Taking on the Dragon
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Issue Vol. 27.4 Oct-Dec 2012 | Date : 06 May , 2014

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.

The Western Sector

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.

Chumbi Valley

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.

Western Kameng

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.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Maj Gen Sheru Thapliyal, PhD

served in the Regiment of Artillery and was awarded a Doctorate for his research & thesis on "Sino-Indian Relations".

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11 thoughts on “Taking on the Dragon

  1. India must believe in itself. India should be careful in NE India where China could launch a lightening attack and annex Arunchal Pradesh and redefine the geometry of Tibet. It is essential that mountain divisions and infrastructure are their to repel the attack.

  2. A couple of issuers here Sir ;
    No major offensive can be developed across the Saser La. It’s a logistical problem. Once down in the valley at Sasoma they can be bottled up and decimated. Every axis has its capabilities and limitations of the quantum of troops that can be applied on a particular axis. Yes if sleep like we usually do and if we let the LAC managed by the ITBP they may land up in Sasoma all be it to be massacred there. Nothing can move along these valleys until both sides are secured. If the Khalsar Plateau is held in strength nothing can move along the Shyok and Nubra Axis. It’s rather farfetched to visualize that they can develop an offensive on this axis.
    We are giving the Chinese too much in that they will get behind Chushul using the Shyok Axis. The movement has to be perforce along the valley floor which can easily be interdicted and any movement along the axis can be stemmed. To launch offensive operations against India in western Ladakh the Chinese have to carry out the build up over two axis ; one being from Sinkiang and the Second from Western Tibet. With judicious and bold use of Airborne and Special Forces these axis can be interdicted; after all it’s a battle of logistics.
    As a counter strike we must build up mobile forces in Western Ladakh to strike across the Demchok Corridor into Western Tibet as suggested by you. We should also exploit the dissent in Sinkiang to our favour in case of war.
    Let’s not underestimate the PLAAF .. they have modernized while we have 34 floundering squadrons of varying vintage. Indian needs at least 60 Squadrons to be effective on all fronts and have reasonable flexibility of deployment . Remember the Mayanmarese air space will be violated by the Chinese in case of a conflict with Indian. So they have major air bases in the two regions of Sichuan and Chengdu which will be used against us.
    Regards JP.

  3. China has nothing to achieve and too much to lose to attack India. They want Taiwan back as a priority. They want to secure the sea lanes to the middle east and to their major markets in the West. The technological development of their military is at least a generation away from being anything respectable by western and japanese standards. IF pakistan does something stupid and india attacks pakistan china would supply assistance.
    If China attacks India , it will be in another 25 to 30 years when they have a big drone and space army.

  4. Continuation from my previous post.

    3. Building of blue-water navy. Progress in this area seems to be better than in others, as far as one can gather from newspaper reports. Still, it is far from satisfactory. It has been suggested with good reasons that India must maintain five carrier-based battle groups. But we are aiming at only three. Even with that modest aim, the rate at which we are moving is far from desirable. To be truly, a blue water navy we cannot afford to not have nuclear-powered carriers. But it doesn’t seem to be on horizon yet. Our progress in building nuclear-powered submarines is also less than satisfactory. Aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines are the two most indispesible elements of a blue water navy. Without these we cannot challenge the Chinese in their waters. We would at most be able to defend within the Indian Ocean region. Even that would get progressively more difficult.

  5. Excellent article! I m sure these are many more war scenarios possible but cannot be described in a short article. It is also certain that all possible war games have been studied like a game of chess by think tanks on both sides. Given India’s options, as outlined in this article, it seems that the following must be taken up not only with priority but speedily:
    1. Building up of Army’s offensive capability both in the Eastern and Western sectors. The formation of the mountain strike corps and the mountaing artillary division for which Army has already submitted plans should be completed at the earliest.
    2. Infrastructure in border areas. It is well known that lack of roads and other infrastructure is not a result of neglect in the last 50 years since 1962 but part of a deliberate strategy. The strategy was to deny the invading forces ease to penetrate into the Indian territory. However, this did not mean that the border was left unguarded. It was especially for such reasons that heavy lift capability was created so that troops and supplies could be airlifted swiftly to even the remotest and most inaccecessible border posts of the Indian Army. This heavy lift capability came in handy in the 1986 face-off with the Chinese in the North East. But now that the technolgy has advanced so much that the absence of infrastructure would not prove to be any (or at least not strong enough) barrier, it was decided (a little more than a decade ago) to build necessary infrastructure in the border areas. This included roards, air fields etc. But what causes concern is the slow pace of progress. It’s unclear what exactly is causing the delay. There have been reports that it takes unusually long to get environmental clearance. If that is so, then, may be, the enviroment ministry should create special cell for speedy clearance of projects having a bearing on national security.

  6. My assessment
    Army: The Indian Army must cultivate the Nepalese and Tibetans. The war should be unleashed in Xinjing and Eastern Tibet. The Aim should be to free Tibet from China.
    IAF: Dont expect too much from these boys except for some minor damage to Chinese logistics and holding areas.
    Navy: The Navy will be sunk in the Arabian Sea. Two PLAN nuclear submarines will completely bottle up the IN. The Navy does not have the capability to operate in Chinese waters.
    Among the littorals in the Pacific Rim, only the Vietnames can probably come to our aid.
    All in all, India has no chance.

    • It is absolutely ridiculous to believe that 2 submarines can bottle up the entire indian navy . true china has a very large submarine fleet but india is also developing technologies to counter this particular threat . these include induction 8 boeing p8i anti submarine warfare aircraft and the induction 4 kamorta class corvettes specifically designed for anti submarine warfare with more to follow .

  7. A informative article. India Urgently needs to shed its Pacifist Policies & get ready to tackle the Chinese menace.There is a urgent meed to formulate a national Security Doctrine,A national security policy-External & Internal, ceate a post of Chief of Defence Staff, Create 2 mountain strike Corps-One For Arunachal Pradesh & one for Ladakh-each one having a brigade of Special Forces & a Aviation Brigade & Integrate special Forces with fighting units at the brigade level. The Indian army must shed its Defensive approach vs China & plan offensive operations along with the air force. Fortune favours the brave & Truth ultimately triumphs.

  8. No Indian action, whether defensive or offensive against China will get India anywhere unless it is backed by US. Can anyone think of Russia or any other power stepping in on behalf of India? In the absence of US support, a repeat of 1962 is quite probable. One does not have to be a military genius to see this. The sorry state of India’s economy, corruption ridden governance and weak centralized military command will run helter scalter in the face of China’s assault. The danger is magnified due to the nexus of China and Pakistan. It is quite possible that a frontal assault from China may be limited to minimize response from the West, but it will provide sufficient strength to Pakistan to move offenssively in Kashmir. This may be the only chance Pakistan will have to even the Bengladesh score. Is India prepared?

  9. First of all, the so called elites in the artificially and forcefully created and annexed land mass that is claimed to be India, are noting but fools to believe that they can keep on cheating and enslaving the smaller nations within the Indian-union from achieving complete political independence at some point in history. In China’s case, its made up largely og one Nation that can stand against any external threat, but the simply employment of “sepoy”, not to mention the use of cast issue, strategy would create deep division within Indian ranks. By using such psycological means and the massive military force, China will easily dominate the scene, and the immediate result would be the full-scale disintergration of this unstabe entity, similar to Soviet union. Things remain to be seen howmuch the Keralite fellow, Shiva Shankara Menon is going to lose to the Chinese now and a full-scale liberation of the entire masses in Indian abominatin.

  10. Excellent analysis.

    I would like to see the looks on Chinese leaders faces if all their disadvantages in Tibet are exploited.

    Future planning in Akas Chin for India is to plan cut off of the their Sinkiang highway. It is do-able.

    Chinese have no chances in Towang region if they are denied pathways and routes in the area. Had these been guarded in force the shape of 1962 war would have been different. Chinese exploited these routes and pathways to bypass SeLa. Rest is written history books.

    Hari sud

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