India scored a tentative victory in last year’s confrontation with its northern neighbour. But as both countries seek power in the Indian Ocean, New Delhi must not underestimate Beijing’s growing military strength.

By Meia Nouwens, Research Fellow for Chinese Defence Policy and Military Modernisation

There is growing evidence of increasing Indian concern at the scale and breadth of Chinese activities across the Indian Ocean region. The question is whether this concern has come too late and whether India is capable of confronting an increasingly confident China in its backyard, or, at least, of having a significant impact in influencing and shaping Chinese behaviour.

In 2017, China and India relations saw a temporary souring as the result of the Doklam dispute: the 70-day-long standoff between the Indian armed forces and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces along part of the 3,500km shared India–China border, after the latter attempted to extend a border road through the Doklam plateau. The standoff was ultimately solved through diplomatic means, but not before some robust military deployments on India’s side.

On the face of it, India seemed to emerge from the Doklam standoff with a slight advantage, or, as the Chinese might perceive, having not just saved but gained face. However, a week before the 90th anniversary of the founding of the PLA, China’s defence-ministry spokesperson 'urge[d] the Indian side not to take any chances or hold any illusions'. He added that the PLA of today is more capable of defending national sovereignty than ever before and that ‘Shaking a mountain is easy but shaking the People’s Liberation Army is hard’.

But it may be a different story when it comes to the Indian Ocean region. India’s view that this is its ‘own lake’ could conflict with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), of which the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) component crosses through the Indian Ocean region. The MSR has two elements: westwards to the Mediterranean Sea and southwards along the coast of East Africa. BRI investment projects are dotted along these two sea lanes, with Chinese infrastructure investments in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Tanzania, among others. Added to these is China’s first overseas base, in Djibouti.

Indian air force: reliability issues

Although India’s firm reaction during the Doklam standoff might have caught the Chinese by surprise, the confidence in New Delhi that that has clearly produced should not necessarily be transferred immediately to a face-off with the Chinese over influence in the Indian Ocean region. While India has significant natural geographical advantages over China when it comes to the Indian Ocean, on 21 July 2017, India’s Controller and Auditor General (CAG) issued a report in parliament that raised major questions about India’s defence preparedness and capability across the board.

The report found serious faults in the maintenance of Il-76 transport aircraft and upgrades to fighter aircraft. Indeed, India could soon also lack serious air capabilities. Old jets such as the MiG-21 are overdue for retirement, and a broadly older fleet of aircraft saw a high incidence of crashes between 2012 and 2017 – 29 fighters and trainers, including five Su-30MKI combat aircraft, crashed due to human error or technical defects. Eight Su-30MKI have crashed since the type’s introduction to Indian service in 2002.

Chinese military modernising at an astonishing rate

While the CAG report highlights the need for the modernisation of India’s armed forces across the board, China in contrast has been engaged in a comprehensive reform of the PLA since 2015. In addition to organisational and operational changes, China has modernised the PLA’s equipment at an astonishing rate. For example, when comparing current Indian and Chinese naval capabilities, China has more than three times India’s total number of principal surface combatants (cruisers, destroyers and frigates), as well as nearly four times the number of attack/guided-missile submarines. On top of this, according to Military Balance+ data, China currently has four Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs), while India has one Arihant-class SSBN in test. And while China and India currently have only one aircraft carrier each, the PLA’s rapid naval-expansion plans could see its navy have possibly up to four aircraft carrier battle groups in service by 2030, which is likely to be significantly ahead of India’s to deliver its aspiration for three such carrier battle groups.Table showing Indian and Chinese naval strength. Credit: IISS

More importantly, although New Delhi launched its ’Make in India‘ programme in 2014 in order to boost its domestic defence industry, China has been driving its own innovation initiatives to reach its goal of turning the PLA into a world-class fighting force by 2050 and fully achieving modernisation by 2035. The state-owned China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC) announced in March that it must ’speed up key breakthroughs, such as the realisation of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, new-style nuclear submarines, quiet submarines, and unmanned intelligent underwater defence systems’. While both countries still rely on arms and military-technology transfers, China’s innovation and domestic defence industry today only depend on foreign acquisitions for the most advanced technologies, such as aircraft engines. Furthermore, China is currently at the forefront of developing future technologies, such as hypersonic glide vehicles, quantum computing, artificial intelligence and robotics, as well as cyber and space capabilities.

Just how the broad China–India relationship evolves remains uncertain. Any Indian response to China’s challenge in the Indian Ocean is likely to take on a multilateral character. Some have suggested giving more teeth to the ‘Quad’ format (comprising Australia, India, Japan and the United States); however, the right framework may not yet exist. The Doklam standoff was a tactical victory for India, but any underestimation of China’s military strength and rapid development of capabilities will put at risk the credibility of any perception in New Delhi of the Indian Ocean as its ‘own lake’.

This analysis originally featured on the IISS Military Balance+, the online database that provides indispensable information and analysis for users in government, the armed forces, the private sector, academia, the media and more. Customise, view, compare and download data instantly, anywhere, anytime.

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