Monday, February 28, 2011

No Soft Spot To Land On

China and Pakistan are planning to invade Nepal, if you believe the leader of India’s Samajwadi Party, Mulayam Singh Yadav. There is a strong case for taking him seriously. Yadav is a former federal defense minister. And he made the remark in a speech at the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament, a venue targeting a multiplicity of audiences.
During his February 22 speech, Mulayam Singh also asked Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh why India’s relations with Nepal and Sri Lanka had deteriorated in recent years. But Maila Baje would like to leave that for another day.
The palpable desire on the part of some Indian “hyperrealists” to precipitate a showdown with China has been recounted in these pages in the past. Quite conspicuous also is the determination of some Chinese hardliners, including those in the People’s Liberation Army, to “refresh” the lesson they had imparted to the Indians half a century ago.
That Tibet has become the principal fault line is amply underscored by the reality that it encompasses most of the bilateral issues of contention. Beijing has not been persuaded by New Delhi’s protestations of good faith. India’s hosting of the Dalai Lama and his government in exile is merely symptomatic of the deeper issue: India’s deeply held sentiment that it always has had deeper affinities with Tibetan than have the Chinese. Beijing’s sustained efforts to integrate Tibet with the mainland have solidified New Delhi’s resentment.
If the continual discovery of mineral resources in Tibet has exacerbated India’s traditional soreness against the background of their economic rivalry, the military dimensions of Chinese infrastructural development in Tibet have intensified New Delhi national-security sensitivities. In this equation, the likelihood of Pakistan opening a second front in the event of another Sino-Indian war remains more than academic.
Whatever the legitimacy and authenticity of the Free Tibet movement elsewhere, the campaign represents a clear and present danger to Nepal. When Wikileaks recently revealed a conversation between foreign minister Ramesh Nath Pandey and U.S. ambassador James F. Moriarty during the royal regime, the response was one of outrage and derision at how the palace could try to trade off Tibetan refugees for American support. Yet today’s leadership has few qualms over inflicting on Tibetans refugees the treatment they accused the royal regime of perpetrating on the Nepali democratic movement.
The post-monarchy turmoil has turned Nepal into a far more lucrative center for the Free Tibet movement, which enjoys the patronage of a motley mixture of governments, churches, philanthropists and activists often working for their own specific purposes. Ordinarily, any government would be expected to exploit the inherent contradictions to further the nation’s interest. How far Nepal’s position has diminished can be discerned from the simple fact that the older non-fictional Buddha’s Warriors continues to trump the fictional albeit more recent Buddha’s Orphans in the international book publishing discourse.
The challenge for Nepal to maintain its longstanding policy that Tibet is an integral part of China persists. If anything, Beijing’s post-monarchy assertiveness has underscored the extent of its determination to make Kathmandu to live up to its commitment.
The last time the India-meets-China-in-Nepal thesis resonated so loudly, in the Sixties, the Chinese were thought to be capable of air landing up to one lightly equipped infantry division within five to seven days, provided they could seize the Kathmandu airfield. By extensive utilization of pack animals and porters, the Chinese could then expect to support attacks by one infantry regiment through each of the Naralagna Pass to Bajang; through Kore pass to Dana; through Kyirong Pass to Nuwakot; through Kodari Pass to Dhulikhel; and through Rakha Pass to Dingla.
The viability of even limited Chinese forces in northern Nepal was deemed largely dependent on stockpiling and their ability to sustain porterage operations through the northern passes in winter. India, for its part, had direct military involvement in Nepal through a full-fledged mission and communication personnel along our border with China.
Technology has changed the dynamics. This time, the Chinese have advanced missile capabilities in place in Tibet clearly targeting India. The logistics for rapid deployment of PLA troops are well entrenched. The Indians, on the other hand, confidently proclaim that their armed forces are no longer the ill-equipped band trounced in 1962.
India plans to deploy two mountain divisions in the northeastern border area with China by the middle of this year to plug gaps in along the Arunachal Pradesh frontier. The two divisions consist of 20,000 soldiers, a squadron of T-90 tanks and a regiment of artillery. The Indian Air Force, which deployed 36 Su-30MKI fighters, its most advanced multi-role fighters, to the north-east in 2009, is set to upgrade and expand the fleet.
The refurbishment of the airfield at Surkhet and elsewhere is expected to give the Indians an advantage. But no less important for the putative belligerents will be the hearts and minds of Nepalis. For us, though, soft power or hard, the squeeze is likely to persist all the way to breaking point. As the yam has withered and dried, its brittleness has grown. The softness evoked by Mulayam Singh’s first name might have cushioned us a bit, even if briefly.