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China’s Military Modernisation – Shift In India’s Perceptions?

As appeared in www.saag.org

The Indian Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s articulations on China ’s military modernisation, noticed during his recent visits to Japan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), have justifiably raised many eye brows as they seem to reflect a subtle shift in New Delhi ’s official stand so far in this regard. Mentioning the issue specifically, government documents in New Delhi have on one hand stated that India ‘would continue to monitor’ the same; Mukherjee, on the other, has felt that India ‘need not be concerned’ over it.

In response to the concerns expressed by the Director-General of Japan’s Self-Defence Agency Fukushiro Nukaga over the implications to ‘regional stability’ from the PRC’s non-transparent defence budget, Mukherjee said (Tokyo, May 25,2006) [1] that ‘regional hegemony should not be tolerated’ and in the same vein positively noted the growth of good Sino-Indian relations in trade and defence. Later speaking to the Japanese newspaper Daily Yomiuri and three other media organs, he stated (May 29,2006) that he “does not see neighbouring China as an immediate threat. China is an important military power from the beginning. We are fully aware of it, but every country has its own perception of the development and modernization of their armed forces. We are aware of that”

Mukherjee repeated the theme of India ’s recognition to every country having its own perceptions on military modernisation during his talks ( Beijing , May 30,2006) [2] with General Guo Boxiong, Vice-Chairman of the PRC Central Military Commission. The visiting Indian minister said, “We both reiterated that reform of the military should not be seen as a threat to each other. Following the Memorandum of Understanding signed between the two sides, there will be greater exchanges of defence related information in the future, so that India need not be concerned by China ‘s military expansion. They are modernising, but so are we. Military modernisation is an ongoing process in every country”. The Chinese media [3]were prompt in highlighting that in assessing China ’s military modernisation, Mukherjee ‘has distanced himself from his Japanese counterpart’.

The Indian Defence Ministry Annual Report (2004-05) [4]commented, “ India would continue to monitor the development of military infrastructure by China in the border areas and its military modernisation including the maritime sector”. The corresponding Report for 2005-06 [5]while observing that the two sides need to proactively address all outstanding issues including the boundary question through peaceful means, added that “ India continues to monitor China ‘s military modernisation as also the development of infrastructure in the India-China border areas.”

In Sino-Indian relations, the position mutually accepted is that each country is not a threat to the other. However, on the specific subject of China ’s military modernisation, Mukherjee’s latest justification on the basis of every other country implementing the same process, clearly in contrast with his own Ministry’s positions so far cautiously viewing China ’s military build-up, marks a new trend in bilateral military ties.

What has prompted the Indian defence Minister to make a departure from his Government’s established positions? Does it indicate that India has gained fresh confidence to deal with the likely impact on India ’s security situation from China ’s active defence modernisation efforts? Or is it because India ’s new realisation that these efforts are a fait accompli to which the country should be prepared to tackle? Finding answers to these questions is not going to be easy. Perhaps one has to wait till New Delhi comes out with revised security perceptions relating to China . In any case, there seems to be a point in the arguments based on hard data of the West, particularly the US and Japan, that China is fast advancing its weapon systems and augmenting its power projection capability well beyond its borders, posing a threat to regional stability. Mukherjee obviously does not seem to share this perception.

The Indian defence Minister’s new soft line on China ’s military modernisation is not likely to get a quid-pro-quo from Beijing . China has not so far spoken in public approving India ’s military modernisation. Its State-controlled media had been harsh on proposals to supply advanced weapon systems to India under the last year’s 10-Year Indo-US Defence Relation Agreement (June 2005). They critically commented on the US-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement ( New Delhi , March 2,2006). On this issue, whether China would support India ’s case in the Nuclear Suppliers Group remains unclear. Also, though Beijing no longer makes a noise about the UN Resolution No.1172, which reprimanded India for its nuclear tests in 1998, there are evidences to suggest its continuing suspicions of New Delhi ’s nuclear doctrine. China remains ambivalent on the issue of India ’s permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council. Its ongoing military and nuclear assistance to Pakistan and strategy to gain influence at the cost of New Delhi , in India ’s neighbourhood do not speak of the PRC’s intentions to take note of India ’s security concerns as a factor in its policy making. Under such circumstances, Mukherjee’s soft line may send wrong signals to the PRC, which will from now on be glad to use the same in its favour to serve the interests of its ongoing vigorous propaganda campaign against the ‘China threat’ theory worldwide. As the power asymmetry between India and China is not easy to bridge in a short time, China ’s continuous march along the road of military modernisation despite international concerns, is likely to keep India in a tight spot, at least in the near term, in matters of defence and security.

(The writer, Mr.D.S.Rajan, is Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter , India . He was formerly Director, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, New Delhi . Email: dsrajan.orf@gmail.com)

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