Major’s Squad: The Game Of Alliances In A Possible India-China Conflict

Major's Squad

Oct 16, 2020, 03:59 PM | Updated 03:56 PM IST

Indian soldiers and Chinese soldiers. (Representative Image) (Sumeet Inder Singh/The India Today Group/Getty Images) 
Indian soldiers and Chinese soldiers. (Representative Image) (Sumeet Inder Singh/The India Today Group/Getty Images) 
  • Major’s Squad is a veteran-led team of defence enthusiasts who get together regularly to discuss recent defence and geopolitical issues.
  • The team got together after a long time. Everyone was ready to welcome three new members — Shwetabh Singh Rajput, Kuntal Biswas and Soni Sangwan.

    While Shwetabh is a defence and air force aficionado, already published and famous for his sharp reviews and critical analysis, Soni is now team’s senior-most media specialist. She has had years of experience as senior journalist with number of publications and then took a sabbatical for few years.

    Last but not the least, Kuntal is our man as far as graphics and imagery go. His work is highly professional, and Major’s Squad’s main and banner image on Twitter are his first help for the squad.

    Everyone welcomed the trio and asked the Major what the topic of discussion was today.

    Major got up and said, “We will cover an interesting topic today. With India-China standoff showing no signs of deescalating, we need to move ahead from the tactics and look at a more strategic picture. Past few months, there has been lot of international comments and commitments, both in favour of and even against India.

    “Let us review who all are our friends and who are not, should India and China decide to go to war. It is all speculation no doubt, but I’ll suggest all of you base your arguments on some logic and information available, rather than bias and prejudice. Who wants to take first shot?”

    Niranjan raised his hand and said: “Let me try first! So, today I am going to focus on China and its 'allies'. Notice that I use the term allies loosely, as no nation on the planet is committed enough to put their eggs in the China basket in an all-out war situation.

    “China has ruffled a lot of feathers the world over and even those which are cordial or in cohorts with their initiatives are also cautious and measured with their involvement in those. The One Belt One Road (OBOR) being an ambitious undertaking to secure resource transport from Africa, requires the green light of a lot of nations which it crosses on the way. It has used cheque-book diplomacy in many cases like that of Pakistan, Djibouti, Sri Lanka etc. But let’s get down to brass tacks. Which countries would actually side with China in the scenario where they go to war with India? Let’s focus on some key players here, and start with immediate neighbourhood. Pakistan:

    “Pakistan is, undeniably, the pathetic addition to this list. Their crippling economy, their fall from grace because of being terrorist hotbeds and their intense hatred towards India, makes them the perfect lapdog for the Chinese. We share borders with Pakistan that have been under pressure for more than 70 years and the conditions there keep worsening.

    “Apart from the obvious potential security risk of this neighbour, China piles on to this. They have deployed troops in Pakistan and constructed various military and naval bases in the country. Being as stripped of cash that Pakistan is and their obvious desire to one up India, it was as if this was a perfect match for China. There was an MoU signed with the Pakistan army and the People's Liberation Army (PLA) regarding the enhancement of defence cooperation and capacity building of Pakistan army but to read between the lines, this may be one of the few countries who would completely back China in a potential war with India.

    “There is also a matter of them losing every single war with us, that strengthens their resolve to see us defeated. There have been additions to the Pakistan Air Force namely the JF-17 Thunder Jets among others which show the investment China has poured in them. Like the past decades, Pakistan remains a thorn in our side.”

    Soni stopped him and said: “I hope we do keep the Abraham Accord in mind too. For India, When two of your friends come together, it can only make the party merrier. Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) formalising relations translates to good news for India, and creates an alliance that sets the tone for a larger role for India in the region.

    “Traditionally, India has maintained a balance of generally good relations with most major players in the region — Saudi, the UAE, Israel, Iran, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman — and has sought to strengthen these ties with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Link West policy. Despite India’s proximity with Palestine — Yasser Arafat considered Indira Gandhi his sister and wept openly on hearing of her assassination — it has over the years, strengthened ties with Israel.

