The Indian military sees China as its biggest threat, as Chief of Defense Staff Bipin Rawat made clear in an interview in June 2021. The Indian Army has moved 50,000 troops to its border with China in 2021, with about 20,000 troops in the Ladakh sector. So how does the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) view India? The PLA’s media, including the newspaper PLA Daily and the TV program “Defense Review,” offer some insights. It views India’s growing military cooperation with the United States with some concern but generally does not consider India a major threat.
Since 2018, in its articles and videos about India, the PLA’s online media have focused mainly on India’s partnership with the U.S., discussing the topic 23 times. It has featured India’s defense industry and arms purchases, discussed 21 times. India’s growing ties with the U.S. have often been juxtaposed with its relations with Russia, which have been discussed 13 times. By contrast, there were surprisingly few in-depth analyses or opinion pieces about the Sino-Indian border dispute, even during the Ladakh skirmish in 2020, with most articles about the issue being brief press releases about meetings to resolve the issue and using language such as “easing tensions,” “maintaining communication,” and “avoiding misunderstandings.”
Overall, we can conclude that the PLA does not consider India one of its primary security challenges and emphasizes maintaining peace on the border. It perceives India to still be attached to its long-running non-alignment philosophy in its relations with the United States. While the PLA sees India as behaving in an increasingly aggressive and expansionist manner in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, it downplays how far India’s actions in these latter theaters could go.
A 2013 book by the PLA Academy of Military Science in Beijing titled “Science of Military Strategy,” translated into English by the U.S.-based China Aerospace Studies Institute in 2021, covered India in greater depth than any other recent PLA publication. In its view, India’s post-Cold War military strategy has been mainly about establishing and maintaining hegemony and absolute military superiority over other countries in South Asia, keeping China and other major powers out of its sphere of influence. Though written in 2013, the book also foresaw increasing strategic cooperation between the United States and India and something akin to the United States’ “Indo-Pacific” strategy. It predicted that this would accelerate India’s eastward advance, which would link up with Japan’s southward advance, to form “dual arcs” in the Indian and Pacific Oceans that intersect in the South China Sea.
More recently, writers and experts in PLA media have reaffirmed the view that India is linking its Act East policy with the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy, seeing an opportunity to consolidate its dominance in South Asia and increase its control over the Indian Ocean. This explains why India has set up a network of bases and stations around the Indian Ocean in countries and territories including Madagascar, the Seychelles, Mauritius, the Maldives and India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and has conducted exercises with the United States near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Wang Xiaopeng, an expert from the Ocean University of China, stated on “Defense Review” that in addition to its Act East policy, India under Narendra Modi also maintains a “Southward” policy, whose goal is to gradually control the Indian Ocean: up to 500 nautical miles beyond its shores should be under India’s “absolute” control, 500-1000 miles under “medium” control, and beyond 1,000 miles under “mild” control. Increasing strategic cooperation with the United States not only allows India to achieve these aims; according to Wang, it also means that India “clears the way” for the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific.
Chinese military experts also see India’s closeness with the United States and other powers as a means for India to upgrade its weapons and defense systems and realize its goals on land. On the two countries’ intelligence cooperation, PLA Military Strategist Du Wenlong said on “Defense Review” that India could become “American Eye” a dangerous move with “sinister intentions.” However, experts on “Defense Review” are also of the opinion that recent Indian arms purchases from the United States do not actually give India a significant advantage and are mostly aimed at “buying American support” as well as domestic media consumption. Moreover, Chinese military analysts argues that progress implementing defense agreements between the United States and India, such as the four foundational agreements, has been slow, mostly talk with little action. Thus, any “alliance” between the U.S. and India is unlikely to last.
Some Chinese military experts use the term “strategic mutual utilization” – as opposed to genuine alliances – to describe India’s recent cooperation with the United States and United Kingdom. India has been using closer cooperation with these powers to gain access to technical knowledge so that it could improve its own production of defense equipment. A key move in this respect was the signing of the Industrial Security Annex with the United States, which allows U.S. companies to share sensitive technology with private Indian companies. It is a common Chinese viewpoint that it is mainly the United States that pushes cooperation with India, based on its own interests such as selling arms to India (outcompeting Russia) and containing China. One article argues that the United States will want to “constrain India’s military development to a track that it can control.”
Chinese experts nevertheless recognize that India would not let itself be manipulated. New Delhi regards itself as a major power and wants to use its relationship with the U.S. to accelerate its own growth as a military and economic power while maintaining its strategic autonomy. As India becomes more powerful, the partnership could face challenges. Above all, the prospects of a true “alliance” between the United States and India are held back by a long-running philosophy of non-alignment in India’s foreign policy.
India-Russia relations are also often cited in PLA media as a factor preventing India from forming a true alliance with the U.S. Lou Chunhao, a professor at the China Institutes for Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), notes that New Delhi and Moscow have diverged on China-U.S. relations as well as the Indo-Pacific strategy and that as a result their ties are bound be less close than they were previously. Nevertheless, they are unlikely to part ways completely, due to their lack of historical animosity and the fact that they do not pose any security threats to each other. Moreover, there is still great potential for cooperation in military and other domains that the two countries would not want to waste – for example, Russia will want to compete with the United States for the Indian arms market. As one expert put it in “Defense Review,” Russia’s recent strategy has been to “both beat and pull India,” to warn it from getting too close to the United States while also offering opportunities for economic and military cooperation.
Furthermore, PLA media view India’s recent military exercises along its borders and coastline as reflective of a trend to “provoke bigger countries and suppress smaller countries” in its neighborhood. Certain purchases and tests of weaponry (such as Agni-5 missiles in 2021) are seen to be aimed more at politics and domestic consumption, to hype India’s big power status. Surprise attack drills near the Sino-Indian border in 2021 in particular were derided by Wang Xiaopeng and Du Wenlong on “Defense Review,” where they pointed out that with the unfavorable conditions on India’s borders, launching such attacks would be a foolish move. Such exercises, they argued, are thus meant primarily to divert domestic attention away from other issues including India’s struggles in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
For its part, the PLA emphasizes a need to maintain friendly relations with India. A 2017 article in the journal China Military Science, published by the PLA Academy of Military Science, stated that while the border dispute between the two countries is complex, they should be guided by the idea of “maintaining the status quo and joint management and control.” A 2019 article in National Defense, another journal published by the PLA Academy of Military Science, discusses the importance of maintaining the security of a maritime supply line that passes through the Strait of Malacca and, by extension, of maintaining friendly relations with India and other countries that border these water bodies.
As a corollary, PLA media (and Chinese media more broadly) didn’t cover the 2020-21 confrontation in Ladakh as extensively as did Indian media. Articles on the matter on the website of PLA Daily are limited to statements made by Chinese military leaders following talks with or statements by their Indian counterparts, with one article admonishing Indian media for increasing tensions.
Overall, PLA media portray India’s recent moves as reflective of a binary “either non-alignment or alliance” trap. While the PLA has since 2013 perceived India to be moving away from non-alignment and entering a quasi-alliance with the United States, China’s military thinkers are now of the view that this is partnership unlikely to last long. Although India’s recent actions at both land and sea are viewed as provocative and reflective of an expansionist trend, the PLA and its media generally downplay the threat India poses to China.