The era of strategic flexibility

The heightened tension between India and China on the LAC in the Ladakh sector is the cumulative outcome of the military build-up carried out by PLA in the period following the abrogation of Art 370 of the Constitution relating to J&K, the play of Sino-Pak military alliance now operating with new strength and the rapid shift of global geopolitics along a Cold War type of polarisation between the US and China.
India faces a new challenge of resetting its strategy of handling international relations taking into consideration three important paradigm shifts of our times — that the ideological base of old NAM does not exist anymore even as some of its rationalism might still be valid, that India’s defence has to rest on the country’s own strength and capacity building and that bilateral or multilateral friendships rooted in an in-depth convergence on security and economic interests might be stable but not necessarily everlasting. It goes to the credit of the Modi government and its foreign policy establishment that what seems to be in the country’s best interests for the times ahead is being done on a note of unambiguity and practicality. There is an awareness that in today’s world, ‘strategy’ evolved out of a comprehensive and deep assessment could prove to be lasting enough but it would never be immune to course correction.
Right now India’s military and foreign policy responses have to focus on countering any aggressive Chinese designs in East Ladakh — China is obviously motivated by its keenness to preserve and consolidate its gains in POK area that its ‘all weather friend’ Pakistan had allowed it to have in lieu of the Chinese support to Pakistan against India. The incident of August 29/30 night in which a contingent of PLA tried to sneak into the southern bank of Pangong lake on the LAC and drew back when confronted and another failed attempt by Chinese soldiers to encroach on the Indian side at Mukhpari on August 31 — here also they retreated after firing a few shots in air — confirm that PLA soldiers had the brief to extend their physical hold on the ground in East Ladakh, wherever opportune.
China evidently was not expecting the Indian army to have so swiftly consolidated its position on the heights on the south of Pangong Tso. Claims of nuclear might do not help China when it comes to the deployment of PLA in Ladakh — China is aware of the mountain warfare capability built by Indian army after the Kargil conflict — and that is why it has prepared its soldiers for hand-to-hand fight and equipped them with traditional long handle spears to enable them somehow to inch ahead with their physical possession on the ground.
China cannot fight a ‘war’ on the mountains of Ladakh and India’s military strategy should be to keep the PLA constantly checkmated on the LAC by monitoring its presence and movement. The LAC concerns should not come in the way of India taking to retaliatory action against Pakistan for the terror activity beamed at India from across the LOC. Militarisation of Ladakh by India is necessary to contain China — India should also be prepared to counter any aggressiveness of PLA elsewhere on the LAC. China is stretched more than India is, on the borders. Dr S. Jaishankar, India’s External Affairs Minister, has termed the situation on the LAC as ‘very very serious’ and warned China that this would affect the overall relations between the two countries.
Since the external threat to the security of India emanates primarily from the Sino-Pak alliance working against this country — these adversaries working in collusion also have a significant potential for causing internal destabilisation here from Kashmir to the North-East as also in the communally sensitive underbelly of India — it is good that our security and foreign policy is concentrating on garnering lasting support internationally against this rogue axis. The Sino-Pak alliance is clearly the ganging up of a Communist dictatorship and an Army-controlled dispensation that was openly using Islamic terror as a policy instrument against its opponents.
A complete convergence that prevails between the US under Donald Trump and India of Prime Minister Modi in regard to these two hostile neighbours of India, must be enlarged as the bedrock of strategic cooperation within the democratic world against the threats from the unholy Sino-Pak axis. India should openly collaborate with the US, Japan and Australia in preserving the maritime security of Indo-Pacific and step up navy patrolling in the Indian Ocean to deal with any aggressive behaviour of China there. The strategy of India is to be dedicated to world peace and preference to talks for restoring status quo ante on the Sino-Indian border maintained as India’s commitment to the same. India is doing well in coordinating its military and diplomatic moves to deal with China. Apart from deftly handling countries like Russia and Iran, all democratic countries in India’s neighbourhood need to be kept in the orbit of special friendship notwithstanding the tendency of some of those to act neutral on India-China issues.
India’s relationships within the Muslim world are far more important now than ever before because of the role of Pakistan, emerging contours of alignments of Islamic countries in relation to the US and the multiplicity of factors that can impact on the democratic future of Afghanistan. The Muslim world has to be studied in depth primarily because of the rise of faith-based militancy and Islamic radicals there in recent years — Pakistan becoming an anchor of these trends adds to India’s security concerns. As the US sees through the duplicity of Pakistan during the peace talks with Taliban on Afghanistan, Pak Prime Minister Imran Khan has started openly defying the American administration — this is becoming pronounced with the Sino-Pak alliance acquiring strategic depth.
A serious development in the Muslim world that threatens to put the security of the global democratic order in jeopardy is the emergence of a strong core group of Pakistan, Turkey and Malaysia which does not care for the US and is not prepared to jettison the radicals of Al-Qaeda and ISIS. OIC leadership represented by Saudi Arabia and UAE remains with the US — scared as it is of the Islamic radicals — and it is now even amenable to the idea of striking peace with Israel. Iran symbolises the world of Shiite Islam with its undiminished historical enmity towards Sunni extremists.
Iran’s problems with US and Israel notwithstanding, India has the locus standi to tap friendship with Iran — Shiism shares some views on ‘divinity’ with Hindu culture — and put it to mutual advantage in influencing the future of Afghanistan. The visit of India’s External Affairs Minister to Tehran is timely. India should be in a position to explain to the US that its dealings with Iran were not at the cost of American interests. The National Security Council (NSC) would surely be studying developments in the Muslim world — the National Security Advisory Board which is the Council’s think-tank is well placed to do that.
A marked feature of India’s security scenario is the reality that the external and internal threats here have a cause and effect relationship — in spheres of terrorism, insurgency, regional discords, minority-majority conflict and drug trade. To the known mischief of Pakistan is now added the threat to India’s internal stability from the Sino-Pak combine. India has to find ways and means of not letting Pakistan fish in our troubled waters and going all out to pin down agents provocateurs and enemy agents working against our national interests. Administrative outreach to various vulnerable groups must increase and families assured of help in getting any misguided youth back to the social mainstream. In an atmosphere of intense propaganda of ‘moderates’, ‘liberals’ and ‘anti-majoritarianism’ crusaders, it has to be explained to all citizens that Indian democracy is inherently secular as it is built on ‘one man one vote’, ‘development and equal protection of law to all’ and ‘a ruling dispensation that did not carry any denominational stamp’. In a charged security environ, strong domestic governance is the need of the hour.

(The writer is a former Director of Intelligence Bureau)

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