    “The stated policy being that Israel and Palestine is a bilateral issue and India’s recognition of Palestine’s right to self-determination in no way hampers its trade — especially military trade — with Israel. Today, India’s second largest weapon supplier is Israel. Providing more than weapons, Israel also has intelligence sharing and technology transfer agreements with India.

    “UAE and India share a cultural bond because of the large Indian expat community residing there, as well as strong trade ties. Business is conducted in local currencies between the two countries. They also share intelligence and have strong military ties. The US’s growing presence in the region means that it has more influence and can flex its muscles on the GCC to implement its Iran containment policy.

    “Iran, important to India for both oil and Chabahar, is increasingly growing closer to China because of both financial reasons and common strategic goals — both having a common foe in the US. If Iran and China get closer — as indicated by the prospective 25-year trade and military partnership being offered by China to Iran — it can only mean problems for India, the US and the Gulf region.

    “Indian trade on its own is no match for what China is offering and cannot be used as leverage to ask Iran to ignore China. But with the US in its corner, India becomes a heavyweight and may be in a position to oust China from the equation.

    “Bringing Iran into a more positive position with the other Gulf countries may indirectly impact its relations with the US. This may stop China from getting its foot into the Gulf. It is critical to give equal importance to Shia Iran and Sunni GCC countries to maintain the balance of power in the region.

    “Thus far India has based all foreign relations on bilateral concerns and has fostered issue-based alliances, as it has with Israel and Iran. Despite Israel and Iran being avowed enemies, India has maintained decent relations with both. But now, with the US brokering the Israel-UAE agreement, India may need to choose sides. And hence that means that while some of the stands for India remain the same, some have to change drastically. Pakistan-Iran-China alliance is something that should not be ruled out at all.”

    Major said: “Brilliant point Soni ! International alliances don’t happen in silo. It’s a complex weave of interests and obligations. Take for example, the present Armenia- Azerbaijan conflict. India and Israel though such good friends, find themselves on opposite sides of this war.

    “Israel, who isn’t too fond of Turkey is on the same side with them. So one cannot really draw a clear line on who is with whom. We can only work on to what level another nation is ready to commit its support. Niranjan, what’s your take on countries in this region for China?”

    Niranjan said: “Sir, let’s take case of Iran. Initially all was looking flowery for China and Iran since the 80s when China helped build a reactor and supply four other research reactors as a nuclear cooperation venture. China now, however, opposes the possession and production of nuclear weapons, though isn't as ardent.

    “China has helped Iran in conducting training of high-level officials on advanced systems, providing technical support, supplying specialty steel for missile construction, providing control technology for missile development, and building a missile factory and test range.

    “It is rumoured that China is responsible for aiding in the development of advanced conventional weapons including surface-to-air missiles, combat aircraft, radar systems, and fast-attack missile vessels. There was a potential attempt at strengthening relations by India through the Chabahar Port development project, but the project suffered hugely because of the nuclear talks and policy shifts where Iran got dealt a bad hand.

    “While Iran sidelined India from the Chabahar project, there were recent announcements regarding a potential China-Iran 25 year partnership for $400 billion for infra and energy resources in Iran. Iran may not be a direct neighbour but is still close enough to be a problem because of a strengthened network with other belligerents.

    “Although it is highly unlikely that they would step into the field of war for a couple of reasons; India-Iran relations have suffered but not enough for Iran to be motivated enough to engage in war, Iran also doesn't possess the military prowess to contest a flank. But the reason that may hit the final nail on the head is the Balochistan issue which has plagued both Iran and Pakistan for quite some time.

    “The separatist movement has been proving to be a a huge problem and is enough to keep them occupied. Pakistan may still commit but Iran stays in no shape to do so.”

    Shwetabh raised his hand and said: “But Sir I have another angle to bring in. Any discussion of friends of India can’t go without the recently growing (since late 80s-early 90s) relationship between India and Israel. Israel in late twentieth century also had a working and growing relationship with China too.

