What to make of India’s surgical strike?

India’s punitive strike across the Line of Control could set a new norm

Whatever might be the consequences, it is clear that the Indian Army’s operation across the Line of Control in retaliation to a militant attack on its Uri camp is a landmark development. Now, it is common knowledge that both the Indian and Pakistani armies cross the LoC for tactical operations, and have been doing so for a long time.

Such operations, usually, have three characteristics: limitations in the depth of incursion, the extent of damage they cause and the level at which they are officially admitted. While we do not have all the details as of now, last night’s operation appears to have been deeper and more damaging. What distinguishes it from other tactical incursions along the LoC is the level at which they have been admitted: perhaps for the first time, New Delhi has officially announced that Indian troops carried out an attack authorised by the highest political authority.

This is significant because it changes the norm to one where India will use military force across its frontiers to respond to aggression by Pakistan’s proxies. Depending on the Pakistani reaction, the act might vindicate the arguments made by some strategists that India does have space for such punitive operations, within the escalation framework. If so, an important Pakistani bluff — that nuclear weapons will shield its terrorist proxies — will be called. [Related: See this detailed analysis of the India-Pakistan conflict escalation framework]

This, however, is only the story so far. The ball now is in Pakistan’s court. If the Pakistani military establishment continues to hold the position that there was no ‘surgical strike’ at all, and just the usual cross-border firing, then New Delhi would have succeeded in setting a new norm. However, if the Pakistani army decides that it cannot let this insult go unpunished, and responds tit-for-tat — operationally and in public posturing — then it will be up to the Modi government whether it wants to up the ante. There are good reasons for either course of action.

The Pakistani army’s initial reaction is what it is, an initial reaction. It could be used to obfuscate matters to cover a retaliatory attack. Or it could be a signal of not wanting to escalate the situation. At this time, therefore, it would be prudent for the Indian government and media to hold off excessive triumphalism.

Leave the Indus treaty alone

It is unwise for New Delhi to play up the water threat

Last week CNN-IBN called me while I was driving back home, and asked if they could put me on live television to comment on what the producer said was “India’s threat to cut off Pakistan’s water supply under the Indus River Water treaty”. Had I not been stationary at the traffic signal when I heard this, my reaction might have harmed innocent motorists on the road. Despite my reluctance—as I had not familiarised with the facts—the producer patched me to the programme. I made three points.

First, the threat of cutting off water targets the Pakistani people and not the military-jihadi complex that is India’s irreconcilable adversary. Further, this mis-targeting strengthens the military-jihadi complex because it strengthens the latter’s position as the defender of the Pakistani people, who will unite around it.

Second, cutting off water is tantamount to an act of war and India will be seen as the aggressor. Even then, it would be unwise for New Delhi to go to war in response to a terrorist attack on a military camp near the Line of Control.

Third, the best that can be said about the hints of cutting off water is if it were “deliberate irrationalism”, calculated to persuade the adversary that New Delhi is not rational and can respond in grossly disproportionate ways.

Upon reaching home, I found out that the producer had taken an almost mischievous hint by the MEA spokesman and framed it into one of New Delhi actually threatening to cut off water to Pakistan. Even so, New Delhi seems to be weighing this option enough to warrant a briefing to the Prime Minister today.

It would be unwise for New Delhi to proceed in the direction of holding out reneging on the Indus Water Treaty as a coercive threat. Mainly because such talk is superfluous. A person holding a gun to your head does not have to declare that he has a gun pointed towards your head.

While the Pakistani people benefit from the Indus Waters Treaty—and India’s scrupulous observance of its terms even during major wars—the Pakistani military establishment and jihadi groups would love for New Delhi to dangle this threat. The establishment would lose no time to play up the threat that India poses to the survival of Pakistan and quickly find a way to turn “differences” into “disputes” (these terms have specific meanings under the Treaty) and take it to the Court of Arbitration. If the Court rules against India—and it is likely to, if India were to “cut off water”—then a reference to the UN Security Council will be the next step. Now, the UNSC might lack enough power to compel India to keep to terms New Delhi does not wish to, but to do all this in the current circumstances would be an overkill (self-overkill, that is).

While all this is happening, the jihadi groups would lose no time in openly mobilising, with official support, and engaging in collecting funds, minds and warm bodies. It makes little sense for New Delhi to energise an industry that is not doing too well in Pakistan.

All this is even before considering the possibility of what might the Pakistani military establishment do should India threaten to cut off water supplies. There is no doubt that India is military prepared to dominate Pakistan at all levels of escalation. The question is: can this be done with relatively lower cost to itself?

Narendra Modi’s words over the weekend inject wisdom into the hysterical jingoism that dominated the public discourse last week. He suggested that India can defeat Pakistan by winning the development race. He also drew the distinction between the Pakistani leadership and the Pakistani people. Readers of this blog will know that this is what I have long advocated. Of course, this must be accompanied by defensive measures, political overtures to close the affective divide in Jammu & Kashmir and tactical military sort of things that are best not spoken about.

As for the Indus treaty, it is in India’s interests to hold out a model where difficult issues can be sorted out as technical matters rather than highly emotive political ones. It is one of the best examples of India’s bona fides. It is not in the national interest to throw away this wicket.

From the archives: Sharing the Indus (January 2005) and the Dam difference is over (February 2007).

Cross-border vandalism

Dropping canned food past the expiry date, painting graffiti on boulders—and that we should know now

First, relax. It would be a huge strategic blunder for China to get into a military conflict with India—less initiate one—for two big reasons.

One, nuclear deterrence imposes limits to how much a conventional military conflict can escalate. Even a 1962-like invasion is highly unlike in 2009, because even if the PLA were to somehow pooh-pooh India’s vastly improved conventional defences, China is highly unlikely to want to test whether India’s commitment to nuclear no-first-use is rhetorical or real.

Two, a direct military conflict—whether or not initiated by China—would have the inevitable consequence of pushing India unequivocally into an alliance with the United States. Now, if you are a strategist—of whatever stripe—in Beijing, why would you want to do that? A military conflict with India would not only consolidate two of China’s biggest strategic adversaries but also completely blow the myth of a “peaceful rise” that is behind the success of Chinese diplomacy in East and Central Asia.

With that behind us for now, let’s ask why China is dumping expired canned food off helicopters, and why someone used red paint to deface rocks on the Indian side of the border in Ladakh? After the initial media outrage in India, both the Indian foreign ministry and the armed forces are downplaying reports of these incursions. China, unhelpfully as always, has totally denied that the incursions even happened. It is important to note that these incursions are not recent but have been occurring for several months. Even the notorious helicopter flight took place in early July. Why did the metaphorical solid waste hit the rotor now, when an Indian military delegation is on a goodwill tour of China?

Why?

When in a corner, show teeth

A chastened but sanctimoniously aggressive dragon

Qin Gang, China’s foreign ministry spokesman, made some eminently reasonable and sensible points yesterday. The Asian Development Bank’s approval of a loan package to India—which includes financing of a project in India’s Arunachal Pradesh state (which China calls ‘Southern Tibet’ and claims as its own)—he said, “can neither change the existence of immense territorial disputes between China and India, nor China’s fundamental position on its border issues with India…On China-India border issues, China always believes that the two sides should seek for a fair and equitable solution acceptable to both through bilateral negotiation.” (via Indrani Bagchi’s Globespotting blog)

In other words, ADB’s approval of a loan doesn’t change the positions of India and China with respect to the territorial dispute, and that bilateral negotiations (not multilateral economic fora like the ADB) are the place to sort the issue out.

So who were those unreasonable and insensible people who thought otherwise? None other than the representatives of the People’s Republic of China. None of their counterparts on ADB’s governing board agreed. Diplomacy being the art it is, it was left to Mr Qin to sound as if it was someone else who was flagrantly violating the norms of conduct at multilateral economic institutions.

The Chinese foreign ministry, however, does not stop at that. Mr Qin goes on the offensive. The ADB, he warns, “should not intervene in the political affairs of its members. The adoption of the document has not only dealt a severe blow to its own reputation but also undermines the interests of its members. The Chinese Government strongly urges the ADB to take effective measures to eliminate the terrible impact thereof.”

China’s entire approach to the ADB loan issue signals a dangerous portent for Asia. It would perhaps have been understandable if China had limited its protest to a symbolic pro forma objection. To transform the ADB as a forum to push its position in a bilateral dispute is an entirely different matter—and one that has serious implications for its relations with its East Asian neighbours, with whom it has unsettled disputes too. A charitable explanation is that it couldn’t back down without losing face once it had fired the first salvo. If you feel less charitable, you will see fresh signs of a deliberate strategy to flex its economic muscles for purely political ends. When zero-sum games are pursued at positive-sum arenas, the latter quickly become the former.

Pro forma protests

Sit up and take note when China doesn’t protest, not when it does

There is no need to get too worked up about China registering its protests at President Pratibha Patil’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh. As long as the border issue is not fully and finally settled, China will hold on to its position that parts of Arunachal Pradesh are really Chinese territories illegally occupied by India. So registering a protest pro forma is part of the routine. Not protesting would have been unusual: and India would see it as a ‘concession’. Just why would China concede anything just like that?

Nothwithstanding China’s protests, both the Indian prime minister and president have visited the state in the last couple of years.

