Dragon soup for the Indian soul - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 5 March 2012

Dragon soup for the Indian soul

(Photo: courtesy Ajai Shukla)
A view of the McMahon Line from Bomdi La

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 6th Mar 12

On Sunday Beijing announced that it would raise defence spending this year by 11.2 per cent to 670 billion yuan (Rs 5.26 lakh crore). This is thrice India’s allocation of Rs 1.64 lakh crore for the current year, and one-fifth America’s allocation of $530 billion (Rs 26 lakh crore) for 2013. Many wonder how a rising and assertive superpower, with the world’s largest military in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), gets away with allocating for national defence just 1.3 per cent of its national product. The answer of most China-watchers is that Beijing fudges the figures.

That is a comforting thought, Dragon Soup for the Indian Soul that has never quite recovered from the 1962 lambasting. But obsessing over Chinese perfidy blocks us from some badly needed analysis. Even if actual Chinese defence expenditure is twice the declared figure – the outer range of Pentagon estimations – that still begs the question: how is China building a world-class military (not there yet, but on its way) with so little? Even a defence spend of 2.6 per cent of GDP is relatively restrained.

This is all the more striking after President Obama threw down the gauntlet in January by announcing America’s “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific. China can hardly gloss over the challenge in its own backyard. Adding further to the pressure on Beijing for greater defence spending is the election climate in China. That country’s “fifth generation” of leaders will take power this autumn at the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. Candidates who covet a seat in the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee can hardly overlook the PLA’s backing.

Yet Beijing has reacted with a mere 11.2 per cent increase in defence spending. What on earth is Zhongnanhai doing, shriek the right-wing hordes in China’s blogosphere?

The answer is that China does more with less. Two crucial policies work to get more bang for the renminbi. Firstly, China’s national defence doctrine is rooted in truly national elements. In a conflict with America, Beijing will exploit the advantage of fighting close to home against an enemy hamstrung by extended lines of communication. Purpose-built PLA weapons like the Dong Feng 21D anti-ship ballistic missile will strike American aircraft carriers, the centrepiece of its armada. China is also perfecting cyber capabilities and satellite warfare capabilities to disable crucial US command systems, disrupting the application of focused US firepower. And the PLA is pioneering “swarm tactics” in which high-tech US fleets are swamped by hordes of cheap, small, expendable vessels. This indigenous, proactive doctrine is more effective and affordable than attempting to match a wealthier and technologically superior US weapon-for-weapon (although that option is not ruled out for the future).

Secondly, China has built an indigenous defence production capability that provides the PLA with weaponry cheaply and quickly. This has not happened by accident. Till the late 1990s China, like India, was a major buyer of overseas weaponry and a “catch-up country” in indigenous weapons development. During the last decade, though, Beijing’s focus on military indigenisation has transformed it into a major producer that is now a serious player in the global arms bazaar. This was achieved through the opportunistic recruitment of out-of-work Soviet scientists after the Soviet Union collapsed; by focusing on technology absorption; and by ruthlessly restructuring a moribund defence production behemoth (not unlike India’s defence public sector undertakings) into result-oriented, innovation-driven enterprises.

Indian planners show no such nimble-mindedness. Our national defence doctrine (so far as one exists!) assumes that a Chinese attack in 2012 would faithfully follow the script that Mao wrote half a century ago in 1962. In Arunachal Pradesh, Indian troop deployment centres on Tawang and Walong, China’s 1962 objectives, in the belief that difficult terrain precludes major offensives elsewhere. This is false, given China’s infrastructure build-up in Tibet. Even more worryingly, this defensive-mindedness cedes the initiative to the enemy, who is allowed to decide where and how to fight. Instead of shaping the battlefield to its advantage, as China plans to do with America, India aims merely to block China until international pressure halts the war. True, New Delhi plans to raise a mountain strike corps over the next five years that, it hopes, will take the battle to China. But islands of operational initiative cannot exist in a sea of defensiveness.

While India’s geographical disadvantages, stemming from its difficult mountainous terrain, are regularly compared with China’s easy operations on the Tibetan plateau, there is little recognition of China’s enormous difficulties in operating through a resentful Tibetan populace that seeks any opportunity to strike at Beijing. An Indian think tank recently recommended that the military should plan to leverage Tibetan partisans in the event of war with China. But such boldness, it would appear, is alien to our security planners. Even while planning war with China, there is fear of angering Beijing.

