Mountain Corps Raises Questions About India’s Strategy

A soldier stands in front of India's parliament building in New Delhi, November 19, 2009
A soldier stands in front of India’s parliament building in New Delhi, November 19, 2009 (PTI/Vijay Kumar Joshi)

India’s recent decision to raise a mountain strike corps along the border with China has raised arguments over the strategic orientation the country is supposed to have in years to come.

Although the operational details of the proposed mountain corps, which involves enhancing India’s third and fourth-generation warfare capabilities, are yet to be revealed, what’s clear is that the unit will contain up to 50,000 soldiers and be headquartered at Panagarh in West Bengal. This will mark a deviation from India’s existing continental offensive strategic orientation which is primarily focused on Pakistan. It will also mark a shift in orientation toward China from defensive to proactive.

The strike corps’ mission would be to occupy territory in China’s Tibet region in the event of a Chinese attack against India. This requires a paradigm shift in Indian strategic thinking which otherwise advocates the limited use of force for political purposes. This raises the question whether the proposed unit shouldn’t be considered an expeditionary one.

The decision to raise the strike corps has triggered a larger debate about India’s strategic priorities. Rear Admiral Raja Menon questioned the logic of mounting the unit in The Hindu newspaper last month when the greatest challenge posed by China is in the Indian Ocean region.

Even when it creates a new mountain combat unit, India will not be able to match China’s five air bases in the border area and its rail and road infrastructure there which allow it to move over thirty divisions, with over 15,000 soldiers each, to the Line of Actual Control — the de facto border between the two Asian powers — far outnumbering India’s forces.

Menon thinks it better to expand India’s maritime capabilities which would involve forming alliances and strategic partnerships with countries across South and East Asia as well as the United States in order to deny China access to resources in Africa or disrupt its sea lines of communications if there should ever be a war. Rather than pursuing an offensive continental strategy, India should pursue a defensive maritime strategy.

On the other hand, India is a continental as well as a maritime power. A territorial incursion, let alone the loss of territory, would be politically far more damaging to the government in New Delhi than faraway strategic gains and losses across the Indian Ocean region that seem of little benefit to the Indian voter.

India’s navy still receives the least funding of the three armed services. Especially the need of keeping a sizable land army under arms to respond to Pakistani aggression hampers the navy’s ability to develop a full fledged presence across the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Indian maritime capabilities have improved in recent years to balance against China’s similarly expanding naval presence. It has reinforced both its Eastern Naval Command in Visakhapatnam and its presence in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. But having to address its immediate, land based threats, it can ill afford to expand its maritime presence further — which would otherwise be more acceptable to neighboring powers.

Moreover, the continental orientation toward China raises questions about India’s existing continental strategy toward Pakistan. If the army is to devote more resources to responding to a potential Chinese incursion, the three strike corps currently based in central India to fight a land war with Pakistan might have to be reorganized — marking another paradigm shift.

For Successful Asia Pivot, Obama Has to Engage Russia

Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Vladimir Putin of Russia meet at the latter's dacha outside Moscow, July 7, 2009
Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Vladimir Putin of Russia meet at the latter’s dacha outside Moscow, July 7, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

As the United States “pivot” to Asia, China will likely dominate President Barack Obama’s second-term foreign policy. But an improvement in relations with Russia is needed for that pivot to be a success.

The American “reset” in relations with its former Cold War rival has not yielded the sort of diplomatic cooperation from Russia that the president and his foreign-policy team hoped for. If they are to prevent a new “cold war” with China from escalating into conflict in East Asia, they have to make a better effort.

The rise of China poses a challenge to the world system as it has existed since the end of World War II, dominated by Western powers and ruled by Western codes. The conflict between the supposedly covert world order that is anticipated by China and the world system as it is, is the cold war of the twenty-first century. The battle isn’t going to be fought with soldiers and tanks but for resources and through diplomacy.

The expectation of this new cold war stems from a belief that has been present in American strategic thinking since the early twentieth century; that any single major economic or military power in Eurasia, if unchecked, will ultimately extend its power into the Western Hemisphere. To prevent that from happening, the United States have sought a balance of power in Eurasia and pursued containment policies against great powers that failed to submit to it.

Historian and geostrategist Alfred Thayer Mahan predicted as early as 1900 in The Problem of Asia that not Japan or Russia would emerge as Eurasia’s preeminent power, even if, at different points in the last century, Americans dreaded both nations rising to such a station. Rather China would pose the greatest challenge to American interests and security.

