“Weapons are like money; no one knows the meaning of enough,” British author Martin Amis once warned. Today, two of Asia’s military giants are working on proving him right.
China has hiked its annual defence budget this year by 12.7% and now spends $91.5 billion on its armed forces. Or perhaps more: a recent article in the Financial Times quoted a retired lieutenant-general from the Indian military with an estimate of unofficial spending taking the total to $150 billion.
“How are we going to compete?” he wondered. His counterparts in the military are asking the same question, and have urged New Delhi to beef up its own spending. India’s defence budget is $32 billion – almost a fifth of Beijing’s outlay (if the estimate of ‘unofficial’ spending is to be believed).
WiC has covered before some the of uneasy history to Sino-Indian military rivalry. India lost a border war with China in 1962, and the two nations continue to disagree on the demarcation of a 4,000km stretch of shared frontier (see WiC35). India also worries about the nuclear and financial assistance provided to its rival Pakistan by the Chinese (see WiC72). There have also been spats over water security (Chinese dams in Tibet), as well as anxiety about perceived naval encirclement (see WiC35 to read about Indian distress at a new Chinese-built port in Sri Lanka).
Numerical comparisons don’t augur well either. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) numbers 2.25 million versus India’s 1.1 million troops. New Delhi spends 1.8% of national GDP on defence, compared to an official spend of 2.25% in China.
Aside from the amount, there is also the question of how effectively it is spent. According to Indian web portal Rediff News, boosting expenditure will not necessarily solve all the problems plaguing Indian defence policy. The country’s defence acquisition process has been mired in corruption, preventing the defence ministry from spending its full budgetary allocation for years.
And then there is the leadership from the top. As the retired lieutenant-general put it in the FT article: “We have celebrated our 64th independence day, and we still don’t have a national security strategy.”
But do the Chinese feel the rivalry with India quite so keenly?
In fact, the question extends into other spheres of Indian society: the New York Times reported recently that making comparisons with China had become a “national obsession” for many Indians.
But the fixation looks a little one-sided. “India measures itself against a China that doesn’t notice” was the article’s headline.
In fact China’s PLA seems much more energised by evening-up the balance of power with US forces in the Asia-Pacific region. Meanwhile China’s own government wants to get out the message that it has no hostile intent.
Last week the State Council released a white paper on China’s “peaceful development”. In case of confusion, it points out: “The Chinese nation loves peace. China will not engage in arms races with any other country, and it does not pose a military threat to any other country.”
To be fair, there have been a few widely-reported incidents that have run counter to that claim (especially a maritime tussle with Vietnam, see WiC111). However, it appears one recent military controversy was a media invention. In July it was reported that the Indian Navy ship INS Airavat was confronted by the Chinese en route to Vietnam, asked to identify itself and explain its presence in ‘Chinese Waters’. This inflammatory news caused anger in India.
But the Economic Times now reports that an Indian navy spokesperson denied it even happened: “There was no confrontation involving INS Airavat. Media reports of it being stopped by a Chinese vessel are incorrect.”
And on the business front a more cooperative tone too: Dow Jones reports that Chinese banking giant ICBC has just opened a maiden branch in India to fund investments in the power, telecom and infrastructure sectors.
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