China Policy in India: For a Revolution in Mindsets

Grand strategy on China requires political attention, bureaucratic competence, military capability and academic expertise. If any one of these is missing, strategy is hobbled, and one can forget about grand strategy altogether.

With the Indian political leadership reeling from corruption scandals and already in preparation for general elections, foreign policy has suffered from lack of political attention. In fact, the impression has gained ground that policies related to defence and external affairs have of late been outsourced to the bureaucrats. While most criticize the government’s China policy, calling it pusillanimous and ineffective, the more serious issue is missed – no matter how competent the bureaucrats, policy in a democracy must be seen as being initiated and guided by elected political leaders.

Meanwhile, it is a well-known fact that the Indian Foreign Ministry mandarins are an overworked lot. India’s system of civil service recruitment and strong sense of bureaucratic entitlement ensures that academic experts have little influence or input in policymaking even when they are the acknowledged experts in a subject area or theme. While the China desk has usually received the best and the brightest of the Indian Foreign Service, the lack of regular and open exchange of information and views between diplomats and academia ensures a sub-optimal China policy bereft of long-term vision and planning.

However, it must also be acknowledged that Indian academic expertise on China and in international affairs, in general, leaves much to be desired – many scholars do not speak Chinese or any foreign language, and more often than not, collaboration and inter-disciplinary research between departments in the same university is difficult, leave alone between universities or between universities and other research institutions whether Indian or foreign. As long, as Indian academics cannot abandon their ivory towers or their hierarchical relationships with colleagues and students, they will not learn and not be able to contribute to government policymaking.

Where's the substance?

Where’s the substance?

In the last few months – as during every summer for the last few years – Chinese ‘incursions’ across the LAC have hit the headlines. There is even what is believed to be a new kind of activity in the form of extended camping by Chinese soldiers within India’s perception of the LAC. The key word here is ‘perception’ – it is often forgotten, perhaps conveniently by some quarters, that there is no commonly agreed LAC between the two sides. The ministries of External Affairs and Defence know this and therefore unlike the media, do not overplay these ‘incursions’. Such recent claims as the Chinese coming 19 kilometres inside or occupying 600-odd square kilometres of Indian territory in the Ladakh area are therefore, plain wrong or forget that the territory in question is disputed.  Further, according to Indian military officials, themselves, Sino-Indian military CBMs continue to hold and the LAC is largely peaceful – in marked contrast to the situation along the LOC with Pakistan.

But the Indian armed forces must ask themselves a deeper question – is military modernization only about purchasing or developing the latest weapons and raising new formations to deal with the Chinese ‘threat’? The army especially, remains largely British colonial in its mindsets, with its emphasis on spit and polish, and on following orders and hierarchy rather than on encouraging creative thinking and learning among its officers. Such activities as learning languages or seeking higher academic education or research opportunities are often looked down upon owing to this culture and makes attracting and retaining the best talent extremely difficult for the Indian armed forces.

Thus, while China is often portrayed as India’s biggest military challenge of the future, barely a handful of Indian armed services personnel can speak fluent Chinese. Contrast, this with the Chinese PLA that goes out of its way to recruit the smartest and most technologically-savvy young graduates from its  universities or with the American armed forces, where officers are encouraged to not only be competent in the military arts but also to be academically qualified and critical thinkers.

China policy in India therefore, leaves much to be desired and probably reflects some of the same shortcomings that affect other areas of policymaking in India. And yet, as well-known as the problems are, so too are the solutions. What is urgently required is for this country to move from reliance on the brilliance or charisma of individuals to the solidity of processes and institutions. It is the business of the government to keep the opposition informed about important foreign policy developments and to take it on board when critical decisions with far-reaching consequences are involved. The opposition for its part must play the role of a facilitator, not a hindrance. If the political class can get its act together, then it can get the bureaucrats return to the role of implementers of policy instead of them either running away with the agenda or playing safe for want of direction. It is also only the political class that can really bring about a true revolution in Indian military affairs as also in the dismal state of Indian academia. China policy will be all the stronger for these changes.

Originally published as ‘Needed soldier scholars’, The Sunday Indian, 29 September 2013.

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