport is located barely 8 km from the sensitive Aksai Chin corridor, linking China’s Tibet and Xinjiang provinces. Beijing seeks to eventually control the entire Aksai Chin plateau, on which parts of Ladakh are located. India is, however, firmly going ahead with the construction of roads, including its strategic air base.
China is also concerned about recent moves reflecting close cooperation between India, the US and Australia, along with countries like Indonesia and Vietnam, to call into question Beijing’s excessive maritime territorial claims on virtually all its neighbours, including Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia. These claims are in gross violation of the International Laws of the Seas. India has, in recent years, been promoting an assertive response to China’s efforts to undermine its relations with all its neighbours, bilaterally, regionally and internationally, while using Pakistan as its stalking horse. Moreover, India has not joined others in pointing fingers at what many across the world believe is the cover-up by China of the facts on the source of the coronavirus.
India has, however, worked with others and ensured that the 130-member WHO voted for an inquiry into the emergence of the virus.
China realises that India is going to stand firm in Ladakh. Most importantly, India will not go back on its decision to build a network of roads across the areas of present tensions in the Pangong Lake and Galwan River. This was made clear to China when New Delhi announced recently that 11 special trains were set to carry 11,815 workers to Ladakh, J&K, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand for work on road projects.
China would be well advised to remember that India in 2020 is not what it was in 1962. The Chinese failed to change existing borders in previous instances. Growing Chinese arrogance has led to new global rivalries, pitting it against the US and many European powers, like the UK, France and Germany. Beijing has also not succeeded in undermining India’s influence in the Indian Ocean Region. Differences and tensions on the Sino-India border can, however, be addressed if China abides by the provisions of the border agreement signed in 2005. The agreement states that the border ‘should be along well defined and easily identifiable natural geographical features, mutually agreed on’. The meeting of senior regional commanders of India and China has set the stage for a dialogue to resolve differences. One has, however, to look forward to hard negotiations ahead. China is not generally given to easily returning territories it claims and seizes.
Passions are running high in India after 20 Indian Army personnel were martyred in a face-off with Chinese soldiers in the Galwan valley. China has been strengthening its presence in this region and has also laid claim to sections of the adjacent Pangong Tso area. The slopes of eight of the adjacent mountains, which are described as ‘fingers’, extend into the Pangong lake. China has claimed four of these slopes.
There have been violent exchanges in the past between the Chinese and not just our soldiers, but also the local Buddhist population, which deeply resents Chinese presence in the Galwan river area. India had a military presence in the Galwan valley in 1962, which was overrun during the Sino-Indian conflict on October 19-20, 1962. There is, therefore, no legal or historical basis for Chinese territorial claims across the Pangong lake and Galwan valley, which are integral parts of India. But there are predictable expressions of Chinese concerns over Home Minister Amit Shah’s statement last year, declaring Aksai Chin, which links Tibet and Xinjiang, as being a part of Ladakh.
While the Galwan valley has been a location for battles in the past, the Partition of India did create a new situation, when J&K was also partitioned, with Pakistan getting control of the northwestern part of the state. Pakistan, thereafter, illegally ceded the Shaksgam valley in J&K to China in 1963, giving China access through Aksai Chin and Shaksgam to its Muslim majority, Xinjiang province. China, however, also has concerns about India’s presence in Daulat Beg Oldie, which is located close to the strategic road linking Aksai Chin to restive Xinjiang, where Beijing holds over a million Muslims in custody today. China is also concerned about the road India is building, which traverses across the Pangong Tso and the Galwan river to Daulat Beg Oldie, where India has built an airport, capable of accommodating even heavy transport aircraft.
Even as tensions were rising in Galwan, it was agreed at a meeting of senior commanders of the two armies on June 5, that there would be moves to de-escalate tensions. There was an understanding that China would pull back. Hence, the killing of the Indian Battalion Commander, who went to the Galwan valley on June 16, to ascertain how the disengagement was proceeding, enraged people across India. This escalated into a no-holds-barred attack in which 20 Indian soldiers and an estimated 30-40 Chinese were killed.
