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Another War? A Distant Possibility

Current tensions are concerning, but the situation is much different today than in 1962.

Whenever India and China face off on the border, the immediate question that arises is What’s next? The possibility of a broader armed conflict between India and China is unlikely, despite an escalation in recent border clashes high in the Himalayas that led to casualties for the first time in more than four decades.

Although China dwarfs India in defence capabilities, yet India has certain other favourable advantages.

China’s defence budget stands at $152 billion against India’s $51 billion, which is three times that of India, but that doesn’t mean China can subdue India. The current economic setback faced by China due to the Global pandemic Cororna Virus has put china at a severe backfoot. Governments on both sides believe that the next India-China conflict would be limited in scope and short in duration instead of a protracted, large-scale, force-on-force campaign. That’s due to the threat of nuclear attack as both the countries have sufficient nuclear capability.

Army

India has around 1.2 million active personnel, 4,426 combat tanks, 6,704 armoured fighting vehicles, 290 self-propelled artillery, 7,414 towered artillery and 290 rocket projectors.

On the other hand, China has around 2.3 million personnel in active service with 6,457 in combat tanks, 4,788 armoured fighting vehicles, 1,710 self-propelled artillery, 6,246 towered artillery and 1,770 rocket projectors.

Navy

China’s naval assets include 714 vessels, with one aircraft carrier, 51 frigates, 35 destroyers, 35 corvettes, 68 submarines, 220 patrol craft and 51 mini warfare vessels. India’s naval assets include 295 vessels, with three aircraft carriers (one each in service, under construction and being planned), 14 frigates, 11 destroyers, 23 corvettes, 15 submarines, 139 patrol craft and six mini warfare vessels.

Air force

India’s total aircraft strength is about 2102, with 676 fighter aircraft, 809 attack aircraft, 857 transporters and 323 trainer aircraft. Total helicopters are around 666, including 16 attack helicopters.

China’s total aircraft strength is about 2,955, with 1,271 fighter aircraft, 1,385 attack aircraft, 782 transporters, 352 trainer aircraft. It has 912 helicopters out of which 206 are attack helicopters.

Nuclear stockpile

India’s nuclear stockpile has around 130 warheads. Minimum tactical missile range is about 150 km, farthest strike distance tested successfully is 5,000-6,000 km (Agni -V). Surya, an intercontinental ballistic missile being developed, has a range of up to 16,000 km.
China has a nuclear stockpile of 270 warheads. China has at least 90 ICBMs out of which 66 are land-based and 24 are submarine-based.

Indian Advantages

The swift dragon can be held to a stalemate, even though it may be able to inflict some damage by breathing fire. India is militarily no longer the pushover it was during the 1962 war despite persisting critical operational and infrastructure gaps as well as the ever-expanding military asymmetry with China.

But a walkover like 1962, it will not be. With Chinese military capabilities mainly geared towards preventing any intervention by the US and others in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea, it all comes down to what the PLA can “actually throw” at India along the 4,057-km Line of Actual Control stretching from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh.

 

“The terrain does not give the PLA adequate space for manoeuvrability. And we have the capability to counter-attack,” said a senior Army officer. India has 15 infantry divisions (each with over 12,000 soldiers) tasked for its “northern borders” with China, apart from several artillery, missile, tank and air defence regiments and other reserves.

India holds most of the aces as far as the maritime domain is concerned. Indian warships can easily choke China’s sea lanes for its huge energy imports, especially through the Malacca Strait. “The PLA Navy may be much larger but in terms of operational expertise and experience in the Indian Ocean Region, they are far behind. The Chinese Navy is still learning to operate far away from its shores,” said a senior naval officer.

Similarly, even though China may have constructed 14 major airfields, advanced landing grounds and helipads on the Tibet Plateau, the IAF can conceivably outgun its numerically superior adversary. For one, the weapon and fuel-carrying capacity of Chinese fighters is limited due to the 9,000 to 10,000-feet altitude of their airbases.

