A defeat in a future conflict with China will be a disaster for India. Apart from the economic ruin, it will substantially damage India’s standing in the comity of nations and degrade her status as an Asian power. Pakistan will not only be encouraged to step up its terrorist activities but may even resort to armed conflict to annex the Kashmir Valley, its pet obsession since 1947. On the other hand, even if India is able to bring about a stalemate, it will greatly enhance her prestige and put an end to Chinese domination in the Asian region.
For some time now, leading think-tanks and strategic analysts in India have been articulating that sooner or later, there is a possibility of a short, sharp clash between China and India. Many reasons have been advanced as to why China will initiate this conflict and invite adverse reaction from the world. In this context, it needs to be remembered that China does not much care for world opinion.
In the event of a Sino-Indian conflict, a collusive scenario with Pakistan is a distinct possibility.
The primary reasons for China to commence hostilities could be to teach India, her only rival in Asia, a lesson for her intransigence on the settlement of the border dispute on China’s terms and disregarding her warnings against oil exploration in the South China Sea thus displaying an aggressive independent streak hitherto not seen. China feels that this may encourage other Asian nations to defy her.
Other reasons could be the need to retard India’s economic growth and consequent military modernisation which will enable India to challenge Chinese supremacy in Asia in due course. Yet another reason could be the Chinese perception that India is trying to carry out strategic encirclement of China by improving ties with Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Vietnam and Australia encouraged by the US who are in the process of redeploying their naval forces in the region.
Swift Offensive Against India in Ladakh
Here the Chinese are already in occupation of the Aksai Chin Plateau giving them an excellent launch pad for an offensive.
Indian forces currently occupy only a small part of Aksai Chin plateau in the Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) sector. This, coupled with the fact that the DBO sector is still air maintained, makes the Indian forces on the ground in this sector, extremely vulnerable.
The Chinese strategy of launching an offensive in this sector will be to develop two prongs, one to move through Saser Pass down to Sasoma and Partapur thereby cutting off Siachen, Sub Sector West and Hanif Sectors and in the process shake hands with Pakistan on the other side. This will be a classic example of a collusive scenario.
The other prong would be to move along the Shyok River to Tangtse thus getting behind our defences in the Chushul Sector. Chinese forces could also develop operations across the Chang La to Leh. This would create a critical situation for India in Ladakh.
Offensive Through Chumbi Valley
Another viable option for the Chinese forces would be to launch an offensive through the Chumbi Valley with the aim of choking off the narrow Siliguri Corridor and cut off the entire North East Region from India.
Subsequently, the Chinese forces could develop operations in Western Bhutan to capture areas claimed by them and secure their Eastern flank.
In order to secure their Western flank, the Chinese forces could also carry out operations in Eastern Sikkim. The Chinese claim on Doklam Plateau must be seen in this context.
Offensive in Towang
Towang is vulnerable for two reasons. One, the Chinese on the Tibetan Plateau are on higher ground and can roll down to Towang. Two, Towang can be bypassed from both the East and the West and the Chinese can contact both Sela and Bomdi-la simultaneously as they did in 1962.
A wedge can thus be driven through Indian defences and a salient created which will be extremely difficult for the India forces to recapture.
India’s Riposte Options
It can be said with all sincerity that riposte options for India are extremely limited. Unlike in the case of China, the most serious handicap for India would be that the Indian forces will be capable of undertaking only limited offensives that are not going to hurt mainland China. Offensive by the Indian forces can only progress into Tibet which the Chinese would not care about. This handicap notwithstanding, Indian forces have to launch a riposte to make the Chinese forces recoil. Since the Indian riposte will be limited in force level and scope, it would be unwise to call it a counter offensive. However, the Chinese are sure to derive propaganda value from the Indian offensive describing it as “a massive attack on China”.
Employment of the IAF will surely invite air strikes by the PLAAF.
Options in Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh
In the event of China launching an offensive from the Aksai Chin launch pad, the viable options before India would be two. One of these would be to launch a counter offensive through the Demchok funnel in Ladakh with the aim of capturing Tashigong and thus cutting off the Western highway. As the terrain is such that it permits the employment of mechanised forces, India would have to build up mechanised forces in Ladakh prior to the riposte. It would be difficult to conceal the build-up of mechanised forces, so it would be militarily prudent to build up to the required force level progressively over a period of time ostensibly for the defence of the Ladakh sector. Thus, adequate mechanised forces would be available in strength for the launching of this riposte which essentially would be a subsidiary thrust. The main thrust would be through Shipki La with once again the aim being to interdict the Chinese Western highway. Here, the preparations for a riposte can be concealed from the Chinese with relative ease. However, the terrain in this area dictates that the operations will be undertaken by the infantry and not by mechanised forces. Both the options described above can be exercised even when the Chinese launch their offensive in the East.
The Chumbi Valley Option
The only option available in the East to the Indian forces is to cut off Chumbi Valley with a two-pronged offensive, one from East Sikkim and the other from Western Bhutan. By this action, Indian forces will be able to remove the perpetual threat to the Siliguri Corridor. The Chinese forces will also not be able to capture important areas in Western Bhutan.
Denial of Launch Pads to China in Western Kameng
In order to deny China launch pads in Western Kameng for her Towang option, it will be necessary for the Indian forces to launch a limited offensive in Western Kameng.
Riposte options for India are extremely limited…
The War in Air and at Sea
In 1962, India opted not to employ air power against the advancing Chinese forces or against their infrastructure in Tibet. This indeed proved to be a disaster for India. Hopefully, the right lessons have been learnt. The Indian Air Force (IAF) enjoys two major advantages over the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). The first is that the IAF currently enjoys a qualitative edge over the PLAAF. The second advantage is of favourable terrain. The IAF aircraft take off from airfields at sea level and as such can carry full weapons load. Once it comes over the Tibetan plateau, in the absence of the any cover, the IAF can play merry hell with Chinese infrastructure and thus negate this advantage. Load carrying capability of PLAAF aircraft on the other hand, is significantly degraded as they have to take off from airfields at high altitude. It also needs to be remembered that so far, the PLAAF does not have hardened shelters in Tibet to protect their combat aircraft. When they come over Indian territories in the North East Region, a thick jungle canopy prevents them from visually observing targets with ease.
As far as the maritime war is concerned, China again suffers from two disadvantages. Firstly, with the exception of submarines, the PLA Navy (PLAN) has an antiquated fleet. Secondly, their merchant marine has to traverse through the Indian Ocean which the Indian Navy is in a position to dominate effectively. Their shipping, especially the tankers can be choked off in the nine and ten degree channels in the Nicobar Islands area. Having realized this, the Chinese are developing Gwadar port in Balochistan and connecting it by road, rail and oil pipeline to mainland China through Khunjerab Pass. In a conflict situation, the oil supplies will be offloaded at Gwadar port. The Indian Navy can, however, lay seige on Gwadar and Karachi ports. Besides, our aircraft carriers will play a key role in any conflict at sea.
Propaganda and Cyber Warfare
The Chinese offensive will be preceded by a massive propaganda blitz where Indian defence preparations will be played out as proof that India is preparing to invade the Middle Kingdom, never mind that it is over three thousand kilometers away from the war zone. In the evolving situation, the Chinese would project themselves as completely helpless with no option other than to launch a counter-offensive calling it self-defence. Thereafter a massive dose of cyber warfare can be expected to paralyse the command and control systems as also the commercial activities on the Indian side.
Since both India and China are nuclear weapons states, any conflict between the two will take place under a nuclear overhang.
Infrastructural Development in Border Areas by India
The biggest disadvantage that the Indian Army faces is the lack of significant improvement in infrastructure along the border areas since 1962. Successive governments in India have been neglecting this vital aspect while China has made phenomenal progress in this area. Because Chinese can swiftly mobilize forces in Tibet, warning period available to India will be short, due to lack of infrastructure deploying forces where required will be impeded.
The Collusive Scenario
In the event of a Sino-Indian conflict, a collusive scenario with Pakistan is a distinct possibility. Pakistan will be more than ready to take advantage of such a clash. This possibility ought to be of serious concern to Indian policy makers. In order to avoid a two-front war, one adversary would have to be diplomatically isolated. Indian diplomacy will thus have a big task on its hands. Militarily, however, the Indian forces must be prepared for a war on two fronts.
The Nuclear Shadow
Since both India and China are nuclear weapons states, any conflict between the two will take place under a nuclear overhang. Both countries, therefore, are likely to avoid any action which will threaten the adversary’s sensitive objectives in depth and thus invite a nuclear strike. In this respect, perhaps India has an advantage. Mainland China is too far away from the warzone. Offensive action by India will take place only in Tibet. As such, if India cannot threaten any target of high strategic importance in the Chinese heartland, the chances of a nuclear strike by China would be remote.
A defeat in a future conflict with China will be disastrous for India.
When Can a Conflict Take Place?
Crystal gazing has its own pitfalls but it can be said with a fair degree of certainty that a window of opportunity for China, if at all it exercises a conflict option to put India in its place, will only be after the US and NATO forces move out of Afghanistan and before the US can deploy naval forces in the area. This would obviate the possibility of these forces coming to India’s aid. Also China cannot afford to allow India to upgrade its forces substantially or catch up with her technologically.
The End State of the Conflict
Both countries will strive to achieve a degree and state favourable to them, China more so since it would have initiated the hostilities. But it can be said with reasonable certainty that Indian Army will be able to hold more than its own which means not to lose any territory but also launch its riposte thus exorcising the ghost of 1962. Employment of the IAF will surely invite air strikes by the PLAAF which hopefully will not be launched against cities as that would invite adverse world opinion. The Indian Navy by its domination of the Indian Ocean may create immense difficulties for China. A defeat in a future conflict with China will be disastrous for India. Apart from the economic ruin, it will substantially damage India’s standing in the comity of nations and degrade her status as an Asian power. Pakistan will not only be encouraged to step up its terrorist activities but may even resort to armed conflict to annex the Kashmir Valley, its pet obsession since 1947. On the other hand, even if India is able to bring about a stalemate, it will greatly enhance her prestige and put an end to Chinese domination in the Asian region.
We must also bear in mind that apart from sympathetic noises, we are unlikely to get any help from our so-called well-wishers in the NAM and even the Western powers. So India has to fight it alone – an extremely difficult task since eighty per cent of our military hardware is ex-import and spare and armament support can be choked off by the countries concerned.
At the end of the day, India needs to bear in mind what the great military thinker Clawswitz said: “The trauma of a military defeat can only be overcome by a military victory over the same opponent.” I rest my case.