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Battling the East wind

DRAGON ON OUR DOORSTEP: MANAGING CHINA THROUGH MILITARY POWER By Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab, Aleph, Rs 799

This is one of the many recent works on the lack of India's strategic policies which identify the same problems - inter alia, incompetent civilian control over the military, the latter having no role in foreign policy, deficiencies in equipment, lack of indigenous production, lack of a chief of defence staff and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. This book is different from others in that it is prescriptive and contentious.

With China's rise, Pakistan emerged as China's trusted partner, and since 1963 has been used to keep India "boxed in". Both countries, possessing "a keener sense of geography and geopolitics" than India, now have interoperability, while Indian policy has never evolved strategically. China will neither settle the border dispute peacefully nor withdraw its claims, while the Pakistan army is fixated on Kashmir.

China's obstinacy on the border has less to do with its complexity than with diminishing India as a rival. Indian appeasement has not worked; all existing agreements on the border demonstrate ignorance of "military understanding", assist Chinese deception and add to our army's woes. The approach of the "mandarins in the Indian foreign office makes little military sense," all border transgressions are one-sided and the raising of a new mountain corps is a "mindless political act". But the authors conclude that China is "unlikely to go to war with India over the border dispute."

There is imbalance with the US. India seeks high-end technology and proximity to Washington, although even middle level technology is problematic. The US wants non-proliferation and support in the Asia Pacific region against China. India has been a 'major defence partner' since 2016, but with two of four 'foundational agreements' concluded, India has given away too much for too little. India cannot balance China only through closer ties with the US.

Our South Asian neighbours do not support turning Pakistan into a pariah, and India must know that managing China and becoming a leading power depends on Pakistan, and Kashmir is a bottleneck that must be removed. The backchannel talks, which India did not follow up on, suggest that India believes there is no Kashmir issue to be resolved, whereas the dispute undermines India's moral stature and increases its vulnerability.

India has to hold three uncertain lines - the 772 kilometre line of control with Pakistan, the 126 kilometre Siachen position and the 3,448 kilometre Line of Actual Control with China - but "is fooling itself through bean counting and bravado." It must build its military power and defence industry to become a geostrategic player - "military power is about the optimal utilization of military force," not about war alone, but preventing war and as a component of foreign policy.

India is not able to influence geopolitical events in its neighbourhood, let alone the world. Its level is a mix of second and third generation warfare (firepower and manoeuvre) while Pakistan has moved to the fourth level of conventional and non-traditional warfare and China to the fifth, which combines all methods, including electronic, cyber and propaganda. Counter-insurgency operations, in which the army has a vested interest, have atrophied the military's morale and preparations and it cannot switch easily to conventional war. AFSPA is ruining the Army, which is "overworked and overstretched and poses little threat to either adversary."

The authors make provocative allegations: India's political and military leaders "in cahoots with its diplomats" have pedaled falsehoods about the border with China; the occupation of Siachen in 1984 led to military vulnerability; China's army "scores over the Indian military at all levels"; foreign policy "is made with disregard to military advice". Whether the nuclear tests in 1998 were a blunder that empowered Pakistan is open to discussion, but India should withdraw its no first use policy, and refuse to clarify a new one. "Indians... have never had any real concept of maritime security"; we cannot produce even a rifle or grenade; Chabahar is a dead investment after China achieves its link with Gwadar; and China wants "permanent peace" between India and Pakistan.

The book asserts that military power is needed to deter adversaries and build the nation. War with China or Pakistan will be conventional, and fighting on two-fronts will be suicidal. The military should review its force levels. Research and development should be aimed at meeting operational needs. India should resolve Kashmir, talk to Pakistan's real power centres, and stabilize the internal situation through dialogues - though how these are to be achieved is not specified.

The narrative is journalistic with excessive details of both historical and military background. Much of the criticism is based on conversations with military men dating to five or more years ago, who may not have been telling the whole truth. No clarifications have been sought from civilians in the foreign or defence ministries. There is duplication within and between chapters, no list of abbreviations, no maps, and photos that add no value. The writing is by numbers ad nauseam - three elements, four concerns, five advantages, seven hotspots - and inaccuracies like "India does not have Special Drawing Rights" and the muddled syntax - "place where foresight has converged with geography" - are jarring. There is no reference to Daesh or Simi when discussing internal instability.

But the data are factually sound and it is correct that no other nation will fight India's land war. India has conflated local problems with international terrorism whereas winning the confidence of Indian Muslims will be the better strategy. The chapters on relations with the US, indigenous defence production and the nuclear deal, whose commercial and strategic aspects both remain unfulfilled, are especially convincing.