China’s defence budget, which will grow by 11.2 percent in 2012 and top $100 billion, has given rise to paroxysms of anguish in India and elsewhere.
When framed against the backdrop of reports that a cash-strapped Indian government proposes to cut back on its defence budget for this year by a few thousand crores of rupees, this has kept strategic analysts awake with nightmares of China’s PLA soldiers marching into Tawang – and, this time, not retreating back into Chinese territory after having made a forceful point (as they had in 1962).
Reports that India’s recent binge in arms buying have eaten into the defence budget, and that the armed forces have been directed by the civilian bureaucracy to “prioritise” their purchases going forward have also given cause for disquiet among analysts who worry that India will be unprepared in the event of an armed conflict.
To be fair, such fears abound not only in India. Conservative US thinktanks too fret about the fact that China’s defence budget continues to rise while America’s is decline. “China’s increased defence spending… signals a growing PLA capability against both neighbours and the US,” notes Heritage Foundation’s analyst Dean Cheng. He then calls on the Obama administration to “reverse the decline in (defence) spending” if it is serious about US intentions to keep the peace in Asia, as a foil against China’s intimidation of its neighbours.
The US ‘pivot’ towards Asia, which US President Barack Obama announced during a tour of Asia in November 2011, will refocus US attention in the Asia-Pacific, from where it had been diverted away during the George W Bush years as the US waged war in Iraq and Afghanistan and got bogged down in an unending “war on terror”.
But that US move was also widely perceived as the beginning of a new “cold war” with China, which had been asserting its sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, and effectively intimidating its maritime neighbours.
Much of the fear of China arises from its own lack of transparency about its defence budget: even this enhanced defence budget figure camouflages many other heads of military expenditure, and to that extent understates China’s defence spending.
But, as strategic analyst B Raman notes, Indian security assessments vis-à-vis China tend to err by focussing excessively, and almost exclusively, on perceptions of China’s military strengths.
In fact, India is far less vulnerable to Chinese military threats than our shrill commentaries make it out to be. As strategic analyst Nitin Pai notes, fears that China “will do another 1962” on India are vastly overstated. “This leads to paranoid outrage on violations of the line of actual control, gratuitous self-flagellation on being ‘too weak’, followed by demands for us to invest in military capabilities to fight a land war on our north-eastern frontiers.”
Much of this discourse, he points out, ignores the role of nuclear deterrence in preventing direct military conflict between the trans-Himalayan neighbours.
In fact, Pai adds, nuclear weapons are a kind of ‘New Himalayas’ that keep India secure. “As long as they are high —that’s where the minimum credible deterrent comes in—it is inconceivable that China or any other power will see merit in mounting a direct military invasion.”
In fact, even the jingoist commentaries about China from out of the US have been blind to the real threat that China poses to the US is in the economic arena; China has thus far been ‘winning’ that war. Over the past 30 years, as China has pressed on with its mercantilist, authoritarian capitalist model of economic growth, it has steadily chipped away at US manufacturing – and scooped out the core of US middle-class jobs.
By some estimates, even US stimulus spending after the financial crisis of 2008 ended up creating more jobs in China than in the US. (That theme was the focus of a controversial political advertisement by a US Republican candidate for Senate Pete Hoekstra; it was controversial for the reason that it was seen as racist – and dishonest, to the extent that Hoekstra himself had voted for several spending programs. But the larger point about China eating Amerca’s lunch is more true than not.)
So long as China persists with its mercantilist trade policies, an open embrace of economic relations with it, as many “friends of China” advocate in India, is fraught with risks.
Today, China wields many more levers of power over India than just traditional military threats. For instance, China was able to leverage its economic muscle within the ADB and block the disbursement of a loan to Arunachal Pradesh on the claim that it was “disputed territory”. In response, India withdrew its loan request, which effectively concedes China’s point. In other words, China was able to establish its case over Arunachal Pradesh with the international community – without sending a single PLA soldier across the LoAC or firing a single missile.
It’s those kind of asymmetrical threats that India needs to be wary of, not China’s array of missiles and nuclear weapons.
In the modern era, power springs not from the barrel of a gun but from economic might. And so long as India has more people living in abject poverty than sub-Saharan Africa, it will never be truly ‘strong’, however much it may spend on its defence budget. India thus has many things to fear about China, but its $100 billion defence budget is the least of it.