    “Israel supplied them with a lot of tech, even Phalcons, that India would later go on to procure, were offered to China, the deal only struck by pressure from US. Israel in a possible conflict, would only be expected to help as it has historically, with sales of more weapons and possible ISR.

    “Due to this growing relationship with Israel and US, another regional ally, Iran has been increasing its distance. China and Iran are seeing an increase in ties which India needs to be worried about, a recently leaked document showing a possible 25 year economic-security agreement which could spell trouble.

    “In a possible conflict, Indians would prefer to use Iranians to keep Pakistan’s western front busy, so as not to get pressed between Pakistan and China simultaneously. China, on the other hand, can use its growing influence to actually try to bring both of them on the same page calming their dispute, which not only gives them more influence over both of them but also puts a very big pressure on India’s western front.”

    Firestarter added: “Let’s not forget to mention Egypt. I mention Egypt separately because its one of the better equipped and stable nations of Africa and have further proven their military prowess with their updated tech and numbers in the recent years. Egyptian Air Force have been operating Chinese equipment such as the CAIG Wing Loong Drones.

    “There have also been joint naval drills since June 2015. The thing to note here is that Egypt and their enmity with Israel is a potential point of interest. Egypt is among the potential players in a war scenario which could prove quite dangerous. Although their current condition in the Mediterranean is grave with their constant standoffs with Israel. It may just prove to be quite literally too reserved to interfere in an India-China conflict.”

    Major said: “A lot of these nations would actually jump on to the bandwagon for and against China/India. While their direct support may dwindle their otherwise reasonable stand in international arena, support via resources and moral support can never be ruled out. What about India’s immediate neighbourhood? Where do we stand there?”

    Firestarter said: “Most of India’s neighbours will be wary and seek to take tactical advantage of a post conflict situation, either economically or diplomatically, however, they would not seek to enter conflict directly against India or China. As the famous saying goes, when two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled. And no direct neighbour would seek to be the arena for a conflict between the two states.

    “After all, if any Indian neighbour were to enter the conflict on China’s side, India would strike and the same holds true the other way around too. Having said that, most of India’s neighbours barring Myanmar, Afghanistan and Bhutan would not mind India’s wings getting clipped.

    “It would increase their negotiating power, and their ability to dictate terms to whom they consider is the dominant power in the neighbourhood, Pakistan’s posturing apart. Myanmar as a state is also on the receiving end of PRC’s arm-twisting in recent years, and hence its rulers would prefer that a strong force like India exists to assist them and push the PRC back.

    “Unlike other Asian countries, they remain wary of the west and its geostrategic plays which come with unwelcome attempts to impose a regime change. India, on the other hand, has not sought to openly interfere in Myanmar’s troubled waters, and also shares Myanmar’s concerns about an inveterate PRC.

    “Bhutan has a treaty with India, it is a protected state, not a protectorate and India maintains a training detachment. Despite seeking to not antagonise the PRC, Bhutan is still at the receiving end of land-grabs. Bhutan knows that if India suffers a strategic and military reverse, it is vulnerable.

    “Afghanistan is another country which would prefer that a strong India remains in play, so as to balance out Pakistan. For that reason alone apart from India’s strong developmental assistance, and despite China’s increasing footprint in the region, a strong India is useful.

    “This brings us to Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina government is as pro-India as any Bangladeshi government can be. Contrary to public belief, the Bangladeshis are not too bothered about India’s domestic policies or political statements, contrary to what our oft declared liberal intelligentsia would have us believe.

    “Bangladesh is firmly concerned about economic realities. The state is groaning under a low revenue base and a heavy government spend and hence the Bangladesh government is heavily canvassing for both PRC and Indian investment. Playing one off against the other makes sense, but this does not mean Sheikh Hasina is against India, she has long worked with the Indian state while treading a narrow path of not sacrificing her state’s sovereignty, keenly aware of accusations she is too pro-India. In short, India can manage Bangladesh with economic largesse.