At the time, China seemed to be a backwater nation, overrun by Western imperialists and later by the Japanese. But its sheer size meant it was always destined to be a major force among nation states.

The United States have, in fact, courted China for the better part of the last century, working with Mao and his successors to contain Japan and the Soviet Union. Only since the demise of the latter and the end of the Cold War have American policymakers begun to think of China as a potential threat in its own right.

2012 witnessed several political and military changes in East and South Asia which suggest that the strategic landscape is changing. These included naval standoffs in the East and South China Seas and the deepening of defense cooperation between Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, the United States and Vietnam under the umbrella of the United States’ “pivot” to the region.

Within the outer strategic “wall” that the United States have erected in the Pacific as a hedge against China’s military expansion, extending from Honolulu, Hawaii to Australia and New Zealand to Mumbai, India, an inner security perimeter is perfected, extending from Japan and South Korea through Taiwan to the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. The Americans have signed bilateral defense agreements with all these nations as well as Brunei, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Designed to be flexible and reliant on a strong American forward presence in the region, these “walls” are the foundation of a security architecture to contain China.

This security architecture duplicates to an extent the Atlantic system that came before it. The “pivot” to Asia includes first the stationing of American troops in foreign bases to signal the country’s commitment to security in the Pacific as well as the benefits of an American military presence. Second, the strengthening of existing bases near key sea routes from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to Guam and Hawaii in the Pacific.

If it is denied free access to trading routes and the natural resources of overseas producers, China will be forced to look inward and find other ways to feed and sustain its burgeoning population within the context of an authoritarian political system.

Smaller nations in East Asia may be able to exploit the strategic competition between China and the United States but aspiring great powers such as Australia, India, even Russia will have to adjust to the new world order. The latter especially would be a useful hedge against Chinese hegemony. If America can somehow successfully “reset” its relations with Russia (again) and bring Australia and India together under a security arrangement, China will be largely isolated in the region.

Which is not to say that Australia’s and India’s relations with China won’t be close. Rather, like so many countries in East Asia, they simultaneously depend on the United States for security and China economically. Russia has no such needs and is therefore positioned to be the arbiter in this new “great game.”

Gujarat Election Test for Indian Right’s National Ambitions

Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, India, June 11, 2012
Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, India, June 11, 2012 (Google Plus/Narendra Modi)

In a democracy, charisma and leadership are often overstated. Yet no other form of government needs leadership as much as democracy.

In this sense, India can offer a curious case. Despite having so many regional satraps with mass following, very few have been able to project their clout at the national level. Moreover, one regional satrap is not unusually viewed with suspicion by another so that the general consensus is to have somebody with no mass following at all. Incumbent prime minister Manmohan Singh is a perfect example of this.

Gujarat’s chief minister Narendra Modi defies the rule. The conservative politician has a mass following as well as national appeal. As his state votes in assembly elections next week, Modi’s future will be decades. If he leads the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party to victory once more, he could emerge as the party’s prime ministerial candidate in the next general election.

If translated into Western political terms, Modi’s politics represent far-right conservatism. He seeks to build a strong nation in India, one that is economically vibrant and attractive to foreign investors. “Scale, speed and skills” are supposed to make the twenty-first century an Indian one, he claims.

If Modi’s politics represent dynamism in contrast to the laidbackness of general Indian politics, his capitalist economic vision and emphasis on growing the middle class similarly challenges India’s experience with central planning and stagnation. It is for these reasons that, despite criticism in the liberal Indian media and from abroad, Modi has been able to galvanize voters in his home state.

Modi’s real test is if he can project his popularity beyond Gujarat and increase popular supports for the Bharatiya Janata Party on the national level. It’s far from certain yet whether he will secure his party’s nomination and be accepted in the grand National Democratic Alliance which will challenge the left in the next election.

If Modi wins reelection in Gujarat this month and is able to present himself as the right’s consensus candidate for the premiership, it will mark a significant change in Indian politics and could herald a shift in Indian foreign-policy thinking. The country has thus far pursued a neutral policy that largely refrains from using force to further its strategic objectives. Modi proposes a more muscular foreign policy that deepens defense relations with the West.

BRICS Can Bark But Cannot Bite

The recent BRIC summit in New Delhi was heralded as a game changer in international politics. Although cooperation between Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa is definitely here to stay as an alternative to Western multilateral institutions, the praise has to do more with hype than substance.

