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Could India Match China Militarily by 2047?

India’s economic growth accelerated after 1990, along with that of China. China has, however, left India far behind in every sector, particularly defence. Going forward, the moot question is whether India will be able to shed its perpetual ‘country of the future’ image and become a developed nation, both as an economic and a military power by 2047?

By Asad Mirza

SPECIAL FEATURE

Usually, a comparison is made between China and India, based on several factors such as proximity to each other, and both’s ambition to be seen as the regional power and ultimately a global super power, in addition to a comparison of their big population size and development on various socio-economic indices, further historically both were prosperous civilisational peers through much of their past, and economically on par till around 1990.

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India’s rapid economic growth during the last quarter century has seen it emerge as a significant geopolitical power that political and economic experts say could see it one day match, or even surpass, that of its neighbour China.

In addition, for geopolitical reasons, India is seen as the only possible counterbalance to a rising China. But China has moved so far ahead during the last three decades that the critical question of whether India can ever catch up with its civilisational peer first comes to mind when, we mention 2047.

When we compare the two countries on various parameters, the most important ones are the economic development, various socio-economic indices and the country’s defence power. On the economic front, economic growth accelerated in both countries after 1990, but Chinese economy accelerated much faster and for a longer period, based on it becoming the production hub of the world leading to the skilling of its young generation much faster and cohesively managed by the state-led machinery.

India’s economic growth accelerated after 1990, along with that of China. China has, however, left India far behind in every sector, particularly defence

For India to become “developed” in the next 25 years, the Indian economy would need to grow at breakneck speed. And for that, it needs gen-next reforms and must take giant strides on various human-development indicators, too. China has shown it’s not impossible. India is a study in contrasts. It shows characteristics of a developed country in some ways but lags on most socio-economic indicators.

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However, for the sake of brevity, let’s focus on the defence capability or military strength of the two countries in this article.

Military Comparison of India and China

India and China appear to be in race to transform their military, and bolster their firepower this year. While Indian armed forces look to enhance “joint operational capabilities” in 2024, China’s military is focusing on “increased discipline and its on-going fight against corruption”.

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India and China both are undertaking far-reaching reforms within their armed forces in 2024, ranging from changes in recruitment and training, to how indigenous defence equipment is designed and developed.

Despite similarities in the military transformations underway in both countries, there is one key difference – while 2024 will be the “year of technology absorption” for India’s army, the Chinese military’s mission statement for the year is a “tough and protracted battle against corruption”.

As two of the world’s most populous countries and fastest-growing economies, India and China have emerged as major global players. With their geopolitical importance, both countries have invested heavily in their military capabilities in recent years, positioning themselves as regional and global powers.

As tensions between the two nations continue to simmer, it is essential to compare and evaluate the military strength of India and China. By comparing the military capabilities of India and China, we can better understand the potential implications of their rivalry for regional stability and global security.

When we compare the two countries on various parameters, the most important ones are the economic development, various socio-economic indices and the country’s defence power

Every county’s military might is determined is determined on the military arsenal which it possesses, a comparison of the Indian and Chinese might is shown below.

In the US Global Firepower 2023 rankings, China secured the second spot as the world’s most powerful country, while India stood at the 14th position on the list.

Table: A comparison of the military strengths of India and China

Indicator China India
Global Firepower Index Ranking (2023) 3 4
Available Manpower 761,691,468 (Rank 1) 653,129, 600 (Rank 2)
Fit-for-Service Manpower 624,869,113 (Rank 1) 515,555,492 (Rank 2)
Reaching military age annually 19,747,557 (Rank 2) 23,623,837 (Rank 1)
Active Personnel (Army) 2,035,000 1,025,000
Active Personnel (Navy) 2,60,000 65,000
Active Personnel (Air Force) 3,95,000 1,40,000
Defence Budget $230 billion (Rank 2) $54.2 billion (Rank 4)
Number of Aircraft (Air Power) 3,284 (Rank 3) 2,210 (Rank 4)
Fighter Aircraft 1,199 ( Rank 2) 577 (Rank 4)
Aerial Tankers 6 4
Helicopters 913 807
Airports 507 346
Tank Strength (Land Power) 4,950 (Rank 4) 4,614 (Rank 6)
Fleet Strength (Naval Power) 730 (Rank 1) 295 (Rank 7)
Aircraft Carriers 3 2
Helicopter Carriers 3 0
Submarines 78 (Rank 1) 18 (Rank 18)
Destroyers 50 11
Ports & Terminals 22 13
Share of global arms import 4.6% 11%

                                                                                           Source: CIA-The World Fact Book, Global Firepower, 2023, Wikipedia.

