Dragon on Our Doorstep: Can India Manage China Through Military Power?
The authors are primarily interested in revealing the inefficiencies in the Indian security structure, despite the ominous title, implying China.
Let alone China, India cannot even win a war against Pakistan. This is the provocative opening sentence of Dragon On Our Doorstep. While most Indians grudgingly admit to the vast disparity between their country and its giant northeastern neighbour, they are emotionally unprepared to accept that India might struggle to win a war with its Islamic twin to the west. Pravin Sawhney, a journalist with 13 years of service in the Indian Army, and Ghazala Wahab, a career journalist covering security and terrorism, describe in their book the disturbing lack of strategic thought in India’s defence policy. While the material is nothing new for seasoned analysts, it brings to the general public in a readable manner what the authors see as shortcomings in the country’s security and their proposed solutions.
The crux of the central point of Dragon is made at the outset — Sawhney and Wahab begin with the argument that bean-counting the number of tanks, artillery pieces, fighter jets, and other hardware may make for colourful charts and captivating news coverage but says little about military strength. The authors differentiate between military power, which Pakistan has developed, and military force, in which India enjoys numerical superiority. The latter is merely the stockpiling of war material while the former concerns the optimal utilisation of that force through well-considered defence policy and political directive.
If Carl von Clawswitz was right that war is the continuation of politics by other means, Sawhney and Wahab have put their finger on the fundamental weakness in Indian security that propagates to all other aspects and levels. The authors’ observation that India’s political will and institutional structure is ambivalent at best reinforces an observation made by American analyst George Tanham, that has been received with some rancour in the Indian establishment. In a now-famous 1992 essay for US think tank Rand Corporation, “Indian Strategic Thought: An Interpretive Essay”, Tanham bemoans that India has always lacked in strategic thinking. This has only been to the advantage of Delhi’s enemies. As Sawhney and Wahab contend, “India’s political and military leaders, in cahoots with its diplomats, have sold falsehoods to their own people” about the country’s security.
Establishment weakness is partly due to incompetence: in its crusade to establish civilian primacy over the military, the government has effectively eliminated the armed forces from the decision-making process and replaced them with generalist civil servants, who are simply unaware of the implications of policies. Dragon gives several examples of diplomatic errors that were caused by having little knowledge of precedence, history, and facts on the ground.
The lack of a coordinated security policy sometimes results in different government departments working at cross-purposes with each other. The lines of authority are also inordinately ambiguous; for example, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police falls under the Ministry of Home Affairs during peacetime but is seconded to the Ministry of Defence in wartime. Not only do such regulations denude cohesiveness and self-awareness among units at the border, but they also create multiple chains of command that report to different bureaucracies that do not always have the same goals.
Sawhney and Wahab contrast the Indian condition with a conference they attended in China. From the beginning to the end, all representatives of the Chinese media had only one message to impress upon their guests, from the political leaders and bureaucrats to military officials and the media. Such is Beijing’s coordinated strategy, aligning everything from the battlefield to the airwaves.
Not only are Chinese forces well-coordinated, they have, through arms exports and constant training, achieved a high degree of interoperability with the Pakistan Army. This means that India’s enemies retain the physical option to fight on two fronts against a common enemy, holding only the political decision in abeyance. Delhi, on the other hand, suffers from poor coordination between its units, its services, and with foreign powers. Blurred chains of command and the lack of a joint chief of staff has hurt military planning severely, and Raisina Hill’s reticence to establish regular and comprehensive exercises with foreign militaries has left India completely unprepared even if foreign assistance were immediately forthcoming in the event of war.
Sawhney and Wahab take readers on a tour of India’s security blunders and make a convincing case that someone, somewhere, who should know what is going on, in fact, does not. As the authors explain, weakness at the top has percolated to all levels — from strategic to operational and tactical. The elimination of military inputs from foreign policy and even, to an extent, defence policy, has created a dangerous blind spot in the manner India views the world.
One of the concerns is that India does not seem to learn from its mistakes; perhaps the structure of the defence establishment is such that it does not retain an institutional history. For example, Operation Vijay (1999) was preceded by an Operation Meghdoot. Just as Indian soldiers returning to the mountain tops of Kargil in the summer of 1999 discovered that Pakistani soldiers had infiltrated into India during the winter and occupied the heights, Indian soldiers at Siachen had already had a similar experience in 1983. Sawhney and Wahab describe how Indian delegations were surprised to bump into their Pakistani counterparts in Europe shopping for the same winter accoutrements. The inability to learn from experience is a death knell for any organisation.
There is nothing particularly new by way of data or analysis in Dragon for scholars or even seasoned observers of Indian foreign and security policy. However, the solutions offered are bound to raise hackles and ignite spirited debates. Ultimately, this is perhaps what Sawhney and Wahab seek — greater discussion of issues of vital importance among citizens and decision makers alike.
