Foreign Policy Watch: India-China

The missing piece in India’s defence jigsaw puzzle


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much.

Mains level : Paper 2- Understanding the implications of China's rise for the security of India.


The country needs a clearly articulated white paper on its defence needs which sets out its strategic concerns.

India’s defence deals in the pipeline

  • The first lot of Rafale fighter jets are expected shortly.
  • The final deal on the 200 Kamov Ka-226 light utility helicopters from Russia is in advanced stages and expected to be signed soon.
  • In October 2018, India and Russia had signed a $5.4-billion mega-deal for the S-400 Triumf Air Defence System.
  • Under contemplation today are yet another set of high-value U.S. defence deals, including additional purchases of P-8I Maritime Reconnaissance Aircraft and Apache Attack Helicopters.
  • NASAMS-II: Speculation is rife that India and the U.S. would sign a deal for the National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System (NASAMS-II).
    • Which is intended as part of a multi-layered missile shield to protect Delhi.
  • The U.S. side is also hoping for two more mega defence deals, worth $3.5-billion to be signed for 24 MH-60 Romeo Multi-Mission Helicopters for the Navy and an additional six AH-64E Apache Attack Helicopters for the Army.

Need for the white paper

  • Given India’s rising global profile, and with two major adversaries on its borders, India needs to be fully prepared.
  • A missing piece: What is lacking in the defence jigsaw puzzle is a well-considered and clearly articulated white paper on India’s defence needs.
    • The white paper would deal with?
    • It sets out its strategic concerns.
    • How it is positioning itself to meet these challenges.
    • The putative costs of meeting the country’s defence needs.
  • Explain the Pakistan threat: In the case of Pakistan, the threat motif is, no doubt, obvious.
  • India’s political and defence establishment are on record that India can easily defeat Pakistan, even if a “weaker” Pakistan possesses “nuclear teeth”.
    • What is needed? A great deal of effort is called for to-
    • Explain to the public, the true nature of the threat posed by Pakistan.
    • And why India is so confident of beating back the Pakistani challenge.
  • Explaining the China threat: Meeting the military, strategic and economic challenge from China is an entirely different matter.
    • Understanding the nature of the threat: China is not Pakistan.
    • While China and Pakistan may have established an axis to keep India in check, explaining the nature of the threat posed by China to India is a complex task that needs to be undertaken with care and caution.

The China threat

  • Is China an existential threat for India?: There are many experts who express doubts as to whether China intends today to pursue its 19th Century agenda, or revert to its belief in ‘Tian Xia’.
    • Undoubtedly China aims to be a great power and an assertive one at that.
    • India’s defence planners should, however, carefully assess whether there are degrees of “assertiveness” in China’s behavioural patterns.
    • There is little doubt that regarding its claim to areas falling within the ‘nine-dash lines’ (the first island chain), China is unwilling to make compromises.
    • Whether this applies to other regions of Asia and the Indo-Pacific, calls for an in-depth study.
  • The analysis is needed: It would be premature for India without undertaking such an analysis, to adhere to a common perception that China is intent on enforcing a Sino-centric world order in which India and other countries would necessarily have to play a secondary role.
  • What after analysis? If after undertaking such an “analysis”, it appears that China does not pose a direct threat to India’s existence, strategic and military planners need to come up with a different set of alternatives.
  • Western influence over thinking about China: In recent years, much of India’s strategic thinking regarding China’s aggressive behaviour has been coloured by that of the U.S. and the West.
    • Though it is a proven fact that China has not used lethal military force abroad since the 1980s.
  • Concerns over BRI: China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) does convey an impression that China seeks to put itself at the centre of the world.
    • The speed with which many of the steps to progress the BRI are being taken again conveys an impression that China is intent on shrinking the physical and psychological distance between Europe and East Asia.
    • No intention of confrontation: This does not, however, necessarily mean that China is preparing to confront individual countries in Asia, such as India, which do not subscribe to the BRI.

What would the white paper explain?

  • Answer to whether China is a threat to India? A defence white paper would provide a more definitive answer to such issues.
    • A detailed exercise to assess whether China is indeed a threat, rather than a challenge, to India should prove invaluable.
    • It is possible that a detailed study may indicate that China understands that there are limits to its strength and capabilities.
  • China’s weaknesses: Several instances of late have shown the frailties in China’s policies –Hong Kong, Taiwan, and even Xinjiang are instances that indicate that China has its own Achilles heel.
    • Consequently, China may not be ready, for quite some time at least, to seek a direct confrontation with India.
  • Conflict or furthering the influence? A defence white paper may also indicate that rather than a “conflict-prone” role, China is more intent on an “influence-peddling” one.
    • This is important from India’s point of view.
    • Converting economic heft into strategic influence: Already there is one school of thought that believes that Beijing is better at converting its economic heft into strategic influence, rather than employing force beyond certain prescribed areas.
  • Coming to understanding over the respective sphere of influence: If the above view is espoused by a defence white paper then, despite the vexed border dispute between India and China, the two countries could try and arrive at a subliminal understanding about respective spheres of influence.
    • What is India’s major concern? Today, one of India’s major concerns is that China is attempting to intrude into its sphere of influence in South Asia, and the first and second concentric circles of India’s interest areas, such as Afghanistan and parts of West Asia.
    • The peaceful co-existence: The defence white paper might well provide a strategic paradigm, in which India and China agree to peacefully co-exist in many areas, leaving aside conflict zones of critical importance to either, thus ensuring a more durable peace between them.
  • Is geo-economics is the primary arena of competition: One other outcome that the defence white paper could attempt is: whether China views geo-economics as the primary arena of competition today.
    • Avenue for cooperation: China has invested heavily in artificial intelligence, robotics and biotechnology, and perhaps, India needs to recognise that rather than blacklisting Chinese technology Tech firms, (which could prove counter-productive) there exist avenues for cooperation, paving the way for better state-to-state relations.


The defence white paper needs to underscore that a country’s domestic politics are an important pointer to a stable foreign policy. There could be different schools of thoughts within a nation, but equilibrium needs to be maintained if it is not to adversely impact a nation’s foreign policy imperatives. An impression that the country is facing internal strains could encourage an adversary, to exploit our weaknesses. This is a critical point that the defence white paper needs to lay stress on.

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