By: Neeta Lal

New Delhi’s decision to deploy the BrahMos supersonic missile – the world’s fastest anti-ship cruise missile, which can fly at 2.8 times the speed of sound – in the disputed northeast state of Arunachal, has left its rival and neighbor fuming as big-power tensions flare between China and India. 

Within days of the announcement by Cabinet Committee on Security, chaired by PM Narendra Modi of its decision to raise a new regiment equipped with a special version of the missile, the PLA Daily, the official publication of the People’s Liberation Army, warned that the move could lead to “counter-measures” from China.

“India deploying supersonic missiles on the border has exceeded its own needs for self-defense and poses a serious threat to China’s Tibet and Yunnan provinces,” the commentary said. “Deploying BrahMos missiles is bound to increase competitiveness and confrontation in Sino-Indian relations and bring a negative influence to stability of the region,” it added.

The commentary, authored by an expert from the PLA Navy’s Engineering University, also presented a detailed assessment of the nature of the threat to mountain warfare posed by the deployment.

The deployment of the cruise missiles is the latest in what is starting to look like an arms race between the two countries, which have endured numerous standoffs along the Line of Actual Control in recent years despite joint goodwill tactical exercises in Ladakh. On March 8, Chinese PLA troops alarmed Indian defenses by intruding 6 km inside Indian territory in Ladakh near the Pangong lake area. They were countered by an Indian Tibetan Border Police patrol, after which the Chinese hastily retreated.

Chinese troops, analysts say, often intrude into Indian territory as both countries have never mutually agreed the line of actual control demarcation in Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh. In fact, tension has been par for the course since 1962 when India and China fought a bloody Himalayan war along the 4057-km line of control, the world’s longest between any two countries.

In 2013, a several weeks-long incursion by PLA troops soured India-China bilateral ties followed by the two signing an agreement to “manage” their border peacefully. In 2014, during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India, PLA troops crossed over the LAC as well, leading Xi to express his displeasure to the PLA upon his return from Delhi.

Beijing is also making inroads along the border with its infrastructure, a source of deep worry for India. It is enhancing regional connectivity between Tibet and the rest of China by adding a new railway link with the area, which will run near the disputed border with India at Arunachal Pradesh.  It has also set up massive infrastructure in Tibet and Xinjiang, including airports, roads, and a rail network, rattling Delhi.  

As a counter reaction, India has started to ramp up its conventional military deterrence against China along the land border as well as the strategically located Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Deployment of additional Sukhoi-30MKI fighters, spy drones and missiles in the northeast as well as tank regiments and troops in eastern Ladakh are all part of India’s game plan to counter Beijing’s growing  assertiveness in the region.

Despite such measures, however, India is at best playing only catch up, analysts say.

“India’s road and rail connectivity remain a major problem along the disputed LAC where Chinese troops transgress frequently,” said the defense ministry source. “And though the government has green lighted several infrastructure development projects along the border, most of them remain mired in military turf wars and political/bureaucratic apathy. Given these ground realities, China’s hue and cry over BrahMos is hugely misplaced.”

The US$800-million advanced version of the BrahMos missile, reinforced with additional features such as steep-diving capabilities, has been developed jointly by India and Russia. It can be launched from submarines, ships, aircraft or land and can carry conventional warheads of up to 300 kg.

According to a senior official in the defense ministry, the Indian Army has so far raised three regiments equipped with two earlier versions of the BrahMos, also jointly developed by India and Russia. “The missile has also been fitted on Indian warships. The new regiment for the northeast will have some 100 missiles, five mobile autonomous launchers on heavy-duty trucks and a mobile command post,” the source told AS.

Despite Beijing’s discomfiture over BrahMos’ imminent installation, however, overwhelming Indian public opinion supports the ruling coalition’s decision. The public is also dismissive of Chinese fears over the issue. In fact some opposition parties have endorsed Modi’s decision, saying such measures are imperative to deliver a symbolic as well as literal message to India’s neighbors that the country is strong enough to hit back at its enemies if the situation merits.

“When the neighbor comes to know that you are capable of hitting and at your time and your call, I think that sets the agenda,” said Tom Vadakkan, a member of the country’s largest opposition party, Congress.

Meanwhile, Indian army officials and defense experts are dismissing China’s public irritation as routine posturing.  “I can’t fathom what the fuss is all about, considering such fortification is part of any nation’s defense vocabulary, particularly one which has a hostile neighborhood. There’s no reason for China to feel threatened considering its own defense outlay for 2016 at US$146 billion is three and a half times India’s. In fact China’s spend on defense is larger than the next three largest Asian economies ,Japan, India, and South Korea put together, ” said Vikas Godbole,  a former Indian army captain.

“The Chinese are busy replacing their old inventories with modern strategic missiles, space-based assets, aircraft carriers, fighter jets, warships and cutting manpower. Its military build-up has rattled the region, particularly because they have taken an increasingly assertive stance in its territorial disputes,” wrote defense columnist Anil Chopra in DNA newspaper.

Nearly 40 percent of China’s military activities like cyber intelligence and dual use acquisitions are not even reflected in its defense budget. Beijing’s 2016 defense budget has increased 10-fold from its 2000 level at US$14.6 billion, Chopra added. Beijing is also looking to enhance its naval reach and is building its second, entirely domestically designed aircraft carrier. Its state-of-the-art aircraft programs include two stealth fighters (J-20 and J-31), large military transport aircraft Y-20, and AWACS KJ-2000.

In such a scenario, say critics, China pointing a finger at India’s attempts to beef up its capabilities along the border by deploying UAVs and Su-30 combat jets, is laughable. “These measures are imperative to protect its borders given frequent Chinese incursions and transgressions in the region,” Godbole said.

Neeta Lal (neetalal@hotmail.com) is a New Delhi-based editor, journalist and photographer and frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel