In keeping with its status as the emerging superpower, China has been becoming increasingly assertive in its dealings with the rest of the world, especially neighbors. Some of the recent instances are: Its brazen attempts at appropriating Japan’s Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea; its diabolical use of North Korea against South Korea to compel the latter into accepting China’s claims on Korean islands in the Yellow Sea and the South China Sea; the deployment of more than 1500 missiles against Taiwan to blackmail the latter into acquiescing in China’s strategic forays into the West Pacific region; and last but most important, China’s long term plans to reduce India to the status of a third rate regional power by constantly undermining its influence in South Asia and various international forums. In fact, its recent ratcheting up of claims on 80,000 square kilometers in the mineral and water resources rich Arunachal Pradesh, and 30,000 square kilometers in the northwestern areas comprising the strategically vital Ladakh region, is part of this grand strategy.
The recent intrusion by the PLA into the Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) Sector underscores the emerging equation between India and China. No matter what diplomatese is spewed on both sides, the two Asian giants are natural rivals in every sense of the term. Only, India took some time to realize this, while China had been following this principle even before the advent of the Peoples Republic. For instance, Chiang Kai Shek looked upon Nehru as his challenger for the leadership of post-World War Asia. Moreover, the 1962 invasion was China's way of conveying to the world of its status of being the natural leader of, what was then termed as, the Third World.
This particular intrusion, however, is a portent of more serious strategic confrontations in the coming years, which may not erupt into full scale hostilities but will certainly be a part of a neo Cold War narrative wherein India will have to contend with a more aggressive China – not just on land, but sea and air, too. Thus, we need to compare the two nations, whose geostrategic interests have started overlapping for the first time in recorded history.
Presently, China’s defense budget is more than three times that of India. There is no way India can match this figure if you compare the respective economic parameters. China’s gross domestic product per capita of $9,146 is more than twice of India’s. Its economy grew by 7.7% in 2012, while India expanded at 5.3% on a much smaller base. China’s investment rate of 48% of G.D.P. far exceeds India’s 36%. There is a vast gap in the building of strategic infrastructures, too. China has constructed a superhighway to Tibet, while Indian drivers have to negotiate bumpy roads, and our army still uses the long obsolete animal powered transport system consisting largely of mules and donkeys. China has vastly improved its border infrastructure in the Himalayas, thus enabling quick mobilization and redeployment of troops. Moreover, China's land forces greatly outnumber India’s. India is still playing “catch-up” as far as building of roads to the borders is concerned. Its troop deployment is slower in comparison, thus increasing the crucial reaction time to a possible Chinese attack. China is feverishly modernizing its air force and navy. For instance, in February, it signed a deal with Russia to buy 24 Sukhoi 35s and build four ultramodern Lada class submarines, apart from acquiring an aircraft carrier. Moreover, China is manufacturing state of the art warships and submarines. There are also reports of China having built a Stealth fighter. Modernization of its air and naval power are key elements of China's objective to be able to fight high-tech wars. India, on the other hand, has not been able to build, develop, or even buy any matching military hardware and weapon systems. Its attempts at indigenization have been far less than adequate. But this is not surprising, considering that we have languished in developing indigenous technologies, and have been pathetic in the field of acquiring or developing military technologies. Consequently, in terms of its military capabilities, India is falling way behind China.
However, China cannot possibly deploy all its military resources against one country, as it has to contend with other powers in the neighborhood as well as the world at large, and protect its vital supply lines by sea. Moreover, in a limited conflict, India is capable of inflicting far greater damage upon the PLA than what Vietnam did in 1978. The Chinese airpower appears formidable because of the numbers involved. However, the IAF has far better combat aircraft in Sukhois, MiG 29s, Jaguars and Mirages that neutralize China’s numerical superiority, especially in a tactical battle.
Nonetheless, in any prolonged conflict, there will be a need to take the pressure off our Army in the north. This is where the Indian Navy will have to open a front in the Indian Ocean, where we have a decisive advantage despite China’s ‘Necklace of Pearls’ policy to contain India. Working in tandem with the IAF bases in the South, the Navy can inflict damage upon the Chinese commercial traffic in the sea-lanes that connect it to its mineral and energy sources in Africa and West Asia, as well as to the markets for its industrial products in Western, African and Middle Eastern markets. Any disruption of energy supplies to China’s ravenous industries will certainly have unacceptable adverse consequences. Considering its vulnerabilities, China may not go for an all out war. It is more likely that the PLA may engage in muscle flexing in the Himalayas, where it has decided advantage at present. At worst, we may witness short-lived border skirmishes and attempts at encroaching upon the Indian territory in Ladakh as well as Arunachal Pradesh.
But India can ill afford to depend upon such imponderables. We do not know what exactly the Chinese are planning long term – even the ongoing faceoff’s outcome appears uncertain with China getting increasingly belligerent. To keep them at bay, we will have to re-jig our military and strategic priorities. There is an urgent need to upgrade our conventional war capabilities. Our border infrastructure ought to be far superior to the best that China has built. More importantly, there is a need to revisit our strategic doctrine that has been reactive, rather than proactive, so far. For this to happen, our politicians should refocus on nation building, eschewing the debilitating politics of scandal mongering in defense matters.
Published in The Financial World dated May 2, 2013