Representational image of China's People's Liberation Army | Photo: Justin Chin | Bloomberg
Representational image of China's People's Liberation Army | Photo: Justin Chin | Bloomberg
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China’s People’s Liberation Army is in a bad temper. Although a part of this could be attributed to rising tensions along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh, the majority of the briefings and commentaries from the PLA are focussed on the actions of the United States and its officials. These include a virtual declaration of imminent conflict by Defence Secretary Mark Esper, followed by a speech in Hawaii. In both, the overall message was that the US was ready for confrontation with a power that has the temerity to challenge a ‘near-peer’ rival and has little respect for other countries’ interests.

Then there was the Pentagon’s annual report on China, which provided the detailing of the threat. There’s more from Esper’s deputies, but this was enough for the PLA spokesperson to see red, even while Beijing’s media went ballistic.

For India, warnings of Chinese aggressiveness are superfluous given the ongoing conflict. Forecasts of superior Chinese power did not affect Delhi’s decision to meet the threat head-on, something that other countries need to acknowledge. China is certainly a power to reckon with, but it is not quite the dragon that the Pentagon – or Beijing – paints it to be.


Also read: Xi to focus on making China self-reliant as its international relations go into a tailspin


When Esper poked China

What seems to have raised China’s ire is Esper’s bold statement: “Unlike America’s Armed Forces, the PLA is not a military that serves its nation, or a constitution – rather, it serves a political entity, the CCP”. Senior Colonel Ren Guoqiang, spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence, declared it “groundless nonsense” and cited the Chinese Constitution to declare the PLA “an armed force created and led by the CPC” with the goal of serving the people wholeheartedly.

One wonders what the families of those unnamed soldiers who died at Galwan on 15 June have to say about that. Esper then went on to call the Indo-Pacific “the epicenter of great power competition with China”. That bears thinking about, especially when the US has now declared the Chinese Navy as “the largest navy in the world“.


Also read: Why US and China should seek a truce in their tech Cold War


US military still superior

According to the report to Congress, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has “an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines including over 130 major surface combatants. In comparison, the U.S. Navy’s battle force is approximately 293 ships as of early 2020”, thus giving an estimate of overall strength, not a ship-to-ship comparison. As naval experts point out, the US is far superior in terms of its nuclear-powered submarines not including the emerging Columbia class dubbed as the quietest in the world.

The US is also far superior in its aircraft carriers, with China’s only two being conventionally powered and thereby losing out on cruising endurance, apart from onboard tech. China does have a formidable fleet of smaller frigates, corvettes and fast attack craft, all of which means that it has an ascendancy in its claimed waters.

The US also has 40 bases at home and nine overseas, which doesn’t include stopover ports like those off the Indian coast. China has three large home ports and one overseas port at Djibouti, but according to the Pentagon, is planning a dozen more, including in Pakistan and Myanmar.


Also read: China has a ‘win-win’ game plan. India’s app ban and new weapons won’t change that


China has caught up fast

But as the report points out, China’s shipbuilding pace is enormous, commissioning 18 naval ships in 2016 to the US’ five. But here again, countries buying Chinese naval ships are primarily Pakistan and Bangladesh,  and less so Thailand, Malaysia, Nigeria, Algeria, and Egypt. None are among the top navies, but two are India’s neighbours.

There’s more — that the PLA has the third-largest aviation force in the region, though even paupers like Pakistan would rather buy US F-16 than produce JF-17; that the PLA is the largest army in the world, but hasn’t fought a war since 1979; that the rocket forces are set to double their warheads, though they are now at a low 200 (India has around 150). In sum, a RAND analysis of 2017 concludes that China can now challenge the US in its immediate periphery. Beyond that, it’s at a severe disadvantage. In short, while there is no doubt whatsoever of Beijing’s intention of maintaining a rising trajectory, it’s not there yet.


Also read: Xi Jinping wants to be another Mao. He thinks conflict with India-US will boost his image


China’s range of woes

Maintaining the pace is going to be difficult in a pandemic-hit world. China is in a major food crisis as floods hit farmlands, pushing the second-largest wheat producer in the world to import heavily. Domestic soya prices doubled 30 per cent despite release of inventories. China cannot feed itself, and imports of US corn are at its highest since 2014.

Reports also point to 80 million jobless post pandemic even as another 8.7 million joined the ranks of job seekers this year. Experts note an even more serious development. Large banks such as China Construction Bank and the Bank of China have posted the biggest profit drops in a decade. Official figures put the drop in GDP at 6.8 per cent, with the actual figures likely to be higher, despite, or because of, the $559 billion revival package.

Heavy government borrowing has led to Standard & Poor estimating a rise in debt to GDP ratio to 273 per cent. Corporate debt, in particular, is massive, causing a closed loop of bad loans and bank stress. Additionally, data indicates delay in Belt and Road (BRI) projects due to the pandemic, including in Pakistan; cancellation of mega projects such as the $10 billion refinery by Saudi Arabia; and the declared thrust to ‘decouple’ from China by major powers.


