India’s conventional strategic mindset has been overwhelmingly defensive as far as China is concerned. China’s superior size, and its financial and military muscle, has always weighed heavily on the minds of many in India’s strategic community.
As a result, the political leadership of India has always been advised restraint, defensive posturing, deferring to China’s sentiments and placid negotiations to resolve conflicts. The underlying premise has always been that the cost of being aggressive would be too heavy to bear for India and will cripple the country.
However, India definitely does not need to be circumspect in its dealings with China. In fact, India actually enjoys a few advantages over China that it can easily leverage, singularly and in association with some other countries, to deliver a lesson or two to the hegemonistic dragon and dampen, if not derail, its expansionist ambitions.
That China enjoys an unbridgeable superiority over India in conventional forces is a myth that has been busted in recent times. Even as far as unconventional and nuclear forces are concerned, India can hold its ground against China. India can apply pressure on the many weak points that China has. China is facing a pushback across the world and that can easily be leveraged by India to its own advantage.
China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is quite an overestimated military with little combat experience. China faces many challenges internally, and foreign powers, including India, can and should intensify those challenges.
Above all, India must remember that China’s bullying stance across the world is actually a lot of bluster and arises from some deep-seated insecurities. China’s bluff can easily be called.
This does not in any way mean that India underestimates China and becomes overconfident.
China is a formidable force and faced with internal or external challenges and threats, its communist dictatorship will not hesitate to mount a misadventure in desperation. Also, the very nature of its authoritarian political system allows China to be recklessly aggressive in a manner that democracies like India cannot.
The Myth Of China’s Military Superiority
What appears to be China’s military strength vis-a-vis India along the vast 3488 kilometer sweep of India’s northern and eastern borders is actually its weakness.
Some analysts often cite the superior infrastructure that the Chinese have built on its side of the border, and then project the military hardware that China often boasts about to create the impression that India is at a severe disadvantage along the LAC and the McMahon Line.
Truth is, India is more than evenly matched as far as troops, heavy weaponry and other military assets are concerned along its border with China.
But then, it must always be remembered that India does not have a border with China but with Chinese-occupied Tibet (CoT) on its northern and eastern frontiers.
China’s Achilles heel
And it is precisely this that is China’s Achilles heel. The PLA is an occupational army in Tibet and is intensely disliked by the people of Tibet.
Tibet witnesses periodic revolts and protests that are brutally put down by the Chinese.
There is no denying the fact that more than seven decades of savage repression have not made the Tibetans accept Chinese rule.
Chinese forces are thus tied down to a large extent in Tibet to quell dissent there. If these forces are deployed against India at the border, it will mean a huge reduction in troops that keep the Tibetans subjugated. And thus arises the grave risk of Tibetan resentment-stoked bushfires breaking out all over the huge expanse of Tibet.
Revolts and rebellions in Tibet would focus global attention on Tibet again and severely embarrass the Chinese, something that Beijing would want to avoid at any cost.
Also, even minor shows of dissent by Tibetans portrays China’s communist dictatorship, which perpetuates its reign by creating the chimera of invincibility, in a poor light and diminishes its aura of inviolability. That would harm it very significantly not only in the global arena, but also in the domestic arena.
India has assets inside Tibet and these can easily be activated to not only embarrass China's communist dictators, but also disrupt PLA’s supply lines.
Tibetan dissidents, who number in lakhs, would only be too willing to act as saboteurs and damage PLA installations and assets inside Tibet.
India also has a specialised force called Special Frontier Force (also known as ‘Establishment 22’) comprising almost entirely of Tibetans in India. This force is trained in high-altitude warfare and to operate behind enemy lines. In case of an outbreak of hostilities, the SFF will act as a huge force multiplier for India.
Comparison of the two militaries
But getting back to a comparison between the militaries of the two countries, analysts agree that India has nothing to fear about.
As published by the Harvard Kennedy School rightly points out, the notion that China enjoys a military edge over India is wrong.
The authors of the study published in March this year write: “We assess that India has key under-appreciated conventional advantages that reduce its vulnerability to Chinese threats and attacks. India appears to have cause for greater confidence in its military position against China than is typically acknowledged”.
The study also notes that Indian strategists “draw pessimistic conclusions regarding (India’s strengths versus) China”.
It compares the conventional forces, including the air forces, as well as the nuclear forces of the two countries and concludes that Chinese forces ranged against India in Tibet suffer from serious disadvantages that reduce their strike capabilities.
India, the study says, is at a much more advantageous position.
PLA’s poor combat track-record
The PLA has barely any combat experience and the last time it fought a war--in Vietnam in 1979--it faced . The Vietnamese forces inflicted heavy casualties on the Chinese and roundly defeated the superior PLA .
More recently, in 2016, PLA soldiers who were in South Sudan as part of the UN Peacekeeping Force brought shame upon themselves.
According to , the Chinese troops were entrusted with protecting a refugee camp at Juba when it was attacked by South Sudanese forces.
The Chinese not only refused to come out of their fortified camp and drive away the attackers, they even failed to respond to desperate appeals for help from international aid workers who were assaulted and raped.
What’s more, the South Sudanese forces attacked the Chinese camp and killed two PLA soldiers. Instead of fighting back, the Chinese fled and, most unprofessionally, left their weapons behind.
