Chinese President Hu Jintao last week urged the navy to prepare for military combat, amid growing regional tensions over maritime disputes and a US campaign to assert itself as a Pacific power. The navy should "accelerate its transformation and modernisation in a sturdy way, and make extended preparations for military combat in order to make greater contributions to safeguard national security," he said.

This comes at a time of great regional turbulence in Asia and when several Asian states have been concerned about the rise of the Chinese naval prowess. China has had a number of spats with regional states on South China Sea and the US has been making its presence felt to be a key balancer in the region.

The US response to Hu’s speech was muted as it suggested that Beijing had the right to develop its military, although it should do so transparently. Hu's announcement comes in the wake of trips to Asia by several senior US officials, including President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao last month warned against interference by "external forces" in regional territorial disputes including those in the South China Sea. China’s faster than expected military growth has caused concerns with first aircraft carrier beginning its second sea trial a few days back after undergoing refurbishments and testing.

As China upgrades its military and prepares its war-fighting capabilities, the question that Indians should ask: Is Indian government ready and willing to take on China to defend its vital national interests. Tensions between China and India have been rising for the last few years and India presents a tempting target for India. The UPA government is very weak at the moment beset with all sorts of challenges.

Despite being one of the largest defense spenders in the world, fundamental vulnerabilities continue to ail Indian defence policy. So while the Indian Army is suggesting that it is 50 percent short of attaining full capability and will need around 20 years to gain full defence preparedness, naval analysts are pointing out that India’s naval power is actually declining. During the 1999 Kargil conflict, operations were hampered by a lack of adequate equipment. Only because the conflict remained largely confined to the 150 kilometre front in Kargil sector did India manage to get an upper hand, ejecting Pakistani forces from its side of the Line-of-Control (LoC). India lacked the ability to impose significant military costs during Operation Parakram because of the unavailability of suitable weaponry and night vision equipment needed to carry out swift surgical strikes.

Few states face the kind of security challenges that confront India. Yet since independence, the military has never been seen as central to achieving Indian national priorities. India ignored the defense sector after independence and paid inadequate attention to its security needs. Indeed, it was not until the Sino-Indian War of 1962 that the Indian military was given role in the formulation of defense policy. Divorcing foreign policy from military power was a recipe for disaster as India realized in 1962 when even Nehru was forced to concede that India’s military weakness had indeed been a temptation for the Chinese. This trend continues even today as was exemplified by the policy paralysis in New Delhi after the Mumbai terror attacks when Indians to their horror found out that due to the blatant politicization of military acquisitions India no longer enjoyed conventional military superiority vis-à-vis Pakistan, throwing Indian military posture in complete disarray and resulting in a serious loss of credibility.

If India is unprepared to take on Pakistan, what credibility does Indian defence policy have vis-à-vis China? As China ramps up the war drums, the government should look at the issue of defence reforms seriously. But at a time when there is policy paralysis at the centre, it is very difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel.