The navy’s announcement that its warships had to chase out a Chinese vessel intruding into India’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) highlights the need for perpetual vigil and maintaining a high state of defence preparedness. The Chinese have been steadily increasing their activities in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and are disconcerted by the Indian presence in the strategic Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Unlike Southeast Asian countries which have been browbeaten by their giant neighbour in the South China Sea contest, India is the only regional power with a naval fleet that frustrates Chinese dominance from spilling over into the IOR region too.
Nevertheless, in terms of fleet strength China is witnessing rapid modernisation and expansion which India will not be able to keep pace with in the near future. Unlike the airforce, India’s naval indigenisation programme is on a stronger footing but the navy is unhappy that its share in defence allocation has slipped from 18% in 2012-13 to 13% in 2019-20. While government has claimed that it is increasing allocation for defence in the budget every year, as a proportion of GDP defence allocations including pensions have slipped from 2.28% in 2014-15 to 2.04% this year.
The navy’s frequent exercises with other friendly nations in the Asian and Pacific regions are a sure sign of how these countries value India’s ability to counter China’s rising aggression in the region. For a country with vast developmental needs too, it may not be possible to steeply hike defence allocation. This is where government must look towards defence modernisation that will help prune the salary-pension bill over the long term. The wars of the future will be less dependent on boots on the ground and this is a reality we must make peace with. With reforms like a Chief of Defence Staff, the potential for collaboration and eliminating redundancies between the three services is immense.