Meanwhile, India’s weapons procurement follows an even more depressing trend, evident from our shameful status as the world’s largest arms buyer. Just as India financed Russian R&D in the 1990s when Moscow was staring at bankruptcy (and when China was poaching their scientists and reverse-engineering weaponry), the continuing purchases of overpriced foreign platforms like the Rafale fighter will only breathe life into the R&D and production establishment of foreign countries instead of enhancing India’s indigenous capability. Indian success stories like the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft and the Arjun tank are criticised, held to an exalted standard, and eventually stalled by the Indian military — which fails to see the connection between its enthusiastic backing of French, Russian or American platforms and the failure of indigenous production.

There are many lessons that India can learn from China. Right up there is the need to indigenise defence strategy and production based on local advantages. That is the only way to confront a superpower.


  1. Palmslap on Indian government and defence forces.

    but u know dog tails.....

    better to cut than try to straighten it out.

    some body should throw your article on face dhoti shivering ministers I know whole bunch of joker wearing it and force them to read it.

    no body in a ministry has vision regarding China.

  2. Col. Shukla-
    We are India Shining and Mera Bharat Mahan. We dont need to learn from others who do things way better. We dont need indigenous defence technology with incremental improvements driven by a dedicated and focusses R&D establishment that talks less and does more..We do not need to be pragmatic and hard nosed about our national interests. We just need to let our "leadership" (opposition parties included) go bumbling about and stuffing their pockets.
    As you know, next war is not likely to be about Chinese soldiers running head first into Tawang or Chushul.. its going to be about battlefield missiles taking out our troops and our miserable infrastructure first....

    As for daring planning with foresight, let us all collectively dream on. A bong (not the Bengali "bong") or two will help.

    I truly feel that there is a lot we have to learn from China.. but I dont think thats going to happen.

  3. Indeed we need to do more to help the Tibetan cause to the greatest extent possible...cause if Tibet severs away, the chinese problem will vanish once and for all..else if Tibetans are not able to break free, they can still cause enough problems for the chinese to keep them occupied...

  4. Dear Mr. Shukla

    I find your support for the LCA program extremely refreshing - in your column today and in the recent past as well. I am not sure what is the expectation from LCA -
    you can never go hi-tech unless you do the lower tech first. F-22 and Rafale represent the pinnacle of 70-80 years of leadership in aviation - to compare our first serious project to these is unfair. Let's not forget that China got where it is now by reverse engineering Mig-17/19 & 21 after the breakup with the USSR in the 60s - J-20 isn't an overnight achievement.



  5. Col - you are demanding 'IMPOSSIBLE' from country like India, that in last 62 years of its existence have not shown any spine. Be it our public institutions, Army, planners and politicians - each is grinding their own axe. This country really needs to be jolted down to its roots to either evolve to exist or get extinct for eternity.

  6. who exactly sets our defense or strategic doctrine?
    NSA, MOD or armed forces?

    what exactly is the procedure?

  7. Dear Ajai Sahab,
    Thanks for the very good article. Chinese even name foreign aircraft under their own code numbers. For example Sukhoi Su27 made in China is named J-11.

  8. Another big factor in our tardy progress in indigenous defence manufacturing capabilities is lack of boldness on part of the govt. and lack of a level playing field being given to private players.So great is the fear of 'corruption' that viable options and systems are shot down on some vague complaints.The PSU is backed simply on grounds of their being PSUs and their being a 'safer'decision on file.Facts,that a lot of PSUs simply outsource from foreign companies, at a greater cost is conveniently forgotten. The irony is none of this has improved the fight against corruption and we have simply not improved our indigenous capabilities.

  9. Great Article Ajai, But Ironically, people with big brains, fail to understand these simple points.

  10. Hope you have learned... the nursery rhyme "Little Miss Muffet"... what it wants to inculcate in the little minds... hav you given any thoughts... Miss muffet is the public here... and the spider... the war... for politicians... planners... armed forces brass... is the time to scare... Little Miss Muffet... Away... so that those mentioned above... can eat the money... sorry curds & whey... each time spider comes... those people are happy... they don't suffer... Only Little Miss Muffet... Suffers...

  11. Good analysis but not very good one 1962 we were not even stable as a nation also our basic need was food remember the drought conditions we did not have adequte clothing forget the weapons inspite of this we call us Indians as per the policy is concerned ther is a difference in it as well earlier we considered them as friends now they are threat also ther is a third type of policy it includes better equipments along with the cheap ones contemplate on that it is being deployed please analyze accordingly.

  12. Why are you so anti China? Can't you grow up and read http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sino-Indian_War . Seriously I don't understand how has China wronged us.

  13. the terminator6 March 2012 at 18:05

    A very good article indeed colonel BUT will any Indian in the GOI and MOD care to read anything that is not in their interest and which they find not palatable to their taste.

    Indian defence and foreign policies if any are really not worth mentioning. They are not far sighted, vague and incomprehensible to even the authors and shoddy in the implementation. Dhoti shivering seems to have taken deep root so much so they are quick to apologize even where no apologies are expected or needed.

