An Indian soldier holding an automatic weapon upside down. Photo: iStock

India’s S-400 missile system procurement from Russia is aimed at expanding its air-defense capacity along its 4,000km border with China, according to news sources.

Already militarily strong due to improved defensive and offensive capabilities, China is reportedly already equipped with the Russian S-400 missile system after making a deal with Moscow in 2014. The range and capacity of the S-400 would enable New Delhi to detect and strike down aerial threats to any part of the Indian mainland from a much longer distance than is needed to defend against attacks emanating from any part of Pakistan.

India has also been developing indigenous medium- to intercontinental-range ballistic missile systems such as the Agni missile and the Prithvi, a tactical surface-to-surface short-range ballistic missile for both defense and retaliation. Arguably, so far as the S-400 is concerned, Pakistan’s small territorial size and geographical closeness would not require such a long-range missile system.

Apart from this, one of the significant reasons behind India’s signing of the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) with the US during the 2+2 dialogue was reportedly to keep a close eye on Chinese moves in the Indian Ocean and the Himalayas. Furthermore, the Russian news agency Sputnik reported that India wanted to purchase a remotely piloted aircraft system that could operate at an altitude of more than 5,500 meters above sea level, primarily aimed at detecting military activities along the mountainous border with China.

India is currently the world’s largest arms importer, accounting for 12% of the total global imports for the period 2013-17

India is currently the world’s largest arms importer, accounting for 12% of the total global imports for the period 2013-17, according to data on arms transfers released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). India’s move towards enhanced military preparedness seems to be geared for defending New Delhi from Beijing’s suspicious strategic moves in the Indian Ocean and the South Asian region.

The nature and capacity of these weapons systems and technology, as indicated by the current or proposed Indian procurement, would lead one to guess that they are intended to be used more to defend against looming threats from China than ones from Pakistan. Pakistan is reportedly equipped with tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) and the Nasr (a short-range ballistic missile), but these are designed more to deter and skirt the possibility of conventional warfare with India than to launch offensives against it.

While New Delhi must evaluate its defensive and retaliatory conventional military capacities against potential threats (as it cannot go on spending on the military at the expense of other needs of the citizens of the country), it cannot ignore non-conventional threats in the form of proxy wars and cross-border terrorism. These become sustained threats, spilling more blood than conventional wars, and present endless challenges in terms of protecting India’s territorial integrity.

Terrorist attacks on the Indian mainland have surged – consider high-profile cases such as the assault on Parliament in 2001, the 2008 Mumbai attacks, the Gurdaspur attack in Punjab in 2015, the Pathankot attack in January 2016, and the attacks on the Uri military camp in September 2016, as well as regular attacks that get less media coverage. In addition, cross-border attacks occur regularly, resulting in military personnel and civilians being killed every day in both India and Pakistan.

Enhanced preparedness in conventional military capacities does not enable New Delhi to handle the threat of terrorism effectively. A parliamentary committee pointed to intelligence failures and security lapses in 2016 as major reasons for a wave of terror attacks on defense installations in India. It can be argued that addressing a threat by gathering credible intelligence and tightening defense mechanisms would do more to counter terrorism than mounting offensive strategies that often do not work and sometimes backfire. India must muster more diplomatic capital by continuously engaging with countries sharing similar security concerns.

Military restraint in the face of major cross-border terror attacks and simultaneous diplomatic engagement with the actors involved has brought New Delhi diplomatic gain

Military restraint in the face of major cross-border terror attacks and simultaneous diplomatic engagement with the actors involved has brought New Delhi diplomatic gains. For instance, the Clinton administration asked Pakistan during the Kargil War in 1999 to withdraw forces sent across the Line of Control (LOC). India’s then-external affairs minister Jaswant Singh went to China in the midst of the conflict, which led Beijing to maintain its neutrality.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attempts at invigorating the campaign against terror in international forums were not only successful in persuading many countries to take notice of the victimization of India by terrorists, but it was also able to muster diplomatic support in the region when some South Asian neighbors declined to attend the SAARC Summit hosted by Islamabad. Towards the end of the second term of the Obama administration, some US legislators made a move to introduce a bill designating Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism following the attack on the Uri military camp in India.

Furthermore, India and its neighbors also face many other non-conventional threats such as poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, underdevelopment and the illicit trafficking of people and drugs. These countries can only take on these challenges if they are able to shift their attention from enhanced military expenditure and a balance-of-power strategy to greater understanding and integration.

The US-China trade war and frequent meetings between the leaders of India and China post-Doklam standoff created possibilities for enhanced understanding between New Delhi and Beijing. Both countries agreed to work toward setting up a hotline between their military headquarters to strengthen communication and build trust and mutual understanding to make their military maneuvers and movements more predictable.

New Delhi must build on this breakthrough to end its indefinite push for increased military capacities. Even while Indian concerns remained as to Chinese non-tariff barriers and a whopping trade deficit of $63 billion, Sino-Indian trade has been on the rise. As the US-China trade war escalated, possibilities for cooperative India-China trade relations opened up. Beijing has not only made it easier for India to export non-basmati rice and removed import duties on anti-cancer drugs but agreed to share data that predicts river flows between the two countries during the flood season as well.

In the context of the US-China trade war, Chinese President Xi Jinping said: “Facing unilateralism and bullying activities, China and India have more reasons to join efforts to build a more just and reasonable international order”. India and China are reported to have launched a program to train Afghan diplomats, which is the first of its kind, and the Chinese ambassador said it would likely be followed by joint programs in other fields in Afghanistan. As both the countries are among the world’s largest energy consumers, instead of competing, they are cooperating to keep the prices of natural resources low. For instance, in order to get over the Asian premium charged by 0il-producing countries, India and China agreed to enhance their cooperation in the energy field. India-China energy cooperation has also been witnessed in their joint bidding plan for Petro-Canada’s Syrian assets. Reportedly, both countries are working together in some parts of Africa as natural partners.

Non-conventional threats

In the South Asian and Indo-Pacific regions, non-conventional threats  can be managed through the institutionalization of cooperation. China is possibly the only country outside the South Asian region with massive influence over the region and can pressure Pakistan to pull its weight on issues of common concern.

Beijing’s willingness to get involved in the SAARC process has been apparent since it became an observer in 2007. However, India has been opposing China’s inclusion even as a dialogue partner, let alone a full member. Currently, as an observer, China cannot initiate any proposal nor can it participate in discussions and deliberations within the forum. New Delhi must reconsider its strategy, as China’s inclusion as a dialogue partner will not grant it a veto but rather increase the likelihood of bringing in Chinese economic and political capital to strengthen the SAARC.

As the SAARC is mostly dysfunctional, having only paltry and symbolic successes to its credit, Chinese inclusion as a dialogue partner needs to be mulled over. Further, the inclusion of China as a dialogue partner in the SAARC framework would provide a forum to discuss concerns related to Beijing-led regional infrastructure development and connectivity projects and address several issues related to terms and conditions of loans, benefits for the local economy and sovereignty concerns of countries in the region. India’s outright refusal to get involved in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has not prevented its small neighbors from collaborating with China.

Further, only a regional body with institutionalized norms and laws can successfully monitor confidence-building measures and minimize the risk of conflicts in the region. This can enable the countries of the region to invest their resources in their welfare needs because they will be assured of their physical security.

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Manoj Kumar Mishra

Dr Manoj Kumar Mishra has a PhD in international relations from the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad, India. Currently, he is working as a lecturer at the Department of Political Science, SVM Autonomous College, Odisha, India.

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