For China, Pakistan Comes First
In July 2010, the Kashmir factor led to India stopping all defence ties with China, including the sending of delegates to conferences. After having given him a visa, the authorities in Beijing abruptly cancelled—just before his departure for Beijing—permission to visit China for Lt-Gen BS Jamwal, chief of the Northern Command, whose area of responsibility includes Kashmir. Incidentally, the officer himself hails from the state. There was no reason given by the Chinese side for what was taken on the Indian side as a serious act of discourtesy towards a senior military officer. Informally, it became known that Beijing was reluctant to host an officer who had been active in operations in Kashmir.
It was suggested to the Indian side through informal channels that another officer, from a different army command zone, ought to be sent. Instead, an angry Defence Ministry cut off all defence links with China. Earlier, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs had annoyed the External Affairs Ministry by giving only stapled visas to visitors from India who hailed from Kashmir. For some time, a discussion had taken place whether India ought to retaliate by giving stapled visas to Chinese visitors from Tibet, but finally the doves in the MEA prevailed over the hawks, and nothing was done. This may have led the Chinese authorities to believe that there would only be a pro forma Indian reaction to cancelling Lt-Gen Jamwal’s visit. Certainly there was surprise in Beijing at the sharp Indian reaction to the treatment meted out to one of the country’s most-respected army generals.
The Defence Ministry is usually much more strident about China than the Ministry of External Affairs, which is usually very sensitive to Beijing’s concerns. After the Jamwal visa cancellation, the National Security Advisor of the Prime Minister, Shivshankar Menon, agreed with Defence Minister AK Antony that “enough is enough”, and supported the total snapping of defence exchanges in retaliation for the snub. Such a strong response had not been expected by the Chinese side, who tried for months to get such exchanges to re-start, but failed to persuade North Block (the Ministry of Defence). The Annual Sino-Indian Defence Dialogue, which had last been held in January 2010, got indefinitely postponed.
While on the surface there was a complete cessation of contacts, behind the scenes a compromise was arrived at in seven months. China gave a visa to the Lt-Gen in charge of the Northern Command, although by this time, Lt-General Jamwal had been transferred. Having made the point that a visa ought not to be denied to the Northern Command chief, Delhi restarted defence links. At the same time, Beijing had the satisfaction of knowing that the officer who had been rejected for a visa was not included in the Indian delegation. As North Block has once again restarted the defence dialogue with China, the next annual meeting of the two sides is scheduled on December 8, 2011, with high-level participation on both sides.
Interestingly, on the Indian side, the talks will be led by Union Defence Secretary SK Sharma, a civil servant who—if we except a possible stint in the National Cadet Corps decades ago as a college student—has had no military experience whatsoever. India is the only major democracy that totally excludes serving military officers from holding posts in the Defence Ministry. Such jobs are the monopoly of generalist officers, who may come to the ministry after stints in the ministries of Fisheries, Sports and Culture. Their experience in mastering the intricacies of prawn cultivation in the backwaters and helping dancers travel on junkets abroad is expected to give them the expertise needed to take decisions on the purchase of key defence items.
Needless to say, politicians find it much more convenient to have generalists than specialists in charge of the procurement process, as the former can be more easily persuaded to buy expensive weapons systems that are best in fighting not the next war but the last. Often, substandard equipment gets purchased. As the officials in the Defence Ministry are in no danger of ever going near the front line of a conflict, they are unconcerned about the suitability or otherwise of the weapons systems that politicians want them to buy. When compared to the equipment of a People’s Liberation Army soldier on the Line of Actual Control between China and India, the Indian soldier has equipment that is often inferior. For example, night-vision capabilities are low, while body armour is much heavier in the Indian army than in the PLA.
It was Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who ensured the exclusion of the military from the Ministry of Defence. Both Nehru and his daughter (also Prime Minister) Indira Gandhi feared the possibility of a military coup. They ensured that the military was kept far away from those who encourage such a coup, namely the US. Fear of a coup grew after the deposing and subsequent murder of President Salvador Allende of Chile in 1973, and the brutal murder of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and most of his family by junior army officers in August 1975. The killings shocked Indira Gandhi, and was taken by her as vindication for her June decision to impose a State of Emergency in India that took away fundamental rights, including the right to life, and which got lifted only 21 months later. It shows the inertia of the traditional system in India that the exclusion of specialists, including from the military, in the Defence Ministry is still continuing in an era when a military coup in India is even less likely than it was in the 1970s. The only time there may have been a chance of a coup in India was in 1959, when the then Chief of Army Staff Kodendera Thimayya got exasperated at the cuts in defence spending implemented by the then Finance Minister Morarji Desai (who, like Nehru, was a pacifist) and the hectoring manner of Defence Minister Krishna Menon.
It was no secret at the time that General Thimayya favoured a tilt towards the US, in place of the USSR-leaning policy of “non-alignment” that was the brainchild of Prime Minister Nehru. He saw the US as India’s natural partner, much better than the USSR. Whether there was any external suggestion to the army chief to launch a coup (the way General Ayub Khan did in 1958 in Pakistan) we will never know. However, the reality of a political organisation, the Congress Party, that was spread across the country (and which had seen off the once-invincible British Raj) ensured that Thimayya never put the plan for a military coup into operation. The situation in China is very different from that of India. Senior military officers are seeded within the Minuistry of Defence, and indeed run the department. Further, the Chinese Communist Party has set up the Central Military Council, which too is filled with serving military officers, and is headed by the top leader of the country, now President Hu Jintao.
When the Chinese side sits down to meet with the almost-entirely non-military defence delegation from India, it will be headed by General Xiaotian Ma, Deputy Chief of General Staff of the PLA, and will comprise military officers. Such a disconnect itself creates problems of perception and communication between the two sides, something not seen in the case of PRC defence dialogues with Pakistan, where uniformed personnel conduct the meeting from both sides of the table. The Chinese are unable to understand how and why the Indian side always conducts technical discussions with generalists. The same civil service officer (who may hold an MA in Hindi literature) may lead the Indian delegation on climate change at an international conference one year, before chairing the Indian team in WTO negotiations the next year, and in defence the year after. If India is still progressing reasonably in spite of such a dysfunctional system, one that has no space for expertise even in complicated fields of governance, it is entirely due to the mercy of the Almighty.
India and China are too big for each other to neglect. Thus far, the PLA has been hesitant to establish closer ties with its Indian counterpart, for fear of annoying its old friends in Pakistan. Unlike the US, which has made no secret of its eagerness to develop close strategic ties with India, thus far China has openly adopted a policy that places Pakistan well above India in strategic weight, although for the record Chinese Communist Party (CCP) spokespersons say that they are pursuing a policy that gives equal weight to both. The CCP and the PLA have not followed the US in constantly asking Pakistan to “respect the security needs of India”. Clearly, the Chinese leadership believes that Islamabad is far more valuable as a partner than Delhi, trade and other factors notwithstanding.
By MD Nalapat