China’s rise as a major international actor is one of the defining features of the 21st century’s strategic landscape. On top of ongoing, comprehensive military modernization programs, sustained economic, scientific and technological developments have substantially elevated China’s international profile. The question being debated now among members of the academic and political community is whether a strong, prosperous and successful China is a threat to India and its interests.
Undoubtedly, China has been assuming new roles and responsibilities, both globally and within Southern Asia. Indeed, it was even stated in China’s 2010 Defense White Paper that its future has never been more intertwined with that of the international community than it is now.
The primary objective behind China’s military modernization is to gain a diplomatic edge in resolving certain disputes in its favor. In particular, China has increased the focus on Taiwan contingencies despite improved cross-strait relations. Certainly, the Taiwan factor has provided sufficient impetus for China to achieve strategic arsenals in addition to its nuclear deterrent capability. For the past three decades, China has been modernizing its strategic weaponry by acquiring anti-ship ballistic weapons, developing long-range missiles and hypersonic cruise missiles, and enhancing the capabilities of its nuclear warheads. It has also been developing new and complex military platforms that would be of great value to joint operations warfare.
China’s goal of using space for militarily strategic purposes has also raised concerns in India. The anti-satellite test conducted by China in 2007 demonstrated its intention to establish a strategic edge in space. Consequently, India has been pressured to formulate a proactive space policy able to handle potential challenges emanating from spacefaring nations, particularly China. However, the technological requirements in the field of space power projection are immense, and India’s response must reflect its strategic interests, especially the safety of its satellites.
Thus far, India’s reaction to China’s military modernization program has been relatively passive, and its development of strategic defense technologies has been overshadowed by China’s investment in R&D. On the other hand, India’s defense requirements have traditionally been quite different from those in China, and are predominantly dictated by the articulation of threat perceptions.
India’s defense concerns are primarily confined to its own neighborhood, and its aspirations for ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons are largely a response to China. In the existing geopolitical environment, India’s main goal is simply the containment of China’s growing sphere of influence.
China’s aircraft carrier potential complicates regional security even more in Southern Asia. There’s already a trend of regional military escalation brought on through such acquisitions by China. Aircraft carriers in particular are essential for projecting power far beyond a nation’s shores. China’s acquisition of aircraft carriers might therefore be seen not only as a step towards challenging U.S. pre-eminence on the high seas, but also a signal of its standing to the rest of the countries across the Asia-Pacific.
India is located in a complex geopolitical environment and how it copes with growing security challenges – and how it manages to protect its national security interests – will always be a key question for members of its strategic community.
The problem is that India’s future trajectory may be guided by the action-reaction syndrome that has taken hold in Southern Asia. The development of a coherent and systematic policy in India is therefore increasingly necessary, especially as it policymakers thrash out a response to a rising China.
Arvind Kumar is a Professor of Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal University in India.