The Indian Navy chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta today warned that contending with a rising China, especially in the light of the outstanding issues between India and China would be one of the ‘primary challenges’ before India. While he dismissed the idea of matching China militarily, ‘force for force’, saying the gap was ‘too wide to bridge’, he called for ‘harnessing modern technology for developing high situational awareness and creating a reliable stand-off deterrent’ keeping in mind China’s space weapons and cyber warfare capability. At the same time he called for engagement as ‘cooperation with China was preferable to competition or conflict’. He said this while addressing the National Maritime Foundation on National Security Challenges.
The Admiral said, “It is quite evident that coping with China will certainly be one of our primary challenges in the years ahead. China is in the process of ‘consolidating’ its comprehensive national power and creating formidable military capabilities. Once that is done, China is likely to be more assertive on its claims, especially on its immediate neighborhood.”
Explaining the challenge further he pointed out China’s space warfare capabilities hinting at the anti-satellite weapons capability that China is known to have as well as its capability for cyber warfare, especially keeping in mind the confidence shortfall between India and China. “Our ‘trust deficit’ with China can never be liquidated unless our boundary problems are resolved. China’s known propensity for ‘intervention in space’ and ‘cyber warfare’ would also be planning considerations in our strategic operational thinking,” he said.
In January 2007, China had destroyed an old weather satellite, reportedly with an SC 19 anti-satellite missile. In terms of cyber capabilities, the Chinese were also recently alleged to have hacked into systems in the US and stolen data on the F-35 Lightening II Joint Strike Fighter as well as having penetrated computer systems of various governments around the world, including an Indian embassy computer, and had especially been targeting systems for information on the Tibetan political movement. The US Pentagon as well as a UK intelligence assessment reported a clear cyber threat from China a few months back. The Indian Army too was reported to have conducted a war game called Divine Matrix which speculated on a possible Sino-Indian conflict over the next decade that would be especially marked by the use of extensive cyber-attacks.
Brushing away the idea of equality of capabilities between the two countries, he recommended engagement. “Common sense dictates that Cooperation with China would be preferable to Competition or Conflict, as it would be foolhardy to compare India and China as equals,” said Admiral Mehta.
Elaborating his point, he said. “China’s GDP is more than thrice that of ours and its per capita GDP is 2.2 times our own,” he said, adding, “India’s annual defence expenditure (approx $30 billion for 2008-09) is less than half of what China spends on defence. China’s official figure is under $ 40 billion but it is widely believed that China actually spends more than twice as much. RAND Corporation, the US DIA and other studies peg China’s defence spending to be anything between $ 70 billion to $ 200 billion.”
Speaking plainly the Admiral pointed out, “The gap between the two is just too wide to bridge (and getting wider by the day). In military terms, both conventional and non-conventional, we neither have the capability nor the intention to match China force for force. These are indeed sobering thoughts and therefore our strategy to deal with China would need to be in consonance with these realities.”
Significantly, Admiral Mehta pointed out water resources and the Tibetan issue, besides other more obvious points of conflict as likely causes of potential conflict with China and called for focused diplomatic effort. “Since resolution of the border problems, autonomy of Tibet, the China-Pakistan connection, competition for strategic space in the Indian Ocean and management of water resources would be prime causative factors for any potential tension with China, our diplomatic focus on these issues would have to be maintained,” he said.
“On the military front, our strategy to deal with China must include reducing the military gap and countering the growing Chinese footprint in the Indian Ocean Region. The traditional or ‘attritionist’ approach of matching ‘Division for Division’ must give way to harnessing modern technology for developing high situational awareness and creating a reliable stand-off deterrent,” said the Admiral. Significantly, India has recently announced the positioning of additional divisions in Arunachal Pradesh to more effectively secure the border there. China claims Arunachal Pradesh as its territory calling it ‘southern Tibet’, especially because of the presence of the Tawang monastery there.
Hinting at China, Admiral Mehta also said highlighted the importance of engagement with India’s maritime neighbors, hinting at the growing Chinese ‘string of pearls’ presence in the Indian Ocean. “On the Navy-to-Navy level, the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium or IONS, which was launched in February last year, is a significant military maritime construct to bring together regional navies and aimed at addressing common concerns. Our diplomatic utterances with regard to our maritime neighbors must be backed by cohesive engagement. This requires much greater coordination of thought and action between the Ministries of External Affairs, Defense and the Indian Armed Forces. Our maritime neighbors are the gateways to our strategic frontiers. We need to engage them as much as they need our presence and support. It would be imprudent of us to leave voids in this strategic neighborhood and watch others extend their influence in our backyard,” he said.