Insensible foreign and military policy

BHARAT KARNAD

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SOME of the brightest American policy-wonks credit the recently departed US Ambassador Robert D. Blackwill with changing Washington’s perceptions of India ere he came to Delhi. As a non-South Asianist, bereft of the intellectual baggage regional experts invariably carry, he looked at India exclusively in hard geostrategic terms and concluded that India ought to feature prominently in the US’ strategic thinking for the region in particular, and for Asia and the world in general. As a member of the ‘Vulcans’, the group that advised candidate George W. Bush during the last presidential campaign, moreover, he was able accordingly to shape the would-be US President’s worldview. Subsequently, the realpolitik-minded Bush administration put a premium on having India on its side.

If Blackwill helped Washington discard its hoary habit of mind of seeing India solely through the distorting prism of sentiment (poor but vigorous democracy, liberal society, etc.) or the past (preachy, moralizing Soviet client), he had no success in urging the Indian government to act its size and adopt the expansive mindset of a would-be great power. Blackwill frequently voiced his exasperation with the Indian leaders and senior diplomats and civil servants he met unfailingly dragging Pakistan into any and every issue Washington ever wanted to discuss with New Delhi. As a result, he implied, the equating of India and Pakistan in the US policy that Indians complain about, was mainly India’s doing.

This analyst has been saying for well nigh two and half decades now that the fundamental flaw in the Indian foreign policy, at least since the mid-1960s, is its almost pathological fixation with Pakistan which, if unremedied, will ensure that India stays the classic international under-achiever – a heavyweight satisfied making its reputation by trying to best the small fry. On the other hand, by reducing India down to its size, a scrappy and scrofulous Pakistan keeps scoring political and moral victories and earning the respect due an agile and spirited bantamweight holding off a far heftier foe whose brains and feet move, not always in tandem, and at glacial speed.

Indeed, so unnaturally skewed are the Indian government’s notions of threat and so disproportionate the effort to neutralize them that one wonders if it wouldn’t be wise to trundle the lot of them running the show off to a remedial college course in international relations. Then again, may be what they need – as analysts have been saying since V.P. Singh’s non-vertebrate prime ministership – is a surgical operation to insert some steel in their spine (not in their knees which, as a wag says, only makes it easier to kneel before assorted countries without wincing).

How else to explain the vim and vigour in word and deed when confronting the substantively low-order ‘threat’ from Pakistan and the ritualistic marshalling of every available military muscle, including the nuclear deterrent, when compared to New Delhi’s willingness to abase itself before China, which is manifestly a menace?

The ‘deputy’ foreign minister Yashwant Sinha – his boss being in the Prime Minister’s Office – seeks to shield China in Parliament by calling its wilful armed incursion into Arunachal Pradesh whilst Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was being received in Beijing, ‘unpremeditated’. (And how, pray, did he reach this conclusion?) Vajpayee, on his part, proceeded to brand the Chinese aggression in Arunachal as failure of ‘decorum’. Decorum? Have Hu Jintao and his gang, unbeknownst to the rest of us, confided to Vajpayee their deep yearning for parliamentary propriety in inter-state relations?

 

 

None of these aspects stayed the press commentators from their usual genuflections, in this case hailing the Tibet sellout as almost a diplomatic coup, with a ‘strategic affairs editor’ of a newspaper who, given his knack for tacking to the prevailing winds would make an even better skiff sailor, supplying New Delhi with a convenient concept for its myopic policy of trading over the bloodily supine body of Tibet and Tibetans – the opening of Nathu La – as India’s providing a ‘bridge’ to the Chinese. If the present political ‘correlation of forces’ at home and abroad persists until such time as the Peoples Liberation Army comes acalling in Arunachal in strength, the action will no doubt be welcomed by these same worthies as widening of the bridge!

To get a sense of just how addled the latest developments are, one has only to place the official statements and harebrained press comments alongside the professional judgement of innumerable secretary and foreign secretary-level retirees from MEA – the unreconstructed Sinophiles from this ministry excepted – who have uniformly damned the latest peace deal with China with S.K. Singh going so far as to publicly say he felt ‘disgusted’ with this show of abject capitulation and appeasement. Or, look at the preparations at this end for the China agreement sans a scintilla of skepticism and compare the high degree of attendant complacency with the extreme caution and cynicism when dealing with Pakistan to resolve the outstanding disputes. The gullibility when tackling an unscrupulous and belligerent China and the reserve when settling with a lesser adversary, Pakistan, is decidedly wonky.

 

 

In the event, the reasons for the disquiet are not hard to see. Peace is a very good thing to have and Vajpayee’s instincts in this regard are commendable. But, as history has repeatedly shown, a bad peace is worse than war. Neville Chamberlain may have had excellent cause to herald ‘peace in our time’ when he signed the Munich Pact with Herr Hitler. And Stalin for agreeing to the Brest-Litovsk Treaty. And assuredly, the Nazis cannot be blamed for starting an affray that got out of hand and grew into the Second World War only because the wretched Poles and the governments of the Low Countries, followed by the Russians, did not submit gracefully to Berlin. That’s what naivete and/or cupidity gets you: the enemy at the door.

