Month: July 2020

Celebrating Rafale, rethinking India’s national security

Indian Air Force, Media Wars
Source: Indian Air Force

As five Dassault Rafale fighter jets – the first of 36 India agreed to purchase from France four years ago – landed at Ambala Air Force base, there was understandable celebration among civilians and those who don the military uniform in India. After all, this is the first high profile defence acquisition, barring the American assault helicopters, in decades.

The celebratory mood, however, must not hide the dark reality of India’s inept defence procurement process. The Indian Air Force, hobbled by fleet depletion and aircraft well past their fly-by-date, first communicated its desire to procure 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) to the Ministry of Defence in 2000.  After two decades, three prime ministers, four Governments, and a dizzying number of flip-flops and somersaults, the first five Rafale fighter jets finally landed in India on 29th July.

Opportunistic media hype apart, the arrival of these jets should be a moment of sombre national introspection. A nation that set out to procure 126 aircraft is able to obtain just five after two decades, that too by having to throw away piles of files that prevented any progress. This is a saga of a nation with an incompetent ‘system’.

The arrival of these jets should be a moment of sombre national introspection. A nation that set out to procure 126 aircraft is able to obtain just five after two decades, that too by having to throw away piles of files that prevented any progress

India is unprepared for the ensuing decade that will witness a world in upheaval and where national security will demand a significant share of resources and human capital. The Biblical ‘Four Horsemen’ have long symbolised the end of times. An honest enquiry into India’s national security preparedness will be defined by the four horsemen whose arrival portend the coming of the Apocalypse.

First, as the MMRCA saga shows, is India’s institutional inability to quickly arrive at a decision, which is invariably followed by inadequacy when it comes to swift execution of that decision.

The Rafale story serves as a demonstrator of the Indian state’s woeful (in)capacity – of its severe budgetary constraints; its inept (and self-serving) bureaucracy; its crusty defence establishment riddled with turf wars, ego battles and a vaulting sense of entitlement; and its incompetent political class that has spectacularly failed to rise to the defence of India by putting national security above party politics.

These stakeholders must be reminded of history’s abiding lesson: No nation has achieved its full potential without first establishing a strong national security industrial base. In recent times, India has set itself on the path to realising this goal with an overwhelming dependence on foreign powers. Even then, it has repeatedly stumbled due to procrastination by the ‘babu-neta’ combine.

Second, the inability to be honest with oneself. This is marked by the inability to read history correctly and to recognise India’s real enemy. Despite the obvious lessons New Delhi should have drawn from its defeat in 1962, it has largely privileged placating Beijing only to further fuel China’s untenable ambitions. As part of this perverse posture, India’s custodians of discourse have downplayed the bloody nose India has given China on at least two occasions last century and even the significant battlefield losses inflicted on China this summer.

India’s many dalliances with China, be it at BRICS or over the AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank), were shaped by the romanticism of co-creating an ‘Asian Century’. That should have ended with Doklam in 2017. It was a promise China never meant to keep or maybe never even made at all.

India’s many dalliances with China, be it at BRICS or over the AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank), were shaped by the romanticism of co-creating an ‘Asian Century’. That should have ended with Doklam in 2017.

We have hidden facts from 1962 onwards from all, and we continue to hide facts about Chinese behaviour and action even today. Since 2013, Chairman Xi has made abundantly clear his absence of interest in Asian multi-polarity. In Doklam, he shouted it through a megaphone for all the world to hear. China apologists do not hear and do not care.

They fail to assess China as an implacable neighbour and Xi as afflicted with an insatiable lust for power and territory. They ignore the China that views India as a civilisational foe and the Communist Party that seeks to undermine its neighbour’s political, economic and social architecture. Instead, these ‘experts’ crowd out other views from powerful pages, explaining Beijing’s malfeasance as a consequence of India’s sovereign decisions, internal politics and enhanced partnership with America.

What will it take for India to admit, unambiguously, that its neighbour is a long-term geopolitical rival and an existential threat? The tangential elements of this outlook are in place: India’s rejection of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and, more recently, its digital avatar. But the question is: Will such tactical moves serve as the cornerstone of a long-term strategy? Or, since the elephant in the room can no longer be ignored, is the template for Wuhan 2.0 being drafted by the blind men (and women) who have over the decades led India to its China conundrum?

Third, the inability to sense and seize an opportunity. Many countries have realized, or are beginning to, that they hedged their bets in Asia incorrectly. Their misplaced mission to socialise China into a rules-based international order having totally failed, they are now confronted by the reality of an imperial Beijing. Can New Delhi leverage this opportunity?

In 1972, China sensed America’s need to counterbalance the USSR and used that moment to sneak past the Iron Curtain. The Great Thaw was less a Henry Kissinger masterstroke and more a Mao success. The historic photograph in The Washington Post of a grinning President Richard Nixon with an inscrutable Paramount Leader Mao Zedong told the story best.