India’s advantage is that, despite China’s superiority in merchant marine, its sea lanes come very close to Indian waters. This would force the Chinese to divert ships used for a blockade to protect their shipping. This is why both countries invest in developing submarines and anti-sub technology.

No matter what, the air and sea war would be a slugfest. Even so, the primary conflict would likely be between two land armies.

Battle-ready Indian Army

A significant difference in India’s favour is that its troops are battle-hardened and have a long tradition of fighting to defend India’s borders. The Indian Army has been fighting Pakistan, terrorism, and a host of insurgencies for decades. Its last war ended in 1999, and it has employed significant paramilitary and special operations forces ever since.

The Chinese haven’t seen real fighting since the 1979 war with Vietnam. That war lasted just shy of four weeks, with each side claiming victory. The Chinese wanted to punish Vietnam for being in the Soviet sphere while proving to the world the USSR could not protect its allies. It didn’t work. The Vietnamese repelled the Chinese People’s Liberation Army using only border militias.

The truth is, the Chinese PLA, for all its growth and advances in technology, has not truly been tested since the Korean War. 

India also has multiple layers of anti-air and anti-missile defence and is developing more. China would have to get the bulk of its ground forces across the Himalayas as fast as possible, or the war would grind to a halt.

Any halt to the Chinese advance would be a de facto win for India. China would have to completely capture the disputed territories and move into India to be able to claim victory. China’s only real chance to progress into the subcontinent is to perform an Inchon Landing-style maneuver from the sea, but that would require going through India’s submarine force unopposed.

Domestic challenges for China

China faces a number of domestic challenges that are likely to preoccupy Beijing — like the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. China’s biggest disadvantage presently is its economy. It suffers from a major setback due the global pandemic Coronavirus which means that it can hardly sustain a protracted war much longer than India. In this instance, India’s best hope is to strangle Chinese shipping using its sizable submarine force. India sits with its boot on the neck of the Chinese economy.

China is experiencing a resurgence of infections in Beijing, where more than 100 new cases were reported in recent days. Authorities have reimposed restrictions to stop the virus from spreading. The world’s second-largest economy is also managing a deteriorating relationship with the United States.

China is losing its relationship with one of the most important countries in the world. It has already lost its relationship with the United States, in the trade war, during the Covid-19 pandemic

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is facing internal and external challenges as it attempts to maintain power at home and increase its influence abroad. China’s leadership is acutely aware of these challenges and is making a concerted effort to overcome them.

China’s interference in Hong Kong has resulted in growing condemnation by the international community. On 1 October, while China was celebrating 70 years of Communist Party rule, Hong Kong experienced one of its most “violent and chaotic days”. To give then a shut up call and despite Beijing’s strong and repeated opposition, the US Senate had passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019.

By passing the bill, the Senate has not only shown ruthless indifference to the already chaotic situation on the ground and the need to end violence and restore order, but also tried to give a tight slap to Beijing. Amidst such international beating, it is impossible for china to even think of actively getting into a war.

Viewpoint

Reputational damages suffered due to COVID-19, pre-existing fears surrounding China’s rise, and India’s conventional and nuclear deterrence capabilities will all temper Beijing’s pre-emptive use of military force. Similarly, for India, the primary security challenge remains Pakistan-based terrorist infiltration on the Kashmir border. More importantly, beyond the protection of vital strategic points on either side that allow military forces to effectively defend and patrol their territories in challenging high-altitude mountainous regions, the vast tracts of disputed land along the LAC do not hold any important material resources such as oil, precious mineral reserves, or ethnic-kin populations. The benefits of territorial aggrandizement are therefore, limited to deterrence value and the natural terrain offers few advantages to offensive forces.  The two states need to manage their rivalry, rather than hastily attempt to resolve outstanding border issues. In such Scenario, the chances of a war seem like a distant possibility.

19 June 20/Friday                                                                                Written By: Saima Ibrahim

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