PLA hawks fuel Pakistan’s push for limited war

PLA hawks fuel Pakistan’s push for limited war

By MADHAV NALAPAT | New Delhi | 14 August, 2016
Madhav Nalapat
There are reports of significant transfers of missile systems from China to Pakistan to add to the stores already present in that country.

The rising level of tensions in the Kashmir valley is not accidental, but forms part of a design by GHQ Rawalpindi to boost tensions in that state and in the rest of India, so that the way gets cleared for a limited conflict which would depress investor sentiment about India for several years. Given the disposition and dispersal of forces, the Pakistan army is confident of holding its own in a limited and conventional conflict with India across the Line of Control (LoC) as well as the International Boundary (IntB) in Jammu & Kashmir. The perception at GHQ is that India could be deterred from opening more fronts (especially in the Punjab and Sindh sectors, as took place in 1965) by the threat of escalation through use of tactical nuclear weapons, which in their view, Indian forces are “yet to possess”. This time around, GHQ Rawalpindi is confident of support from China in the form of feints across the Line of Actual Control (LOAC) between that country and India. The Pakistan air force already has J17 fighters, the technology for which has been transferred to Pakistan, and there are reports of significant transfers of missile systems from China to Pakistan to add to the stores already present in that country. China has already signalled its acceptance of Pakistan as the legitimate owner of Kashmir by declaring the border between itself and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) as the “International Boundary”, on which both countries now routinely and jointly patrol. Within the Afghanistan Quad, China has invariably taken the side of Pakistan, and has gone as far as to host three rounds of talks with the Taliban, despite that group’s record as a terrorist force. In a display of what may be expected in a future conflict situation, the PLA has made incursions into Uttarakhand, a sector that till now had been relatively free of such incidents, even as PLA troops in uniform have regularly been seen on the Indian side of the LoC. PLA hawks have, over the past year, increased their level of cooperation with the Pakistan army, including in ways that pose a direct challenge to India’s interests.

Concurrently, the Pakistan army is secretly gearing up to fight a limited war in the Kashmir theatre, which will take place on the excuse of “responsibility to protect”, relying on the spurious claim that there is a “genocide of civilians” taking place in the Kashmir valley, a false claim that surprisingly has found more than a few takers in India, besides the usual suspects abroad. Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif is lobbying for another term on the excuse of tensions with India, and has ensured that posters asking for him to take over and “save” the country have appeared all across cities in Pakistan. Public opinion surveys show that the general is certainly more popular than Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has been scarred by constant revelations (including in the Panama Papers) about the wealth of his family. Not that Nawaz Sharif would do anything to block offensive action against India. During the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts, the 1999 Kargil incursions and the 2016 Pathankot terror attack, it was Sharif who was technically Head of Government in Pakistan. Also, in effect, much of the powers of the Prime Minister now vest with the Chief of Army Staff, as indeed has been the case throughout most of the history of Pakistan. It is COAS Sharif who okayed the plastering of a train with posters of Burhan Wani, and who has sanctioned fund collection in Pakistan, India and the GCC in the name of Burhan Wani by the JeM and the JuD, both international terror organisations protected by China in the United Nations. It was no accident that the PML (Nawaz) “won” the elections in PoK, a farce that is invariably scripted by the army. In September at the UN General Assembly, Pakistan is expected to focus on the situation in Kashmir, and this time around, India may not be fielding its most potent speaker, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and perhaps not even External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, perhaps in an effort to downplay the importance of what is usually simply a talking shop. Overall, the year ahead is planned by GHQ Rawalpindi to be exceptionally bumpy for the Modi government. In such a battle of both mind and muscle, courteous behaviour is a casualty, as was shown by the affront to Home Minister Rajnath Singh during his recent visit to Islamabad.

What is giving the Pakistan army oxygen in such a battle with India is no longer the US, but China, where a substantial section of the establishment is in favour of assisting the Pakistan military in its anti-India operations, so as to keep India from going beyond its South Asian boundaries in its diplomacy and its strategic outreach. Such an alliance works against the logic of India-China cooperation that has been promoted by President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Modi, and creates a distance between Delhi and Beijing that would delight some other players, especially Pakistan and Japan.

Clearly, ongoing efforts by those truly (as distinct from merely verbally) loyal to President Xi to ensure unified control of Chinese policy are not yet successful. For President Xi Jinping understands the US logic of close ties with India in a replication of President Richard Nixon’s outreach to Beijing in 1971, when he initiated the groundbreaking reconciliation with China for which Henry Kissinger (who was initially opposed to the idea) later took credit. At that time, China was an economically backward country with a messy political situation. However, Nixon saw the future potential of the country and ordered his officials to give its leaders the respect that potential (rather than actuality) merited. Over the next two decades, the Washington-Beijing partnership helped enervate the Soviet Union and finally bring it down in 1992. In the new century, first George W. Bush and in his second term, Barack Obama, have understood that a close alliance with India is needed to try and ensure a repeat of the USSR meltdown of the governance system, this time with a much more formidable rival, the People’s Republic of China. Should India join hands with Japan, Australia, Singapore, Vietnam, South Korea and the Philippines in a security system designed to neutralise China’s capabilities across the Indo-Pacific, the stage would be set for confrontations which, if China were to lose, would lead to a decline in respect and confidence in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), thereby setting the stage for a “colour revolution” across China sometime into the second five-year term of President Xi. In such a constellation, India is the keystone, as no other country in Asia has the potential to challenge China in both the military as well as the economic spheres over the next decade. Both President Bush and his successor have been transparent in their desire to increase the strategic heft of Delhi against Beijing, despite repeated statements to the contrary. This ramping up of a partnership is in anticipation of a future clash with China in a theatre in Asia that may involve the use of force.

President Xi understands the geopolitical game being played in Asia by the US and Japan, two allies that are moving in lockstep to first halt and later reverse China’s sprint towards dominance in Asia, now that the PRC has already achieved primacy in the largest continent on the globe. However, his war on corruption has resulted in ethically compromised sections of the CCP carrying on a campaign of sabotage against him, especially by blocking initiatives such as the effort to forge close ties with India, now that the government is headed by another Asian nationalist, Narendra Damodardas Modi, who replaced a self-declared admirer of the colonial era, Manmohan Singh. The People’s Liberation Army top ranks, in particular, are feeling extreme discomfort at Xi’s repeated culls of compromised officers, and are hitting back by pushing for an aggressive foreign policy that has had effects such as unifying much of South-East Asia against China on the South China Sea question. Another prong of the policy of the PLA “hawks” (who in effect are the best friends of their US counterparts) is to constantly belittle India and seek to confine it in the South Asia box. This was most recently on display at the Seoul Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) meeting, when China was the only major power opposing India’s entry into a group whose benefits are 90% already enjoyed by India as a consequence of the India-US nuclear agreement that was ratified by the IAEA. The PLA hawks are in alliance with the non-proliferation lobby in Beijing, whose principals interact frequently and closely with Pakistan and North Korea, while reserving their fire on a country that has never proliferated nuclear technology or weapons as yet, India. Key non-proliferation experts in Beijing played a decisive role in ensuring that China opposed India at Seoul, thereby helping to make into reality a day when the Indian Navy would steam alongside its US, Australian and Japanese counterparts in the waters of the South China Sea and elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific. The India-phobic, Pakistan-centric group misled the CCP core into believing that opposing India at the Seoul NSG meeting would have only “limited consequences”. The fact that Beijing rejected requests by the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, the National Security Advisor and the Foreign Secretary of India to adopt a helpful stand at Seoul has shaken the faith and trust in the leadership of China by the Indian establishment. In particular, the question now being asked is whether Xi is strong enough to challenge the India-phobic hawks in his entourage, or will he continue to be led by Pakistan-centric elements in determining policy towards India?

Fitting a pattern whereby the policies implemented by the PLA hawks in effect benefit the strategic interests of the US and Japan, the NSG meeting at Seoul has severely weakened China-friendly voices in India and boosted the power of influential policymakers in Delhi, who seek to shed restraint and openly join hands with Washington and Tokyo in militarily curbing the ambitions of China, in much the same way as the PLA hawks have sought to box in India through deals with Islamabad, Kathmandu, Colombo, Dhaka and even Male. Many in China still in positions of responsibility are “seeking to weaken Xi by declaring support for him”. This they are achieving by implementing a hyper-nationalist policy that is converting Delhi, Manila and Hanoi into votaries of a military alliance with the US. Of course, it is in India’s national interest to ally with the US to (a) ensure protection and fightback against Wahhabi terror and terror states, and (b) make sure that Asia be kept free of the dominance of any single power. However, should the Modi-Xi diplomacy succeed in crafting a fullscope commercial alliance between China and India, the odds that Delhi would participate in any future conflict with China would get reduced to almost zero. Such a normalisation of ties is, however, anathema to the PLA hawks and their longtime allies in GHQ Rawalpindi. Indeed, in the case of China and Pakistan, “the tail wags the dog”, in that it is Beijing that functions in accordance with the diktat of Rawalpindi rather than the other way about. Both in the case of India and Afghanistan, Chinese policy appears to have been scripted by GHQ Rawalpindi, rather than by the national interest of the PRC, which is to ensure that India does not move into the stage of being as much a military and strategic rival of China as Japan and the US so visibly are.

However, for a conflict-dispelling chemistry to get created between Delhi and Beijing, President Xi will need to reach out to India and break the restrictive mould of his India-phobic establishment, notably the PLA, the non-proliferation bureaucracy and elements of the foreign policy establishment that “talk Chinese but think American”. This India-phobic trio is backing the generals in Pakistan in their drive to generate a crisis with India that would shift global attention from East and South-East Asia back to South Asia, preferably through a limited conflict over Kashmir that is expected to have the effect of damping down India’s prospects for high growth for several years, in each of which more than ten million young people will flood the job market looking for work that in the absence of double digit growth will be absent.

Those eager to witness a commercial partnership between India and China that would boost trade and other flows between the two countries to $500 million in five years are hopeful that the severe blowback from the NSG debacle (in which China has come close to ensuring that India join the US and Japan in a military alliance against China in Asia) would serve as a warning to move against the “India hawks”. This needs to be done by the many in the CCP who support President Xi in his courageous moves to demolish the hold of crooked cadres in the governance of the world’s other superpower. Indeed, whether it be global entrepreneurs such as Jack Ma or the CEOs of major state-owned enterprises, each recognises the importance of India in ensuring future economic health for China. In contrast, all that Pakistan promises is more and more expenditure squandered on a project that will pass through some of the most unsafe bits of the planet. The hope is that those loyal to Xi will move to reduce the hold of PLA hawks over foreign policy relating to India. These hawks are against the long-term interests of China, seeking to coordinate with GHQ Rawalpindi in the latter’s designs to harass and weaken the Indian state in multiple ways. Should this expectation of Xi managing to ensure a change in Beijing’s policy towards India not get realised, the seas ahead for India-China relations are likely to witness severe storms.

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