New Delhi is set to comprehensively restructure its economic relationship with China. An adverse balance of $54 billion on trade with China is neither desirable nor sustainable. China now dominates the electronics sector in India. Its companies assemble 70% of our mobile telephones. China is also seeking to dominate the coming 5G services in India through its Huawei conglomerate. One abiding feature of all Chinese electronic telecommunication services in India is that its products have little value added. Virtually every component is imported from China. Moreover, the entire technical management is in the hands of the Chinese. There is no technology transfer. Given recent developments, Huawei will not have any significant role in the 5G services in India. Moreover, Taiwan is now emerging as a major partner, even in the US, in electronics and other industries. It is time for India to undertake major projects with Taiwan. India sent an unambiguous message to China, when two senior MPs participated in the swearing-in of the re-elected and gutsy President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen.
The US is planning to use Taiwan Superconductor Manufacturing Company, the main chipmaker for Apple Inc, to shift its high-tech manufacturing to Arizona to exclude Huawei from any major global role. The UK and other European countries would likely follow suit. It would only be appropriate if Indian companies sign agreements for large projects in areas like computers, communications and other electronics industries, including facilities for manufacturing key strategic items like semiconductors and computer chips, with companies in Taiwan. China’s objections can be rejected. Beijing has, after all, been investing heavily in infrastructure projects in the POK. China has even welcomed high-level politicians from the POK in Beijing.
India has now shed its earlier inhibitions about security partnerships with countries in its Indo-Pacific and Indian Ocean neighbourhood. China has serious differences on its maritime boundaries, with virtually all its neighbours, including Vietnam, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Malaysia. India has not yet been able to respond in any appropriate, or meaningful manner to the continuous supply of weapons, nuclear weapons designs, ballistic missiles, fighter aircraft and warships by China to Pakistan. There is a strong feeling in India that the time has come for India to respond positively to requests from Vietnam, a good friend, with a remarkably fast-growing economy, with the supply of weapon systems like Brahmos missiles, to enable Vietnam to counter Chinese maritime threats. India would, hopefully, shed old inhibitions by expanding military cooperation with friendly regional countries. Most importantly, however, doors should be kept open for a serious and continuing dialogue with China, while eschewing rhetoric.
One cannot but appreciate the role of Russia and its Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who stressed the importance of peace and cooperation, in his tripartite meeting, earlier this week, with the foreign ministers of India and China. His remarks came after prolonged negotiations between senior military commanders of India and China led to an agreement on ‘verifiable disengagement’ of forces. One should, however, be under no illusion that this process of phased withdrawal is going to be smooth. But it is a move towards peace. Finally, a grateful nation can never forget the valour and sacrifices of those who laid down their lives defending our country, in hand-to-hand combat, far from their homes, in the high mountains, astride the banks of the Galwan river.
PM Modi visited Ladakh on July 3 to express the nation’s gratitude to the armed forces and paramilitary for their role in defending the country, while facing serious challenges posed by China. His visit also came in the wake of seething public anger and calls for retribution, because parts of the Galwan valley and the Pangong Tso had come under Chinese control. Referring to China’s perfidy in seeking to expand its land and maritime frontiers, Modi noted: ‘Whenever the obsession for expansionist victories takes over someone, it causes dangers to world peace.’ He pointedly added: ‘Expansionism has been dangerous to mankind.’