Ironically, it was Indian soldiers (of the Kumaon Regiment’s 7th Battalion) who came to the rescue of the Chinese and neutralised the South Sudanese forces (read and ).
Renowned international defence experts say that PLA’s lack of effective combat experience, its legacy of an obsolete command system, corruption and training of debatable realism (read by Timothy R Health of RAND Corporation) form its core weaknesses.
Dennis J Blasko, who follows military developments in China very closely, elucidates why China will have trouble fighting a modern war. He lists as one of the greatest weaknesses of China’s military.
PLA’s face-offs with Indian forces
Those who advocate a non-aggressive stance vis-a-vis the Chinese often cite the border war with China in 1962 and the drubbing that the Indian forces received at the hands of the Chinese. In order not to repeat that humiliation, they contend, India should not do anything that could provoke China into another round of armed aggression.
True, Indian forces were defeated by the Chinese in 1962. But the blame for that, as has been analysed by many, lay on the shoulders of Nehru and his defence minister, V.K.Krishna Menon, who micromanaged the Indian army operations and promoted and posted their favourite generals in key positions.
Indian soldiers and officers fought valiantly, but the top military and political leadership let them down.
However, what the analysts will not highlight is that five years after that, in 1967, the Indian army gave the Chinese a bloody nose in Sikkim, which was then an Indian protectorate.
The Chinese tried to enter Sikkim at Nathu La and Cho La, but were driven back. Indian forces also destroyed Chinese fortifications and inflicted heavy casualties on the PLA.
In 1986-87, India stood its ground in Sikkim and rebuffed Chinese intrusions. The airlifting of an entire brigade under the orders of then army chief General K. Sundarji to Zemithang took the Chinese by surprise and demonstrated India’s resolve to face the Chinese bully to the world (read ).
In 2013, Indian forces again faced off the Chinese in Depsang in Ladakh. Another face-off between Indian and Chinese troops happened at Chumar in September 2014. With Indians standing up to Chinese incursions and refusing to back off, China was forced to withdraw its troops on both the occasions.
But the best example by far of India demonstrating its resolve and calling the Chinese bluff happened in Doklam in 2017.
The 73-day tense standoff at what was Bhutanese territory resulted in the Chinese ultimately backing off. China had, during the standoff, issued many dire warnings to India and reminded New Delhi very ominously of a repeat of 1962. India stood steadfast and it was the Chinese who ultimately lost face.
But despite all these demonstrations of India’s resoluteness in the face of Chinese aggression, many in the country’s strategic community still advocate submission and suffer from the 1962 hangover.
However, it is time for a drastic change in this mindset and an objective reassessment of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the armed forces of the two countries.
The Other Vulnerable Theatre For China
China is hugely vulnerable in the Indian Ocean. Most of its energy requirements, minerals and raw materials that are crucial for its steel and other industries, and almost all of its imports and exports are routed through the busy shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean.
And it is here that China is at its most vulnerable.
Though China is upgrading its navy, it has a long way to go before it can even match the US Navy that has been steadily increasing its presence in the Indo-Pacific.
And what’s more significant is that China will never be able to match the combined blue water navies of the US and other countries that are in the forefront of the global pushback against China. China has, thanks to its expansionism and its blatant disregard for a rules-based order in the seas, pitted itself against many countries with significant maritime prowess.
India has been silently and steadily joining hands with them to ensure global compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which China has been flouting with impunity.
China’s alarming and unilateral actions in the South China Sea has antagonised many littoral countries like Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.
Japan, South Korea and Australia are also ranged against China and are keen to ensure that the communist dictatorship respects international laws and conventions that it has been displaying a blatant disregard for.
India has entered into reciprocal logistics agreements with the US, Australia, France, South Korea and Singapore and similar deals with Russia, Japan and the UK are in the pipeline.
India has decided to increase its naval presence in the Malacca Straits through which a bulk of vessels pass and which is a vulnerable choke point for China.
India has plans to join hands with Vietnam to guard offshore rigs of ONGC Videsh Ltd (OVL) in the South China Sea that China has been making aggressive moves against. China had positioned its coastguard vessels near the exploration and drilling rigs that are in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
China disputes Vietnam’s EEZ claim in flagrant violation of international laws. India can also join forces with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and other navies of the region to participate in a maritime pushback against China that seems to have become inevitable.
A few Indian strategists have been contending that India needs to counter China in the Indo-Pacific region in close collaboration with other countries which intend to counter China’s hegemony and expansionism. They argue that the ‘Quad’ (India, US, Australia and Japan) arrangement needs to be formalised and India should adopt a more aggressive stance in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
Such a strategy makes imminent sense. Applying pressure on China in the IOR in close coordination with other maritime powers is quite likely to make Beijing have a rethink on its adventurism in the Himalayas against India.
India can, and should, now join the global pushback against China. New Delhi has, for decades, adopted the path of dialogue and negotiations to resolve disputes with China. But China has kept up its aggressive stance against India.
It is high time India leverages its strengths and, in association with other powers, make strategic moves that will defeat China’s hegemonistic proclivities and its expansionism. The gloves have to come off now.
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