In strategic discussions these days, everyone’s mind seems to be on China. Rightly so. It was George Fernandes who correctly identified the potential Chinese threat in 1997 and went public with it, too. He met with much criticism but his sabre-rattling shifted the focus of India’s security concerns to somewhere between China and Pakistan. Security concerns and threats are usually discussed behind closed doors and it takes a public statement or a non-Chatham House rules event to create public discourse. In 2009, the then Army Chief, General Deepak Kapoor, made an innocuous remark in an Army seminar on a ‘two-front’ war, something the Army had been discussing for many years, with its dual task formations always under debate. However, the ‘two front’ remark remains associated with General Kapoor to this day. Now, in the wake of Doklam, as the trigger and seven to eight years of ‘walk in’ attempts to claim lines by Chinese patrols, the threat pattern in India’s strategic discussions, seminars and talks by experts, is again focusing towards China. There are perceptions being expressed that in threat terms Pakistan is only of nuisance value and we must break from the Pakistan centricity of our security policies. The current Army and Air Force Chiefs did, however, speak of a two-and-a-half front war while expressing confidence in being able to handle it; that of course is a separate issue which needs another focused debate. Yet, their remarks did allude to a more balanced look at threats India faces.
It is the notion that there are competing threats and competing borders in India’s security calculus which seriously needs to be laid to rest because it has scope for flawed deductions. To my mind there are four equally important strategic security fronts: first, the northern border or the Himalayan front; second the western border which encompasses different terrains and thereby has scope for diverse type of operations; third is the maritime front from the Straits of Malacca till the Gulf of Aden; and fourth and last is the internal security front, the one dealing with proxy conflict and rebellions. The airspace remains a challenge by itself, as much as the cyber domain and these cannot be classified as fronts because the all-pervading necessity of air power and counter cyber operations can never be denied.
There is a need to contextualise threats besides identifying their nature. A full spectrum conflict with China remains well away from the scope under discussion. In-depth analyses will reveal that for China the best option remains brinkmanship and psychological warfare. Doklam gave us a taste of it and no doubt there will many more Doklams with a different set of circumstances, with cyber suddenly assuming higher significance; the history of standoffs between India and China after 1967 reveals no taste for shooting matches. Below-threshold operations under the definition of hybrid conflict will test our capability and more than that our mental agility. However, nowhere can one deny the fact that the current visible threats mostly emerge from Pakistan; related to the proxy conflict in J&K, where loss of lives of our soldiers and of misguided citizens is becoming an everyday phenomenon. For Pakistan, or rather the deep state which controls Pakistan’s security and foreign policy, one of the most serious challenges is to perpetuate proxy support, make India bleed and yet keep all this below the threshold of Indian tolerance so that the wrath of Indian response is not felt in the conventional war fighting domain. For Indian security managers keeping track of public response, political acceptance of casualties, allegations of inaction and also planning own operations is a wholesome challenge by itself; in other words, defining our threshold is a constant thing depending on public mood and political implications.
By assuming that Pakistan is hardly a threat and needs to be on the back-burner, or that Kashmir is a sore which has festered for long and ignoring it may help, one can actually forget the entire concept of ‘threshold’. Ignore it at peril because with focus on China and other domains a couple of things would still remain. First, that the threshold Pakistan plays is ambiguous and can be crossed at any time because the parameters which define it can change quite dramatically. Second remains the fact that the feasibility of full spectrum conventional war with Pakistan is always high contingent upon the threshold. Third, assuming that both our primary adversaries do not wish to go to full spectrum war, the chances of events which can act as triggers leading to such a war is far higher in the context of Pakistan than China.
Given the fact that kinetic operations are succeeding in the Kashmir Valley we always need to keep in mind the type of alienation which continues to exist. Lowering priority on J&K in the context of threats would mean the lack of solutions for such issues as mob intervention which is causing civilian casualties almost every other day. The hybrid nature of war here cannot be ignored or its priority can only be lowered with a risk of an even longer perpetuation and that would be playing entirely into Pakistan’s hands.
On balance, India has to learn to live with all the identified threats and continue to address these without consideration to priorities. Living with multiple threats and meeting them all squarely is the hallmark of competent nations.
(This article was originally published in DNA India on the 14th of April 2018, and has been republished here with the permission of the author. Read it here.)