It is not true that nothing has changed in India’s policy towards Tibet, as the government claims. With the June 2003 Beijing pact, New Delhi formally and finally surrendered the politico-military leverage it had preserved for itself for the last 50 years vide the 1954 Nehru-Zhoulenlai accord – of deciding how ‘autonomous’ Tibet really was and using this from time to time to ensure China’s civil behaviour. After all, in theory at least, New Delhi held the upper hand and the latitude to decide, should national interests require it, that Beijing had not lived up to its commitments, that Tibet was not ‘autonomous’ enough, and therefore that the 1954 understanding was null and void. It was a Damocles sword India held over China because there was no saying when it would be lowered in terms of ‘Free Tibet’ turning into a standard for freedom-loving states of the world to rally round.

 

 

After all, H.H. The Dalai Lama has over the years cultivated a large and growing constituency worldwide; has received a Nobel Peace Prize essentially for keeping the Tibet issue alive and got a hearing from the European Parliament in Brussels; the US has appointed a Special Representative for Tibet and its President ‘dropped in’ for a conversation at the White House, and the governments all over have treated him as head of state thereby lending credibility to the kashag (the Tibetan Parliament in exile in Dharamsala) and the possibility of its one day resuming its rightful station in Lhasa.

The strategic-minded totalitarians in the Forbidden City, clearly shaken by this prospect, were therefore intent on bringing New Delhi around as a means of neutering the Tibet issue. Imagine the sigh of relief that must have been heard all over Beijing when Vajpayee did what Narasimha Rao did not do when the same deal was offered to him in 1993 – he washed his hands off Tibet in return for nothing more than hot air. Even if Tibet was to be finally and irrevocably thrown to the Communist wolves, shouldn’t India, at a minimum, have insisted upon an unconditional acceptance of the McMahon Line in the eastern sector? The trade-off would then have been in some sort of balance.

 

 

What obtains instead is what Beijing immediately made clear after Vajpayee’s return and the Arunachal incident: that it doesn’t recognize Sikkim as Indian in any way and still looks on Arunachal Pradesh as ‘disputed’ territory of Chinese provenance. Brajesh Mishra can now huff and puff all he wants when he sits down with the designated Chinese interlocutor, incidentally, a rank or two below him in the nomenklatura. (For the MEA which is so protocol and rank-conscious, this must be galling, but then that’s how high Beijing rates the Indian National Security Advisor and Principal Private Secretary to the PM.) But it is unlikely Mishra or his successors at this level of negotiation will get anything more than a self- satisfied smirk from their shifty opposite number.

Then again, India’s diplomatic method such as it is emphasizes giveaways in any negotiations therefore precluding the need for the other side to compromise in the least. It may not protect the national interests, but guarantees results. This Tibet deal is in a long line of such transactions in the past. Consider the other quite extraordinary concession made with New Delhi’s announcement of a test moratorium less than ten days after the 1998 tests even before the scientists could properly scrutinize the test results and make up their minds about what exactly was achieved. With such a unilateralist bent of mind keyed to concession-making and eroding India’s position at every turn, dealing with India must be every adversary country’s delight. But here too the catholicity stops when it comes to our subcontinental neighbours.

Having so easily secured such a big concession on Tibet from India, Beijing will fall back to treating time as an ally, unlike New Delhi which seems to be in a tearing hurry to settle on a solution. The Chinese have learnt that it pays to stonewall and to bide their time until the Indian government’s impatience gets the better of its good sense, whereupon, who knows, New Delhi may next hand Arunachal on the platter to them along with giving away the title to the portion of Aksai Chin China has illegally occupied since the mid-1950s.

 

 

Ironically, this ‘tail between the legs’ attitude towards China – all the heroic posturing being reserved for Pakistan – comes at a time when the Indian Armed Services, in operational terms, are so much more modern and superior all round as to give their Chinese counterparts a fearful pasting should circumstances allow it. The 1987 Som Durongchu incident once and for all cured the Chinese of their belief that they could again administer a 1962 kind of beating, prompting the old warhorse, Deng Xiaoping, to rue aphoristically that they could not any more take ‘the chicken knife to a bullock’.

The only reason why the Chinese are nevertheless confident is because of the decisive edge their country retains in thermonuclear armaments and long-range missiles systems, which fact is the background factor in any serious military confrontation with India that will erode what little resolve Indian leaders may somehow muster in a crisis. It is a safe bet that the news of the standard issue 3.3 megaton hydrogen warhead on the Chinese intermediate range ballistic missiles targeted at India being readied for action will make the Indian government quail when they wake up to find they have only a puny nuclear force boasting simple fission 15 kiloton weapons as counter.

But whether India is looked upon as a chicken or a tough Asian buffalo is a function of the mindset of our political leaders who, cutting across the political parties, seem made of putty. Effete, pampered, pompous, irresolute and weak-willed, they seem over-eager to trade away India’s comparative advantages in the strategic arena, but then are ready to assign blame when things go wrong, as they inevitably must, to India’s being a ‘soft state’ when, in fact, it is they who are soft and take the easy route. They are animated by the anti-historical belief sourced to the West – sedulously propagated by the same aforementioned media commentators and academics of like stripe – that war is as passé as the use of force by states.

