Early this month, the Indian cabinet approved the army’s expansion by 86,000 soldiers, touted as the largest restructuring since the mechanization in the eighties. The additional capabilities are intended for the China front. This article examines the impetus behind the threat perception. While the strategic factor appears as the principal driver, there are other significant impulses that need factoring in to arrive at a sophisticated understanding of Indian defense and a nuanced view of the ‘China threat’.

Through the international relations prism, China is seen as the rising challenger to a US in relative decline. In the ensuing rebalancing of power, China is being contained by the US acting as an off-shore balancer, with the democracies in the Asia-Pacific at the frontline. India’s inclusion in the Asia-Pacific arc, dubbed recently by a former foreign secretary as the ‘Indo-Pacific’, makes of India a pivot in the south. The Indo-US nuclear deal, symbolizing increased proximity, has led to a greater distancing. A series of Chinese missteps, beginning with opposition to the deal at the IAEA, carry an intrinsic message that India finds inimical, if not intimidating.

Additionally, India needs the US for its own ends, one such being brought out by the National Security Adviser as, “Talk of strategic autonomy…has little meaning unless our defense production and innovation capabilities undergo a quantum improvement. A country that does not develop and produce its own major weapons platforms has a major strategic weakness and cannot claim true strategic autonomy.” This accounts for a measure of reliance on the US. The extent of this reliance is revealed in the latest US Department of Defense report to Congress on US-India Security Cooperation, that brings out, “As our robust exercise slate and ongoing operational cooperation demonstrate, some of the most promising U.S.-India defense cooperation takes place in the maritime domain.”

The strategic lens, drawing on the power play in Asia, takes off from the uncharacteristic observation two years ago by India’s otherwise mild prime minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, on Chinese ‘assertiveness’. China’s continuing embrace of Pakistan and the ‘string of pearls’ strategy in the Indian Ocean is taken as Chinese encirclement of India. The portents of a counter strategy are visible with the early winter visits of the heads of Vietnam, Myanmar and Afghanistan to New Delhi. The military position, a subset of the strategic, has crystallized since as the ‘collusive’ threat, with the army chief referring to a presence of 3-4000 military men in POK. The army has used the ‘two front’ scare to argue its case for the Rs 12000 crore expansion past questions raised by the defense ministry.

The strategic narrative apart, theory suggests that other impulses exist originating in the sphere of domestic politics and at the institutional level. These have not found mention in the debate surrounding the threat perception. Acknowledging their presence and relative significance of each, is necessary not so much to assess plausibility of the perception, but to bring out that threat perceptions require more than strategic logic to understand. The first question that needs asking is: ‘Who gains?’

At the political level, the right-of-center dispensation subscribes to a liberal strategic culture. Its neoliberal privileging of the economy in grand strategy, has led to a strategy of restraint. The government to escape characterization as soft on security can use the issue to appear responsive. The strategy appears to be to convey that India is not negotiating from a position of weakness. The sense of parity is necessary not only to impress China, but also to carry the domestic front along, since inevitably ahead there are trade-offs to be made.

Another facet at the political level is the invisible aspect of any nation needing an ‘Other’ for cohesion as a nation-state. While Pakistan has served this purpose eminently well, two reasons call for change. One is the increasing asymmetry in power between India and Pakistan and, two, is the unaffordable internal political use of the external bogey for internal political purposes by majoritarian nationalists. ‘China as threat’ instead not only displaces Pakistan, but also subsumes it in a wider threat.

Last but one, vested interests standing to gain from the ‘China threat’ can be expected to help foster the perception. This can be seen in the manner Indian media has taken to viewing China. The media has been fed with writings in this vein by the strategic community, increasingly funded by the emerging military-industrial complex. Defense offsets policy revisions have enabled foreign investment into the defense sector. With the western economy looking at a second recession in half a decade, there are also jobs to be saved abroad. Aggressive mixing of diplomacy with a military sales pitch accounts for New Delhi as a favored diplomatic destination.

Looking ‘into the box’, India’s defense budget has expanded twice over in the last six years. The three armed services are in a scramble in which role redefinition would determine access and relative salience for the future. With Pakistan having receded as the threat fixation, the China card is handy in this.

Examining China through multiple lenses—strategic, political and organizational—indicates that though China is a ‘threat’, it is much less than projected. The gap between projection and reality reveals a more nuanced understanding that is more about India internally than its external strategic circumstance. This is in keeping with what critical international relations theory suggests, that states are not quite billiard balls. Drawing on its insights helps bring balance into perceptions. Doing so will help materialize the Indian prime minister’s vision that adequate space exists for both grand civilizations in Asia.