Wednesday, January 19, 2011



First, China does not like India’s emerging status as a global power. Second, it is paranoid that if India completes its planned military purchases in the next five years, conquering and humiliating it would remain a distant dream. Third, China wants to grab the town of Tawang, birthplace of the current Dalai Lama, on the Indian side of the Tibet border. This is a symbolic Chinese ploy to let the Tibetans know who their real masters are.

China began a massive military exercise in mid-August called “Stride 2009,” deploying 50,000 troops in areas far from their home bases for live-fire drills. According to analysts, the exercise shows China’s readiness to respond quickly to unrest in any part of the country. It also demonstrates the effectiveness of China’s infrastructure, which allows the quick deployment of troops hundreds of miles away. The program culminates on Oct. 1, China’s 60th anniversary.

China maintains 30-40 divisions of reserve forces in its central provinces. But Tibet and the Indian border are outside this area of quick deployment, linked by a single rail line built on permafrost. While the exercise sheds lights on China’s reserve force, it is not India-specific yet. Still India, lately busy on the Pakistan border, may need to alter its defense posture.

China’s former leader Deng Xiaoping put the border dispute with India on the back burner in 1978. But he made an agreement with India that both countries would maintain a standstill in the Himalayas and avoid military build-up.

The promise held until 1998, when China began improving its military infrastructure in the Himalayas and building multiple missile bases. But it did not increase its ground forces, which stood at 200,000 soldiers.

India also kept its bargain and did not add a single soldier to its 30,000 in the east and 20,000 in the west. India even held off building new roads and improving infrastructure in its border areas. In hindsight that was a mistake.

Recently, China’s building of an intercontinental missile base at Delingha, north of Tibet, has set alarm bells ringing. Most of Russia and India are within its missile range, and being far from Taiwan keeps it sheltered from the U.S. gaze.

In the past 30 years India has held 13 high-level talks with China on the demarcation of the border, the last one in July this year. Each proved fruitless. China wants the Tawang tract and will not talk about vacating the Akash Chin plateau in Kashmir.

To make its point it has begun building more roads, missile bases and airfields in addition to its existing military infrastructure. It is also encouraging Nepal to enter into a free trade treaty, giving the Chinese an excuse to add more roads and possibly a rail link to bring them closer to India.

Tibet has become more restive in the past ten years. Last year’s pre-Olympic riots blew the lid off China’s tight security when its 200,000 force had to be split between law and order and border guard duties. While China marginally increased the force during the riots, India augmented its force only slightly. Now its military strength in Tibet is insufficient to conquer India or the Tawang tract, although border skirmishes remain a possibility.

India has its own evaluation of the China threat. A decision to engage China through diplomatic channels between 2001 and 2005 produced no results, so India decided to go for a military build-up. Eight mountain divisions trained to fight in the Himalayas will be augmented by two more, and an additional 60,000 ground troops will be sent to the east closer to Tawang and to the state of Sikkim. Also, some 20,000 additional troops will be added to the current strength in the west in Ladakh.

Three airfields lying derelict in the east and three in the west have been activated. A major airbase only 200 miles from the Tibetan border will be upgraded to serve India’s premier Sukhoi fighter. This airfield is a major threat to China’s rail link. India has also initiated other road-building activities. One will connect Ladakh with the rest of India via Manali-Rohtang. Another will connect Itanagar, capital of Arunachal Pradesh state, with neighboring Assam.

These developments could effectively neutralize China’s current advantage. Besides, Indian troops are much more capable in jungle and mountain warfare than they were in 1962. India’s conflict with Kashmir in Kargil in 1999 has presumably shown China that Indians cannot be beaten on the ground as easily as they were in 1962.

China won the 1962 battle with India by indulging in classic Chinese warfare tactics – confusing the enemy with conciliatory signals. On the ground, India had incompetent generals leading a brave bunch of soldiers. Additionally, Chinese soldiers had an advantage with their Soviet copies of German-designed submachine guns called “burp guns.” The rapid-fire submachine guns overwhelmed the Indians, who were carrying World War II Lee Enfield rifles.

Things have now changed; India’s current assault rifle is comparable to China’s and India’s generals have learned the art of war.

India will receive new military hardware in the next five years. Its newly commissioned nuclear submarine will be fully operational by 2012 or 2013, and the Russian aircraft carrier on order is expected to join the Indian navy. Indian-made light combat aircraft and imported medium combat aircraft will be operational in squadron strength.

All this hardware, plus ultra-light artillery fit for action in the Himalayas, will soon become operational. By 2014 India will have twice its current firepower and ten times that of 1962.

So China is planning a new strategy that includes cruise-missile attacks on the Indian heartland and confrontation on the high seas. The biggest threats to India are missiles launched from Tibet and China’s naval armada in the Indian Ocean.

Chinese cruise missiles with a range of 1,500 miles launched from Tibet and intermediate-range ballistic missiles launched from Delingha are big threats. India’s industrial heartland and military bases lie within their range, and new guidance systems make the missiles highly accurate. There is no known defense against a massed attack by some 200 cruise missiles. India’s only hope is that they would miss their targets after traveling 600 miles over the Himalayas.

China is depending most on its naval armada in the Indian Ocean. It has a surveillance station off the Myanmar coast and a newly built naval port in Gawdar, Pakistan. Both are militarily significant. But India counters this advantage with its naval base at the western mouth of the Gulf of Malacca on Andaman Island.

If an overconfident China decided to test Indian resolve by creating an incident, India could retaliate by capturing China’s surveillance base off the Myanmar coast. This could escalate hostilities, but China would risk losing its oil supplies if it stepped up the conflict.

It is pointless for China to wage war with India. Instead, the two countries should engage in greater trade and business, which can bring more prosperity. An unsuccessful invasion of India would be a terrible loss for the Chinese.