The recent edition of Pentagon’s Annual Report on ‘military and security developments involving China (2011)’ received unexpected coverage in Indian media. In particular, the focus was on how the Chinese PLA has deployed advanced and survivable solid-fuelled CSS-5 medium range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) to strengthen its deterrence posture against India. The development is not new since it was mentioned in last year’s Pentagon report as well. However, the increased emphasis on these developments through a front page coverage indicates a rather panicky rationality about Chinese military modernization as far as India is concerned.
If India has been living unharmed with a two-decade old Chinese military modernization process, it’s because the stated objective was to enhance Chinese military capability against Taiwan and deter the US from fishing in troubled waters. Thus, a major concentration of the PLA ground, naval and air units remained positioned in Guangzhou, Nanjing, Jinan and Beijing military regions. China also stationed around 1000 missiles of different ranges along the Eastern seaboard. In recent years however, China has positioned a small number of missiles aimed at India in Lanzhou and Chengdu military regions as well. This is supplemented by the fact that China has increased its capability for strategic mobility and can move supplementary missiles at a short notice positioning them against India. Therefore, a perception is gaining ground amongst Indian opinion makers now that the real objective of Chinese military modernization is indeed India.
Several developments add weight to this argument. While the Chinese investments in road-infrastructure development along the Sino-Indian border, also noted by the Pentagon report, is well known, a recent report published on the website of Chinese PLA adds to the Indian fears. This report entitled ‘A closer look at China’s Tibetan border areas’ provides a Chinese perspective about economic development infrastructure development in Tibet. However, it emerges that it is the PLA that is involved in all kind of economic activities, thus exposing its strategic consolidation in the region. Concurrently, despite improvement in China’s relative military power vis-a-vis Taiwan, cross-Strait ties have improved since 2008 and the prospects of a near term crisis appears low. Eventually, China might shift some of its improved military capabilities towards India to settle the outstanding border dispute on its own terms.
This year’s Pentagon report also includes a special and rather comprehensive chapter on China’s evolving maritime strategy. China, it concludes, is no more a continental power. The country’s enhanced ‘maritime consciousness’ has led it to redefine its ‘maritime periphery’ since maritime power is viewed as a prerequisite towards a ‘great power’ status for China. In 2010, China published a Report on ‘China’s Ocean Development’ that proclaimed ‘building maritime power as China’s historic task for 21st century’ and indeed identified the decade from 2010-2020 as the key historic stage for realizing this task. Today, many of China’s new naval platforms can utilize space-based communications, advanced sensors, and area air-defence, enabling combat capability at great distance from land. In future, China’s expanding capabilities might facilitate its greater attention into the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Indians in fact know this better. Only recently, the Chinese Navy buzzed an Indian warship off the Vietnam coast. Chinese naval ships are doing more port calls to South Asian countries and taking reconnaissance of Indian maritime assets. Not long back, China issued a stapled visa for a senior Indian general that led to cancellation of the bilateral defence dialogue. And Chinese pricking on the Sino-Indian border through regular intrusion is rather well known. What is clear is that China is quite prepared to box down India both on the land as well as on the seas!
This indicates to a situation where the Sino-Indian relationship remains engulfed in an environment of distrust which further erodes several developments in political, economic and military fields. Due to trust deficit, even normal developments in Chinese military modernization are often read with alarm in India. Witness for example, the recent testing of the Chinese aircraft carrier that should have been read as a logical step in Chinese naval build up. Instead, it was interpreted by many journalists as another step towards Chinese encircling of Indian waters. There was little realization that India also has one and in fact at one point boasted two aircraft carriers.
The asymmetrical gap between the military prowesses of the two countries is here to stay since India’s own military modernization will lag behind China for considerable time in future. The Agni V missile having a range of 5000 km, though in final stages of testing, will take years for full development and deployment and will still not be an effective deterrent to China. Since India is militarily weak, all advancements in Chinese military modernization would be read with alarm and could be misinterpreted as enhancing China’s threat capacity to India. Such an unfortunate perception would be inimical to the fragile peace process on the disputed border. Perhaps, the solution lies in revitalizing the stalled defence dialogue between the two countries.
The views expressed in this article are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of India.