China’s disastrous invasion of Vietnam in 1979, its ill-advised intrusions in Sikkim in 1975, the serious setbacks in its intrusions in Sumdorong Chu in Arunachal Pradesh in 1986, and in Doklam in 2017, have demonstrated that China’s army is not invincible. The Chinese have refused to disclose their casualties in the Galwan misadventure. Reliable western journals have, however, disclosed that 43 Chinese soldiers were killed in hand-to-hand combat. The Chinese must now understand how a relatively small, but determined group of Indian Army soldiers responded strongly, decisively and effectively, when their unarmed compatriots were treacherously killed. Modi pointedly noted that ‘territorial expansionism’ was the biggest threat to humanity. He was alluding to China’s arbitrary territorial claims on virtually all its neighbours, including Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and even Russia, where some Chinese are now reviving claims to the Russian port of Vladivostok, which has been a part of Russia since 1860! China’s past actions, aimed at expanding its frontiers, will now meet greater opposition from its immediate neighbours, across the western Pacific Ocean. China had thus far overcome such opposition by a policy of ‘divide and rule’, backed by crude threats to those who disagree with it. Its ‘disincentives’ have included crude use of maritime military power against countries like Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines and Indonesia. The primary motive for such behaviour is to have unchallenged access to 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the South China Sea. China has used its powerful navy to take control of vast tracts of the sea, from its ASEAN maritime neighbours.
Three days after Modi’s visit to Ladakh, NSA Ajit Doval had detailed discussions with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. India’s Special Representative announced that Doval and Wang Yi agreed to complete the ongoing disengagement along the LAC and ensure de-escalation. This will reduce current tensions, but will it end the repeated violations of the LAC whose contours the Chinese refuse to define? It would require further negotiations to get China to pull out from Pangong Tso. This effort would have to be complemented by active international diplomacy that focuses on Chinese intransigence.
The leaders of ASEAN member states, meanwhile, have demanded that territorial and other differences should be settled in accordance with the provisions of the UN Convention of the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). They added: ‘UNCLOS sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out.’ The International Court of Arbitration at The Hague had issued a clear ruling in 2016 on a claim brought under the UNCLOS, against China, by the Philippines. The ruling was in favour of the Philippines. While China is a signatory to the treaty, which established the tribunal, it has refused to accept the verdict.
China cannot be pleased with the international diplomatic fallout of its behaviour. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo launched a scathing attack on China on June 25, averring that the US would deploy additional forces in the Indo-Pacific Region in response to growing Chinese threats to India and other countries. He indicated that he had spoken to his counterparts in the EU about threats China posed to its ‘peaceful neighbours like India’. He also alluded to Chinese threats to Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia, and its disregard for maritime frontiers. Pompeo’s words have been accompanied by the unprecedented deployment of two US nuclear-powered aircraft carriers in the Indo-Pacific region. India should, in turn, promote greater maritime cooperation between members of the recently formed Quad grouping, comprising the US, Japan, India and Australia. This grouping is moving towards coordinated actions to counter Chinese territorial threats.
We are now seeing the beginning of movements across many parts of the world, and particularly across Asia, objecting to China’s territorial ambitions and its ‘Belt and Road’ infrastructure projects. But, given the size of its economy and its conventional and nuclear weapon capabilities, China’s global influence will remain significant. It will continue to work closely with Pakistan to undermine and contain Indian influence and power. It will also seek to undermine Indian influence in Nepal and Bangladesh. Thus, while our bilateral economic restrictions on China are important, we should remember that China will be influenced only if we work in coordination with other regional and global powers. It is, nevertheless, imperative that military and diplomatic contacts and dialogue with China should continue, while taking appropriate measures to meet the security challenges we continue to face, in Ladakh and elsewhere, across our borders with China.
British General Rupert Smith in his treatise The Utility of Force had stated that in future non-linear character of modern war there will be no secluded battlefields upon which armies will engage in isolation of civilians, but that civilians will be targets and objectives to be won, as much as an opposing force. That draws parallel for our Western borders, where too, largely, the civilian population is so dense (and well to do) that in any victory or success, effect on civilian population and civilian property will remain material!
What then is future of warfare? Clausewitzian philosophy has retained over two centuries that the enduring nature of war is a clash of wills between two of more groups of politically motivated human beings. The ever-shifting character of war reflected on the changing tools and techniques employed on the battlefield to achieve success in the clash of wills. Warfare had always borne a stamp of violence, of physical destruction and territorial acquisition, till the currency of power became reflected by nuclear weapons, and deterrence overtook war-winning strategies. However, in the current post-industrial, information age, it has been argued that weaponised information and cyber technologies would define the next war, prosecuted with precision weaponry. Indeed information can be weaponised, as is evident with fake news.