China is about 2.9 times bigger than India. China’s military strength surpasses that of India, making it a more powerful nation in terms of military. The Indian Army, with 1.25 million active personnel, is smaller than the Chinese Army, which has 2,035,000 active personnel. The Global Firepower Index indicates that China holds the third position in terms of air power, with a fleet of 3,284 aircraft, whereas India ranks fourth with 2,210 aircraft. As per the Global Firepower Index, China holds the top position in terms of naval power, with an impressive fleet of 730, while India lags behind at seventh place with 295 fleets.

India and China both are undertaking far-reaching reforms within their armed forces in 2024, ranging from changes in recruitment and training, to how indigenous defence equipment is designed and developed

Building-up Military Strength

While both India and China have invested heavily in their defence sectors and have made significant strides in modernising their armed forces, their approaches differ in many ways.

Though both countries started virtually from a blank slate, yet the Chinese defence capability has increased phenomenally, as compared to India.

Here, the approach adopted by the two might be the reason. India focussed on increasing its defence capability with the help of Russia, and initially along the way tried to become a self-reliant country too, but these efforts were taken half-heartedly and bore rather limited fruits.

On the other hand China too started building-up its defence capability with the Russian help, but very early it tried to marry the Russian technology with western advances. We can’t forget the various spy scandals involving Chinese scientists working as spies at various western defence establishments and stealing secrets related to the latest advancement in the army, naval and air defence sectors coupled with the latest in nuclear and computing technology. Here we would have to give credit to the Chinese ingenuity, which was able to adapt the western technology with the Russian prototypes and build a completely new version of various arms and armaments.

Moreover, in the geopolitical scenario, military spending has become one of the crucial factors for governments to protect themselves from their enemies. China recently announced its defence budget, raising the allocation to 1.6 trillion yuan ($222 billion). China has increased its defence budget due to its on-going tension with Taiwan and the US especially. However, China and India’s relations are also embedded with plenty of friction. Henceforth, India has continued to jack up its military budget every year. In the Interim budget speech 2024, the Modi government announced allocation of ₹6.21 lakh crore (approx. $75 billion), which is one third of the Chinese budget.

While both India and China have invested heavily in their defence sectors and have made significant strides in modernising their armed forces, their approaches differ in many ways

This makes us wonder how India will be able to compete with China and become a self-sustaining and a formidable military power by 2047? In addition, the sheer number of Chinese supremacy in three wings of the military might be daunting for India, but here the Indian ingenuity should come into play.

While China has built-up the numerical supremacy based on its state controlled apparatus, India can overcome this by adopting a judicious mix of both its public and private sector defence manufacturers. A classic case of the efficacy of this approach is shown by the strides made by India in drone manufacturing by harnessing the potential of private sector companies.

Moreover, the Indian defence planners and strategists should adopt a new strategy and plan by adopting a new paradigm shift in defence manufacturing sector. For example if we talk about increasing India’s naval power by increasing the number of its aircraft carriers, then it will be a costly affair.

Similarly, if the Indian Navy plans for a Drone Carrier, it might make sense, as due to a smaller size, the costs may come down drastically and aided to its agility it might be able to possess more fire power than a conventional aircraft carrier. Reportedly Iran and Turkey are secretly building such a carrier and China has already built such a carrier, though all details regarding it are still shrouded in secrecy.

In addition Indian military planners can also think about establishing a joint Himalayan theatre command, building-up a joint and geographically reconfigured Eastern and Western maritime commands, and inaugurating a Defence Electronic Warfare Agency.

Further, India should invest selectively in boosting and strengthening its command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) concept, develop more robust counter-C4ISR measures, to enhance the lethality and survivability of the Indian Army and Navy, and rationalising the Indian Air Force around a smaller number of multi-role aircraft.

Military spending has become one of the crucial factors for governments to protect themselves from their enemies. China recently announced its defence budget, raising the allocation to $222 billion as compared to India’s $ 75 billion

It should also focus on bolstering its strategic partnerships through expanding maritime domain awareness cooperation with France, Australia, South Korea, Philippines and Japan, while fully leveraging security ties with the United States.

In fact, though the focus of Indian planners should be on expanding the Indian army and navy’s capabilities but they should also focus on expanding the fighting capabilities of IAF, as both the army and navy can succeed only when provided with additional tactical support of the air force.

Thus, the future strategies, plans and defence procurement system should be approached with a new thinking hat and should be formulated in a futuristic manner keeping an eye on the present trajectories of enhancing defence capabilities.

This approach should be a judicious mix of wedding demand and aspirations with new developments in the fields of AI and unmanned warfare. If the Indian state is able to rope-in the private sector under this initiative, which it has already started, then there might be a slim chance that India may be able to match-up with China by 2047.

-The writer is a Delhi-based senior political, defence and international affairs commentator. The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda