Mr George Fernandes who passed away on 29 Jan 2019 served as India’s defence minister twice (March 1998-March 2001 & October 2001-May 04). He was among India’s more “hands-on” Defence Ministers. One point that Mr Fernandes made soon after taking over in 1998 was that that China was India’s long term threat and therefore “Enemy No. 1”. Though after a hue and cry he had to withdraw his statement, yet this refrain was picked up in various fora and for various reasons. This was also done by India’s defence establishment which was acutely aware of the relative military weakness of India vis. a vis. China. This provided the impetus for strengthening India’s defence capability on the Northern borders as well as raising of the Mountain Strike Corps (even if not fully). The defence establishment was also aware that capability development against China automatically gave a winning edge to India against Pakistan.
This author is of the view that the above edge has not manifested. This is for the simple reason that since Pakistan was using terrorism-based non-state proxy asymmetric war against India especially in Kashmir, conventional capabilities under a nuclear overhang could not provide the edge sought. Resultantly, Pakistan has been and will be, able to pursue its proxy war despite some out of the box responses by India (Uri/Balakot). As Lt Gen DS Hooda (Retd) stated on NDTV on 26 Feb 2019, such responses in concert with economic and diplomatic means—if they are to have a lasting effect—have to be sustained. In the view of this author this may have to stretch over months or years. Can we pursue a sustained asymmetric/ semi-conventional military strategy against Pakistan while having an overt mind-set that China is our Enemy No. 1 is the question?
Defence analysts in India have pointed to Chinese military modernization as a coercive threat to India. This appears an incongruity when at the same time India and Chinese trade has grown by leaps and bounds. In spite of Doklam and other tensions, the India-China bilateral trade reached $84.44 billion in the year 2017-18, growing at the rate of 18.63% year on year. This doesn’t happen between enemies.
China is India’s largest trading partner in terms of total imports and exports. There is no visceral political or military hatred between India and China of the kind that exists between India and Pakistan. Indians may rue the defeat by China in 1962 but at a national level the despondency it created post 1962 has dissipated (unlike the desire for revenge of the 1971 defeat which exists in Pakistan especially in the Pakistani military mind). A solution to the India-China border dispute through talks appears of have a greater probability of success than of a solution to the Kashmir dispute through talks. It is clear that the present threat perceptions between India and China are not the same as between India and Pakistan. The latter are an on-going war with potential to harm our social fabric, the former is far in the future with no such threat. If we don’t win todays war it is unlikely that we will be in a position to safeguard ourselves in the future. Therefore, it is time to unequivocally state that Pakistan is our Enemy No1 and structure our capabilities to combat this threat effectively and conclusively.