Now that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s highly successful visit to the United States is over, India needs to give serious thought to the developments on its northern and north-western borders. One can argue that there is nothing terribly new with the situation along the Line of Control in Kashmir and the international border in Jammu, which have been volatile for some time with Pakistan accelerating its efforts to push in terrorists across both. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s raising of the Kashmir issue at the United Nations General Assembly and provocative reference to conditions in Kashmir, which are purely India’s internal matter, have, however, created a new context.
Sharif’s performance might have been dismissed as an attempt at playing to the gallery had it not come at the crest of a surge of venomous anti-India rhetoric in Pakistan, with even Bilawal Bhutto, the just-past-adolescence, baby-faced leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, comically threatening to snatch from India “every inch” of Kashmir, the whole of which, he claimed, was Pakistan’s!! One might have been dismissive even of this but for the recent aggressive posture of Pakistani military and civilian personnel.
Sartaj Aziz, who advises Pakistan’s Government both on national security and foreign affairs, has doubtlessly said that the timing of Pakistani High Commissioner to India’s meeting in Delhi with secessionist Kashmiri leaders, was not entirely right. This can be construed as an effort to hold out some sort of an olive branch to India, as the meeting, held despite the Government of India’s opposition to it, led to New Delhi’s cancellation of the Foreign Secretary level talks between the two countries, scheduled for August 25, 2014, and Pakistan’s escalation of both its hate-India rhetoric and tension along the LoC and the international border. New Delhi, however, needs to watch. Often in the past, Pakistan floated straws of friendly intentions in the wind only to instantly blow them away without a trace. Consider, for example, its statement about sending the chief of its Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate to India following the horror of 26/11 and then promptly reneging on it.
One needs to wait and watch, particularly since developments in India-Pakistan relations can never be seen in isolation from the confrontation between Indian and Chinese troops inside Indian territory in Ladakh. Given the close ties between India’s two unfriendly neighbours, one can hardly rule out the near-simultaneous muscle-flexing by both as un-coordinated. One needs to be particularly careful because of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s statement of 22nd September, quoted by China’s state-run news agency, Xinua, the following day, that the headquarters “of all PLA forces should improve their combat readiness and sharpen their ability to win a regional war in the age of information technology”.
One can argue that Chinese leaders have emphasised the need to enhance the PLA’s ability to win regional wars earlier as well. Its failure to win the war with Vietnam in 1979 prompted Deng Xiaoping to describe it as “bloated and lax”. The Gulf War of 1991, in which the US-led forces wiped out Iraqi armour and other equipment, supplied by China, from the air, also led to soul-searching in Beijing. Later, Jiang Zemin, who headed China’s Central Military Commission from the suppression of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989 until 2002, when he demitted office as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China – while remaining the country’s president until 2003 – spearheaded efforts to restructure the Armed Forces to make them “lean and mean” to successfully fight regional wars.
India, however, cannot ignore Xi’s statement about regional wars, coming as it did three days after his visit to this country and shortly after the PLA’s incursions into Indian territory. The coincidence might have been accidental. If it was not, then the intrusion was perhaps a message to Pakistan that the bonhomie with Mr Modi notwithstanding, India-China relations had not become such as should worry Islamabad. Equally, it could be a message to India that despite friendly summitry, China would pursue its border goals relentlessly. Finally, it could be an attempt to neutralise Mr Modi’s growing global salience by emphasising before the world that militarily China was still the top country in Asia.
It is difficult to divine Chinese intentions given the opacity at almost all levels of decision-making. But one should remember that the Chinese have never allowed the pursuit of trade to deter aggressive assertion of its territorial claims even at the risk of war. Jawaharlal Nehru made a massive mistake when he believed in 1962 that China would not go for a large-scale conflict with India.
There have doubtless been gains from Xi’s visit, which include the signing of 12 agreements, including those for Chinese investment of $20 billion in India’s infrastructure over five years, upgrading India’s railway system with high-speed links and more modern railway stations, and the grant of greater market access to Indian products, including pharmaceuticals and farm items. Besides talking of Gujarat and Guangdong being twin States and Ahmedabad and Guangzou being twin cities, both sides also focussed on increasing co-operation in trade, space exploration and civil nuclear energy.
All this notwithstanding, Chinese troops remained on Indian soil despite the Indian Prime Minister personally taking the issue up forcefully with the Chinese President, and the latter called for an enhancement of the Chinese Army’s capacity to win regional wars, roughly three days after the conclusion of his visit to this country.The message is simple. India needs to prepare for dealing with two kinds of threats-shifting, relatively small-scale local confrontations to test its preparedness at various points and keep its forces dispersed, and fight a war like the one in 1962.