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An India – China Military Conflict – Part I

There have been projections among some Indian experts and think tanks that a limited Chinese attack along the unresolved Sino-Indian border may be imminent. This view cannot be totally faulted. They are based on China’s aggressive official and semi-official postures and warning to India, especially on the sovereignty of Tawang, an important Buddhist pilgrim town in India’s north-east state of Arunachal Pradesh.

China claims officially the whole of Arunachal Pradesh as its territory. The official Chinese media, have started referring to Arunachal Pradesh as South Tibet. This is a very important shift in China’s nomenclature of Arunachal Pradesh. This is an effort to now make this Indian state a historical part of Tibet which China militarily occupied in 1950. With India among other countries in the world having acknowledged the original Tibet as a sovereign part of China, extension of Tibet to Arunachal Pradesh may give China an opening into its sovereignity claim on Arunachal Pradesh. Beijing believes it as another instrument to pressure India. Although historically and according to international law China’s claim on Tibet is legally tenuous and questionable, the political and economic importance of China have won them the battle.

But Beijing’s claim on Tawang is the critical issue. Notwithstanding the facetious evidence being presented by China on Tawang’s ownership, the fact is that this town, located in the tri-junction of Tibet, Bhutan and India is of high strategic value to China. Tawang is located near the Siliguri corridor/chicken-neck which connects the larger India by land to its vast north-eastern region. It is now common knowledge that China continues to support insurgent and separatist groups in north-east India with arms and undeclared moral instigation. If Tawang went to China it could garrison its troops there, ignite a major turbulence in north-east India, and roll down from Tawang to engage or cut off the Siliguri chicken-neck, preventing or slowing down Indian military movement. A success of this strategy would be disastrous for India. One can, therefore, understand China’s strong objection and criticism against India’s enhanced force deployment in north-east India. What is particularly galling for Indian observers is the fact that China is quietly building its military deployment in Tibet or Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) that does not appear normal. The Chinese military has constructed or upgraded five airfields in close proximity of the border from the western sector to the eastern sector. There are an indication that round the year air deployment is taking place or has already taken place. In the height of winter in January this year, People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAF) conducted live fire exercises in TAR. The railway net work in Tibet may be projected by the Chinese as for development purposes, but its military and strategic emphases are obvious. At least one full train load of transfer of arms and ammunitions from Golmud to Lhasa has already been conducted. The next step is bring one line to Xigaze (Shigatse) near the eastern sector border, and another to the Nepal border and then on to Kathmandu. The road infrastructure along the border on the Tibetan side is being continually upgraded, and high altitude military exercises have also been conducted. In fact, two-dimensional military preparations in TAR can be said to be in an advanced stage.

In his report (unclassified) to the Senate Intelligence Committee (Jan 31), Director of the US National Intelligence Agency said “despite public statements intended to downplay tensions between India and China, we judge India is increasingly concerned about China’s posture along the border and Beijing’s aggressive posture in the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific Region (APR)”. The report went on to say that the Indian army believes a major Sino-Indian conflict is not imminent, but it was making preparations to balance Chinese power projection in the Indian Ocean.

The unclassified NIA report supports the general belief in India to never forget the Chinese deception in 1962, and be prepared. But, for a number of domestic reasons and influences, a real effort to balance the Chinese Force projection started late, only about four years ago,. What the classified version of the report contains is anybody’s guess, but will be certainly more thought provoking than the unclassified version.Tantalisingly, the unclassified report has this line for all to sea “India has expressed support for a strong US military posture in East Asia and US engagement in Asia.” This is a probing observation and would further reinforce Beijing’s suspicion of India joining the US along with Japan to contain China.

China’s military modernization programme is widely discussed by governments and experts all over the world. Area denial to the US and naval power projection in the outer reaches of the Indian Ocean in the east are discussed by the Chinese themselves. What is more secretive in nature are its cyber warfare capabilities, C4ISR and electro-magnetic weapons.

Discussions among Chinese experts on acquiring military bases abroad especially in the Indian Ocean region, and the use of military as an option on territorial issues are issues that call for close watch. China has already said that the return of the US in the Asia Pacific Region has disturbed stability and peace in the area. The fact is, the US re-entry has diminished China’s domination, and helped the countries of the region who have territorial disputes with China over the Spratley Islands in the South China sea to stand up for their rights.