    “The same situation more or less applies to Sri Lanka, which has seen the challenges of PRC’s loan largesse, with the Hambantota Port’s 99 year lease debacle to PRC in everyone’s minds. With the Rajapakse brothers back, India wasted no time in welcoming them but the government is seeking to balance out ties between India and China.

    “Again, India’s path to keeping Sri Lanka on “its” side will need both sticks and mostly economic carrots. For his part, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse has struck a positive note on ties with India repeatedly mentioning Sri Lanka has no interest in interfering in India’s internal affairs and that ties with India were a priority.

    “Nepal is a stand-out, with Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli’s communist background and overt pro-PRC, anti-India stance causing ties to fray, at least in the short term. Indo-Nepalese civilisational ties are immense as is the fact many Nepalis work in India and many even fight for the Indian Army.

    “Oli’s attempts to then create a wedge between the two countries beyond the always extant big neighbour — small neighbour issue, is then likely to create a situation wherein India acts to protect its interests in Nepal. However, it needs to do so in a subtle manner instead of antagonising the average Nepali.”

    Major said: “All in all, the answer for India to deal with many of its neighbours ironically enough, starts by India looking within, and kickstarting its own economy to a higher rung. A richer more prosperous India can share its economic largesse via both public and private investment nearby, whilst also upgrading its military capability to the point more of its neighbours consider it their primary secondary guarantor.

    “While the big-neighbour syndrome will never go away, an India capable of taking on China across the board, will automatically be taken seriously. Empty words won’t yield much response. We need to walk these talks and ensure that our immediate neighbours are extended support, if we aim to keep our relationships in good condition.”

    Shwetabh added: “But we do have relationships beyond immediate neighbourhood too that shouldn’t be ignored. We have a lot of strong relations with major powers but as Niranjan also pointed out, we don’t have what I would like to call allies, but rather strategic partners, because in case of allies there is a certain context of overt military help in times of crisis , and so as is our diplomacy that we don’t like to associate so strongly with any country or bloc.

    “The biggest partners that we have are the US and Russia. With Russia we have historical ties, while US’s partnership is a much recent one. Of the two of them, the US has already declared China as a big adversary, and we already have a lot of agreements with them. In a possible conflict with China, the US would side with India, with possible material help.

    “Russia, on the other hand, would fall into a conundrum, because although pitched China to grow, against its traditional enemy, the alliance between Russia and China isn’t very stable either, especially in peacetime, it only holds till US is their declared enemy.

    “In a possible conflict between India and China, Russia also has twin goals to achieve, a conflict means they can sell more weapons to both sides, Russia benefits by not having to worry about an overly competitive and possibly invasive neighbour (Siberia that is) on the other hand calming things down between two nuclear neighbours helps them solidify their influence over both nations, which would further trickle down to other nations.”

    Major said: “Agreed! Also, the major nonregional partner other than them, in the region is France. France has more skin in the game than Russia and the US, as it has to protect its territories in IOR, from opposite side of the world, which becomes very hard when the waters around might be controlled by an adversary. Understanding this, France has tried to launch an initiative of its own, starting a security dialogue between India, France and Australia.

    “India’s major regional security partners would be Japan and Australia. Both members of QUAD, and India having signed logistics pacts with both the countries. Even though Japan is becoming more assertive on the topic, and has recently decided to rearm itself, in a possible conflict not a lot can be expected from either of them, as the situation in the region would be very fragile with possible fallout in their local neighbourhood as well which would be more on their priority.”

    Shwetabh added: “But as far as Russia is concerned, we cannot ignore their old alliance with China too. Yet, apart from their history of being communist governments (which were still quite different) Russia and China have next to nothing that brings them closer. To worsen the situation, China staking their claim on Vladivostok just reaffirms how far these nations have drifted apart historically.

    “India has always maintained good relations with Russia, it being our primary military equipment supplier. This may be the only country on the risk which would outright oppose an India-China conflict. But it is useful to note that, one of the deterrents of China going to war, is the potential risk from Russia for them. A China concentrated to its south leaves quite an opportunity for those in the north who seek to exploit it.”