What then is the operating environment for Indian Army, and predict what it would look like in future? This is imperative as the doctrines, concepts and application of technologies for military operations require deep thought, development, experimentation and then training for employment, in an era of dwindling defence budgets in real terms. The warfare forever has been evolutionary though currently at least in India; it is evolving compartmentalized in conventional and unconventional. Of late, it is being basketed into hybrid warfare. For a long time the army has been operating in environment combating non-state actors. At the outset, the Army (and armed forces) must foretell the utility and utilisation of military force and the methodology of its employment, in the light of threats and challenges envisaged. With the sprint in military technologies – mindful of those on evident on the horizon, and those under creation, the armed forces need to plan acquisition prudently, in mid and long term. Comparative warfighting concepts of the known adversaries need be wargamed in a futuristic operating environment including the technological intake.
The fact of the matter is that despite incessantly employed in combating insurgencies – which comes largely in the ambit of unconventional warfare – the foundation that the Army rests upon is conventional war strategy. This conventional war strategy relies upon credible decimation of adversaries’ war-fighting potential, and capture of maximum territory, especially in the context of our western adversary. This is considered as victory, though it is contingent on many factors, including that the enemy will fight similar kind of conventional war. However the 21st century warfare has moved on, with the Chinese three Warfares strategy, Informationalised Warfare and now Intelligised Warfare. The latter has blurred the lines between peace and war. Pakistan on the other hand, with military-technological support from China, credible conventional forces, is also a master of proxy war of sponsoring terror, will amalgamate both in a conflict.
In this argument of conventional and unconventional warfare, it is necessary to consider kinetic versus non kinetic realm. Kinetic warfare relates to physical force levels and warfighting wherewithal like precision projectiles, drones bombs, bullets, rockets, and other munitions. On the other hand non-kinetic warfare is gaining ground with electromagnetic and cybernetics such as computer network attacks and even psychological operations. The effect of non-kinetic operations will have functional, psychological, or behavioral aspects, with far reaching ramifications, especially on the national psyche and national resolve. Will non–kinetic operations by themselves be sufficient to achieve political aims of war, is a moot question for only future to answer. Its growing salience and the likely effects cannot be denied. The attack on Iranian Natanz nuclear enrichment facility by Stuxnet virus, may not have be earth-shaking, yet it was the most credible use of warfare. Similarly effect is of the above mentioned attack in Saudi Arabia oil fields. These tools of smart power are bound to have significant application in future warfare.
The battlespace hence stands utterly cluttered, with methodology of utilisation of force, and its typologies varying from physical forces to terror to non-kinetics – applied aggregated or disaggregated, in peace or in war, with or without declaration of war, and even with plausible deniability. Contextually hence, we must not become prisoners of thinking which indicates that conventional wars paradigm will be the ultimate in resolving intransigent issues with adversaries. The conventional or traditional means of waging wars, that Indian army specialises in doctrinally, in wherewithal and in training, is like an open book. Alternatives in warfare have an uncontrolled ambit and scope. The capabilities necessary to absorb and respond to these alternative forms of warfare require a totally different toolkit. Unconventional warfare, as it is said today, is without a clear definition, and is by far more challenging, as also it will be more difficult to describe on cessation of war, as victory or success.
For policymakers enunciating national security strategies, there must be for elasticity in defining threat and challenges. In the Armed Forces, it is necessary to jettison the strait jacket of eulogising conventional war. In peace and in war, compartmentalising into conventional and unconventional will be negative in imagination– with excessive reliance on conventional forces. It is too constraining, and does no justice to the breadth of future warfare. There is but one typology of wars that India may have to prosecute in the future which encompasses, amalgamates and subsumes current day conventional and unconventional, kinetic and non-kinetic. The toolkit essential has much, much enlarged in scope and in must be defined as a whole. Need is to force critical thinking that will warrant segregation of force to specialisations for warfare in its entire ambit.
For, in all warfare henceforth, the populace of India, will be intricately involved and may be on the receiving end – from fake news to cyber warfare to precision projectiles.