If there was one take-away from the summit in central China, it was the emphasis placed on "maintaining peace and tranquility'' in all areas of the India-China border region for the overall growth of bilateral ties. The two leaders could have left it at that. Instead, they went beyond the rhetoric by breaking down how this is to happen. President Xi, the supreme commander of China's armed forces, and Prime Minister Modi have ''issued strategic guidance to their respective militaries to strengthen communication in order to build trust and mutual.'' Key to this is to develop an understanding of the operations of each other's forces in sensitive areas in order to ''enhance predictability and effectiveness in the management of border affairs.'' In simple terms, India and China do not want to encounter any fresh military surprises. Doklam may have happened. The goal is to ensure that there are no more such stand-offs. One key measure to build trust has been joint military training between the two armies. These were stopped after Doklam and it seems likely that its just a matter of time before these restart.
The new guidelines adopted in Wuhan are also meant to ensure that physical clashes between soldiers do not recur. In August last year, dozens of Indian and Chinese troops had clashed on the north bank of the Pangong lake in Ladakh. Fortunately, neither side resorted to opening fire, a frightening scenario that could easily have resulted in a violent escalation at a time when Sino-Indian relations were at their lowest ebb.
The Prime Minister's willingness to de-escalate military tensions at Wuhan may be a hard reality for those who believe that India can militarily stand up to China. There are obvious signs that this may not be the case despite the shrill online rhetoric that suggests an unbeatable Indian military prowess. Today, China is building warships faster than any country , producing and deploying a host of indigenous fighter jets to bases including those in Tibet, refining its ability to strike aircraft carriers with ballistic missiles and working on the next phase of drone warfare by adopting world-beating technology. The greatest example of Chinese intent is in the South China Sea where Beijing ignored international opinion and American threats by constructing full-fledged military bases on shoals claimed by a host of Southeast Asian nations. It now appears that Beijing is attempting to grant legal sanction to its military presence in the South China Sea by publishing a "New Map of the People's Republic of China.''
New Delhi is not oblivious to these developments. The Indian Navy is acutely aware of the movement of Chinese warships and submarines, some nuclear powered, through India's areas of interest in the Indian Ocean. The Chinese base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa is not a 'logistics hub' but a full-fledged naval base meant to sustain operations in the region. Neither is China deploying its latest generation of Type-52D destroyers in the Indian Ocean on 'anti-piracy' missions against Somali fishermen as it claims. You do not use a fire-extinguisher to put out a cigarette butt. China sees itself as a world power and its presence in the Indian Ocean defines the geographical extent of its present strategic interests.
Last year, I asked Admiral Harry Harris, then the Commander of the US Pacific Forces, what stopped Beijing from sailing an aircraft carrier-led battle-group into the Indian Ocean. ''There's nothing to prevent them from sailing in the Indian Ocean today'' is what the Admiral told me. His words could be prophetic. Any day now, China will begin sea trials of its first indigenously built aircraft carrier, a 70,000-ton warship whose construction began in November 2013. By contrast, the keel of India's Vikrant (named after India's first aircraft carrier), was laid in February 2009, and though she was sailed out for the first time in in 2011, completion of the project may not take place before 2023.
So is it too late for India to maintain a robust military posture against China? That has less to do with the capability of the Indian Armed forces, some of the world's best trained and most experienced, and more to do with India's serpentine process to acquire new weaponry, a process that is clearly in shambles. In a briefing to the Prime Minister late last year, the Minister of State for Defence, Dr. Subhash Bhamre, said India's weapons-buying is frequently crippled by "multiple and diffused structures with no single point accountability, multiple decision-heads, duplication of processes, delayed comments, delayed execution, no real-time monitoring, no project-based approach and a tendency to fault-find rather than to facilitate."
Since then, the government has clearly speeded up the process of clearing some of the most basic defence tenders, deals which should have been contracted years ago. Now, after waiting for nearly a decade, 1.86 lakh bullet proof jackets, the basic life-saving kit of the Indian Army infantryman, were sanctioned in a 63- crore contract.
Similarly, the government has okayed light machine guns, assault rifles and sniper rifles for the three services in contracts worth about 16,000 crores, besides giving its go ahead for more made-in-India Tejas fighters and artillery guns for the army.
For now though, the army, air force and navy will need to live with what they have. It often takes years for defence contracts to materialise into actual weapon systems deployed on the field. A case in point is the 58,000-crore deal for state-of-the-art Rafale fighters for the air force. Signed in September 2016, the first of the jets will join the air force next year and it will be several years before two squadrons of the fighters are fully operational.
Given this reality, air force, for its part, has put its best foot forward in conducting its Gagan Shakti exercises, the largest aerial exercises in decades. In exercises conducted earlier this month, the air force conducted a whopping 11,000 sorties. This included 9,000 sorties by its fighter aircraft in complex air combat exercises across India and out in the Indian Ocean. Though the exercises may have demonstrated that the ability of the air force to make do with its depleted assets, there are few in the air force who serious believe that if push came to shove, India would be able to sustain, let alone win, a two-front war against China and is ally Pakistan.
Till then, engaging with the dragon economically and politically isn't just the wise option. It's the only one.
(Vishnu Som is Defence Editor and senior anchor, NDTV 24x7)
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