The India-China strategic relationship is stable at the strategic level, but it is marked by Chinese aggressiveness at the tactical level. Though the probability of conflict is low at present, it cannot be completely ruled out. Given China’s growing assertiveness in Asia, it has now clearly emerged that its rise is likely to be anything but peaceful. Under the circumstances, the US-India strategic partnership is emerging as a counter weight to China’s assertiveness and as a force for stability in Asia.
China is engaged in the strategic encirclement of India, both from the land and from the sea by way of the string of pearls strategy. The China-Pakistan nuclear, missile and military hardware nexus is a threat-in-being for India. Also, China is making inroads into Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and emphasising economic cooperation to justify building its own rail and road route linking Xingjian with Karachi. China and Pakistan have a cosy arms trade relationship. Their friendship, in President Hu Jin Tao’s words, is “higher than the mountains and deeper than the oceans.” Will they collude with each other in a future conflict with India? The answer to that question is undoubtedly yes. That is why two of the Indian armed forces Chiefs have said recently that there is a possibility of a two-front war in a future conflict either with Pakistan or with China.
China’s far from peaceful rise is marked by the fact that there is not a single bordering country with which China has not fought a war: the erstwhile Soviet Union, Vietnam, India, and Korea. They have shot down their own satellite in space. They have been firing missiles across the Taiwan Strait. They have begun to physically occupy some of the disputed Spratly and Paracel Islands. Due to internal contradictions there is a probability that some time in the future China may implode. There is also a possibility that China may behave irresponsibly towards its neighbours. China has been modernising its military at a very rapid rate. Its defence budget has been growing at 12-16% per annum in real terms. Therefore, 15-20 years down the line, when China has completed its military modernisation and resolved the dispute with Taiwan, it may turn its gaze southwards towards India. China will then be in the position of military strength and India will be in a position of relative military weakness. China will be able to dictate terms to India in the resolution of territorial dispute. The real driving force behind India’s strategic partnership with the U.S. is to counter China’s diplomatic aggression and military assertiveness. If China implodes or if China behaves irresponsibly, India would need a strong friend, if not an ally, and no one could be better than the US.
India should upgrade its military strategy against China from that of dissuasion to deterrence in terms of both conventional deterrence as well as nuclear deterrence. The army in particular lacks the ability to deliver a strong offensive punch across the high Himalayan mountains on to the Tibetan Plateau. Genuine deterrence comes only from the capability to launch major offensive operations to threaten the key objectives of the adversary. If the Chinese are convinced that India will launch major offensive operations across the Himalayas in retaliation for Chinese aggression, they will be deterred from waging a war. Local border incidents can, of course, never be ruled out. The strength of the Indian Air Force has gone down from 39 Squadrons to 32 ½ Squadrons. That should be unacceptable to India’s strategic planners. The Indian Navy needs greater support by way of budgetary allocations, capabilities for tri-Service amphibious operations and offensive air support in order to make it a genuinely blue water navy. The one weakness that China has is that its oil tankers and its trade pass through the northern Indian Ocean Region (IOR). If the Chinese decide to mess with India on the high Himalayas, they can be squeezed in the IOR.