The India-China Face Off

Photo by BMN Network | CC by 2.0

In this era of widespread nuclear capabilities it is important that admirals and generals should refrain from commenting forcefully on international affairs in public.

It is expected that such as the Commander of US forces in the Pacific, Admiral Harris, will continue to threaten China by saying such things as “We will cooperate when we can but we will be ready to confront when we must,” while the chief of US European Command and NATO’S Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General Scaparrotti, will carry on declaring publicly that “we are returning to our historic role as a warfighting command” in order to increase tension with Russia, but it is possible that Moscow and Beijing just laugh at that sort of thing. (Incidentally, what was Scaparrotti’s vast array of military muscle doing before it returned to warfighting?)

Generals and admirals should certainly pay close attention to world developments, because it is essential for their country’s security and planning that they and their staffs should analyze the situation along national borders and in other areas of strategic significance ; but making statements to the world at large about going to war with specific countries is not the responsibility of the military, and the observation on September 6 by India’s army chief, General Bipin Rawat, that China is his nation’s “northern adversary” was confrontational to the point of irresponsibility.

The nuclear arsenals and readiness states of India and China — and neighboring Pakistan — are formidable and threatening, and in such circumstances intemperate pronouncements on international policy by public figures are best avoided.

The day before the General made his comment, the international BRICS summit meeting in Beijing, attended by five national leaders, including President Xi of China and India’s Prime Minister Modi, had ended with a positive declaration that the gathering “fostered the spirit of mutual respect and understanding, equality, solidarity, openness, inclusiveness and mutually beneficial cooperation.”  The political heads of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa declared they shared a desire for “peace, security, development and cooperation,” but the chances of any advance by China and India towards compromise and harmony were somewhat blunted by the Indian army commander’s announcement that China was “flexing [its] muscles” by “salami slicing, taking over territory in a very gradual manner, testing our limits or threshold.”

On September 5 the leaders of India and China had a discussion described by the Indian side as “forward-looking” with emphasis on “peace and tranquility in border areas.” It was stated they desire “closer communication between the defense and security personnel of India and China” which now might seem to be a forlorn hope, given General Rawat’s stark warning next day that not only is there likelihood of conflict with China, but that it would probably extend to war with Pakistan.

The General said that “Whether these [border] conflicts will be limited and confined in space and time, or whether these can expand into an all-out war along the entire front with the Western adversary [Pakistan] taking advantage of the situation developing on the Northern border [with China], is very much likely.” He seemed to be setting the stage for further confrontation between Beijing and Delhi at the very time that tension had eased a little,  following a nasty military face-off in their disputed border region. As reported on September 7 in the Guardian newspaper, “India last week agreed to pull troops from the disputed Doklam plateau high in the Himalayas, where Chinese troops had started building a road. The 10-week standoff was the two nations’ most protracted in decades, and added to their longstanding strategic rivalry.”

The Washington Post noted that “In India, news outlets painted Monday’s [August 28] stand-down as a win for Indian diplomacy,” which was a polite way of saying that India’s media treated the agreement as an out-and-out victory for India.  The Economic Times, for example, boasted that “New Delhi, which stood firm amid Beijing’s relentless provocation, sent out a message that it would stand by a friend [Bhutan] in times of crisis and in the process strengthened its partnership with Asian countries, particularly in South and Southeast Asia,” and the Hindustan Times headlined “Unmistakable message: Doklam showed India can dig in heels, stand up for ally.”

This is not what China wanted to hear, and its media riposted in robust terms, with the difference, of course, that it speaks with the voice of central authority, unlike that of India, where, even if its press and TV are on occasions infantile to the point of absurdity (they’ve learned a lot from Britain and America), they are totally independent. The message came through from both sides that although they had agreed to defuse the potentially disastrous situation, they were not going to admit for an instant that they were the slightest bit in the wrong ; and although the actors may have withdrawn to the wings for the moment, the stage was set for further drama.  General Rawat’s comments were more than noises off, because nobody could ignore the words of such an important national figure.

One indication of China’s disapproval of India’s stance was cancellation of a minor military ceremonial function on October 1.  Since 2005 there have been two meetings annually between the armed forces of India and China at five posts along their frontier, but this time the Chinese government did not issue an invitation to the Indian side for such a get-together.  By such seemingly trivial actions are high displeasures made known, and it can be expected that there will be other and more significant indications that China has no intention of giving up its claims to territory it considers belong to it. As General Rawat told the media on August 26, two days before the Doklam dispute petered out, “Let’s say this stand-off gets resolved, but our troops on the border should not feel that it cannot happen again. Such instances are likely to increase in future . . .  My message to the troops is to not let down the guard.”

China and India have never been comfortable neighbors, and recent events have shown that their relationship continues to be precarious.  Mutual distrust is understandable, given their history of confrontation along what is called the ‘Line of Actual Control’ dividing territory clamed by both countries, but in more recent times it has become apparent that India is not only allying itself with the United States, but is pursuing an anti-China policy it hopes will be regarded with US approval. That this is proving successful was shown by a report on October 4 in India’s Tribune newspaper that “The Trump administration on Wednesday threw its weight behind India’s opposition to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), saying it passes through a disputed territory [Pakistan-administered Kashmir] and no country should put itself into a position of dictating the Belt and Road initiative.”

Instead of drawing closer together, as optimistically hoped by most leaders of the BRICS in their advocacy of “mutually beneficial cooperation”, it appears that India is drawing away from China and has tied its flag to the mast of an increasingly confrontational United States.  Although the Delhi government seems reluctant to engage in direct military cooperation with the Pentagon (no US bases in India, for example), it is no coincidence that the first visit to India by a senior member of the Trump administration was that of General Mattis, the defense secretary, on September 25-27.

India has signaled that it’s in for the long haul along the Line of Actual Control by establishing a new 90,000-strong army corps in the region, building strategic roads, and developing a network of airfields in the forward areas to support advanced combat aircraft and heavy transports. China has also increased its military presence, and is not going to accept anything other than an Indian climb-down concerning border region claims. The chances of conflict are high and getting higher, and no doubt China has noted that, as reported by The Hindu on September 24, “the US has already become India’s top defense supplier with the sale of three Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules aircraft, 10 C-17 Globemaster and 12 P-8 Poseidon aircraft from Boeing, as well as 22 AH-64 Apache and 15 CH-47 Chinook helicopters. US and India also signed a deal worth $750 million in December 2016, under which the government will be buying 145 M777 Howitzer guns for the Army. America is now pushing India to buy around 100-150 F-16 Block 70 combat aircraft produced by Lockheed Martin as well as around 20 Sea Guardian drones.”

In the end it all comes down to money for military sales, and there’s nothing like international confrontation for boosting the morale and share prices of the US military-industrial complex. But it would still be advisable for General Bipin Rawat and his colleagues to guard their tongues. The India-China standoff is a serious matter, and it shouldn’t be allowed to escalate, no matter the profit involved.

Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.