The BRICS summit has been compared to the 1941 conference between President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Newfoundland which led to the signing of the Atlantic Charter and ultimately to the creation of a new world order with the forming of United Nations in 1945. The BRICS doesn’t propose to create any such multilateral institution however. It merely seeks to make existing organizations as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank more democratic.

A major obstacle to permanent cooperation within the BRICS is the lack of resemblance among the countries that compose it.

Brazil is a regional power in South America, Russia is a great power in Eurasia, India is a great power in the Asia Pacific, China is a great power aspiring to be a superpower while South Africa is a regional power in Africa at best.

What these countries have in common is that they aren’t too pleased with the status quo of the international system which is dominated by Western powers, specifically by the United States.

Even in a country as India, which considers China to be its primary threat, there is strong domestic opposition against the values of the West and the Untied States.

Yet it remains doubtful that these countries can come together to inaugurate an alternative system at the international level. They all need United States to balance against threats in their own domains.

Brazil seeks American support in its struggle for regional hegemony with neighboring Argentina. Russia finds it hard to digest China’s influence in Central Asia and the Middle East and so does India in South and Southeast Asia. South Africa’s position in Africa is threatened by China’s presence on the continent. The latter’s scant regard for human rights is seen as a problem by both Brazil and South Africa.

There is a risk that the BRICS evolves into a platform for Chinese foreign policy just as Moscow employs an array of interregional cooperative bodies to further its own goals. If that turns out to be the case, the legitimacy of the organization is in jeopardy and it would be high time for the remaining members to consider an alternative.

India Should Prefer a Republican President

The Indian foreign policy establishment is not very interested in the outcome of this year’s presidential election in the United States. This in contrast to 2004 when it preferred George W. Bush or 2008, when the entire world was caught up in the yearlong election drama.

The reason is simple. India’s ruling center-left coalition appears to have reached a dead end and the foreign policy class is in the slumber. It should pay attention though. Barack Obama’s reelection could prove an annoyance to Indians if it is accompanied by a return of liberalism in American policy.

The Democratic president has so far conducted himself largely as a Republican in the mold of George H.W. Bush on the world stage. Indians find comfort in this conservative posture. They are wary of liberals who seek to use America’s position as the preeminent power to change the world.

They would never take this approach to China. Even the do-gooders recognize that there are limits to what they can accomplish. But with India, there are always issues to raise, ranging from Kashmir to human rights to the environment. This has been a trend among Democratic Party presidents whereas the Republicans tend to stand by India.

As early as 1919, Woodrow Wilson failed to live up to his promise to support Indian independence. Harry Truman internationalized the Kashmir dispute at India’s expense. John F. Kennedy was reluctant to intervene when China invaded Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh in 1962. Lyndon B. Johnson didn’t support India during the 1965 war with Pakistan. Bill Clinton wouldn’t involve himself in the 1999 Kargil War.

It was Republican Theodore Roosevelt who endorsed India’s bid for independence. Dwight D. Eisenhowever, another Republican, normalized relations with his 1958 visit to India. Ronald Reagan initiated technology cooperation and it was George W. Bush who signed the hallmark nuclear agreement of 2005.

There have been two exceptions to the rule. Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt was tempted to condition his support for Great Britain during the Second World War on Indian independence while Republican Richard Nixon menaced India during the Bangladesh Liberation War by dispatching an aircraft carrier to the Bay of Bengal and allying himself with Pakistan.

Still, given this recent history, it’s important for India to always be skeptical when champions of liberal value such as Barack Obama occupy the White House and when the liberal establishment in the Democratic Party holds sway in the Congress and State Department.

Indian foreign policymakers need to understand that a Republican president would likely be far more beneficial to them. A Republican would more actively seek to counter China’s rise in Asia through a balance of power. This is what George W. Bush did during his eight years in office.

India is also preparing for elections. In 2014, if the right-wing nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party comes to power, New Delhi could adopt a more assertive stance on the world stage and expect the United States to do the same. Specifically, the conservatives would like to see a more activist containment of China and the dismantling of Pakistan’s terrorist infrastructure. A conservative administration in the United States would surely be more cooperative.

India Had No Reason to Save Maldives’ Nasheed

When it comes to foreign policy decisionmaking in a democracy two important quotes come to mind. First is Franklin R. Roosevelt’s conversation in May 1942 with his close advisor, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau. The American president at the time remarked, “You know I am a juggler and I never let my right hand know what my left hand does. I may have one policy for Europe and one diametrically opposite for North and South America. I may be entirely inconsistent and furthermore, I am perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths if it will help win the war.”

