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Old Monday, October 11, 2010
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Default Changing Dynamics of South Asian Politics and Indian Concerns

Drawn in at the borders
The Indian Express
By C.Raja Mohan
Having squandered some of the best years in the history of India’s external relations, the UPA government’s defence policy is now condemned to deal with some of the worst. Through much of its first term in government, the UPA had a relatively peaceful Jammu and Kashmir, a ceasefire on the borders with Pakistan, a measure of stability in Afghanistan, tranquil borders with China, and improving relations with all the major powers.

That was the moment to undertake some comprehensive defence sector reforms, do the groundwork for rapid military modernisation, alter the internal dynamics of Kashmir, and catch up with China’s rising power potential.

Sadly, the UPA government did not. It now confronts the prospect of the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, a breakdown in the peace process with Pakistan, a stalled boundary negotiation with China, internal turbulence in Kashmir, China’s questioning of India’s sovereignty over J&K, and deepening Sino-Pak cooperation across the board, including in Jammu and Kashmir.

Meanwhile, the government’s hand-wringing in face of a crisis in Kashmir and the serious internal discord in the Congress party raise questions about the political will of the Indian state under the UPA government. It will be no surprise if India’s adversaries want to take advantage of widely perceived fecklessness in Delhi.

As the idea of a two-front military tension gains ground — the thesis that has been argued not just by the former National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra but also by General Deepak Kapoor, when he was the chief of army staff — amidst a worsening regional security environment, India’s military faces great challenges.

There is nothing in the publicly available excerpts from the remarks of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Defence Minister A.K. Antony at the combined commanders meeting last Monday to suggest that Delhi is gearing up. The defence ministry continues to return money approved by Parliament for building arms year after year. The annual spending on defence as a percentage of GDP has fallen to one of its lowest levels since border clashes with China in 1962.

Although arms makers from around the recession-hit advanced world are queuing up in Delhi, our defence ministry seems unable to develop an acquisition process that can grasp the opportunity for a significant expansion of India’s defence industrial base.

While the Indian private sector is eager to build advanced arms manufacturing capabilities, the defence ministry seems to think that stuffing contracts down the throat of public sector units that are choking with orders they cannot execute is in the best national interest.

Cynics would say we should forget the tall talk of a defence industrial base when the UPA government cannot even build roads on our borders. The prime minister told the combined commanders that “border infrastructure” is an “integral part” of our defence preparedness and the task must be approached with some “urgency”. Well put. But is any one in the government responsible for getting this done?

On his part, Antony told the brass that India “cannot lose sight of the fact that China has been improving its military and physical infrastructure” on our borders. This probably is the understatement of the decade, for China’s transformation of the transport infrastructure in Yunnan, Tibet, and Xinjiang, the provinces that border South Asia, has been nothing short of revolutionary. China’s decision to build road and rail networks across the borders of these provinces is bound to transform forever the geopolitics of our neighbourhood.

One wonders if Antony’s statement that we should not lose sight of the PLA’s new mobility along and across its border is an abstract philosophical statement or a commitment to respond.

A recent report from the parliamentary standing committee on defence suggests the progress on road-building on our northern frontiers has been simply pathetic. According to the report, of the 277 roads that the UPA government decided to build a few years ago, only 29 have been completed to date. There is said to be progress of sorts (think Commonwealth Games) on another 168 roads, and work has not even started on 80 projects.

The state of border road-building is symptomatic of the nation’s larger defence paralysis. A national disaster like the 1962 debacle with China awaits the UPA government if it does not get its defence act together quickly. In 1962, it was Delhi’s failure to understand the significance of Chinese road-building in Ladakh that set off the crisis.

The debacle of 1962 was not really a military disaster. The Indian army lost only a few battles. The air force was barely used. There was not much of a navy to talk about. As China administered a limited amount of force to teach India a lesson, the war was lost in the mind of a Delhi that was utterly unprepared.

The tragedy of 1962 was in essence a failure of the civilian leadership of our military. It was about the naive assumptions about the world that India’s political leadership had cherished. Delhi had then misread China’s interests, intentions and capabilities.

For many, a national disgrace of the kind seen in 1962 is unimaginable in the current environment. Has not India become a much stronger economy since the early 1990s? Is not its military much more capable than in 1962? The fact, however, is that India’s relative defence gains have been outstripped by the more rapid advances in Chinese military power.

As Chinese power today radiates at us not just from across the Himalayas but also the Indian Ocean, Delhi’s problem is neither the lack of financial resources nor the absence of military/ technical solutions. It is about the UPA government’s political will to address the defence challenges purposefully.

There are two ways in which nations cope with defence challenges. One is to mobilise the nation’s own resources and restructure the defence apparatus. The other is to leverage external opportunities. Any serious Indian defence strategy must do both, much like it did after 1962. But is there any one out there in charge of India’s defence policy?
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