Also read: What really matters to China when it comes to the Quad. It’s not the security pacts


Pentagon’s ‘bigger is better’

None of this means that China is collapsing. But it does mean that Esper’s point about China being outwardly strong and inwardly weak may not be that far off the mark. If that is so, then the thrust to power may not be as rapid or as efficient as the Pentagon foresees.

It’s worth remembering that even as the Soviet Union collapsed, the Pentagon’s 1989 report was still extolling its prowess. Xinhua’s accusation that US ‘fear mongering’ is aimed at getting more appropriations from Congress may have some truth; but the threat is fleshed out by the PLA’s own aggressive actions.

The problem, however, is this. An exaggeration of the ‘Chinese threat’ may be counter-productive in keeping that country in check, particularly since the first talk of China’s ‘rising’ power emanated from Beijing itself. This perception is then used for ‘diplomatic dissuasion’.

Analysts need to break down the myth of an indomitable China, without, however, dismissing the very real threat. In some ways, that is what India’s armed forces are doing on the Ladakh border — showing resolution in defence, even while recognising that we are confronting a powerful enemy, who we once thought we could befriend.

The author is former director, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.

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33 Comments Share Your Views

33 COMMENTS

  1. To take the war to the Chinese, New Delhi should have these critical strategic assets. Yasen and Borei class submarines, Prometheus S-500 Missile defense system, Sukhoi 35, and Su-57 fighters.

    TU-160 will neutralize the growing fleet of Chinese bombers. This Russian supersonic bomber, White Swan, is the most powerful and largest missile carrier in the world. Antonov An-124 Condor, a large, strategic air lifter will boost logistics.

    The Bear will gladly oblige. They fully trust India. No other country shares bleeding-edge defense tech with us. Or lease us advanced nuclear submarines. In the Scorpène nuclear submarine deal, the French treat Indians and Australians differently. We pay more. Get less.

    Sign defense treaties with Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam. Indonesia, the Philippines, and the former Soviet West Asian republics. Give them our unbeatable man behind the machine concept. Especially our world-class all-weather hazardous training by IAF pilots. Joint sixth-generation fighter program with Japan.

  2. Wily, old weasel and notorious India basher, Henry Kissinger becomes the world’s laughing stock. Mike Pompeo, the Next Republican US president, condemned Nixon, Kissinger duos’ strategic pivot as the worst strategic blunder in history. Ditching Free India for China.

    At first glance, odds are heavily stacked against India.

    We don’t have to match the Chinese gun for gun or dollar for dollar. We have so many asymmetrical advantages, force multipliers, and hidden equalizers.

    China opened too many fronts simultaneously against so many countries. US, Europe, and West Asia.

    But in the Himalayas, in real mountain warfare, PLA will get three times the casualties of India.

    • I think India is also quite self reliant and while friendship with other countries count, India is now beyond looking at other countries for support

  3. Overplaying russias strength is what motivated americans to over build militarily against them and eventually win the cold war. To win against china we need to raise alarm bells not grasp at anything that minimizes their strength.

  4. This time India must call China bluff. If it tries to back stab, India must stand firm footed
    to meet them head on. We have wasted 7 decades pleasing the CCP, no more…

  5. more importantly
    India’s Debt to GDP is 87.6%
    China’s Debt to GDP is 273%
    US’s 105.4% (in USD)

    You really cannot fight on borrowed money

  6. Jingoist to the core. Knows which side of the bread is buttered. Remember war only benefits a few power mongers and vested interests. Only wailing of widows were heard after the Mahabharata war. Let good sense prevails in all.

  7. The US and Japan would have been extremely happy to get a chance to attack China. China decided to delay by a few years when it will be par with US and Japanese forces. Their ecocomy will be 10 times that of India. They are in no hurry.

  8. India and china should settle the border dispute on their own.If india rely on the US it will be a disaster… As US is not a reliable partner…India may find itself fighting alone in a two front war… That will be a disaster

  9. To be honest, militarily Soviet Union was indeed strong. It had competent fighters and equipment and had thousands of nuclear warhead.
    Unfortunately, it did not have the resources to back them up nor the economy.
    The case with China is the opposite. They have a strong economy but poorly trained and equipped armed forces. They are changing it, they may get the new equipment in a decade or two, but to get the army battle-hardened is another exercise.
    The skirmish with India might help them achieve that as well.

    • Issue is motivation. A conscript PLA soldier hardly cares to put on a big fight 4000km from home in the icy heights of Ladakh which he knows is really no basic interest or value or threat to him or his family. Him being the only child makes it worse. They desperately need to live. The Indian soldiers know their homes are just a few 100Kms south and will fight to the death. In Ladakh the PLA soldiers are really generally running away. I don’t blame them.

  10. The actual information in BBC is that India and China to quickly disengage from the Border standoff. This was opined by Foreign ministers of both countries and officially released the info today. Whereas the author feels that India should involve US in the engagement to muddy the water more. I think India and China can act as mature neighbors to put behind the issues and sort out things amicably, as more such standoff is detrimental to both. Column writers need to show maturity while writing an article.