Beijing thought ahead and seized the moment, letting Washington foolishly believe it had stolen a march over China. Neither Nixon nor Kissinger could look beyond their immediate political imperative; China looked into the future, almost into the next century.

The lesson from that singular act of China was, and remains, that shadows of the past should not be allowed to precede India’s foray into a new world order. In 1971, Nixon ordered the US Seventh Fleet’s Task Force 74 into the Bay of Bengal as a nod to America’s ‘tilt’ towards Pakistan and to signal opposition to the Indo-Soviet Treaty.

But history moves in unpredictable cycles. The contrast between then and now is striking: The US has sent a carrier battle group into the region at a time when India and China are locked in a border confrontation. This time round, the group is exercising with Indian naval forces, bolstering a US-India partnership dedicated to resisting China’s coercive tactics and ensuring that the Indo-Pacific remains free and open. Clearly, 2020 is not 1971.

Asia has come a long way since the 1970s. In the retail market of the region’s geopolitics, India still commands a premium. As prospects of a two-front war become increasingly probable, can India shed its coy reluctance and operationalise arrangements that will welcome American naval presence in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal? A US frigate or two would send the signal to Rawalpindi to behave if India and China do engage militarily in the Himalayas. It would, in the medium term, also allow India and the US to manage the inevitable increase of Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean.

The first step towards this would be operationalising, even if for optical purposes, the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement by inviting US ships exercising in the region to use Indian facilities. This should further expand into the Indian Ocean with India facilitating an agreement on the Chagos Islands by leveraging its bilateral relations with Mauritius. A US presence at Diego Garcia is in India’s interest. It always was; now more than ever before.

Simultaneously, and before it’s too late, India must militarise its southern tip, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands: An air base and a naval docking facility are passé; India needs its very own Diego Garcia in its own national waters. If India does not do it now, very soon a rising crimson tide will leave it with no political room to have any choice. Far from matching China on the seas, if the Rafale saga is a pointer, Indian boats may need Chinese permission to leave the lagoons as our hardware would be weak and partnerships non-existent.

Although there is bi-partisan consensus in the US on Washington’s China policy, it is worth recalling that Joe Biden was part of an Administration that once harboured imaginations of a ‘G-2’ world. Drawing the US into the Indian Ocean and India’s seas will stymie such inclinations as well as get rid of the shadows of 1971 that lurk in some minds.

Although there is bi-partisan consensus in the US on Washington’s China policy, it is worth recalling that Joe Biden was part of an Administration that once harboured imaginations of a ‘G-2’ world

From the seas to the mountains, India must use the response to China’s hostility to its advantage – boldly, robustly and openly. For instance, the Quad can be taken beyond maritime security if India were to invite its partners for mountain exercises in the Himalayas next summer. China has militarised the Line of Actual Control (LAC). India militarising its Himalayan zone and creating special multilateral training and collaboration programmes would be an apt sovereign response.

The ongoing confrontation in Ladakh reminds us that claims over territory have to be backed up by connectivity, military presence and control. We may need to prepare for a highly militarised and un-tranquil LAC in the coming years.

As always, our commentariat will be pleading and pushing for ‘inaction’ as a policy option, in the mountains and in the seas. The underlying argument will be consistent with the ones deployed in the past – our actions must not provoke the dragon. The fact remains that China’s belligerence is not predicated on India’s actions, it flows from Beijing’s hostile and expansionist worldview.

Last, though not least, the inability to take its citizens into confidence. India is the only nation with great power ambition that has not adopted a formal and declared national security strategy. What passes for one is the frail doctrine of ‘strategic autonomy’, open to multiple subjective interpretations. Like ‘Panchsheel’, ‘Non-Alignment’ and ‘South-South Cooperation’, it is just another convenient phrase. It serves as a shield for indecisiveness, not as a lighthouse for agile decision-making.

Beyond the shrill prime time media wars that shape the foreign policy outlook of India’s voters, they largely have no metrics through which to judge the actions of their elected Government. India’s 1.3 billion citizens deserve far better. But since that awareness is denied to them, they applaud the landing of five fighter jets while awaiting another 31 on some unknown date, even as the country faces off Xi’s forces in the north and a ‘terror factory’ to its west.

Beyond the shrill prime time media wars that shape the foreign policy outlook of India’s voters, they largely have no metrics through which to judge the actions of their elected Government

The question is, should we ignore the four horsemen and continue marching straight into a geopolitical Apocalypse?

