Time to set our house in order

The Government has missed a legitimate opportunity to repair the frail Defence Budget which is unfit to meet the Pakistan-China dual threat

China’s pithy, almost dismissive, response to External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s connect between the border and bilateral ties has escaped notice. In reply to Jaishankar’s multiple complaints about China’s erratic behaviour in altering the status quo along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in breach of existing protocols and violations of peace and tranquility, Beijing simply repeated its mantra that Indo-China relations have to be de-coupled from the border dispute. At the all-India conference on China Studies in New Delhi last month, Jaishankar summarised his various comments across eight months on the border issue into three “mutuals”: Recognition of mutual respect, mutual sensitivity and mutual interest; and eight broad principles as key to mending Indo-China relations. He emphasised that a peaceful border was the pre-requisite for stable relations. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said: “We have noted Minister Jaishankar’s remarks and appreciate the importance India attaches to ties with China. But we stress the boundary issue shall not be linked with overall bilateral relations.”

At one stroke, China segregated its aggression along the LAC from bilateral relations and bracketed its territorial encroachments to outstanding claims to all of Ladakh, not just the 300 km spread of intrusions. China’s claim to Ladakh was articulated in 2008 through its denial of its western border covering Jammu and Kashmir with China and excising 1,597 km of the 3488-km LAC. When this was pointed out to an MEA mandarin at the time, he responded: “They can do what they like but we have troops on the LAC.” What happened in mid-May last year was a failure of the institutional memory of Chinese intent. If the way forward, as noted by Jaishankar, is the Sumdorong Chu route, it will cost India dearly both operationally and financially.

Last week, India missed a legitimate opportunity to repair the frail defence budget unfit to meet the Pakistan-China dual threat despite aggression in Ladakh. Few point out the anomalies in defence spending probably because it is anti-national to question it, especially when the BJP Government — very vocal on defence and national security — makes hollow fund allocations. On Budget day, the armed forces would attract thunderous applause from the lawmakers for their sacrifices when the Finance Minister, after announcing the defence allocation, would predictably add: “More funds would be provided, if needed.” Since 2019, there is deafening silence on defence on Budget day. Surprisingly, the oversight was questioned this year by many. The aggregate defence budget, revenue and capital heads; all three reflected a decline in the allocation as compared to the previous year’s revised estimates (RE). The allocation for defence modernisation, which is at the heart of deterrence and capacity building and which was acclaimed by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh as the highest increase of 19 per cent in 15 years, was actually Rs 2,700 crore less than in the RE of 2020-21. Even as GDP percentage, defence has declined to 1.5 per cent from 1.6 per cent the previous year.

What we do not know is committed liabilities under the modernisation head of the three services though we do know that last year, the Air Force, the highest recipient this year, was allotted nearly Rs 3,000 crore less than committed liabilities, leaving no money for new projects. Other negatives this year in the Budget are lower GDP, higher rupee to dollar rate, higher fuel costs, higher internal and external inflation and substantial additional costs for maintaining the additional 50,000 troops in Ladakh along with costs for re-balancing of forces following the belated recognition of China, which spends thrice more than India on defence, as the primary threat.

It is mystifying that even after yielding ground on the LAC, now convoluted by Gen VK Singh’s not-so-useful admission on transgressions, Singh has made lofty claims to India’s deterrent actions, CDS Gen Bipin Rawat waved the military option, Army chief Gen MM Naravane warned (the PLA) not to test India’s patience and the Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria, noted that the Rafale had unnerved the Chinese. These are undoubtedly signs of resolve but without capability backup to restore the adverse situation created by the PLA. Equally intriguing was Singh last week at the Indian Ocean Region Defence Ministers’ Conclave, referring to India as a net security provider when it has formidable security challenges on two fronts. Singh also made exaggerated claims about raising defence exports to a staggering Rs 35,000 crore in 2024 from the existing Rs 10,000 crore.

Taken together, China separating the border issues from bilateral relations and India’s failure to accelerate Defence modernisation amount to Beijing’s continued bullying of India and its rapidly-expanding PLA Navy posing a second front in the Indian Ocean. Zhao’s blunt response to Jaishankar’s missive of interdependence of border and bilateral relations indicates China’s hardline posture will stay till at least July next year, the completion of 100 years of the Chinese Communist Party. Without boosting combat capacities dovetailed in a Defence strategy factoring the primacy of China threat, New Delhi will keep shadow-boxing.

(The writer, a retired Major General, was Commander, IPKF South, Sri Lanka, and founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the Integrated Defence Staff. The views expressed are personal.)

Source: The Pioneer