The recently signed India-US Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), that would give India access to US map and satellite intelligence, would be crucial if there were another major Himalayan war between Indian and China a la 1962. Though in the realm of probability, this is not an immediate threat because China through micro aggressions, creeping, crawling, and nibbling military tactics, has been trying to capture strategic peaks and valleys all along the massive Himalayan ranges of which Galwan now and Doklam in 2017 are prompts as to what might happen in the future.
China has the same objectives, but it has different modalities. Automated weapons, drones, Rafale jets, and long range nuclear tipped missiles are of no immediate use when the diehard adversary slithers upon Indian troops in the middle of night in deep barren valleys and on sheer mountain slopes, with medieval hand-to-hand weapons and with no orders to retreat.
India needs a different pedigree of combatant, a special Himalayan force that games and exceeds what the PLA can do with its piecemeal territorial grabbing strategy. Without which, India will always be taken by surprise and scramble for hasty responses.
What and where are India’s vulnerabilities in the Himalayas? Knowing its vulnerabilities would make India self-aware and create possibilities for security through strength.
BECA as a building block is important for a long term strategic partnership with the United States. And with other members of the Quad, Japan and Australia, India might act as a counterweight to Chinese aggressive hegemonic ambitions.
Nevertheless, the satellite military pact with the United States might give India a false sense of security, as it happened in 1962 when India cried for help and its most trusted friend the Soviet Union ignored the SOS because it was involved with the Cuban missile standoff. And President John F Kennedy, after an initial burst of support, wondered if it might lead to a prolonged involvement, another Korea, with nuclear war possibilities.
In a major crisis with China, India would be on its own. But military pacts with the United States and other allies, that ensure sharing of timely satellite intelligence and access to advanced weapon technology, would certainly bolster India’s defence capabilities.
A weak and fearful India would be a temptation for China’s seemingly random aggressive nipping behavior. To turn uncertainty into a manageable risk India needs what Peter Scoblic and Philip Tetlock called in Foreign Affairs “A Better Crystal Ball”: an early awareness system (EAS), which however should not be mistaken for an early warning system (EWS).
EAS experts would imagine and synthesise scenarios and probabilities of what might happen, keeping in mind that there would never be a future when India and China would cease to fear each other. At the heart of the perpetual conflict is Tibet, a divided country, geo-politically under China’s control but culturally and spiritually bonded with India, thanks to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who compassionately embraced the Dalai Lama and gave Tibetans, now about 100,000 in number, a second home.
The Dalai Lama has made Tibet a part of the global consciousness about human rights, and has headquarters in Dharamsala, a pilgrimage place for spiritual backpackers and globetrotters.
Add to this complex equation the inevitability of two large nations, 2.7 billion people in total, trading with each other and at the same time competing for influence in Asia, in the Indian Ocean, and the rest of the world. India’s growth trajectory shows a dip due to Covid-19 but the entrepreneurial spirit would soon resurge. The economic and political fundamentals are strong.
The first and foremost challenge is to defend the Himalayas, any which way, for which India needs a new kind of Himalayan Force, one equipped with EAS capabilities to foresee and stop the Chinese micro aggressions before they occur. Nip the evil in the bud. Intelligence, human and satellite, is indispensable and hence the strategic significance of BECA.
The second challenge for India is to have the political courage and wisdom never to shut the door on China regardless of the provocation. The Chinese are a remarkable people. It is good to know how they do things. They made Huawei a global 5G tech company that shook up America.
Recently the Ant Group, China’s financial technology giant controlled by Alibaba, raised more than $34 billion in the world’s biggest IPO (now suspended) in Shanghai and Hong Kong Exchanges, ignoring Wall Street and New York Exchanges. Whether they steal, borrow, or buy technology, the Chinese make it better.
China may be contemptuously called mercantilist, but it is now the second largest global economy. When China exports a product, it also exports its culture, as do Germany, Japan, and South Korea. Trading with others is spreading one’s culture.
To checkmate China in the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean, India must build alliances with European nations and strengthen the emerging America-sponsored Quad for Asian stability.
Most importantly, India must keep competing with China in foreign trade, global markets and technology. Indians have a tremendous capacity for living in contradictions and therein lies the challenge of fighting and befriending China at the same time.