For example, it is suggested that the path to India becoming a leading power is Pakistan because Delhi would not be able to focus on global issues or dedicate resources to them without a stable neighbourhood. This would indeed be ideal but the observation underestimates Pakistan’s hatred of India. The authors remind readers of how close both nations were to peace during the Agra Summit in 2001 with Pakistani military dictator Pervez Musharraf, but India was wary of trusting any offer from across the border so soon after the Kargil conflict.
On a related issue, Dragon warns that Kashmir is potentially destabilising for India and goes on to criticise the highly controversial enactment of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in the state. Again, the ideal of diplomacy over bullets is proposed without taking into account relentless cross-border instigation. Sawhney and Wahab also work on the assumption that Kashmir is the root of India’s problems with Pakistan, something that has always been rejected by India and recently been dismissed by even Western scholars such as Christine Fair and Daniel Markey.
Provocatively, the authors write, “India needs to understand that the road to managing an assertive China runs through Pakistan”. This is not the first time this suggestion has been made. Bharat Karnad, a scholar at the Centre for Policy Research, has long advocated some emollience with Pakistan so that India may better focus on the real threat to its security from China. As Sawhney and Wahab see it, India has three options towards China. One, it can form a closer partnership with the United States to contain Chinese ambitions; however, India will always have a deficit of trust with a country that is as supportive of Pakistan as the United States has been.
Two, India can go it alone — build the requisite military and economic strength to become a true rival to the dragon. This is easier said than done and the umpteen structural weaknesses in the Indian state will make this a decades-long process, assuming there is no wavering of political will in the meantime.
Three, India can bluff its way along without aggravating China too much; the authors leave the substance of this ambiguous, but it possibly means maintaining the status quo and playing the unsatisfying balancing act between Beijing and Washington. The language leaves one suspecting that this would be the authors’ choice.
While the title may imply a hawkish position on China, some of the authors’ suggestions are surprising, some may even say naive. For example, Sawhney and Wahab recommend that India join Chinese infrastructural initiatives like One Belt, One Road (OBOR) and even the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) because it would give Delhi leverage to open negotiations on Tibet and facilitate a stable peace with Pakistan.
The same credulity is witnessed when Dragon accepts every positive claim about the Chinese and Pakistani armies while questioning the Indian Army at every turn. The simple fact of the matter is that India managed to “win” its wars with Pakistan and hold its ground with China in later conflagrations such as at Nathu La in 1967, Sumdorung Chu in 1987, and Doka La in 2017. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has no doubt advanced leaps and bounds since the modernisation begun by Deng Xiaoping in the early 1970s — which Dragon on our Doorstep discusses at length, but despite its clear strategic vision, the PLA still suffers from lack of decent hardware, regular political indoctrination, insufficient training, a crisis of loyalty, and corruption, much like the Pakistan Army.
It is important to understand the assumptions behind these evaluations, for they are not limited to the authors alone. In this worldview, the United States is seen as untrustworthy, and India’s nuclear deal with it a failure. Russia is the model relationship, and China is a regrettable enemy. With these parameters, Dragon makes a far more compelling argument than without. Sawhney and Wahab do not explore these assumptions beyond a superficial glance, unfortunately.
Otherwise, it might be countered that the United States remains the only country that has the economic and military wherewithal to catalyse India’s hesitant rise to an international power to reckon with. Furthermore, its relations with India and Pakistan over the decades have been coloured by Delhi’s (Jawaharlal Nehru’s) assumptions about the United States. Regarding Russia, there are more thorns in that relationship than are publicly discussed. The ballooning cost of the Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier was just one incident among several disagreements on transfers of technology, quality of equipment, and cost. Finally, on China, it is unfathomable that a rising superpower would ever tolerate a powerful country on its border. Regardless of how much both countries can achieve together, Beijing can never countenance Delhi’s power.
Dragon has a questionable foreign policy analysis but that should not detract readers from its strength — the discussion of the nitty-gritty of military planning and preparation, from foot soldier to president. The expertise of the authors is on display as they marshal facts and anecdotes to make their argument that security-wise, India is ill-prepared at all levels. They present a comprehensive accounting of India’s weaknesses, from border logistics to Islamist and Maoist insurgencies that draw soldiers away from military operations to counter-terrorism, from an anaemic domestic defence manufacturing industry to overconfidence in India’s armed forces.
A more conscientious editor would have certainly helped Dragon sharpen the argument and reining in the authors when they got carried away by their narrative. What should be obvious by now is that Sawhney and Wahab are primarily interested in revealing the inefficiencies and incompetence in the Indian security structure despite the ominous, admonitory title implying China. In this, the book certainly succeeds, and will be a valuable addition to the security buff’s reading list.
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