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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Letters from Peking: What Galwan Valley taught us this summer

Galwan, Huawei, Battlefield, Determination, Chinese Space, Atmanirbhar Bharat, Mandarin, App Ban, Escalate costs, misinformation, propaganda, Washington, Xi Jinping
Getty

There are five major takeaways from the ongoing crisis in Ladakh that will inevitably shape India’s China policy significantly. The first is that Xi Jinping’s China is at a stage—and in a year—where it has simply ceased to care about global public opinion or parameters of reasonable conduct. It has little interest in healthy relations with India and considers the diminishing of India’s role, growth, weight and presence as a key foreign policy objective.

Xi Jinping’s China is at a stage—and in a year—where it has simply ceased to care about global public opinion or parameters of reasonable conduct. It has little interest in healthy relations with India and considers the diminishing of India’s role, growth, weight and presence as a key foreign policy objective.

From its blatant support of terrorist infrastructure directed against India to its defence of terror states, the Chinese world view sees an India under siege as necessary and useful for its own strategic comfort. By seeking to grab territory by force, it has announced it considers India an adversary and will seek to harm it more directly. Some in India can continue to sink their heads deeper in the sand and avoid reading the letter from Beijing, but the message is clear—the “Hu & Wen” days of “partnership”, of an “Asian Century for all”, of “BRICS for a better world” are passé. This is Imperialism with Chinese Characteristics.

The second takeaway is that China is perfectly at ease with the coexistence of commerce and conflict, trade and war. It has perfected the ability of sleeping with its enemies and selling to them as well. Beijing has successfully done so with the Americans for decades. It has inveigled successive regimes in Washington to underwrite and create the biggest geopolitical risk to a world order crafted by the US and its allies. With this experience, China believes it can attack India, abuse Indians and support violence against Indian interests, all while conducting economic statecraft and everyday business. The Chinese are smug in their belief that actions in Ladakh will not hinder trade with India but may even win it negotiating space vis-à-vis a diminished India. It is for New Delhi to puncture this notion.

Beijing has successfully done so with the Americans for decades. It has inveigled successive regimes in Washington to underwrite and create the biggest geopolitical risk to a world order crafted by the US and its allies

The third takeaway points to the Chinese strategic ability to manipulate and game democratic societies. China creates dissent and discord through misinformation and propaganda. This summer, it has weaponised the openness of the Indian public sphere. And it will continue to do so. Delegitimising the government and political system of the enemy is a central objective of long wars, and there should be no doubt that this is an epic struggle, which may have started in the Himalayas but will travel to maritime Asia and the Pacific. India cannot ignore the propensity of the Chinese to turn Indian democracy against India itself.

China creates dissent and discord through misinformation and propaganda. This summer, it has weaponised the openness of the Indian public sphere. And it will continue to do so

In the recent episode, if the Chinese attempt at information warfare was thwarted, it was only because of the inability of Chinese influence operations to overcome the domestic media/social media bulwark. This provided a teflon coating to the national leadership that the Chinese found hard to breach. But such dynamics cannot be taken for granted forever. They have to be future-proof and individual-agnostic.

The fourth takeaway is simply: “No way, Huawei”. India must attach costs to Chinese ambitions. Even though there is stark asymmetry between the economic and military capabilities of the two countries, the defender has the advantage of being able to deploy specific tools that even unequal realities. Banning Chinese apps and making this tendency viral globally must be an Indian priority.

We must also draw lessons from recent history. India was the lone significant absentee when the nations of the world presented themselves at the court of Emperor Xi in 2017, at the Belt and Road Forum. Today, India is no longer alone and there is a considerable coalition against BRI. Similarly, India’s app ban and digital wall against China must be evangelised and turned into a global endeavour, particularly in the developed world—the key geography that matters to Beijing.

India’s app ban and digital wall against China must be evangelised and turned into a global endeavour, particularly in the developed world—the key geography that matters to Beijing

The final takeway relates to the unpredictability of the actions of the 16 Bihar Regiment, their dogged resistance and their fierce aggression. Besides economic costs, battlefield costs must also be imposed. Towards this, 16 Bihar and its brave soldiers inflicted costs that the Chinese are still assimilating and factoring into their land grab programme. Causalities in the battle theatre were the ‘unknown unknown’ even for the Mandarins in Beijing. As the defender of sovereign territory, India will need to be ready to escalate costs for Chinese adventurism.