Second is the incumbent president’s candid observation when he was running for the highest office in 2008. When Barack Obama was taking the heat from then Senator Hillary Clinton’s campaign about his lack of national-security experience, he said, “Foreign policy is the area where I am probably most confident that I know more and understand the world better than Senator Clinton.” Meeting world leader is not important, he added. “What I know is the people. I traveled to Pakistan when I was in college. I knew what Sunni and Shia was before I joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.”

These two observations are important for any decisionmakers in foreign policy and at least the context of that has been rightly understood by the Indian foreign policy establishment when it comes to dealing with the Maldives.

There was great pressure on the part of the Indian government to intervene in the archipelago recently as President Mohammed Nasheed was feeling the heat of popular unrest in the streets. Nasheed, with his Western upbringing and Oxbridge accent had been touted as South Asia’s Barack Obama and was considered as a friend of India’s. It may have appeared to make sense to save him from being ousted to preserve India’s hegemony in South Asia. The argument is valid superficially for those who advocate a muscular Indian foreign policy without understanding the situation on the ground.

When India intervened in the Maldives in 1988 to save then-President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom through Operation Cactus, the island nation’s leader had been a friend of India’s for nearly a decade. The initiators of the invasion were from Sri Lanka and had close links with the rebel organization there which India supported in a struggle for autonomy with Colombo. Therefore, it made sense for India to save President Gayoom and it proved right when he extended his loyalty for nearly two decades to New Delhi.

The situation at present in the Maldives is an internal occurrence. Nasheed made mistakes which never went well with New Delhi. He invited a “great game” between China and India in Indian Ocean region so that the Maldives could get funding from both great powers. He forgot a basic tenet about foreign policy in South Asia. If you try to be a cut above the rest with your charisma, it won’t wind you any friends in New Delhi.
Small nations have to play second fiddle to India in South Asia and Nasheed failed to remember it. His insistence that regional summits should do more than promote Indo-Pakistani dialogue and his close friendship with the West were not considered well in India for a long time.

Despite repeated appeals from New Delhi to control a radical Muslim incursion in the Southern Maldives, Nasheed didn’t care to provide logistics for Indian intelligence to gather information about the suspected perpetrators of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008.

As he lost popular support at home, New Delhi had only to watch the scenario unfold and throw its support behind Nasheed’s challenger when the time was right.

There are people in India who have argued that it was their nation’s “responsibility to protect” Nasheed but they need to understand that India’s best days are ahead. It has to bid for time as Roosevelt did in 1941 and understand the peculiarities of the situation on the ground, as Obama did about the wars in the Middle East, before intervening. In that light, contrary to popular opinion, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh got it right when he allowed Nasheed to be removed from office.

China Island Hopping in the Indian Ocean

The best way to get success in strategy is through success. An historical case study was General Douglas MacArthur’s “island hopping” strategy in the Pacific during World War II. It involved capturing an island, building a base there and moving on toward the prime target.

China seems to be copying this strategy in the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific. In the former, it is seeking to contain India by forging alliances with island nations including the Maldives, Mauritius and the Seychelles and building a “string of pearls” of military bases from East Africa to Pakistan.

The strategy is designed to curtail Indian influence in the region so China, with the Americans distracted in the Middle East, can have a free run in other parts of Asia and across the Pacific Ocean but also to encroach upon African countries that welcome its yuan diplomacy — developmental and industrial support with no strings attached.

China has never announced this strategy publicly. A recent statement from the Chinese military that it’s considering an offer from the Seychelles to host a Chinese naval base confirms that the strategy exists however.

Furthermore, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has stated that it isn’t interested in building military bases in other places.

The Chinese “island hopping” strategy defies historical precedent and differs from the strategies of other and past great powers in that they were usually explicit about their intentions. China apparently believes that concealing its motives best serves its interests.

An increased Chinese presence across the Indian Ocean poses a challenge to India as it is trying to project itself as a great power beyond South Asia. The two Asian giants are vying for economic opportunities and international recognition. Renewed American engagement, which is likely to follow military withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq, could prove an obstacle to China’s designs and cause it to intensify its efforts now.

As the United States court nations ranging from Australia to Indonesia to Vietnam, the Chinese imperative to erect naval bases in the Indian Ocean and South Pacific will only seem more pressing.