 

 

Nothing has budged them from this orthodox official position that took root once the economic liberalization programme got fitfully underway in this country. Not even the mounting evidence that the age of wars of regime change, of ‘humanitarian’ intervention, of military campaigns preemptively to divest sovereign states of weapons of mass destruction and WMD capability acquired to shore up national security, is upon us. Instead of seeing the harsh international reality in telltale terms of the strong preying on the weak, they are persuaded by the logic of geoeconomics and of building trade links, as if economic and commercial logic now overrules the imperatives of realpolitik.

India is a strong state with a weak political leadership which last has contrived to deny the country the military wherewithal for strategic assertion. The Indian people have been grossly misled into thinking that such capability is unaffordable. This is patent nonsense fostered by powerful countries and their stiffs here, who’d rather India remain strategically vulnerable and dependent. India can have near thermonuclear parity with China with an arsenal in the 400 plus weapons/warheads range acquired over three decades by expending only 0.008% of the Gross Domestic Product of the end-year 2030 (assuming an annual economic growth rate of 7% in this period).

 

 

But to attain this capability will require India’s resumption of nuclear testing in order to secure for itself physically proven, performance reliable and safe high yield, preferably multi-megaton, fusion warheads/weapons, a speeding up of the delivery timetable of the nuclear ballistic missile firing nuclear-powered submarine and of embarking, post haste, on a project to produce intercontinental range ballistic missiles. There is no other way out of the strategic ‘cul de sac’ the late Army Chief General B.C. Joshi said India had gotten itself into, a dead-end the 1998 tests did nothing to pull the national nuclear deterrent out of.

New Delhi may be prepared to conduct further nuclear tests but only after the US initiates a testing regime some time in 2005 of low yield, ‘bunker busting’, thermonuclears which is on the cards pursuant to the US Congress’ recent approval of an R&D programme. Russia and China are waiting for the Americans to give the lead before they too begin testing. But what if Washington decides, for whatever reasons, not to test because of an assessment that what the US strategic forces currently possess is more than adequate to take care of any and every conceivable future threat and contingency – something argued by certain sections of the US strategic community – then, if Moscow and Beijing too hold back, India will be left high and dry and holding the can. Because, after all, the US, Russian, British, French and the Chinese thermonuclear deterrents have been demonstrated to be effective. India has nothing as reassuring by way of its strategic armaments. (Recall, that for all of R. Chidambaram and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s remonstrance, the lone thermonuclear device India tested in 1998 was practically a dud – it fizzled with incomplete fusion burn.)

Keeping Indian nuclear forces at their present basic level, quality and quantity-wise, is in the great powers’ interest. It simplifies their strategic calculus. For instance, the US Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) routinely rearranges its target sets with the emergence of what they consider new potential threats, and critical Indian sites are already targeted. (US officials, like the Under Secretary of State John R. Bolton for Arms Control and Assistant Secretary of State John Wolf for Nonproliferation have publicly stated that nuclearized India poses a threat to the US.)

 

 

Now, if Indian N-powered subs with IRBMs were prowling off the US coast or with ICBMs a little farther out in the seas, the calculus would have changed dramatically. The American sensor platforms would have had to begin worrying about not just Russian and Chinese boats but also Indian submersibles lurking near their launch sites. The US detection and strike/counter strike assets would then have had to contend with more numerous targets and the whole scene would at once become more hairy for Americans.

We can be guaranteed that once such capability is in deployable condition, the US and four other established nuclear powers will be falling over each other to accommodate India’s strategic and regional interests, and no nonsense about it. Because, if they don’t, in a confrontation they simply have too much to lose. This is the nuclear planning predicate I have been advocating India adopt. But New Delhi is happier being patted on the back for its supposed ‘saga-city and wisdom’ – a phrase that covers up for the lack of guts, gumption and strategic sense – in not developing its nuclear forces beyond the small yield, small reach weapons that too kept in de-mated, de-alerted state, and generally playing second fiddle to the US even in the Indian Ocean. Like the Indian Navy’s pulling a secondary mission of escorting the Gulf-bound US naval vessels past the Malacca Straits.

 

 

It is hardly any wonder then that such meagre strategic military assets as we have are turned against the only country in the region these can expect to match – Pakistan, a country whose entire national budget is about the size of just the Indian defence budget! Thereby hangs a tale of strategic armaments being uselessly yoked to sub-strategic roles ending in strategic reduction of India.

But this sort of gradual diminution is what India has been suffering ever since Jawaharlal Nehru left the scene. His strategic vision encompassed India’s own ‘Monroe Doctrine’. His daughter, Indira Gandhi visualized India as merely preeminent in the larger neighbourhood. Today it is deemed enough that India is the equal of Pakistan in some abstract military equation. Though in practical terms, the way our leaders keep running to Uncle Sam to save us from terrorists and terrorism, we appear to be missing even the conviction to tackle this relatively minor problem on our own exacerbated by Pakistan. Given time, we may get down to the bras-stacks and seek parity with Bhutan. Thimpu, look out!

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