Security implications of China's growing role in key sectors of India's economy
A case of once bitten but not twice shy
Author: G Parthasarathy
There is little awareness of the security implications of China's growing role in India’s key sectors like power and communications, or of the dangers posed by the domination of the Chinese companies in these areas
India’s younger generation can scarcely comprehend the feeling of humiliation, trauma, shame and anger that prevailed in the immediate aftermath of the country’s diplomatic, military and strategic debacle in the 1962 border conflict with China. Responding to President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s admonition of his “credulity” and “negligence”, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru acknowledged: “We were getting out of touch with reality in the modern world and living in an artificial atmosphere of our own making”. Nehru had proclaimed in 1959 to the Congress that the Chinese were “unlikely” to invade India, because they knew that this would lead to a “world war”. He believed that a China faced with a growing rift with the Soviet Union and at odds with the United States, would just not go to war with India.
What followed was a disastrous ‘forward policy’ of deploying poorly equipped troops in forward positions to contest Chinese claims, despite logistical and operational reservations expressed by then Army Chief, General KS Thimayya, and other senior operational commanders. This policy sought to give credibility to a claim in Parliament that “not an inch of Indian territory”, would be left undefended. Having raised expectations publicly, the Prime Minister put himself in an untenable position of not being able to negotiate on suggestions by Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, involving Chinese acceptance of the McMahon Line in Arunachal Pradesh (then called NEFA); in return for China diluting its claims in the western sector (Ladakh). Taking any Chinese suggestion on its border claims at face value could, however, have been hazardous, as China’s claims continued to change repeatedly, as they do, even to this day.
Compounding the diplomatic bungling and the incredible naiveté in believing that China would never attack India, was the erratic and arrogant behaviour of then Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon. The Defence Minister regularly spoke disparagingly to senior military officials, who disagreed with him. He was also given to acting arbitrarily and whimsically on issues like the appointment of Lt General BM Kaul, an Officer of the Army Supply Corps, with no combat experience, as the Corps Commander of the newly established 4 Corps in Tezpur, tasked to “throw the Chinese out” in the eastern sector. Not only was the formal chain of command bypassed, but Kaul was allowed to continue commanding active operations from his sick bed in New Delhi. After initial setbacks near the McMahon Line, India’s defences collapsed totally on November 19, with its elite 4 Infantry Division beating an ignominious retreat.
India’s hour of shame was, however, not over. As Indian defences in the eastern sector collapsed on November 19, a panic-stricken Prime Minister Nehru wrote to President Kennedy seeking American air support by 12 squadrons of supersonic fighters, with radar cover, all operated by US pilots. India’s proud claims to non-alignment lay in tatters. The Chinese had planned their diplomacy and military operations brilliantly. A few months before the conflict commenced, the Chinese Ambassador had learnt in secret negotiations in Warsaw with the Americans, that the US would not get involved in the event of border tensions with India escalating.
With the Sino-Indian conflict coinciding with the Cuban Missile crisis, the Chinese compelled the Soviet Union to initially remain neutral. Rather than assist India, the Americans and the British demanded that India should resolve its differences with Pakistan over Jammu and Kashmir. It was the Soviet Union that moved meaningfully to help India bolster its defence. The Chinese, however, learned following incursions in 1967 in Nathu La in the Sikkim sector and in Wangdung in Arunachal Pradesh in 1986, that India was better prepared militarily and diplomatically to respond to challenges they posed to its security.
China has significantly bolstered its defences on Tibet’s borders with India since 1962. Apart from developing impressive road and rail communications, China has deployed 2,20,000 troops in the Lanzhou military region bordering Ladakh, including airborne and motorised divisions. Another 1,80,000 troops are deployed in the Chengdu military region facing our North-Eastern States. Beijing has also been augmenting capabilities and training for high altitude warfare. Frontline J 10 aircraft (an Israeli designed variant of the F 16) have been carrying out exercises over High Himalayan peaks. Militarily, the main lesson of 1962 is the need for stronger Indian conventional capabilities along our borders with China which persuade the Chinese that future conflicts will not remain confined to the Indian side of the border. It remains to be seen if the faint-hearted in South Block will endorse such a strategy.
China today has the world’s second largest economy. It has made remarkable strides in areas ranging from space to cyber warfare. But, it faces serious internal tensions arising from contradictions inherent in having a relatively open economy on the one hand and a closed and increasingly corrupt one-party political system, on the other. The Han Chinese has historically been extremely chauvinistic. The political and military leadership is now pandering to such chauvinism, by stridently asserting maritime boundary claims on virtually all its neighbours and enhancing claims on the land border with India.
China is continuing nuclear weapons, missile and defence collaboration with Pakistan. It is expanding its role in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. It has consistently sought to undermine India’s ‘Look East’ policies, by efforts like seeking to block India’s entry into the East Asia Summit. It has attempted to prevent the Nuclear Suppliers Group from giving India a waiver on nuclear cooperation. It is ambivalent on India’s quest for a Permanent Seat in the UN Security Council. These are all an integral part of a policy of ‘strategic containment’ of India.
There is little awareness of the security implications of China’s growing role in key sectors of India’s economy like power and communications, or of the dangers posed by the domination of these sectors by Chinese companies like Huawei or ZTE. India has, therefore, to combine pro-active diplomacy and the build up its offensive military capabilities along its borders with China, by formulating and implementing measures to achieve substantial indigenization in key sectors like power and communications.
Moreover, if present policies continue, our imports of electronic and communication equipment will exceed the imports of oil and natural gas by 2020. A serious effort has to be made to enable our public and private sectors to develop capabilities comparable to those developed by the Chinese.