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China’s Military Modernization: Responses from India

Arun Sahgal


This chapter examines the impact of Chinese military modernization on India’s military and strategic posture and outlines the country’s response to this growing security concern.

Main Argument

China’s military modernization, capacity-building, infrastructure development in Tibet, and moves into the Indian Ocean pose serious challenges to India’s security. China’s growing footprint in South Asia and attempts to bring peripheral states into its circle of influence only add to these concerns. There is a duality in approaches to dealing with these challenges: while broader political discourse underscores cooperation and downplays competition, there is nonetheless a growing realization that India needs to develop credible hard power as a dissuasive strategy against China. India’s strategic dilemma thus lies in shaping its political response to external balancing. Although there is the understanding of a strategic convergence between India and the U.S., there is little consensus on how to shape this relationship to further India’s strategic interests. New Delhi continues to face a policy dilemma about whether to be a regional balancer, a swing state, or a strategic hedge.

Policy Implications

  • The period between now and 2025 is one of strategic vulnerability for India. India needs to fast-track its plans for military modernization and its procedures for procurement.
  • India needs to develop a strong bilateral relationship with the U.S., based on a congruence of strategic interests, as a hedge against China.
  • To build its indigenous defense capability and industrial base, India needs to seriously examine the U.S. offer of defense cooperation, particularly in critical areas such as C4ISR, space, IT, and cyberspace.
  • India needs to initiate a discussion on fostering maritime cooperation among the Asian littorals in order to establish “rimland security.”

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India’s strategic concerns regarding China arise from the latter’s emergence as the most influential actor in Asia—one with the ability to shape the future balance of power. What is even more worrisome to India is growing Chinese influence in South Asia and the extended Indian Ocean region (IOR), where New Delhi believes Beijing is severely depreciating its area of influence. Furthermore, China is backing its aggressive assertions with a steady buildup of comprehensive national power and regional military capability. Its military budget has grown annually by double-digit figures for over two decades, with the current 2012–13 fiscal year (FY) outlay crossing $100 billion. This trend continues to fuel apprehension and concern that China will play an increasingly assertive role in Asia and beyond.

There is a general understanding in India that the main focus of China’s military modernization and grand strategy is geopolitical competition with the United States, particularly in light of Washington’s recently announced “rebalancing strategy” for the Asia-Pacific. Indian concerns about the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), however, arise primarily from what Robert Kaplan calls the “collapse of distance brought about by advances in military technology,” allowing countries to encroach on each other’s sphere of influence. [1] Although China tends to underplay the threat from India, both in terms of India’s military modernization and existing capabilities, Beijing has recently exhibited a tendency to look at these capabilities from the larger perspective of strategic collusion between India and the United States. [2] This tendency reflects a mindset that increasingly perceives India as a “near peer competitor”—one acting in concert with the United States—that could in the long run challenge China’s regional and global aspirations for preeminence. This is despite repeated assertions by the Indian leadership that India does not have major security issues with China other than the boundary dispute. [3]

India and China went to war over their 5,045-kilometer (km) undemarcated border in 1962. Today, New Delhi claims China illegally occupies 38,000 square km of its territory, while Beijing periodically asserts ownership over a 90,000-square-km area encompassing the northeastern province of Arunachal Pradesh. Although there has been an upswing in diplomatic, political, economic, and even military ties over the past decade—intensifying from 2004 onward—no resolution to the frontier dispute seems imminent. China’s continuing military modernization and incremental upgrading of its military posture in Tibet to enable rapid force deployment, backed by logistics capability and communications infrastructure, are worrisome to India. So are repeated incursions by the PLA across the Line of Actual Control (LAC), including into settled or undisputed areas like Sikkim in northeastern India. India looks upon these actions as coercive tactics to keep tensions alive and New Delhi on the defensive.

Another source of tension is Kashmir, which is divided between India and Pakistan—a close Chinese military and nuclear ally. A large tract of Kashmiri territory was ceded by Pakistan to China in 1963, the future of which is to be decided upon final settlement of the Kashmir issue between India and Pakistan. China has built a military highway in this territory and is unlikely to vacate the region. In recent years, Beijing has subtly joined the Kashmir dispute, weighing in on Pakistan’s side and causing New Delhi much discomfort.

Thus, the bilateral relationship is largely dictated by each country’s understanding of the other’s strategic vision, capabilities, and areas of influence. Any miscalculation of the other side’s military capability or core interests could degrade ties and lead ultimately to possible conflict. Given this trouble-ridden backdrop, this chapter aims to address two significant and interconnected policy issues: (1) the impact of China’s military modernization on India’s security, and (2) how India is responding to these... [Free preview ends here. See purchase information above.]


[1] Robert D. Kaplan, “The India-China Rivalry,” Stratfor, Global Intelligence, April 25, 2012.

[2] The details of Chinese thinking are outlined in He Zude and Fang Wei, “India’s Increasing Troop May Go Nowhere,” People’s Daily Online, November 15, 2011.

[3] “No Issues with China Except Boundary Dispute: SM Krishna,” Jagran Post, June 6, 2012,