(Photo: courtesy Ajai Shukla)
A view of the McMahon Line from Bomdi La
by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 6th Mar 12
On Sunday Beijing announced that it would raise defence spending this year by 11.2 per cent to 670 billion yuan (Rs 5.26 lakh crore). This is thrice India’s allocation of Rs 1.64 lakh crore for the current year, and one-fifth America’s allocation of $530 billion (Rs 26 lakh crore) for 2013. Many wonder how a rising and assertive superpower, with the world’s largest military in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), gets away with allocating for national defence just 1.3 per cent of its national product. The answer of most China-watchers is that Beijing fudges the figures.
That is a comforting thought, Dragon Soup for the Indian Soul that has never quite recovered from the 1962 lambasting. But obsessing over Chinese perfidy blocks us from some badly needed analysis. Even if actual Chinese defence expenditure is twice the declared figure – the outer range of Pentagon estimations – that still begs the question: how is China building a world-class military (not there yet, but on its way) with so little? Even a defence spend of 2.6 per cent of GDP is relatively restrained.
This is all the more striking after President Obama threw down the gauntlet in January by announcing America’s “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific. China can hardly gloss over the challenge in its own backyard. Adding further to the pressure on Beijing for greater defence spending is the election climate in China. That country’s “fifth generation” of leaders will take power this autumn at the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. Candidates who covet a seat in the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee can hardly overlook the PLA’s backing.
Yet Beijing has reacted with a mere 11.2 per cent increase in defence spending. What on earth is Zhongnanhai doing, shriek the right-wing hordes in China’s blogosphere?
The answer is that China does more with less. Two crucial policies work to get more bang for the renminbi. Firstly, China’s national defence doctrine is rooted in truly national elements. In a conflict with America, Beijing will exploit the advantage of fighting close to home against an enemy hamstrung by extended lines of communication. Purpose-built PLA weapons like the Dong Feng 21D anti-ship ballistic missile will strike American aircraft carriers, the centrepiece of its armada. China is also perfecting cyber capabilities and satellite warfare capabilities to disable crucial US command systems, disrupting the application of focused US firepower. And the PLA is pioneering “swarm tactics” in which high-tech US fleets are swamped by hordes of cheap, small, expendable vessels. This indigenous, proactive doctrine is more effective and affordable than attempting to match a wealthier and technologically superior US weapon-for-weapon (although that option is not ruled out for the future).
Secondly, China has built an indigenous defence production capability that provides the PLA with weaponry cheaply and quickly. This has not happened by accident. Till the late 1990s China, like India, was a major buyer of overseas weaponry and a “catch-up country” in indigenous weapons development. During the last decade, though, Beijing’s focus on military indigenisation has transformed it into a major producer that is now a serious player in the global arms bazaar. This was achieved through the opportunistic recruitment of out-of-work Soviet scientists after the Soviet Union collapsed; by focusing on technology absorption; and by ruthlessly restructuring a moribund defence production behemoth (not unlike India’s defence public sector undertakings) into result-oriented, innovation-driven enterprises.
Indian planners show no such nimble-mindedness. Our national defence doctrine (so far as one exists!) assumes that a Chinese attack in 2012 would faithfully follow the script that Mao wrote half a century ago in 1962. In Arunachal Pradesh, Indian troop deployment centres on Tawang and Walong, China’s 1962 objectives, in the belief that difficult terrain precludes major offensives elsewhere. This is false, given China’s infrastructure build-up in Tibet. Even more worryingly, this defensive-mindedness cedes the initiative to the enemy, who is allowed to decide where and how to fight. Instead of shaping the battlefield to its advantage, as China plans to do with America, India aims merely to block China until international pressure halts the war. True, New Delhi plans to raise a mountain strike corps over the next five years that, it hopes, will take the battle to China. But islands of operational initiative cannot exist in a sea of defensiveness.
While India’s geographical disadvantages, stemming from its difficult mountainous terrain, are regularly compared with China’s easy operations on the Tibetan plateau, there is little recognition of China’s enormous difficulties in operating through a resentful Tibetan populace that seeks any opportunity to strike at Beijing. An Indian think tank recently recommended that the military should plan to leverage Tibetan partisans in the event of war with China. But such boldness, it would appear, is alien to our security planners. Even while planning war with China, there is fear of angering Beijing.
Meanwhile, India’s weapons procurement follows an even more depressing trend, evident from our shameful status as the world’s largest arms buyer. Just as India financed Russian R&D in the 1990s when Moscow was staring at bankruptcy (and when China was poaching their scientists and reverse-engineering weaponry), the continuing purchases of overpriced foreign platforms like the Rafale fighter will only breathe life into the R&D and production establishment of foreign countries instead of enhancing India’s indigenous capability. Indian success stories like the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft and the Arjun tank are criticised, held to an exalted standard, and eventually stalled by the Indian military — which fails to see the connection between its enthusiastic backing of French, Russian or American platforms and the failure of indigenous production.
There are many lessons that India can learn from China. Right up there is the need to indigenise defence strategy and production based on local advantages. That is the only way to confront a superpower.