India wary as China conducts biggest "long-range" war games

India's Navy chief says his military is no match for China's growing forces.

Less than a week after India and China held what they described as fruitful talks on a long-standing border dispute, China embarked on a massive war-game designed to improve its ability to dispatch troops over long distances.

Not surprisingly, some in India are concerned.

As China's economy has grown, so has its offensive military capabilities, which has fueled something of an arms race in Asia, particularly with the region's other emerging economic power, India.

As we reported in June, the Indian Ocean – the vital transport hub for the region's goods and energy – will likely become a region of increasing strategic jockeying as the world's two largest countries seek to secure their economic positions. China's approach is dubbed the "String of Pearls" strategy by US military officials.

China and India fought a border war over their poorly demarcated boundary in the Himalayas in 1962, and China has at times since claimed sovereignty over territory that appears to be well on the western side of the border (this map shows the disputed area.)

On Tuesday, China began a series of military maneuvers that it is describing as its "largest-ever tactical military exercise." The war games, called "Stride-2009," will involve 50,000 troops form China's more than 2 million-member standing army, and are designed to help China improve its "long-range force projection" by using high-speed civilian rail and civilian aircraft in rapidly moving troops, according to state news agency, Xinhua.

According to the PLA General Staff Headquarters, in charge of organizing the exercise "Stride-2009," one army division from each of the military commands of Shenyang, Lanzhou, Jinan and Guangzhou, will participate in a series of live-fire drills lasting for two months. Unlike previous annual tactical exercises, the army divisions and their air units will be deployed in unfamiliar areas far from their garrison training bases by civilian rail and air transport.

The exercise will have troops operating from up to 1,000 miles from their home bases. Though China is a vast country with significant internal dissent – rioting by ethnic Uighurs in Urumqi this July (and in Tibet last year) occurred more than 2,000 miles from Beijing – some neighbors fear it is intent on expansion.

The Times of India said strategists have long worried about the possibility that an expanding rail network in China could be used to "enhanc(e) China’s military superiority over neighboring India."

On Monday, Indian Navy chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta warned in rather stark terms that China's military is outstripping India's, according to the Hindustan Times. It was an unusually blunt admission:

“In military terms, both conventionally and unconventionally, we can neither have the capability nor the intention to match China force for force…” He said Beijing was in the process of consolidating its comprehensive national power and creating formidable military capability. “Once that is done, China is likely to be more assertive on its claims, especially in the immediate neighbourhood,” said Mehta, who as the Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee, is the country’s senior most military commander.

Two months ago, India's former Air Chief Marshal Fali Homi Major said China was a greater threat to India than Pakistan.

Further reading:

Briefing: Indian Ocean as new strategic playing field (6/28/09)

Chinese Army opens (small) window on operations (7/30/09)

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