India’s decision to seal the deal and fast-track the acquisition of 36 Rafale fighter aircraft from France in flyaway condition seems to have resulted in ostensible unease in China, as was amply visible by means of its state-controlled media. Defence upgrades are critical for India’s larger military modernisation in wake of the growing security threats, risks and concerns, posed in its immediate and extended neighbourhood. China’s vocal discomfort is uncalled for, more so since Beijing itself has run a robust and forcefully uninterrupted military modernisation campaign for 38 years now. The Indian Air Force currently has 33 fighter squadrons, each consisting of 18 fighter planes, further requiring 45 combat units to counter a combined threat from China and Pakistan. These existential realities continue to be primary drivers for the Indian armed forces as they push forth for accelerated military modernisation to further bolster the existing conventional and nuclear deterrent, and dissuade these threats.
Beijing has been attempting to drive home an agenda, that of India “deploying the recently bought Rafale fighter aircraft capable of carrying tactical nuclear warheads near disputed regions with Pakistan and China…” This kind of blatant mis-reportage should be termed as perilous that only magnifies China’s own regional insecurities. It remains well known that India has not, and does not, intend to go down the path of employing nuclear weapons for battlefield usage (colloquially referred to as tactical nuclear weapons). India’s nuclear deterrent value remains embedded in its nuclear triad and the unambiguously enunciated nuclear doctrine.
Attempts to view the Rafale deal in isolation should be termed as grossly irresponsible on Beijing’s part, given that France and India are strategic partners, whose bilateral equation is based on converging views on the foundational values of individual liberty, rule of law and most significantly, valuing their strategic autonomy. Defence cooperation is an integrated part of the larger strategic partnership between Paris and New Delhi.
Chinese print media’s articulation that “China’s neighbours, including India, are hyping the so-called China threat” cannot be more baseless. Beginning with challenging the notion of the Indian Ocean Region being India’s strategic backyard, China is gradually upping the ante in the maritime realm around India. Secondly, the nuclear, missile, and military hardware nexus between China and Pakistan is known to be collusive and poses a major strategic challenge to India. China’s direct assistance to Pakistan for its nuclear weapons programme since 1980s, including nuclear warhead designs and enough HEU (highly enriched uranium) for at least two nuclear devices, has been well documented. In fact, China was placed under the international scanner for more than two decades owing to its clandestine transfer of dual-use technology and materials for the development of nuclear weapons to Pakistan. Because of these illicit activities, China was in gross violation of its treaty obligations under the NPT and the MTCR.
In the military realm, China subsidises Pakistan’s defence budget, with almost 50% of China’s surplus arms being exported to Pakistan at “friendly” prices. It is this equation because of which the Indian military, today, faces a two-front threat situation from China and Pakistan. Thirdly, China has consistently misused its veto power to put on hold a ban sought by India on Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) chief Masood Azhar as a terrorist and mastermind behind the Pathankot terror attacks. The ban would subject Azhar to a range of punitive sanctions. It remains well acknowledged that the JeM was listed by the sanctions committee as far back as 2001 for its terror activities and links to Al Qaeda. This is a repeat of a similar action undertaken by Beijing to shield a Pakistan-based terrorist belonging to the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, who was the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.
Besides, it is not just defence upgrades in South Asia that China is rattled with. The recent decision undertaken by South Korea and the US to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system was met with an abject and unveiled threat issued by Beijing—that of being “destined to pay the price for their decision to deploy an advanced missile defence system which will inevitably prompt a counter attack”. Tensions are mounting on the Korean peninsula owing to North Korea’s biggest nuclear test, preceded by a satellite launch and a volley of missile test launches, while receiving the shadow protection and tacit support of China, which continues to remain Pyongyang’s sole benefactor. Recall that Beijing unlawfully remained at the centre of the nuclear proliferation web that ran across Asia since the decade of the 1980s, thereby undermining and altering the regional strategic security balance in South Asia and Northeast Asia, permanently.