A potent challenge

Chinas military prowess

After announcing a mere 7.5 per cent jump in its defence budget, the first time since the 1980s that its defence spending increased in single-digit percentage, China is back to its double digit defence budget this year. Beijing has announced that its official defence budget for 2011 will rise by 12.7 per cent from the previous year.

China’s largely secretive military modernisation programme is producing results faster than expected. Beijing is gearing up to challenge the US military prowess in the Pacific. It is refitting a Soviet-era Ukrainian aircraft carrier for deployment next year and more carriers are under construction in Shanghai. China’s submarine fleet is the largest in Asia and is undergoing refurbishments involving nuclear powered vessels and ballistic missile equipped subs. Its anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) system, developed specifically to target US carrier strike groups, has reached initial operational capability much earlier than expected. And earlier this year, photographs appeared on Chinese internet sites of what is apparently China’s first stealth fighter during a runway test in western China.
China has already shown its prowess in anti-satellite warfare and has redeployed its nuclear warheads onto mobile launchers and advanced submarines. In a marked shift in China’s no-first-use policy, Chinese leaders have indicated that they would consider launching pre-emptive strikes if they found the country in a ‘critical situation,’ thereby lowering the threshold of nuclear threats. There is a growing debate in the PLA about whether to discard conditionalities on China’s commitments to no-first use.

China is a rising power with the world’s second largest economy and a growing global footprint. It would like to have a military ready and willing to defend these interests. But it is the opaqueness surrounding China’s military upgradation that is the real sources of concern. China does not believe in transparency. In fact, the PLA follows Sun Tzu who argues that “the essence of warfare is creating ambiguity in the perceptions of the enemy.”

China continues to defend its military upgradation by claiming that it needs offensive capability for Taiwan-related emergencies. But clearly its sights are now focused on the US. China wants to limit American ability to project power into the western Pacific. It wants to prevent a repeat of its humiliation in 1996 when the US aircraft carriers could move around unmolested in the Taiwan Strait and deter Chinese provocations. Not surprisingly, the steady build up of a force with offensive capabilities well beyond Chinese territory is causing consternation in Washington and among China’s neighbours. This comes at a time of Chinese assertiveness on territorial disputes with Japan, India and Southeast Asian countries.

Underestimation

American technological prowess and war-fighting experience will ensure that China will not be able to catch up very easily. China is still at least a generation behind the US militarily. But the Pentagon’s most recent assessment of China’s military strategy argues that despite persistent efforts, the US understanding of how much China’s government spends on defence “has not improved measurably.”

At a time when the US is increasingly looking inwards, China’s military rise has the potential to change the regional balance of power to India’s disadvantage. It is not entirely clear that China has well-defined external policy objectives though her means, both economic and military, to pursue policies, are greater than at any time in the recent past. Yet, there is no need for India to counter China by matching weapon for weapon or bluster for bluster. India will have to look inwards to prepare for the China challenge.
After all, China has not prevented India from pursing economic reforms and decisive governance, developing its infrastructure and border areas, and from intelligently investing in military capabilities. If India could deal with stoicism the China challenge in 1987, when there was a real border stand-off between the two, there should be less need for alarm today when India is a much stronger nation, economically and militarily. A resurgent India of 2011 needs new reference points to manage its complex relationship with the superpower-in-waiting China.

Despite this, India’s own defence modernisation programme is faltering. This year the Indian government has allocated only 1.8 per cent of the GDP to defence, though ostensibly the military expenditure has gone up by 11.58 per cent. This is only the second time in over three decades that the defence to GDP ratio has fallen below 2 per cent of the GDP. This is happening at a time when India is expected to spend $112 billion on capital defence acquisitions over the next five years in what is being described as “one of the largest procurement cycles in the world.” Indian military planners are shifting their focus away from Pakistan as China takes centre-stage in future strategic planning but there’s no strategic clarity in Indian approach.

China’s ‘Global Times’ had warned last year that “India needs to consider whether or not it can afford the consequences of a potential confrontation with China.” India’s challenge is to raise the stakes high enough so that instead of New Delhi it’s Beijing that is forced to consider seriously the consequences of a potential confrontation with India. But it is not clear if the political leadership in New Delhi has the farsightedness to rise to this challenge.

(The writer is the author of ‘The China Syndrome’.)

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