A daily bulletin of news & opinion

19 October 2009

The Chinese government might not have let its own people watch the huge military parade that it staged in Beijing on 1 October (except on state-gilded TV). But farther afield others were watching the communist nation’s 60th birthday triumph very closely indeed. And they were not impressed by all the martial pomp and show.

It was hardly a coincidence that within days of the parade the head of the Indian Air Force – which is feeling increasingly outgunned by its Chinese rival – announced that he wanted to buy several squadrons-worth of new aeroplanes.

Bemoaning the fact that China’s fighter fleet is now three times larger than India’s, Air Chief Marshal P V Naik said he aimed to procure 50 new Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighter aircraft from Russia in a bid to balance China’s growing aerial muscle. India has already ordered 238 of the Russian planes – the Chinese air force also operates the Su-30 – and is in the process of selecting an even more advanced fighter, with defence firms from the US, Europe and Russia falling over each other to clinch what might prove to be the biggest defence export deal in history.

India is a rising power, but China is rising faster – and New Delhi is becoming increasingly nervous about its neighbour’s intentions. For millennia, the two great civilisations were happy enough for the high Himalayan fence to partition their world; India had one half of Asia, China the other.

All the while, each remained quietly convinced of its own cultural superiority. Modern India delights in its vibrancy and pluralism, and considers the homogenous Chinese a fairly dismal bunch. China, meanwhile, sees chaos, if not backwardness, in India’s sprawling democracy and regards the stellar performance of its own economy as proof that Indic individuality is something well worth sacrificing.

But our shrinking world meant that the two giants could not keep each other at arm’s length forever; and their mutual indifference ended for good in 1962 when China defeated India in a brief, but bloody, war that left a huge swathe of territory along the countries’ border in dispute. This sore in Indo-Chinese relations was then left to fester quietly for decades until both countries’ economic renaissance brought it back up the agenda as a potentially dangerous regional flashpoint.

A newly confident China has lately become more aggressive in restating its claim to these disputed zones, and huge Chinese infrastructure projects near the border have got the Indians ruffled. They in turn have responded with their own programme of road, railway and airstrip building to shore up their territorial claims. New Delhi also aims to station 50,000 newly raised troops in the remote, disputed mountains to guard against Chinese incursions.

The Indian military finds China’s confrontational stance especially disquieting. It remains more comfortable with its traditional role – fighting Pakistanis – and knows that it cannot hope to match China’s pace of military modernisation.

Unfortunately for New Delhi, Indian military procurement is the running joke of the defence world. Indian technicians have been developing a new tank, called the Arjun, since 1974 and they are still trying to make it work. Even worse was the Indian Navy’s decision in 2004 to buy a second-hand Russian aircraft carrier (which was badly rusted and had been gutted by a boiler room explosion) without bothering to properly inspect it; the bill for refitting the ship subsequently trebled to about $3bn. The litany of mismanagement and squandered funds goes on, and is long and scandalous.

But democratic India has one ace up its sleeve: that the US and Europe will gladly sell it the latest military technology, while denying this same opportunity to one-party China. This could give India a critical edge, should things ever come to blows, over China’s larger military machine.

Economists have started describing the two Asian giants as one vast entity: “Chindia”. The story of togetherness is likely to end there, however, as the tiger and the dragon square up testily along the Himalayan frontier.


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