Senior Indian military officers have voiced their concerns about a widening gap between India and China’s defence capabilities, as New Delhi falls behind in the modernisation of its armed forces.

At a time when Beijing is unveiling advanced military hardware, including a prototype stealth fighter jet and its first aircraft carrier, India’s military establishment is increasingly critical of bureaucratic paralysis in New Delhi, where the government has been beset by anti-corruption protests.

Indian commanders say the government’s reluctance to take decisions is severely hampering their ability to guard against a “collusive threat” from two nuclear armed neighbours – China and its ally Pakistan.

“Our defence budget is $32bn, China’s is $91.5bn. Their unofficial spending probably takes the total to $150bn. How are we going to match up?” said P.C. Katoch, a retired lieutenant general.

Colonel Rajesh Kundra, director of the Perspective Planning Directorate at the Ministry of Defence, added that India’s defence budget had lacked consistency over the past six decades, “waxing and waning” in response to crises rather than preparing for them.

Their misgivings come as China becomes more assertive across the region. Last week the Indian government acknowledged that one of its warships was challenged by the Chinese navy off the coast of Vietnam in late July. On Monday, China’s foreign ministry denied that there had been a confrontation.

While India is currently one of the biggest arms buyers in the world and maintains a 1.1m-strong army, both serving and retired officers are critical of both the country’s strategic planning and politicians suspicious of military spending given the country’s pressing development needs.

“We have celebrated our 64th independence day, and we still don’t have a national security strategy,” Lieut Gen Katoch said. “The ministry of defence does not have a set-up for strategic thinking”. He added that 11th five-year defence plan had still not received official approval even though it ends next year.

“The instruments of state action have become dysfunctional,” says K. Shankar Bajpai, the chairman of India’s National Security Advisory Board and former ambassador to the US. “India’s strategic interests extend between the Suez and Shanghai … but we have neither the manpower nor the strategic thinking to handle these challenges.”

Indian commanders are particularly frustrated by delays surrounding the establishment of an Mountain Strike Corps along its Himalayan border with China, in response to People’s Liberation Army-related infrastructure projects in Tibet.

Civil servants in the defence ministry have questioned the Rs120bn ($2.6bn) deployment of high-altitude troops in the region, over which China and India fought a short war in 1962. “It’s mandatory that we develop our mountain warfare,” said Col. Kundra. “Look how China has modernised infrastructure in the Tibetan autonomous area. We need to do the same on our side [of the border].”

Additional reporting by Girija Shivakumar in New Delhi

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