Japan is another country with which China has territorial disputes (Senkaku Islands) and, despite China being Japan’s largest trade partner, political and security confrontations have only sharpened over the last two years. Japan has become proactive, officially declaring (2011) China’s military posture as “aggressive” for the first time. China has also raised several questions about the intentions of the India-Japan defence agreement. As is well known, the Chinese Communist Party and the government have kept their people starved of information on the happenings in the world. The people have been fed by the state and party controlled media, tailored to project official views and thinking. China’s 500 million netizens’ views on different countries are shaped by official media. A study made by Simon Shen, Associate Professor in the department of social sciences, Hong Kong Institute of Education (published, China Quarterly, Sept. 2001) reveals interesting insights into the minds of these netizens. One thing that emerged from Simon Shen’s three-year research was that 90 percent were hostile to India. On territorial issues, the result was “why should China negotiate with India when it is superior and can hold off India?” India is also seen as servile to the west, and also as imperialist. Over all, the views are anti-India and based very closely if not exactly to the Chinese official propaganda.

This deliberately created mind set by the Chinese authorities can be a double edged sword. While it creates support for the party and the government, at times this can also pressure the authorities to do what they may not want to do. The Sino-India border issue is one of the questions discussed by the Chinese netizens who prefer a military strike in “South Tibet”’ Arunachal Pradesh, to teach India a lesson. These views are not of the 1950s or 1960s, they are contemporary and relevant. The Chinese are past masters of the mind game, developed and sharpened over 4000 years. Therefore, their propaganda frequently mentions the 1962 border war when a rag-tag Indian army was routed in the cold October of that year. They also report India’s military acquisition and development as a threat to the South Asian region.

At the same time, the Chinese authorities have completely left out the mention of their attack on Vietnam in 1978. The attack was ordered by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping to not only teach Vietnam a lesson but also cut the Soviet Union’s finger in the far east. The attack was not a suo moto decision. The US was taken into confidence, and the White House gave indirect support. It was a much bigger game played by China, but too long to be detailed here. The fact is that the PLA went into Vietnam with a force of 450,000, and the air force. Suffice it to say that China had to retreat with a bloody face and in shame.

The PLA has fought three wars. In 1950 in Korea, where they overwhelmed the US forces through sheer numbers irrespective of causalities suffered. In 1962, it was not only the rag-tag Indian army, but confusion in command and control from New Delhi, and misapprehensions of Chinese aircraft bombing Calcutta if India used its air force. The Chinese forces retreated not out of goodwill as they claim, but they were fully aware that they could not hold on to the ground once the Indian army reorganized and the political leaders awoke from their stupor. The third war was with Vietnam in 1979.

Today, the scenario is different. The PLA is not prepared to fight a revolutionary war where giving up one’s life for the communist party was a matter of pride. It has not fought a battle for more than 30 years. Even the PLA’s fight against terrorism against small bands of Uighur separatists in Xinjiang does not show any special expertise. At the same time there is the PLA’s significant advancement in the areas of armaments, information supported warfare, and tri-services coordination.

India’s military planners have been assessing these developments. A nuclear warfare in a limited confrontation is not in the calculations of military planning. That is a separate aspect.Despite China’s naval projection in the Indian Ocean and offer from Seychelles to open a naval base (obviously as a repayment to Chinese aid), an India-China confrontation on the high seas is a distant speculation. This, unless China perceives India’s Look East policy is conflicting seriously with China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. An India-China conflict can manly be visualized along the borders. This issue is just not moving forward, and China does not want to under the current bilateral agreements. The issue is that China signed an agreement at the Prime Ministerial level in 2005 that there will be no exchange of settled population areas. Since then, they have reneged on this. The recent (Jan 16-17) Senior Representative (SR) level talks on the border and other issues not only saw little progress but rather froze such meetings for some time to come. Hence, one can safely believe that the boundary talks have gone to the mode of ‘time buying’. In brief, China sees India along with the US and the west as a spoiler of its Asia ambition. It suspects India supports the Dalai Lama and his allegedly sponsored Tibetan uprisings inside China to disintegrate China. And the boundary issue is an available cause to launch a “teach India” limited military attack where the air force will be used along with the army and electronic warfare. (to be continued)

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst based in New Delhi.Email:

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