Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval led the way in talks with China over a heated border dispute. Photo: AFP/Tauseef Mustafa

The civilian-military relationship is a complex matrix. In “wartime,” this is more so when civilian leaders who never held a killer’s weapon in their hands are called upon to make decisions on the passage of arms.

Of course, there are strong-willed leaders who force their will. Otto von Bismarck was one such leader – Josef Stalin another – who lacked real military service.

Stalin had the additional advantage that every Red Army unit also had a commissar, an official of the Communist Party, attached to it who would be a prescriptive figure of authority to ensure that the political leadership had independent feedback uncluttered by the military’s corporate interests. Insubordination was unheard of in the Prussian and Soviet armies. 

The most famous civilian-military confrontation in modern history occurred, perhaps, when then-US president Harry S Truman relieved General Douglas MacArthur of command of the US forces in Korea in April 1951. 

A flamboyant and egotistical personality, General MacArthur had devised some brilliant strategies and military maneuvers that stopped the invading forces of North Korea in the early days of the war, which started in June 1950. Resting on those laurels, MacArthur argued for a policy of pushing into North Korea to defeat the communist forces completely. 

Truman went along with this plan, despite his gut feeling as a politician that the communist government in Peking might take such an invasion against a fraternal neighbor as a hostile act. But MacArthur assured Truman that the chances of a Chinese intervention were slim.

Public showdown

However, in the winter of 1950, hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops did cross into North Korea in wave after wave and flung themselves against the American lines, driving the US troops back into South Korea.

MacArthur then asked Truman for permission to bomb China and to use Nationalist Chinese forces from Taiwan against the People’s Republic of China. 

This time around, Truman flatly refused, and a very public showdown ensued resulting in MacArthur’s dismissal. Truman, in an address to the nation justifying his action, said it “would be wrong – tragically wrong – for us to take the initiative in extending the war … Our aim is to avoid the spread of the conflict.” 

He explained: “To make sure that the precious lives of our fighting men are not wasted; to see that the security of our country … is not needlessly jeopardized; and to prevent a third world war,” he had fired General MacArthur, “so that there would be no doubt or confusion as to the real purpose and aim of our policy.” 

American public opinion was strongly against the firing of the charismatic general, who was also skilled in political skulduggery among Washington elites. But Truman stuck to his decision without regret or apology.

Eventually, MacArthur would “just fade away” and the American people began to understand that the general’s policies and recommendations might have led to a massively expanded war in Asia. 

‘Pass the buck’

The prerogative to start a war and to end it must always lie with the civilian leadership.

That is why New Delhi’s decision that was announced on June 19 that the Indian Army had been given the freedom to take necessary steps along the border – and not to limit the ability of commanders of frontline troops to take whatever action they deem necessary on the Line of Actual Control on the Chinese border – becomes debatable. 

Detractors of the government flippantly interpreted this decision as an evasive action by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to “pass the buck” to the military if something untoward happened.

But the point is, the military must be held firmly responsible and accountable for its actions. A high degree of ambivalence has already appeared in the air and the Indian media are awash with unsubstantiated reports – largely attributed to military “sources” – and rumormongering.

On the contrary, the China Global Television Network (CGTN), an organ of the state media, said in a commentary on July 5: “Despite the 1962 truce, the Indian side has never ceased its efforts in pushing the LAC forward. This is the root cause for the border disputes between the two neighbors. The Galwan Valley conflict is a direct result of New Delhi’s provocations.” 

Suffice to say, it was only appropriate that Modi visited Leh on July 3 to assess the situation personally. There, he met the commander of IV Corps, Lieutenant-General Harinder Singh, before deciding to elevate diplomatic contacts with Beijing to the political level and to bring in the cabinet minister in charge of national security – the defense and security establishment – and India’s special representative on the border dispute, Ajit Doval.

The latter reports to him directly as India’s point person to discuss the issues with the Chinese leadership. 

Pushing for confrontation

To be sure, sniping has already begun. The formidable US lobby in Delhi has begun to decry, discredit and degrade Doval’s mission. The objective is clear: Bring the Sino-Indian standoff to a flashpoint that would compel the Modi government to take shelter under an American umbrella. 

The US has all along interfered in India-China issues. More than ever before, a Sino-Indian confrontation fits in perfectly with the United States’ current regional strategies in Asia. Day-to-day monitoring and interference in India’s news cycles is taking place.  

Most important, on a day-to-day basis, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) is providing vital inputs purportedly based on satellite imageries from the Ladakh border.

Now, ASPI is known to be an anti-China lobbying group funded by the Australian Defense Department, reportedly with a A$4 million (US$2.8 million) annual grant, and generously supported by the US, British and some other governments and major weapons makers.

The ASPI analysts specialize in manufacturing “research materials” pointing to the strategic threat of China. 

Doval’s talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Sunday are already being nicely dissected and shown as a mere pantomime played by the Chinese side. The US lobbyists merrily over-interpret the readouts from Beijing and New Delhi – here and here – to debunk the common understanding that emerged after Sunday’s talks. 

How can delicate negotiations pertaining to war and peace be possibly conducted under such circumstances? Doval is an ace negotiator and is immensely experienced in handling India’s national security challenges, especially involving China and Pakistan. His source of strength is also that he enjoys the confidence of Modi.

Above all, Doval belongs to a vanishing breed of top officials who sees national security challenges entirely through the prism of Indian interests, and has no patrons abroad. Quite obviously, this poses a particularly nightmarish situation to the Americans, who are control freaks. 

But no country will allow bazaar gossip by its own citizens over its national security concerns. Surely something can be done to put an end to such subversion? MacArthur syndrome haunts India. Rogue elements within its establishment are planting media leaks with ulterior intent. 

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute, which provided it to Asia Times.

MK Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.