Hard for one’s admiration for China’s single-minded drive to at all times advance its strategic interests come rain or shine or the corona virus, to not grow by leaps and bounds. Nothing diverts Beijing and the Chinese military in particular from flexing its muscle, asserting its rights and claims, and seeking to frighten the local opposition to get out of its way in a region it intends to dominate absolutely. Even as that country is fighting the COVID menace successfully — and why not? It created the corona bio-weapon, lost control over it, regained it, mounted an integrated scientific effort to tame it and will likely be the first to patent a vaccine and make oodles of money out of its sales worldwide — the PLA Navy did not forget its mission.
Two new “districts” were announced by Beijing a few days back to administer several rocky outcroppings that are being fashioned into man-made islands with dredged up sand, etc. in the disputed but appropriately named Mischief Reef area which Beijing claims in its entirety. Around the same time and a little to the west, a Chinese survey ship accompanied by an armed Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessel contested a Malaysian ship drilling for valuable seabed minerals within Malaysia’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Simultaneously, a large Vietnamese boat fishing offshore was rammed by a CCG corvette. But, last week when three US warships (America with a F-35B complement onboard, missile cruiser Bunker Hill, and missile destroyer Barry) in an expeditionary task group (detached from the carrier task force headed by the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, which lies anchored mid-Pacific in Guam owing to a coronavirus infected crew) turned up in the South China Sea in what is described as “security and stability operations”. And it exercised with an Australian warship (HMAS Parmatta), prompting Beijing sanctimoniously to urge the US and Australia to please “not disturb the peace” in the region! That’s chutzpah for you!
Beijing has turned such acts of brazen territorial annexation mixed with a wagging of fingers at out-of-area powers daring to register their presence, into high statecraft. These Chinese actions are carried out so smoothly and with an attitude of such utmost conviction and routine-ness, hardly any one notices they are irregular, illegal and contrary to international norms and leave the poor littoral states with nothing to do than protest in vain.
So the militaries of the countries that matter in the Indo-Pacific are not doing nothing, haven’t locked down themselves into inactivity. What about the Indian armed forces though, what are they up to?
The army, admirably, has done well in the anti-COVID-19 fight, putting up all manner of facilities for sequestering corona-infected people, making available its medical staff, etc. As the senior and the largest of the uniformed services, the army, however, has serious problems as regards its personnel. Training courses have been cancelled, the transfers of officers postponed, and to minimize the exposure to the C-virus annual leave-taking has been delayed. Officers nominated to attend the Staff College at Wellington and various higher command courses — stepping stones to promotion, etc. but unable now to do so will be hugely affected, their upward progress and the process suddenly disrupted. The Military Secretary in Army HQrs tasked with the career management of officers will, perhaps, for the first time in the army’s history earn his keep, as he struggles to come up with metrics for promotion that are fair and, importantly, are seen to be fair. The new scheme may end up inadvertently victimizing a few officers or even an entire cohort with the push from below, from the next year’s batch of officers in training courses and so on. This to say, the promotion ladder will become steeper still for these unfortunates.
Then there’s the other problem with the stand-still arrangement in place. Can officers, JCOs, NCOs and jawans in presently forward-based units be kept in place beyond the usual 2-year rotational stints, and can the lower ranks be denied home leave, and with what effect on their morale and the fighting quality of the unit? Further, the army will need to compulsorily isolate everyone returning to forward units from leave for 14-days. This will mean that at any given time all the forward units will be under-strength in terms of the personnel on leave and those held in the wards prior to re-induction and hence unable to serve on the frontline.
Nevertheless, to show it is no slouch at fingering Pakistan — the only and the easiest way it seems to get into the good books of the Narendra Modi government, the army has been busy keeping the western border live, or that’s what Pakistani newspapers report. No period has been as busy as the present, complains Pak army’s DG, ISPR (Inter-Services Public Relations) to its Press in terms of Indian artillery firings, small cross-LoC ops, sniper shootings, etc. The front with China, on the other hand, is ho-hum peaceable with all parties, including China and PLA having a stake in keeping things quiet on the LAC in the north and northeast. This last suits the Indian army well because it lacks the wherewithal, other than for defensive actions including, presumably, pushing-shoving matches a’la Dok La 2017. No chance here of cross-LAC artillery duels, snipers picking off targets of opportunity, and small team incursions to beat up on straying, unsuspecting PLA soldiers.
