No need to trust China

Nantoo Banerjee
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s year-end assurance that China is ready to work with India for the “steady and sound growth” of bilateral ties and it is committed to upholding stability at the border areas where a stand-off has prevailed since 2020. The statement, believed to have been meant for an international audience, is untrue. Only last month, Chinese troops clashed with well positioned Indian soldiers near the Tawang sector of Arunachal Pradesh. In January 2021, another face-off left troops on both sides injured. India’s construction of a new road to a high-altitude air base is seen as one of the main triggers for a deadly Galwan Valley clash in June 2020 with Chinese troops claiming at least 20 lives. Tensions continue to simmer though China is concerned about the possible economic fallout as it runs a massive trade surplus with India. Wang Yi’s assurance on China’s readiness to work with India for the “steady and sound growth” of bilateral ties may have more to do with economic ties than military disengagements.
The Government may disagree, but two of India’s defence services – Army and Air Force – are hardly powered enough to militarily take on China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which China disputes, or to recover China-administered Aksai Chin that India claims as part of its Leh District in Ladakh. The political statements on India’s military strength to match the People’s Liberation Army and Air Force are exaggerated. Although the Indian Army and Air Force have vastly improved their fire power over the years, they don’t seem to be a match for China’s military strength, either on ground or in the air. The reason is simple. India is not spending enough on its military to protect its territorial sovereignty. This is despite the fact that the country is almost continuously driven to fight frequent challenges from its two belligerent neighbours – China and Pakistan. India shares a 3,488 km-long land border with China and 3,310 km-long land border with Pakistan.
The Global Power Index 2022 ranks China (third) and Pakistan (ninth) as the world’s most powerful militaries. Although India ranks fourth, it is far behind the US, Russia and China. India needs to raise its defence expenditure at least three times to come anywhere close to China’s defence budget of 1.45 trillion yuan ($229.5 billion) in 2022. India’s defence budget for 2022-23 was only Rs.5.25 trillion (Rs.70.6 billion). Despite the growing threats from both China and Pakistan and emerging security challenges, India’s defence spending in 2021-22 dropped by four percent in terms of the government’s total expenditure over the previous six years. In fact, over two-thirds of India’s military budget goes to salaries, pensions, and routine services for army, navy and air force personnel, leaving less than a third for capital expenditure on military systems and arms. Months after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power at the Centre, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his 2015 address at the Combined Commanders’ Conference, had urged the defence establishment to focus on technology rather than “constantly seeking to expand the size of our forces.”
However, the defence department’s technology focus continues to remain restricted for want of adequate funds for capital expenditure. In June, 2022, the military introduced a new recruitment scheme called Agnipath (path of fire) in an effort to overhaul its cost structure. The scheme came under fire from the opposition parties and even angered neighbouring Nepal, which supplies Gurkhas to Indian Armed Forces under an agreement dating back to British rule. Agnipath recruits come under a four-year contract. After the fourth year, 25 percent Agnipath soldiers are offered a full military career. Around 46,000 soldiers are expected to be recruited into the three services under the scheme in 2022-23.
On paper, India may find comfort from the “PowerIndex-score” of the Global Firepower Index, and publications from organisations like the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) as one of the world’s strongest armies. However, on ground, it is of little relevance since the country is under constant military threats from China and Pakistan. India’s increasing merchandise import dependency on China poses an additional concern. It is not clear if the Global Firepower Index missed the point in its “PowerIndex-score” for India. The Index is supposed to work on 50 parameters to give the ‘PowerIndex-score,’ which includes weapon numbers, weapon diversity, natural resources, including available industries to the workforce, financial stability, logistical capability, and geography etc. while rating the military forces.
Although there may not be an immediate possibility of China attacking India or creating a war like situation in the subcontinent simply to settle its border disputes, its attitude may change if the Asian military giant is pushed to take on the US military to establish its sovereign command over Taiwan with which both the US and India share special relations. In a way, the current China-India diplomatic relations also hang in balance with China earning large trade surpluses year after year. China is unlikely to take military action against India to risk its bi-lateral trade and economic advantage. Also, a China-India war is expected to involve the US and its allies on India’s side in their strategic interest in the Indo-Pacific region. However, China may continue to periodically escalate the military tension across Indian borders to expand its territorial control beyond the so-called LAC in the absence of a strong and sustained Indian military action to push China on the defensive.
The fact remains that India has to go a long way to build an effective military force to take on both China and Pakistan to protect its land borders. High altitude and difficult terrain pose a challenge for the Indian Army along the LAC. The Chinese side is well connected with roads, airports and new villages created to accommodate permanent settlers. Lately, India’s Border Roads Organisation (BRO) is strongly working to improve the infrastructure on the Indian side of the border. The BRO has been assigned to develop and maintain strong road networks in the key border areas along Ladakh, western Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. The government says it is carrying out infrastructure development “aggressively” on the LAC in order to counter the Chinese aggression in the border regions of Arunachal Pradesh. Nevertheless, it is a tough task, requiring massive deployment of funds and technical resources.
Three months ago, a report by ‘The Guardian’ newspaper quoting locals near India’s border with China in the mountainous region of Ladakh said India “ceded” land to China after both sides agreed to withdraw troops from the contentious areas. Local Indians accused the government of giving away swathes of land after both sides agreed to withdraw troops from some contested areas and create buffer zones. On December 20, last year, the two sides held a corps-commander-level meeting (17th round) at the Chusul-Moldo border connection point with India reportedly pressing China for complete disengagement at the friction points, including Demchok and Depsang. However, there seemed to be no progress on the Ladakh impasse in the talks. Also, there was no word on the military clash in Arunachal Pradesh. This is truly disturbing. The government must step up the budgeted expenditure on building right defence infrastructure in the region, creating roads, tunnels, airports and domestic settlements to support military movement to effectively thwart Chinese aggression. (IPA)

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Op-Ed