When the tsunami struck the Indian Ocean towards the end of 2004, the support efforts from China’s military were limited in scope. This wasn’t down to a lack of will but a lack of flexibility – the country may have the largest standing army in the world, but it is not a very mobile one.
"Absolute numbers don’t matter. China has large numbers… but it can’t project power at long distances," said Prakash Satya Metaparti, a professor at Hong Kong University who specializes on military affairs.
India’s armed forces have a similar issue. The country has one of the world’s largest navies but it has never developed an ability to fight independently far from home.
"It was argued that we didn’t need to do that. We were not a country interested in this," said Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, a regular commentator on defense and diplomatic issues, in an interview with the Asia Society.
Both countries are putting a considerable amount of effort and resources into changing their lack of reach. The Indian navy has been moving out of the Indian Ocean, once the outside boundary of its area of operations, while China has its own regional priorities.
Increasingly, the two countries’ armed forces are willing to work together. In May, the chief of the Indian army visited China and the two forces have held joint exercises.
"[The relationship] is getting warmer. It used to be suspicious maybe three or four years ago but there have been military to military contacts in the last couple of years," said Metaparti.
But there are still a number of issues to overcome. One is Pakistan’s nuclear capability, which may be a direct threat to India and is accepted to have evolved thanks to Chinese technological assistance. Another is suspicion left over from the brief China-India border war in 1962.
For China more than India, military power commensurate with its economic status is increasingly a priority. Beijing’s official defense budget will rise 17% to more than US$44 billion this year, although independent estimates put expenditure at as much as three times this figure.
However, China’s military is still no match for the US.
"As of right now, the US provides freedom of the seas because of the power of the US Navy," said Joseph Lin of the Jamestown Foundation. But he notes that one potential hole is its submarine detection capabilities. China has invested a lot in new submarines.
The 2007 US Department of Defense report to Congress on China’s military strength noted that the mass army mentality is changing into one focused on "fighting and winning short-duration, high intensity conflicts against high-tech adversaries." It concluded that a key objective is developing military technologies that undermine America’s ability to operate.
Beijing also wants to develop a stronger presence on the Malacca Straits, sea lanes currently policed by the US navy, through which about two thirds of China’s sea trade – including much of its oil – passes.
All things remaining equal, a military confrontation is unlikely but the potential is there. All kinds of factors could trigger it. Taiwan is a flashpoint. Border disputes with Japan could escalate. Even the collapse of North Korea could spark an explosive situation.
"That is one of China’s concerns," said Metaparti. "Right now China and the US have good relations. But if the US wants to enforce its will, it can just stop all trade. They can just blockade China and there is no way China can break through. They just don’t have the resources."