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India buckles up to face aggressive China

Last updated on: August 23, 2010 08:03 IST

Image: The China Aviation Museum on the outskirts of Beijing
Photographs: David Gray/Reuters

Indian defence planners have taken steps to ramp up the capabilities of armed forces to counter China's long-term plan, says Nitin Gokhale

Last year, on October 1, China combined old-fashioned pageantry with new-fangled weapons to mark the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic.

With nuclear missile carriers, new generation tanks, rocket launchers and a display of ethnic unity, China went out of its way to send twin messages to the world: We have come a long way from our poverty-stricken past, and we are not afraid to proclaim ourselves as a world power.

In less than a year after that grand show of strength, the world is watching with increasing trepidation China's growing military and economic muscle.

The latest alarm is raised by the United States department of defence in its annual report to the Congress recently. 'The pace and scope of China's military modernisation have increased over the past decade,' the Pentagon says in the detailed report. But it also notes that 'extreme secrecy is increasingly difficult to reconcile with China's role in the integrated global economy, which depends on transparency.'


China is under-declaring its defence budget

Image: A parade in Beijing
Photographs: Jason Lee/Reuters

That the Chinese defence budget has consistently showed a double-digit growth for the past decade is well known. What is however less understood is the fact that China's declared military budget is far less than the actual spending. For instance, for 2010, Beijing says it intends to spend $ 78.25 billion (Yuan 532.11 billion) on its military. At 1.4 per cent of the country's GDP, and 6.3 percent of the national budget, China may say it is well within the norm followed by big countries in keeping the defence budgets below two per cent of the GDP.

There are two fundamental flaws in this premise. One, China is now the world's second largest economy, having overtaken Japan, and therefore its GDP is much bigger than many of its smaller neighbours. Two, most military analysts hold a firm belief that China has been under-declaring its defence budget for over a decade now, lest the mammoth outlay raises alarm across the world. So when it says this year's budget is 78.25 billion dollars, Beijing is actually spending over 100 billion. At least that is what Western military analysts continue to believe.

Beijing says it is modernising the armed forces in keeping with the principles of 'active defence' and that it has no expansionist objective, a claim China's neighbours, small and big, view with scepticism.


China lashes out at Pentagon report

Image: People's Liberation Army tanks roll pass Tiananmen Square in Beijing
Photographs: Joe Chan/Reuters

Washington -- which keeps a hawk's eye on China's military programme and spending -- on the other hand has tried to do the balancing act in commenting upon China's rising military prowess. The Pentagon report was renamed from the usual 'Military Power of the People's Republic of China' to a bland 'Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China'.

But the change in the title has not helped in assuaging the hard feelings in China. As soon as the report was out the Chinese defence ministry complained that the report was 'not beneficial to the improvement and development of Sino-US military ties'.

The official Xinhua News Agency quoted newly-appointed spokesman for the Chinese defence ministry, Geng Yansheng, as saying that the report ignored facts while 'criticising China's normal national defence and military build-up, exaggerating the so-called Chinese mainland's "military threats" to Taiwan, and condemning China for suspending Sino-US military exchanges, thus compromising the two countries' military cooperation.'


Indian defence planners aware of China's plans

Image: Policemen patrol past a photograph showing China's President Hu Jintao shaking hands with US President Barack Obama
Photographs: Jason Lee/Reuters

The spokesman was referring to the incident in recent past when Beijing snapped military-to-military ties with Washington after the US decided to go through with its delivery of six billion dollars worth of arms to Taiwan.

While the US-China military relations continue to go through ups and downs, an interesting section in the Pentagon report deals with Sino-Indian rivalry in Asia and Beijing's recent moves to beef up its missile deployment in Tibet.

'To improve regional deterrence, the PLA has replaced older liquid-fuelled, nuclear-capable CSS-3 intermediate-range ballistic missiles with more advanced and survivable solid-fuelled CSS-5 MRBMs (medium range ballistic missiles) and may be developing contingency plans to move airborne troops into the region,' said the report.

The Pentagon may be surprised with this development but Indian defence planners have been long aware of the Chinese moves and have indeed taken steps to ramp up the capabilities of Indian armed forces to counter China's long-term plan.


Indian policymakers assess military responses

Image: A signboard on the Indian side of the Indo-China border at Bumla
Photographs: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

In late 2008-early 2009, India initiated a comprehensive, well-funded plan to bolster the land, air and naval forces to counter China's muscle-flexing.

Since then there have been significant and wide-ranging signs that Indian policymakers are finally willing to realistically assess possible military responses to China's rise.

One clear example is a new division of troops aimed exclusively at the border region of the two great powers. India is now mid-way through raising two mountain divisions for the north-eastern border area with China, with the two divisions pencilled in to be ready for deployment by the middle of next year.

The goal is to plug existing gaps in India's preparedness along the Arunachal Pradesh-China frontier, and the two divisions, consisting of about 20,000 well-armed troops, will include a squadron of India's armoured spearhead -- Soviet-built T-90 tanks and a regiment of artillery.


India is quietly augmenting its resources

Image: Indian naval warships take part in an exercise in the Bay of Bengal
Photographs: Babu/Reuters

The Indian Air Force has over the past year deployed two squadrons (about 36 planes) of  Su-30MKI, its most advanced multi-role fighter aircraft, to Tezpur in the country's north-east in response to the People's Liberation Army Air Force's seven airbases in Tibet and southern China.

Meanwhile, the Indian Navy is working to counter the growing clout of the PLA Navy. The current thinking at Indian naval headquarters is that China will move to aggressively increase its presence in the Indian Ocean Region to secure its extended energy supply lines.

China has made it clear in various international for that it does not subscribe to the view that the Indian Ocean is exclusively under the Indian Navy's influence.

As a consequence, the Indian Navy's plans are based on the premise that it needs to be a fully-networked and flexible force capable of meeting any 'out of area' contingency.

So even as China and the US continue to spar, India is quietly augmenting its resources against China. The process is slow but at least now Indian policy-makers are not paralysed by the fear of the Chinese.