India’s new external affairs minister S.M. Krishna may have been a surprise cabinet pick. But there should be no surprise that chief among Krishna’s long-term challenges will be China.
Krishna’s first press briefing on Saturday briefly noted China as one of many major powers India had to “consolidate its existing strategic partnership with”. But China’s place in Indian foreign policy cannot be compared with the relations we enjoy with the US or the European Union. As these columns have argued before, China is perhaps the gravest external threat to our security.
In a Sunday interview with the Hindustan Times, India’s Air Force chief Fali H. Major highlighted one aspect of this threat. He said, “The (Chinese air force) is huge in numbers. Its infrastructure and airbases are coming up in a big way.” According to a recent US Pentagon report, China boasts 1,655 fighters, including a brand new J-10 strike fighter it showed off at an air show in southern China last year. In contrast, India’s entire air combat fleet is well below 1,000; the purchase of 126 multi-role combat jets and development of indigenous light combat aircraft haven’t been completed.
The same inferiority in capability is seen when it comes to the navy. China seems prepared to encircle India, with bases at Gwadar, Pakistan, as well as in Myanmar and Sri Lanka—making the Indian Ocean the next stage for the Great Game.
That India is in an unstable neighbourhood is clearer than ever this summer. But troubles from Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Nepal pale when compared with China. Major added, “China is a different ball game compared to Pakistan… It’s certainly a greater threat.” China’s superior capability will surely colour its diplomatic interactions with India.
That point should not be lost on Krishna. The minister spoke of Sri Lanka and Pakistan at his press briefing, emphasizing peace and tranquillity in the subcontinent. But behind Maoist Nepal’s anti-India stance or Sri Lanka’s neutral posturing towards India is Beijing looking to increase its presence.
Krishna noted, “We desire to live with all our neighbours in peace.” But he should be clear that peace comes through strength in diplomacy and military capability.
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