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Navy chief was right. China is causing concern

“No other subject has caused so much concern as China’s unilateral and unfriendly steps” – Admiral Devendra Kumar Joshi

At a time when even “lit fest” carnivals are busy discussing China, it seems odd not to expect our media worrying about that country’s alleged expansionist moves. Queries about the Chinese Navy’s aggressive posture were naturally the major topic during Navy chief Admiral D.K. Joshi’s press conference on Navy Day. He said that China’s modernisation was “impressive” but “a cause for concern”, and that our Navy would work out “our options and strategies”. Asked about the South China Sea he said that “we will be required to go there and we are prepared for that” to ensure the “freedom of navigation in international waters”.

One would have found nothing objectionable in these statements as Admiral Joshi was well within his rights to reassure an anxious nation about our capability to protect our interests. Unfortunately, this coincided with our National Security Adviser’s (NSA) high profile visit to Beijing for the 16th round of boundary talks. According to a national daily (5 December 2012) our NSA blamed the media for “misleading” the naval chief “into saying that Indian naval ships would if necessary sail into the South China Sea”. He added that “the reporters piled question after question forcing the naval chief to come up with that answer”, “manufacturing a story”.

I hope that our NSA has not made such a statement. If he has, it is surprising and disappointing. The legal role of our defence establishments is to guard our country. They have to be sensitive to all threats and respond to public concerns on security. Also, no other subject has exercised so much concern among academics, businessmen or media during the last four-five years as China’s unilateral and unfriendly steps like paper visas or showing Arunachal Pradesh or Aksai Chin as part of their territory in their new passports. The Chinese did nothing to assuage our concerns during the NSA’s visit, although their foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said, “Mr Menon’s visit is not about the boundary issue (alone). It is about the whole relationship.” But sidestepping these issues, he went on with diplomatic banalities like “convergence of views and shared interests, shared aspirations, shared goals”.

There is a world of difference between the responsibilities of diplomats and security chiefs: The former can parry controversial issues using “diplomatese”. Security chiefs, on the other hand, have to face such issues upfront as they are directly in charge of meeting the threats. Asia Sentinel (23 November 2009) tried to decode the “diplomatese” used during the 17 November 2009 Obama-Hu Jintao talks, which were said to be “candid, constructive and fruitful”. It wrote: “Candid dialogue” means “opinions diverge” or “unable to communicate”; “better understanding of each other” means “huge difference of opinion”. Our NSA’s claims to a national daily (4 December) that “considerable progress has been made on border talks” and “common understanding” has been reached during these talks were almost contradicted in the same report: “Analysts in India and China say both countries have made little progress since 2005, when the first stage was completed with the signing of an agreement on political parameters and guiding principles.”

Can the nation afford the luxury of only depending on our National Security Council (NSC) system to ward off all security threats to our country with the military leaders playing second fiddle? No. Past experience reveals that our NSC failed in their very first test, the Kargil attack. That organisation, created to function as a full-time expert body, think tank, intelligence arbitrator, policy adjudicator, decision maker and performance monitor met only one month after the Kargil attack was noticed. Earlier they did nothing to process intelligence already available for strategic decision making. Similarly, leaks after 26/11 attacks revealed the presence of some indicators on the attack and it was alleged that the NSC did nothing to forewarn the organs concerned. It was, therefore, not surprising that our first NSA, who held that charge for six years, had to make a candid admission to a TV channel (9 January 2010) that the NSA system was incompatible in a parliamentary democracy.

In these circumstances, let our armed forces and intelligence services do the job of protection, which is the country’s immediate concern, while others can slowly upgrade relations.

( Courtesy- The writer, Mr V.Balachandran, who contributed the article to “Sunday Guardian “, New Delhi, is an eminent analyst based in Mumbai. Email: )

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