    Indians as a whole and those at the helm need to be given a holistic refresher course about China, its philosophies, aspirations and operating mantra to achieve those goals that it has set for itself.

    India need not follow China blindly in everything but at least studying it would be in a better position to come up with doctrines and proactive policies to map out its own future.

    What India is doing in the defence field is purely defensive in nature. China is destabilizing India by actively arming and providing all assistance to all those who are out to cut up the country for their own selfish interest.

    What is India doing to such a scenario? Do we have any covert activities in our adversaries' territories to spend a lot of resources which could be better spent for development? Have we covertly supporting the Tibetans and the insurgents in Baluchistan?

    Why are we so coy when it comes to openly supporting Vietnam, Taiwan and other South East Asian countries that have problems with the bellicose and intimidating ways of the Chinese?

    Col Shukla, you should write more about progressive and innovative China and expose more of our shortcomings not to belittle us but to infuse a sense of much needed pro-activeness in the present atmosphere of lethargy and malaise and rampant corruption prevalent in the country.

    Thank you for an enlightening article and your support for all indigenous effort in defence.

    What is our stand towards other states who are anti-India and more China friendly?

  14. Well written. It takes me back 25 years ago when I dozing thru the so called classified lectures at the Staff college when the instructor threw open the discussion - if you were the chinese Army Cdr what you do to bring India down on her knees. .Through the verbal volleys of the QI/BM types loaded with PCK, looking at the large map hanging on the stage it suddenly struck me that a thrust through Nepal into our cow belt will bring us to our knees. Though the instructor did his best to tear me a part I did get a lot of support from my fellow students. With the proposed rail link from lhasa into nepal and the road building by the chinese in Tibet and nepal the option is very much workable.

    I wonder if my friends from wellington now very senior officers remember that day in Sardar Patel Hall!

  15. Hi @Hisenberg

    “Why are we anti China”!! “Seriously I don't understand how has China wronged us”!!

    There is a long list of grievances that I have against China. Well where do I start? Let me begin with the border dispute. China is in illegal occupation of Aksai Chin after its capture in 1962. Refuses to vacate. Lays claim to entire Arunachal Pradesh . says it is their territory! Has objections to our defence minister visiting our own state! Issues stapled visas to our citizens. I could go on. Atleast a page worth can be written on the Boundary Issue, Tibet Issue , China-Pakistan Nexus , China’s Defence Modernisation, China’s policy towards India’s Neighborhood , India-US Relations , East Asia Integration, Chinese Media? Please visit this page for a detailed report http://www.southasiaanalysis.org/%5Cpapers39%5Cpaper3861.html

    What gets on my nerves is repeated border incursions by PLA and threatening locals in the area. And now diverting river waters of the Brahmaputra. If I were the PM I would tell China that you may not respect the McMohan Line but we do. As far as we are concerned this is how the line runs on the ground and these are the 10 figure coordinates. If you violate the line we will consider it as an act of aggression and take suitable action.


  16. India is boxed in from two sides. It's focus is more on Pakistan then China. Just look at fighter/ corps facing Pakistan and China. Even Pakistan has learnt from China, it is fast developing its arms industry and importing far less.

  17. Pranav Undalkar8 March 2012 at 04:39


    several sources including FAS.org) say that since 1991 several Russian engineers are staying in India and the Russian crew which came with Chakra lease (1988-91) took high positions in ATV project.

    this must have allowed GOI to build Arihant on time.( as we had no experience of building nuke sub.)

    what i want to say is we should do same in other projects to i.e kaveri project, LCA and FMBT etc.

    there must be still hundreds of ex soviet rocket scientists working on very low wages in Russia or CIS.

    we should secretly hire them.

  18. You think that jokers like MMS and Antony will save India. Ha ha ha ha good one sirji.

  19. @Nayan
    Sorry for a very late reply. I do concede that we have boundary dispute with China. But seriously India has boundary dispute with most its neighbors whereas China has dispute only with India. Don't you think we are wrong somewhere.

    The case of Aksai Chin, Arunachal and Sikkim is believe is ludicrous, had there been independent Tibet, we would have had similar issues.

    As for modernization of Chinese defense is considered, I feel it is not India centric, it is quite broad and if it is centred on anything then I feel it's internal security and stability.

    Anyway I would also concede that I am not an expert here but I am a bit pissed of with hypocrisy of Indian State. If we have problem with everyone we are not trying to coexist.

  20. Respected Sir,

    A very basic question on the defense deals and Rupee/$ rate.

    Say for example India signed the Rafeal deal for which it will pay France in next few years. Since the Rupee/$ value fluctuates, so on what rate will India pay ?? Will it be the day on which the payment is made or the day the deal was signed?



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