The Indian Air Force strives hard to offer no provocation to China. Even so there’s the occasional news report of an Indian MiG-29 or Su-30 going down with no clue as to why the fighter plane did so, or what happened. It is always possible with sorties out of Tezpur and other satellite fields launched to familiarize Indian pilots with the mountainous terrain and to get them to operate in some comfort that PLA rockets, guns, missiles slaved to surveillance and tracking radars have struck Indian combat aircraft. Not, mind you, that IAF has ever acted on this premise and suspicion and responded accordingly. All its vim and venom seems reserved for the western front.
The Indian Navy has reported several cases of corona-hit naval personnel. Social distancing and other measures while being practiced ashore are impractical in the confined spaces of surface combatants and, more so, submarines. COVID apart, the navy can’t lose sight of its operational tasks. At any given time, there is at least one flotilla sailing in the blue water. The trouble is most such short Indian naval deployments, off Aden, etc. are in the Gulf region, with the seas east of the Malacca, Lumbok and Sunda Straits, by comparison, being ignored even though it is there the navy can do the most strategic good. All the political rhetoric of meeting the Chinese threat head on, preferably collectively, and MILAN and bilateral exercises, such as the November 2018 Op Samudra Shakti with the Indonesian Navy off Surabaya notwithstanding, Indian flotillas showing flag in the South China Sea are a relative rarity. Sure, an exercise was conducted in May 2018 with Vietnam and, under a new cooperation scheme, another a year later in April 2019 in Cam Ranh Bay. But one hopes COVID isn’t the excuse for not having a third such exercise this year.
Mutual unfamiliarity may require more time for preparation and planning of joint exercises. But this fact alone reveals that neither the Indian government nor the Indian Navy have acted with any sense of urgency in investing in close relations, besides the Vietnam and Singapore navies, with the Southeast Asian littoral navies, and linking up with them at the institutional level. In fact, the underway training programmes with Vietnam, such as joint exercises, training submarine crews and inducting the supersonic Brahmos cruise missiles, could be the template for intense naval cooperation with the other Southeast Asian states as well. These could be supplemented by the Malabar exercises (with US, Japanese navies) in the area and joint “sail throughs” in the South China Sea by warships from several countries. Indian, Japanese, American and Philippine ships did this in May 2019.
Brahmos, I have long argued, is the patented Chinese warship killer and the decisive weapon that uniquely will have a power multiplier effect for India when dispersed to friendly Southeast Asian countries in China’s backyard. Because then the entire South China Sea will be become hazardous for China’s most powerful South Sea Fleet as well as its so-called ‘secret’ fleet meant for the Indian Ocean, both headquartered in the Sanya naval base on Hainan Island. This requires the Indian government and naval brass to prioritize, as I have been pleading with the highest in the land for the last 25 years or so, to expeditiously equip all of the littoral and island nation navies with the Brahmos. Indeed, Brahmos-armed Indonesian, Philippine, Malaysian surface combatants and shore batteries along with their Vietnamese counterparts could, between them, compel the much touted Hainan-based fleets to stay locked up in Sanya and, in case they ventured into deeper waters, to carve ’em up.
The value of the Brahmos with Southeast Asian nations is a strategic prong Delhi for incomprehensible reasons has been unconscionably slow to appreciate. The other two prongs are megaton yield thermonuclear forces (discussed at length in my books) and the regularization of the Indian naval presence in the South China Sea with a flotilla formally and permanently deployed in-area with ships and crews rotated out of basing arrangements in Singapore, Cam Ranh Bay, Subic Bay (Philippines) and Sabang (Indonesia) as part of the new geostrategic grouping — the “Modified Quadrilateral” or “Mod Quad” of India, Japan, group of Southeast Asian states, and Australia that India should put together (detailed in my latest book — Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition). Having Indian warships on South China Sea station showing the flag 24/7 365 days, and sporting the fighting attitude that Admiral DK Joshi, when he was CNS, hinted at when he declared that any attempt by the Chinese Navy to do anything untoward will be met with force, will alone convince Beijing not to trifle with India.
Moreover, only with the above described three-pronged trishul in hand will India and Modi’s “Mamallapuram spirit” (ex-his summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in December 2019) acquire potency. The rest is so much gas that Delhi usually vents and is of little account.