National security, like other issues of national importance, is seldom determined by the actions of any one government administration alone. Both failures and successes trace their roots to strategies and policies developed and actions implemented over time by successive governments.
While national security deserves a place in the electoral discourse, in the present elections it has been reduced to simplistic binaries and an unhealthy focus on Pakistan. China has undoubtedly been a major beneficiary of this proclivity of Indian politicians and people to get carried away by emotion and prejudice.
It is only the Indian National Congress so far that has come out with a full-fledged ‘Plan on National Security’. The BJP appears to be winging it on the back of a few heavily publicized ‘surgical strikes’ and the Balakot attack while ignoring responsibility for the intelligence and/or operational failures behind the Pulwama attack and the less-than-adequate reaction to Pakistani response to Balakot.
What does the manifesto of the Indian National Congress say about China in national security terms?
The Congress report drafted by Lt. Gen D.S. Hooda (retd.), former head of the Army’s Northern Command must be commended for stating plainly that ‘[f]uture strategic rivalry between China and India is a certainty’. Without this realization across all arms of government and percolating down to the general public, India will not be able to develop the whole-of-the-system approach required to manage the relationship with China and to address current and future concerns. The Americans, too, came to this realization however, belatedly and perhaps it is their National Security Strategy document that has provided some inspiration for the Congress document.
Gen. Hooda also highlights the failure of ongoing border talks to achieve any breakthrough but his suggestion that attention shift to a clarification of the LAC in the belief that it ‘will go a long way in preventing the occurrence of flashpoints like Depsang, Chumar, and Dokalam’ is mistaken. While this might make sense for army commanders in charge of dealing with Chinese transgressions, it misses the larger point that the Chinese do not value treaty obligations the way India does. A case in point is of how the Chinese have seemingly walked back from the clause in the 2005 India-China Agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles on not disturbing ‘settled populations’ and continue to claim Tawang as central to any boundary resolution. Consider also if Beijing has respected any of the lofty declarations it has made to ASEAN nations over the decades with respect to the South China Sea features China now illegally occupies as its own.
Specifically, in terms of border management, Gen. Hooda calls for ‘one border, one force’ with the focus being on the Army having operational control over the Indo-Tibetan Border Police which works under the Ministry of Home Affairs, a situation he calls, ‘not a recipe for success’. The demand is a long-standing one of the Indian Army but it is worth noting that it predates the present NDA regime and was never met during the UPA tenure.
In the naval dimension, Gen. Hooda jumps straight to the issue of India and China concluding some sort of agreement on rules of naval engagement and de-escalation where necessary. However, even this will not be possible without India first urgently devoting more resources to expanding naval capacity, including ship-building and diplomacy. Under their Belt and Road Initiative, the Chinese are using a combination of economic engagement and military diplomacy to create more space for themselves in the Indian Ocean region and in a few years, if India fails to take the necessary steps to augment its military, economic and diplomatic capabilities, Beijing might not necessarily seek its cooperation.
It is also wrong to assume ‘India and China have similar views on free trade and globalisation’ as the Congress document does. Far from it. China’s apparently similar views are a pretense under which it seeks to expand opportunities for and develop its own state-controlled enterprises as global leaders in strategic sectors and cutting-edge technologies. Once again, global rules and norms about free trade are being used to China’s advantage but the same rules do not apply in China itself as any number of foreign companies operating in that country can testify.
On cyber-security, while the Hooda report does not mention China by name in posing a severe challenge to the security of India’s digital infrastructure, it does argue the ‘technological component of India’s digital sovereignty has to be a gradually planned adoption of software and hardware that is designed and manufactured by Indian private companies.’ Much of this software and hardware presently, is of American and Chinese origin respectively, leaving our systems compromised by both.
The Hooda report makes several exhortations for military restructuring and reforms, including indigenization of defence production. However, the proposals put forward are not new and it is precisely the failures of two successive UPA regimes on this front that now makes whatever little the BJP has done so far look good by comparison. Meanwhile, the gap with China shows no sign of being closed any time soon.
This article was originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘Congress manifesto falls short on national security, China’, Moneycontrol.com, 1 May 2019.