Chinese dragon versus Indian tiger

China's military and diplomatic expansion points to an intensifying arms race between the world's two most populous countries, argues Rajeev Sharma.
Rajeev Sharma
5 October 2010

China’s resurgence in recent years has jolted the leading powers of the world out of their stupor – and India’s case is no different. Today, forward-looking Indian mandarins are no longer obsessed with Pakistan. New Delhi has started developing strategic plans for dealing with China in 2020 or 2030. Many Indian think tanks are already working on this mission objective and those which are not are gearing up to it.

India is pursuing a China policy that America has practiced for long – emphasising cooperation with China while minimizing competition. It may be the politically correct strategy but it does precious little to counter China’s rapidly increasing military might. Of late, China has become more and more assertive in its diplomatic and military conduct in line with increasingly ambitious global objectives. India, Japan, the US and Russia are indeed mindful of the probable repercussions an increasingly powerful China would have on the international balance of power, particularly when Japan and the US seem unable to maintain their lead.

The Chinese infrastructure drive is an integral part of its “string of pearls” strategy vis-a-vis India. Three ports that China is building in India’s immediate neighbourhood – Gwadar in Pakistan, Sittwe in Myanmar and Hambantota in Sri Lanka – are important pearls in the Chinese string. China has a vibrant presence across South Asia. Besides Pakistan, with which China has a true strategic partnership, Beijing has emerged as a major player in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and the Maldives. It has firmly entrenched itself in Myanmar (Burma), Mauritius and the Seychelles.

What transpired last month was an eye opener for China-watchers in the Indian government. On 5 August 2010, The People’s Daily reported that two days previously “important combat readiness materials” (read missiles) of the Chinese Air Force were transported safely to Tibet via the Qinghai-Tibet Railway – the first time since such materials were transported to Tibet by railway. It is a clear demonstration by China of not just its technological competence but also its capability to mobilise in Tibet in the event of a Sino-Indian conflict. China already has four fully operational airports in Tibet (the last one started operations in July 2010) while the fifth is scheduled to be inaugurated in October 2010. 

Meanwhile, the Chinese Navy’s recent seafaring activities and manoeuvres have revealed Beijing’s intention to increase its control of the maritime sea lanes of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The latter is an obvious cause of concern for India. China’s new-found aggressive posturing and maritime territorial claims in South China Sea – which Beijing has begun to describe as an area of its “core interest”, a term that the Chinese have been using for Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang – is of no less concern.

China is building up its naval might in a big way. It is not just India that is confused and concerned about the real intent of Beijing. Japan, the US, South Korea, Vietnam and Taiwan are equally apprehensive. China’s People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) was recently given a green light by the country’s highest military planning body, the Central Military Commission (CMC), to build two new nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. One aircraft carrier – Varyag of the Kuznetsov class – is already under construction. All three aircraft carriers will be available to China by 2017 and will patrol the South China Sea, Western Pacific and Indian Ocean. This will give the the Chinese Navy a blue-water capability to rival the US Navy.

India is far behind China's gargantuan defence capabilities. At the same time, New Delhi is not twiddling its thumbs and sitting idly. India has been conscious of rapidly growing Chinese military capabilities for well over a decade. In fact, the then Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes, while speaking in the aftermath of the May 1998 Indian nuclear tests, had gone on record as saying that China was the number one threat for India. 

In 1999, the government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee approved a 30-year submarine construction plan under which 30 submarines were to be constructed. Construction work on at least four nuclear submarines is in full swing, while the indigenously made Arihant nuclear powered submarine has already been launched. India plans to have at least 30 submarines by 2030, but this target may prove to be too stiff. India’s submarine fleet is currently facing depletion and their number is expected to go down to 16 by 2012 with the decommissioning of two Foxtrot submarines in the near future. 

In March 2009, the Manmohan Singh government cleared Project 15B under which next generation warships are under various stages of construction. Besides, at least three Kolkata class destroyers are under construction under Project 15A. Two aircraft carriers – INS Vikramaditya (Admiral Gorshkov of Russia) and INS Vikrant – are under construction. 

To strike a harmonious balance, the Indian Navy is in the process of beefing up its fleet of stealth frigates and has initiated several new projects in this regard. Shivalik will be India’s first stealth frigate of its class. The Sahyadri and Satpura class of frigates are under advanced stage of construction. All this is as per the government’s plans to maintain a force level of more than 140 warships. 

China knows very well that it is not dealing with the India of 1962, when the two countries fought a one-sided war. Then India had deliberately not used its air force against the Chinese to minimize loss of territory and restrict Chinese military gains to the far-flung border areas. Though China retains a decisive lead, New Delhi is determined to stay on Beijing's heals.

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