India vs China: Explaining Military Strength Beyond Numbers

China is the biggest spender on defence in Asia. In the financial year 2023-2024, India allocated $73.9 billion, while China reserved $229 Billion of its budget for the military.

India vs China: Explaining Military Strength Beyond Numbers

India has 1.45 million active personnel and China has 2.03 million soldiers.

New Delhi:

India has been ranked as the fourth strongest military in the world, just after China, according to the Global Firepower Index, a platform that analyses data based on factors that determine a nation's war-fighting capability. 

China is the biggest spender on defence in Asia. In the financial year 2023-2024, India allocated $73.9 billion, while China reserved $229 Billion of its budget for the military. The Centre for Strategic and Investment Studies (CSIS), a US-based think tank, has said China's defence budget is higher than the published figures. 

According to the Global Firepower Index, China's defence budget is the second highest globally and India stands at number four. The huge gap between India and China should be attributed to the difference in the size of GDPs. India is the fifth-largest economy and spends 13 per cent of its annual budget on defence. Meanwhile, China is the second largest economy in the world. 

India has 1.45 million active personnel and China has 2.03 million soldiers in the PLA Army, Navy and Air Force. Viewing the imbalance in power between the Indian and Chinese military through statistics is myopic, considering factors like operational deployment, experience and nuclear capabilities of both nations are crucial.

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The People's Liberation Army (PLA) was the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) during the civil war. When Mao Zedong came to power, the PLA became the national army and the Air Force and the Navy were its two other components. With more active personnel and a strong domestic industrial complex, the PLA has an advantage over the Indian Army in terms of statistics, but the world's two strong armies, with nuclear weapons, fighting a long war is highly unlikely. Any future armed conflict is expected to be limited to the border like the Galwan Valley clash in 2020. 

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China reorganised its military into seven commands based on geography and operational needs. Christopher K Colley and Prashant Hosur Sahas, in their research paper, 'India-China and Their War-Making Capabilities', explain the advantage Indian troops have at high altitudes. The Western Theatre Command of China is the largest of the seven commands and is responsible for operations along the LAC. 

Around 2.5 lakh PLA troops are under the command but only 40,000 are in Tibet, the rest are deployed in the Xinjiang, Sichuan and Chongqing regions. Quick mobilization is vital and at high altitudes, speedy deployment with little to no time for acclimatization can result in high-altitude sickness. Brad Lendon, a military affairs expert, writes, "India maintains an edge in high-altitude mountainous environments, such as the one where the 2020 face-off is taking place."

Large portions of Chinese troops are not stationed at high altitudes, while the Indian forces have more experience in high-altitude operations and are deployed close to the border. The Himalayan plateau is uneven with variations in elevation and puts the PLA at a disadvantage due to its positioning.  

During the Doklam standoff in 2017, the PLA's single approach to the region through the Chumbi Valley was within Indian artillery range and before the standoff even began, more Indian troops were already present in the region as part of forward deployments. 

The Chinese military has had no combat experience since it invaded Vietnam in 1979. Meanwhile, the Indian Army, with the help of the Air Force, managed to mobilize at least 200,000 troops during the 1999 Kargil conflict to fight Pakistan at high altitude. Indian troops are stationed at the Siachen Glacier and force commanders have rich combat experience because of the counter-terrorism operations in Jammu and Kashmir.

Air Force

China has 3,304 aircraft, while India has 2,296 in all the forces. China's J-20 Chengdu is its fifth-generation stealth fighter. India only has 4.5 generation fighters like Rafale and Tejas MK1A won't be a fifth generation. Most of the IAF fighter jets in the current fleet were acquired in the late 1980s and '90s and are still in service and induction has been slow. The Tejas programme was envisioned in 1985 and the induction took several years. 

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The PLAAF has fewer fighter jets positioned in Tibet compared to the IAF. According to Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Centre, around 180 Chinese aircraft are present under the Western Command and their responsibility is not limited to the defence of LAC along India but other nations like Mongolia, Russia, and Myanmar. 

India has 270 fighter jets positioned in different commands to counter China. If we ignore the difference in posturing, the PLAAF jets are not located close to the border and for any attack operation, the jets have to choose between fuel or payloads for long sorties due to long combat radius compared to the IAF. An Indian MiG-21 shooting down Pakistan's F-16 in 2019 is the latest incident to demonstrate an IAF pilot's combat capability.


The argument of combat experience enters the discussion when India and China's military capabilities are compared. The argument holds some relevance as experience helps in survivability and performance. In an article on RAND, Timothy Heath, a defence researcher, writes that though China has a high-tech arsenal, its ability to use these weapons is unclear. 

China has a fleet strength of 730, which includes 61 submarines and 3 Helicopter Carriers. India has a fleet strength of 294 with 18 subs and 0 Helo carriers. The development of the Chinese Navy has been significant and worth appreciating. 

The growth was aimed at countering the US Navy against Taiwan, but China's interest in the Indian Ocean started a decade ago with its economic growth.

India and China are blue water navies, meaning they can operate globally with their aircraft carriers. Its objectives would be to defend the 'Sea Links of Communication' in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and any conflict would not occur in the Pacific but in the IOR. 

The QUAD alliance between India, Australia, the US and Japan aims for the safety and security of the Indo-Pacific region. China has deep interests in the South China Sea and a conflict with Indian Navy would happen in the IOR, implying that the Chinese Navy has to move its fleet from the South China Sea toward the Indian Ocean Region, giving Indian Navy time to choke transit point like Strait of Malacca and get support from QUAD partners.