    • BBC and China should never be trusted. Communists will ALWAYS workaround agreements as we have now seen in Hong Kong, South China Sea, and the LAC. A conflict with China is inevitable and is only a question of when. China does not want India to rise and India will rise, thus making a conflict with China inevitable.

  11. In a battle of David and Goliath, David Always WINS, when Goliath starts the fight. There is really nothing to be gained by showing your superiority by picking on David. Though India is no David. That makes it worse. Chinese perception is that India is David. They are dismissive and contemptuous of the Indian nation. The only thing the do not mind is the money they can make off you. At the end of the day, money has no compunctions. I think for China the Laddak situation is a lose lose situation. If they grab more land they will lose the Indian market. Forget doing business in India forever. If India percieves that they have lost something here, China will never be allowed to access Indian markets. India will join the Quad, India should and will pursue territorial aggression against China wherever it can. Indian will stop with the One China Polciy. We should start noise in Tibet and all other Chinese occupied lands.

    • Fact check – China is one of the 2 leading Trading partners , the other being the USA, accounting for approx 15 % of our annual trade. They have commenced heavy imports of Indian steel etc with the aim of making us more dependent on them, not less.
      We import more than they do of our goods. China’s annual trade is approx $ 2500 billion, India’s trade with China accounts for $ 80 billion – so 3 %. Now, there is news that China has started making finished items in the pharma and chemical fields, where India was strongest [ with imports from China of crucial API and Intermediates ] , so perhaps a SWOT presentation with data would help, rather than sentiment perhaps. China would be diffficult to dislodge as the lowest price seller and also as the largest bulk importer of coal, minerals, soya, rare elements, etc etc as can be seen from their growing trade figures for 2020.

  12. Everyone talks about Chinese food crisis and job losses. What about our job losses ? Are we secure in food? Don’t we have a looming crisis as well after recent floods in Bihar?

  13. Bloated balloon. Communist regimes hold lower based on propaganda. India has its growth organically. Rock solid foundation, soldiers willing to fight for nation and even people ready to pour money into wars, Kargil proved that. Fractures of China weakens whole army and air force fabric. I have seen them working very closely, it doesn’t impress me as neutral analyst. US, France, Israel, Russians still are strong competitors. reason, they believe in their community and packed with sense of high self esteem. Asians in general still look upto west. That’s the core of problem and solution.

  14. Great insights into what the Chinese espouses about their military power! However the most important point is that when there is a attack about sovereignity, very few countries simply submit to the bully. The country which meekly did was China itself, against USSR in 1979. Except Russia and USA, China think it’s powerful than any other country in the world and all others should do the same as it did with USSR; compromised it’s sovereignity. Against Vietnam it got a bloody nose. But it’s still not learning. Now Indian army is teaching them to behave. I hope they learn it sooner that “bullying” of other countries that it thinks are weaker is not going to work.

    • Chinese baaakwaz Cheng ezk, this is attempted for you fake chinese dad, who actually is a rabbit paki to have produced you from your mom. Congrats for a new dad.

  15. China has built for itself a larger-than-life-size image based on its booming economy and massive defence investments. But, unlike Indian Army, PLA or PLAAF have very little combat experience. But, India too fell for Communist China’s blitzkreig and responded timidly in 2014 when incursiions occurred when Jinping was on a State visit to India. While Modi was entertaining, Jinping’s soldiers were breaching India’s borders. But, the 56″ chest government could not send back Jinping for such offensive conduct. Doklam response from India was better. But not good enough. India is like a school boy who habitually obeys all the rules. Our political leaders lack nerve to even name China as agressor. China is a bully who habitually defies rules. Gradually, India is realising that PLA is after all, not invincible. Next time PLA soldiers come with matchets and spears, shoot couple of them dead. Won’t run back to Papa Jinping with their between legs?! There is a sanskrit proverb which translates thus: “A lion is not coronated as the king of forest. For someone who is valorous, leadership comes naturally”.

  16. Really? India has broken the myth?
    The author appears to be an utter idiot bereft of even the most basic military knowledge. But such crap is invariably the outcome when such people start to posture as “defence experts”
    Note:
    -there has been no fighting between the Indian Armed Forces and the PLA/PLAAF/PLAN. Just jostling, pushing and use of clubs. Is that what a fight between the US and China is going to look like? Sailors on ships and aircraft carriers of both sides assembling in, say, RoK, and jostling each other?
    -on one hand, India is regularly asking China to restore status quo ante – which means the Chinese have the advantage. On the other hand, there are these illiterate authors who keep claiming victory.
    Moron!!

  17. Excellent analysis and write up. this is the golden opportunity to the world powers to contain China because it is not a democracy but single party dictatorship and may become more dangerous than Nazis. riding on dictatorship tiger will only end when either tiger or rider collapsed. India has shown the way to the world. China must be punished for its COVID irresponsible attitude too.

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