Battlefield grit and determination will be of utmost importance in the dark days that may define the Himalayan relationship. Similarly, interdiction and disruption capability in the oceans will be crucial. To count on others to intervene and assist in these objectives may be a bonus but must not be our core strategy. Atmanirbharta to handle China across terrains and domains is what India needs. To this end, it is time to shed inhibitions and build capacities and partnerships—where feasible—that will deny China space, literally and figuratively. Politics of presence is the essence of sovereignty. India must be present through roads, infrastructure and potent force in the mountains and in the seas, which may well be the next theatre of action.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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Resisting Chinese encroachment

India must not contribute to the digital and economic rise of the same power that harms it

 Chinese encroachment, China Tech, apps, Hegemony, Xi Jinping, Huawei, Samir Saran

On June 29, the minister for electronics and information technology and law and justice, Ravi Shankar Prasad, tweeted that “For safety, security, defence, sovereignty & integrity of India and to protect data & privacy of people of India the government has banned 59 mobile apps.” After the usual partisan bluster surrounding this move subsides, India must operationalise and strengthen this momentous decision. India, its people, and its territory that are now increasingly digital, must be protected from China’s encroachment and influence.

This long-term response has to be shaped by three ideas. First, India must not contribute to the success, proliferation and performance of digital weapons that will be ranged against it. China’s tech must be recognised as one. Second, it must wean itself away from an iniquitous trade relationship that makes it dependent on a country that seeks to harm it. And, third, India needs to step out of the shadow that stunts its own economic growth, diminishes its political clout and limits its digital ambitions.

The presence of China’s hardware and platforms in India’s digital ecosystem constitutes a long-term security threat. Arriving at this conclusion requires no strenuous leap of logic. A level-headed assessment of China’s stated intentions and observable actions is enough. China has manipulated democratic means to transmit its propaganda and advertised its way to ensure suitable reportage and headlines. It has leveraged WeChat to interfere in Canadian politics, and to intercept content beyond its jurisdiction, and adopted western social media platforms to target dissidents abroad, exacerbate racial tensions in the United States (US), interfere in Taiwan’s political processes and spread disinformation about the coronavirus. China has entrenched the influence of its tech platforms in key global institutions such as the United Nations in an attempt to redraw the rules of information flows and the ethical applications of emerging technologies like facial recognition systems.

China has entrenched the influence of its tech platforms in key global institutions such as the United Nations in an attempt to redraw the rules of information flows and the ethical applications of emerging technologies like facial recognition systems.

These are fundamental to China’s great power ambitions — they assist Beijing to expand its “discourse power”, develop indigenous technologies, create lock-ins through standards and infrastructure, weaponise its economic and technological interdependence, and emerge as a technology superpower. Relations with India are inconsequential to Beijing’s imagination of the world. India has to look out for itself. This new mindset to review engagement with China tech is a vital first step to protect itself.

China will continue to gather information on Indians. More worrisome is the insidious ability of the Communist Party of China (CPC) to interfere in or influence India’s political and social spheres. During the Doklam stand-off, the security establishment discovered that the Chinese-owned UC Browser was filtering certain news on Android handsets in India to shape perceptions and outcomes — classic information warfare in the digital age. Recently, we have seen content critical of China being taken down on one of the banned apps and moderation of other incidents and images as well.

This is not unique to Chinese platforms. But far-reaching national security legislations, and subservience to a one man-led party that is inimical to India, make their continuance untenable. Indian democracy, howsoever flawed, must steer clear of the digital “tea rooms” owned by the CPC.

Will this Indian decision cause economic harm to Chinese platforms? In terms of revenues, clearly it will not. In terms of value, tremendously so. Platforms rely on network effects to scale — every additional user drives up valuations and the aggregate data that they produce feeds into other commercial and research and development activities and product development. Indian eyeballs and data should not fuel Chinese malfeasance directed against them.

Similarly, India must bar China’s telecommunications infrastructure from its 5G networks. It is time to say “No way Huawei”. Countries such as Singapore, the US, Australia and others have already signalled different degrees of intent to manage the Dragon. New Delhi’s decision should strengthen this trend and encourage others. Political trust is increasingly going to shape the direction of technology flows. India must work with its allies and partners through new initiatives such as the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to compete with and contain China.

India must bar China’s telecommunications infrastructure from its 5G networks. It is time to say “No way Huawei”

India’s actions will invite consequences. China will respond using other aspects of the economic relationship. India’s dependence on electronics, pharmaceuticals and other industrial inputs are well-documented and easy pickings. China’s response could manifest itself along the Line of Actual Control or through cyber intrusions. China’s ability to impose costs must serve to motivate India.

Bilateral trade is healthy when there is a balance. With China, it is a doubled-barrelled shotgun trained between India’s eyes. It is important that we fix this now as a three trillion dollar economy. Otherwise, all our future growth will only serve to strengthen the entity which seeks to weaken us.

India’s decision has come at a time when economic activity is already under siege from the Wuhan virus and when major economies are also questioning their dependence on China. A reconfiguration of value chains is inevitable. Public opinion favours this and the short-term pain will be acceptable to many. As India restarts its pandemic-stalled economy, let us create value chains that are not of dubious origin.


This commentary originally appeared in Hindustan Times.