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Mainstream, VOL LV No 39 New Delhi September 16, 2017

India’s Army Chief and his Public Posturing on China

Tuesday 19 September 2017


by Gautam Sen

General Bipin Rawat, India’s Army Chief of Staff, has spoken twice publicly on India’s ability to wage a two-front war against China and Pakistan, inter-alia stating that internal insurrection, Maoists, etc. can be controlled simultaneously. The first such assertion was at the beginning of the recent Doklam border crisis, which drew sharp derisive reaction from China with the latter drawing reference to the Indian Army’s debacle in 1962. Thereafter, the General did not dwell on this issue in any public pronouncement, till the crisis was resolved for the present. The Army Chief then again mentioned in a talk before a think-tank on Indian Army’s posture as above, while virtually speaking against the joint theatre-oriented Indian armed forces’ proposed re-organisation where, the Army does not have primacy. The Chinese Government was provoked enough after General Rawat’s second assertion, and particularly after the BRICS Summit, where attempts were initiated by both the countries to re-set their ties, to solicit clarification through diplomatic channels, whether the Army Chief was reflecting his government’s views. The Government of India would have responded suitably at a low key, to the Chinese government’s demarche.

It may be appropriate to consider at this stage whether the armed forces’ chiefs should mandatorily follow certain norms on the issue of public pronouncements on matters of sensitive bilateral relations of India, and particularly before, during and after crises or tension, with neighbouring countries. During conflictual periods in the past, the Services’ chiefs or Services’ senior functionaries had articulated the views of the government of the day to the media and in the public domain, in an organised and authorised manner. This had been the pattern during the Indo-Pak wars, Sino-Indian conflict, limited conflict in the Rann-of-Kutch and shooting down of Pakistan’s Atlantis maritime surveillance aircraft over the Kathiawar peninsula and the Kargil crisis. But, General Rawat’s statements did not fall in that category, and in fact, had the potential to and did apparently negate diplomatic efforts to resolve the Doklam military stand-off for a temporary period.

There is a view in some internal circles that the Army Chief’s statements were really targeted at domestic audiences and intended to indicate military resolve in order to enhance public confidence and morale of the Services. This does not appear plausible because, the present Union Government has been quite adept in dealing with the media and its Ministry of External Affairs (MEA)and India’s Foreign Secretary has handled the public domain and diplomacy at the right time with appropriate measure of finesse and nuances. What the Army Chief stated, could have been spoken before the troops on frontier deployment and at Army durbars.

It may be in the fitness of things towards avoiding the conveying of mixed signals to countries contesting India’s sovereignty in any way or over part of its legitimate territory, to perforce have some parameters laid down for avoiding controversial public pronouncements of the nature resorted to by the incumbent Army Chief. In the ultimate, the government’s views should invariably be disseminated at appropriate media briefings at the Press Information Bureau or by the spokesperson of the MEA or the Foreign Secretary. Views of the nature expressed by General Rawat were de-facto out of turn and uncalled for during the Doklam crisis.

As regards the substance of the Indian Army Chief’s views, there are many issues which have deep implications. The views seem to indicate the role and capability of the Army will be the sole determinant of India’s China policy and posture. To say the least, such a policy premise will be unrealistic and may not serve India’s long-term interest. India’s deterrence against China, both nuclear powers, can only be realistically conceptualised through a judicious combination of tri-Service deployable military might as well as the national civil establishment supported with a looming nuclear capability—even of an intermediate range—to target some parts of China.

Furthermore, there is a hiatus as per status or capability at the ground level and the public posturing of the General. This is not to underrate the Indian Army’s dedication, morale and military prowess. However, there are still lacunae in logistics and ground connectivity, militating against the obtaining of the desired level of defensive capacity vis-à-vis China, if the CAG’s Performance Audit Report No. 5 of 2017 on ‘China Study Group Roads’ highlighting inadequacy in construction of strategic border roads is any indicator.

In the backdrop of history, there is a well established view that, the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962 was to an extent precipitated by public posturing of the Indian leaders consequent on enormous political pressures built up on the government within and outside Parliament, notwithstanding a huge hiatus between the Indian Army’s deployments and de-facto logistics and support structures to sustain them. Of course, the then senior Army hierarchy did not engage in public pronouncements of the nature under reference. Nevertheless, the essence of the matter is that, for diplomatic initiatives to succeed and avoid military escalation, which neither India or China wanted as is apparent now, strong statements at the non-policy echelon like the Services’ headquarters or Service chiefs, needs to be avoided.

There is another aspect which must be considered regarding perceptions of military leaders of both India and China vis-à-vis each other. Apart from structured border meetings at five designated points along the Line of Actual Control (which de-facto denotes the forces’ disposition along the Sino-Indian boundary but not delineated and formally demarcated except in the middle sector bordering Uttarakhand), substantive bilateral dialogue on strategic postures of the armed forces of the two countries have not been taking place. There is a view in some circles that, such a dialogue can be feasible only contingent on a broad political understanding on finalisation of the border issue. Notwithstanding such a perception, it may be politically beneficial and strategically rewarding to start such a dialogue process involving the defence bureaucracy, MEA and chief of integrated defence staff. Such an interaction may be in the realm of a continuous bilateral strategic dialogue. The need for disseminating more or less unilateral strong albeit bellicose postures, as done by the present Army Chief, may thus be avoided. There is a regime of bilateral exchanges between the armies of India and China, joint exercises in a restricted area as well as familiarising visits of naval units to each other’s ports. But these are not at a level of those who formulate policy or work out the strategic posture frameworks and support mechanisms.

It for the Union Government to ensure that a credible framework for defence posturing is in place, in relation to our immediate neighbours like China and Pakistan, as well apropos the strategic environment from the Middle East to the Pacific, which is evolving and presently quite unstable. The opportunity or onus for short-term posturing as was evident in relation to China, may be detrimental to India’s long-term interests.

The author is retired IDAS officer who has served in senior appointments of Govt. of India, a State Govt. and was Additional Controller General of Defence Accounts.

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