|The Sino-Pak ‘collusive’ threat
The flavour of the season last year was the emerging threat from an ‘assertive’ China. This perhaps partially accounts for India’s overtures of this week in terms of reaching out once again to Pakistan. Pakistan PM Mr. Yousuf Raza Gilani graced the India-Pakistan cricket match, while the High Commissioner in Pakistan has been asked to explore the possibility of interfacing with the Pakistani Army at long last. The ambitious idea is to ensure that a ‘collusive’ threat does not develop between the two neighbours. This article explores the dimension of such a threat and arrives at a conclusion that, contrary to some commentary on the subject, it is not a ‘ready and waiting’ possibility in the future.
As with militaries anywhere, the worst case scenario of a collusive threat does lend pause to the Indian military. Such a threat has not transpired historically and has not developed so far. The closest it has been is during the 1971 war and its run-up. But Indian measures such as waiting till winter to launch operations and getting into a mutual assistance treaty with the Soviet Union did much to make such a threat recede. While not a ‘clear and present’ danger today, the fact that the military pays it some attention has been brought out by the former army chief in his remarks that attracted some controversy in late 2009.
The ‘threat’ has been envisaged owing to the infrastructure developments in Tibet, taking over of transport corridor projects by the Chinese in Pakistan’s Northern Areas, Chinese assertiveness in terms of ‘intrusions’ and ‘transgressions’ along the LAC, strategic power-play in terms of visa issues etc. Also, India’s growing power and liaison with the US has made Chinese more attentive to the region, improving the profile of its link with Pakistan.
What are the chances of a twin face-off in the north and how will it manifest?
First is a look at the possibilities. China is unlikely to be drawn into a South Asian situation since it is concentrating on its economic trajectory and equates itself with the US. Any distraction is unaffordable. Such a possibility comes to fore only if the economic situation worsens or there is internal political instability for which there is a need to create nationalist cohesion and divert attention. Pakistan for its part, being military led, is only too cautious of India’s conventional deterrent. It would at best use the possibility to tie Indian forces down, rather than materialize such a threat. Doing so has the advantage of lowering conventional asymmetry, thereby allowing it to proceed with proxy war. Secondly, it knows that it would be independently tackled by India’s armoured might since this capability is not relevant to the northern borders. In short, the ‘threat’ is a remote.
Second, as for how it could manifest in terms of scenarios, it could be either Pakistan led or China led. Alternatively, it could be with either state taking advantage of an adverse situation for India brought on by the other state. Lastly is a grand strategic design between the two to do India down. From this emerge five possibilities: China instigated, Pakistan instigated, Chinese hyena act, Pakistan’s hyena act and lastly a planned twin strike.
Since China can act on its own, it does not need Pakistani collusion. In fact it may find such collusion escalatory since it would place India in a worse position, from which India would only want to come out fighting. On the other hand, Pakistan can do with Chinese support. Yet, China would not want to be physically drawn in though it could use the transport corridors being developed in the Gilgit-Baltistan region to send in logistic support.
In a China-led case, a twin threat could be in case of Chinese designs to the east. These could be grandiose in terms of seizing limited territory such as Tawang or the whole of Arunachal, or to ‘teach India a lesson’. This may entail tying India down in the western sector by having Pakistan make diversionary moves in Siachen or Kargil. This could result in 14 Corps in Ladakh being forced to look backwards even as the Chinese threat along the Indus or the lakes unfolds. The possibility of Chinese participation with movement through the Gilgit axis is possible, but the logistics and possibility of Indian air interdiction makes this unviable.
A Pakistan-led case is difficult to visualize since China would unlikely want the ‘tail to wag the dog’. China could nevertheless participate in such an adventure if it were to set India back and restrict India’s strategic space to South Asia. Towards this end, it could make moves that tie down Indian mountain strike forces being created in the North East to that theatre. Dual use formations that could tilt the balance in India’s favour would then not be available, making for greater symmetry with Pakistan.
A ‘hyena act’ by Pakistan is easier to visualize than on China’s part since China is more likely to be able to place India at a military disadvantage than Pakistan. In such a case, with India military distracted in an engagement with China, Pakistan could try and gain psychological ascendance, remove vulnerabilities through military action or recreate proxy war conditions.
The last possibility of a concerted twin strike is the ‘most threatening-least likely’ one. It has potential for expanding beyond the region in terms of the US unwillingness to lose a strategic partner in India. Besides, the current order of Pak-US interaction precludes such levels of collusion. In such a case, India may turn its attention and weight first to Pakistan while it holds to the North. This serves as deterrent to Pakistani participation in such an enterprise. Since India would be greatly imposed upon, the possibility of going beyond the ‘limited war’ profile exists. India could legitimately rescind its NFU in such circumstance as a clear signal.
The collusive threat must be approached realistically. Responding in anticipation where little threat exists would lead to its materialization in a time frame that finds India underprepared. Instead, diplomatic moves, such as one currently underway with Pakistan and over the longer term with China, must be deployed and progressed sensibly to their logical conclusion.
Ali Ahmed is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Defence Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi