Last May, just days before India’s general election results were announced, the country’s highest policy making body for security matters was convened by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Its mandate: Find ways of enabling India’s military to take on an increasingly powerful (and belligerent) China.
At the end of a marathon meeting, the Cabinet Committee on Security initiated a comprehensive, well-funded plan to bolster India’s land, air and naval forces to counter China’s rising military prowess. The plan is historic, coming after years of dithering by an Indian establishment seemingly paralysed by memories of the country’s humiliating defeat at the hands of the Chinese in a brief but brutal war in 1962.
Since the CCS plan was launched, there have been significant and wide-ranging signs that Indian policymakers are finally willing to realistically assess possible military responses to China’s rise. One clear example is a new division of troops aimed exclusively at the border region of the two great powers. India is now mid-way through raising two mountain divisions for the north-eastern border area with China, with the two divisions pencilled in to be ready for deployment by the middle of next year.
The goal is to plug existing gaps in India’s preparedness along the Arunachal Pradesh-China frontier, and the two divisions, consisting of about 20,000 well-armed troops, will include a squadron of India’s armoured spearhead—Soviet-built T-90 tanks and a regiment of artillery. They will be backed by enhanced command, control, communications and intelligence (C4I) capabilities aimed at covering the Tibet region.
But that’s certainly not all.
The Indian Air Force has over the past year deployed 36 Su-30MKI, its most advanced multi-role fighter aircraft, to Tezpur in the country’s north-east in response to the People's Liberation Army Air Force's seven airbases in Tibet and southern China.
Meanwhile, the Indian Navy is working to counter the growing clout of the PLA Navy. The current thinking at Indian naval headquarters is that China will move to aggressively increase its presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) to secure its extended energy supply lines (despite its name, military planners in Beijing don’t feel India has ownership of this expanse of water).
As a consequence, the Indian Navy’s plans are based on the premise that it needs to be a fully-networked and flexible force capable of meeting any ‘out of area’ contingency. Successive Indian naval chiefs since 2004 have spoken about the need for the Navy to have ‘longer sea legs’ by 2020 and to be capable of influencing the outcome of land battles. The importance of the Navy’s role was underscored during the 1999 Kargil skirmish between India and Pakistan, when the Indian Navy played a crucial but silent role in blockading Pakistan’s sea lanes, putting Islamabad under significant pressure to end the conflict quickly.
Since then, India’s naval leadership has been working to break free of its traditional ‘continental construct’ mindset and start looking at the bigger picture, taking into account the full gamut of geo-strategic and geo-political realities. After all, 90 percent of India's trade by volume and 77 percent by value transits through the IOR.
But trade considerations aside, countering China remains the country’s biggest (but officially largely unstated) objective, a fact Beijing no doubt saw as underscored when India held a joint exercise in the area with the US, Australian and Singaporean navies in 2007.
These joint exercises apart, the Indian Navy is working to build and acquire new, varied and potent platforms including an aircraft carrier, nuclear submarines, stealth frigates and long-range maritime reconnaissance planes. By 2014, it hopes to have 160 ships in its fleet, up from its current strength of 136.
But the most surprising revelation to many analysts was India’s public admission that it was inducting a Russian Akula-class Type 971 nuclear submarine into its forces, in addition to an indigenously designed and built submarine, earlier called the advanced technology vessel but now officially named the INS Arihant (The Destroyer).
‘Together, the two vessels would constitute the third leg of India's sea-based strategic deterrence,’ Adm Sureesh Mehta, former chief of the Indian navy, announced at the time—the first time a high-ranking Indian military official had gone on record about the country’s plans to have a three-pronged nuclear deterrence.
The induction of the nuclear submarine has brought India closer to securing its nuclear deterrence based on a second, retaliatory strike option that is built on a triad of strategic weapons (the other two options—delivery by an aircraft and mobile, land-based launchers—were already available).
In addition, in recent months, India has also successfully test fired its long range Agni-III strategic missile, capable of hitting targets deep inside China, while the head of India’s missile building programme, VK Saraswat, announced in May that India will go one step further by testing the 5,000-kilometre range, nuclear-capable Agni IV missile in 2011.
But there’s more to an effective defence force than an offensive capability for a country the size of India. Communication and transport lines are essential, especially in far-flung regions, so 72 tactically important roads are also being built in the tough, mountainous terrain along the China border in the Eastern and the Western sectors. The roads are being built by the quasi-military Border Roads Organisation to enhance connectivity, and come on top of the reopening of three major airstrips in Ladakh (Nyoma, Fukche and Daulat Beg Oldie).
The airstrips are being upgraded to allow medium and heavy-lift transport aircraft such as the Russian-built AN-32 aircraft and soon to be inducted US-made C-130J Hercules transport planes to land. The hope behind these developments is that once the facilities are fully functional (expected to be by the end of next year), these assets will offer India the ability to insert a large number of troops in forward areas at short notice, a capacity that Indian policymakers hope will right the current poor connectivity in the forward areas along the Line of Actual Control.
Indeed, it’s this boundary that is the biggest irritant in Sino-India relations, as neither country agrees with the other’s perception about where exactly the line should be drawn. India believes that for all China’s professed desire to find a peaceful and mutually acceptable solution to the festering boundary issue, the country has not budged from its more than three-decades position, and they note that despite frequent meetings of special representatives of both the countries over the past half decade on the issue, the deadlock has yet to be broken.
Suspicion of China runs deep among Indian analysts. ‘China’s demonstrated policies of strategic encirclement of India and its use of India’s other arch-enemy Pakistan as a proxy for her designs…is proof enough that you can never trust Beijing’s intentions,’ says former Maj. Gen. Sheru Thapliyal, who commanded a frontline division responsible for handling China. ‘Until a visible change is demonstrated by China, there’s no excuse for any Indian Government to ignore or soft-pedal the imperatives of strong defensive preparations along the India-Tibet Border’.
But such preparations haven’t gone unnoticed by China. When news of last May’s plans went public, China reacted strongly, with the semi-official Global Times editorializing: ‘India's current course can only lead to a rivalry between the two countries. India needs to consider whether or not it can afford the consequences of a potential confrontation with China…Any aggressive moves will certainly not aid the development of good relations with China. India should examine its attitude and preconceptions; it will need to adjust if it hopes to cooperate with China and achieve a mutually beneficial outcome.’
This year’s annual report by the Indian Defence Ministry stated: ‘India remains conscious and alert about the implications of China’s military modernisation. Rapid infrastructure development in the Tibet Autonomous Region and Xinjiang Province has considerably upgraded China's military force projection capability and strategic operational flexibility…Necessary steps have been initiated for the upgrading of our infrastructure and force structuring along the northern borders.’
This kind of urgency, lacking for far too long in New Delhi, is a refreshing indication that Indian policymakers are taking the need to prepare for potential conflict with China seriously. China cannot—and should never be—taken lightly. And India should always be mindful of the fact that military preparedness and trying to improve diplomatic relations are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Nitin Gokhale is Defence & Strategic Affairs Editor with Indian broadcaster, NDTV 24×7