    Niranjan said: “Sir, but we are forgetting a major country and that is Nepal. Not militarily, but access wise. If it sides with China, it can cause major load on Indian deployment, which isn’t the heaviest along Nepal border. Other than the fact that Nepal is a crucial strategic position for India's safety, the nation itself isn't a contender.

    “Moreover, many Nepalese have been part of India, famously as the Gurkha troops in the army. The current communist government is creating an anti-India ruckus and is providing for China to encroach upon their land. This may very well be a potential plus for China but Nepal itself doesn't have the potential to be a threat to India whatsoever.”

    Major said: “Well said! China has been trying really hard to seduce Nepal. Especially with communist government in Nepal, we have seen how they have raised Lipulekh issue again, launched Greater Nepal map, allowed Chinese to build buildings within its territory etc. These are not good signals for India. We pay around Rs 80,000 crore in pensions and benefits to Nepal, and that does not include all the grants and aids that we send.

    “Still, if we are not able to manage the diplomacy, its our shortcoming. We have such old and traditional relations with Nepal, and it will be shocking if we lose the connect and Chinese take over. Even our defence planning has never seen Nepal border as threat. But Chinese control could change all that. As far as South East Asia goes, this is more or less an open and shut case as other than Indonesia, which is more or less cordial with China, every other country has a bone to pick with them.

    “China's constant disrespect of their sovereignty and their pre-existing friendship with Japan, makes them as far from Chinese allies than they can be. But it is important to note that the other less powerful countries like Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh are quite cautious when it comes to India.”

    Soni said: “What about Africa? We have seen China making lot of progress and deploying itself on the continent. India is nowhere in that scenario compared to China’s aggressive stance.”

    Niranjan said: “You are right! One of the most fertile and bountiful continents on the planet and fortunately for opportunists like China, in dire need of infrastructure and funds. China has been funding the odd warlord here and there in their relentless skirmishes in the continent including the governments it has helped to topple.

    “Primarily, China requires Africa for their oil. So much so that last year, Angola overtook Saudi Arabia as the largest oil supplier to China, and Sudan – China’s second-largest supplier on the continent – sold close to 65 per cent of its oil to Beijing. China is also either drilling or exploring for oil in more than half a dozen other African countries.

    “China gets copper from Zambia, cobalt from Congo, Timber from Liberia and manganese from Ghana. Apart from the $55 billion trade with Africa, China has also deployed troops since 2004 and as of 2007 has 14 attaches. It also provides military training and equipment for some countries.

    “No African country is in any shape to act as a reinforcement, let alone a player in a potential India-China conflict. It is primarily a resource centre for China. It can't be stressed enough how crucial Africa is to China when it comes to backbone resource supply, which consequently makes it a target. The warring factions may prove quite a thorn and disrupt trade notwithstanding a potential problem which could be the Malacca Strait.”

    Major said: “Well put Niranjan. But aren’t we forgetting a major player called Kim Jong-un? I think as far as North Korea goes, North Korea and China have become quite the couple with their 2019 celebration of 'invincible friendship' but the fact is the grass got greener quite recently.

    “In 1961, the two countries signed the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty, whereby China pledged to immediately render military and other assistance by all means to its ally against any outside attack. This treaty was prolonged twice, in 1981 and 2001, with a validity until 2021. Both Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un have met multiple times in recent years.

    “North Korea is a military power to be reckoned with. Even though the US and North Korea dialogue may suggest a potential denuclearisation of North Korea, it does not eliminate this country as a powerful contender in world maritime happenings. North Korea may not necessarily commit to war but could prove a good support system for China through proxy.”

    Soni said: “I guess one can say that things happen very fast once the ball is dropped. I hope Indian Diplomacy is working full time to ensure that we have favorable winds and a steady sail if it ever comes to conflict. Everyone needs friends and India and China are no exception. Also, Manik I’m very impressed by your team. They have such great understanding of defence and geopolitics at such a young age.”

    Major got up and said: “thanks for calling me young, ma’am!”

    Everyone laughed and called it a day. They planned to meet again next week and talk about next burning topic.

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