For a good overview of the dispute and the way forward on its settlement, check out India China Relations: The Border Issue and Beyond by Mohan Guruswamy and Zorawar Daulet Singh, reviewed in the April 2009 issue of Pragati.

But China might not want a settlement of the border issue at this time, for the dispute itself is a containment device.

On territorial compromises with China

It’s not at all trivial

It’s a seductive argument. That the longstanding border dispute between India and China is trivial. Aksai Chin, which China controls and India claims is not even habitable. Portions of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims are both populated and economically useful. Surely, then, it makes sense for India to agree to a border settlement that swaps Aksai Chin for Arunachal Pradesh. It is the political difficulty of selling the compromise to the emotional Indian people, Arvind Kala writes, that is preventing India from settling the dispute. [Related Post: McMahon’s line and Aksai Chin]

One problem: it is China that is unwilling move ahead towards settling the border dispute. The reasons why it chose to do so underlies why Mr Kala’s arguments are flawed: first, the border dispute is not ‘trivial’, but as even Jawaharlal Nehru recognised, the manifestation of a geopolitical power struggle between India and China. Second, Aksai Chin is not ‘useless’ to India, not least because it is vital to China. And finally, China is not a ‘friend’, no country is. Indeed, Mr Kala fundamentally misreads the nature of international relations when he declares ‘nations are like human beings’, ‘shaped by emotion’. It is possible that it is this anthropomorphism that leads Mr Kala to misleading conclusions. But if at all an analogy can be made, it is more appropriate to say that nations are like wild animals, existing under the law of the jungle. The zoomorphism apart, nations do what is in their interests. And at this time, resolving the dispute is not in China’s interests.

Just like in the case the dispute over Kashmir, it is not uncommon to hear well-meaning people suggest that a territorial compromise is the ticket to peace. But it is naïve and dangerous to believe that giving away territory will automatically cause the other side to go away and leave India in peace. That’s because, by its very nature, a compromise that leaves both sides satisfied will not change the underlying balance of power.

A corollary to this is that a mutually satisfactory solution to the border dispute is only possible when the balance of power is stable and both countries are well reconciled to it. That is hardly the case at this point in time—when India and China are both jockeying for power in Asia and beyond. At this time, it is to be expected that both will be sensitive to relative gains and losses, and for that reason, unwilling to settle the dispute.

Afterword: From one of Nehru’s letters to chief ministers:

“It is a little naïve to think that the trouble with China was essentially due to a dispute over some territory. It had deeper reasons. Two of the largest countries in Asia confronted each other over a vast border. They differed in many ways. And the test was as to whether anyone of them would have a more dominating position than the other on the border and in Asia itself. We do not desire to dominate any country and we are content to live peacefully with other countries provided they do not interfere with us or commit aggression. China, on the other hand, clearly did not like the idea of such a peaceful existence and wants to have a dominating position in Asia.” [As quoted by Kuldip Nayar in Dawn]

How China went back on its commitment

…and India doesn’t even realise that it has been had

Did anyone notice how China’s support for the India-US nuclear deal has been matched by its backward movement on settling the border dispute? While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came away with a “Chinese nod for him to underwrite India’s independent foreign policy”—as the Indian Express put it with dreadful (and unintended) irony—the Chinese breach of promise over settling the border dispute went unnoticed. The clever men in Beijing have every reason to be happy with Dr Singh’s visit: they gave away nothing while appearing to give a great deal, and in the bargain, ensured that they clawed back what little they had conceded in the border dispute. The best part for them was that despite all this, it was the Indian media that was celebrating!

Here’s the net outcome of Dr Singh’s visit: China has gone back on its position that the eventual border between the two countries will not disturb existing population centres. It did not show any enthusiasm to exchange official maps—a step that would have set the parameters of a final settlement. It is now not only quibbling over the meaning of the term population centres, but also sending its troops to demolish Indian bunkers. It is bleeding obvious that China wants to keep the dispute alive.

The gains that India achieved under the Vajpayee government have been lost under the UPA. Dr Singh’s visit only confirmed that. China could do this because it realised that Pakistan could no longer be used as a strategic lever against India after 9/11. It also realised that it could use the divisiveness of India’s domestic politics instead. The Left parties were anyway batting for Beijing, the BJP played into its hands and the Congress Party lacked the political sagacity to forge a non-partisan consensus on the nuclear deal. The Communists have reason to be pleased with the visit. But for others, there is no reason to celebrate.

The passage of the nuclear deal was only a matter of time. It was essentially a fait accompli for Beijing. Yet the UPA government and sections of the media projected Beijing’s blessings as a way to secure the approval of the Indian Communists. This came at a terribly expensive price: India didn’t lift as much as finger while China turned back on what it had agreed on the border dispute.

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