Sunday, August 9, 2009

India-China Border Talks

On August 7 and 8, 2009, India and China held the 13th round of talks. PLA Daily, in a story on the subject, noted that during the talks, the two sides exchanged in-depth views on the further development of China-India Strategic Cooperative Partnership, as well as regional, international and global issues of mutual interest. The Chinese side emphasized that China and India have no other option than living in peace and developing side by side. China stands firmly committed to working with India to press ahead with the bilateral ties. The Chinese side expressed belief that both countries need to promote the relationship with a higher and strategic perspective and continue to uphold the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence. China and India should endeavor to build the strategic mutual trust. Both need to expand the common interests and cooperation bilaterally and on regional and global affairs.

While the Chinese official line is all about friendship and peaceful co-existence, the tone and tenor of academic and think-tank writings are not that reassuring. The anti-India rhetoric in the Chinese writings have gone up significantly in the last few years.

Here's an article published a year ago on some of these aspects, more specifically a provocative article, ‘A Warning to the Indian Government: Don’t Be Evil!' in one of the Chinese think-tanks. The article was published by the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.

In a provocative article entitled, ‘A Warning to the Indian Government: Don’t Be Evil!’ China has sent a strong message to India. Posted on the website ( of a prominent Chinese think-tank, the China Institute of International Strategic Studies, the article by Zhan Lue (March 26, 2008), compares the present India-China situation to that of 1962 when, the author claims, India provoked a war with China. He notes that China today is better prepared in terms of its military presence in Tibet and nearby regions, besides possessing nuclear weapons. He also contends that China believes that India has been in an aggressive mood as evident in its stationing of more troops on the border, conduct of military exercises with countries, and massive arms acquisitions with China as the target. He concludes by accusing the Indian government of “walking today along the old road of resisting China,” advising India “not to requite kindness with ingratitude.”
Chinese rhetoric has undoubtedly intensified in the last few years, be it from the Chinese politico-military leadership or senior academics. Earlier, Professor Ma Jiali of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), a government think-tank, had argued that India should “return” Tawang, a sacred place for Tibetan Buddhists in Arunachal Pradesh, to China for resolving the vexed border issue, as Beijing could then be “magnanimous” in settling the border in the Western and Middle Sectors of the disputed boundary. Of course, by the same logic, China should be ready to give Lake Mansarovar to India as it is considered one of the most sacred pilgrimage centres for the Hindus!
Will China really launch an attack on India in Tawang or elsewhere in the eastern sector? If so, is India prepared for such an eventuality? While India has improved its overall fighting capability and is willing to use air power in combat (something it did not do in 1962), infrastructure development on the Indian side of the border has remained inadequate. This has been partly the result of the belief harboured by the Indian military and political establishment that infrastructure development in the region would actually enhance the Chinese ability to move into Indian territory in case of a crisis.
In the last few years, the infrastructural developments that China has undertaken in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) as well as on the India-China border provide the potential to the PLA Army to mobilise forces and equipment in a much shorter span of time. It would enable China to mobilise large forces by train and by road onto Indian borders. Earlier this exercise not only took a long time but also was impossible during periods of snow. The new rail line into Tibet, and expressways, have changed the scenario totally. It is believed that China has about 160,000 troops in Tibet, and with improved infrastructure, it will be able to amass another 100,000 troops from the central reserve in a span of six weeks. Indian military planners have also noted that China has vastly improved its air force capability in the region, with multiple air bases and forward airstrips near the border. The PLA Air Force is also believed to have improved its command and control structures, as was evident from an air battle drill staged on March 30, 2008. China can also deploy heavy-lift planes in Tibet, though they may not be able to land and take-off fully loaded because of altitude restrictions. Besides the positioning of intermediate range ballistic missiles such as DF-4 and DF-21 in Tibet, it is reported that they could also deploy DF-31 ICBMs in bases such as at Delingha. This may mean that even a limited conflict between India and China has the potential to spiral out of control to become a dangerous nuclear flashpoint.
India, on the other hand, has about twelve mountain divisions capable of swift offensive operations in the mountainous areas. Two of these were reportedly created in February 2008, specifically for combat in Arunachal Pradesh. Two additional such divisions are estimated to become operational by 2015-16, at a cost of around INR 14 billion (USD 358 million). These will be reinforced by air power, including AWACS and fighter jets. There have also been reports of India’s plans to procure 140 ultra-light 155mm artillery pieces, as also a large number of heavy lift and combat ready helicopters, all of which would have special utility in mountain warfare. Although India has tested a number of intermediate-range missiles, including the Agni-3 capable of hitting both Beijing and Shanghai, these missiles are still not operational.
Despite the rhetoric, it may not be feasible for China to undertake military action against India for at least two reasons. Firstly, present day India is very different from the one defeated by China in 1962 – a fact that was evident to the Chinese even during Operation Falcon/Exercise Chequerboard in 1986/87. Secondly, in any future conflict with China, the use of air power will be critical and is likely to change the outcome in India’s favour. There have been several debates on the offensive use of air power in high altitude areas, the potential of which was well demonstrated in the high-altitude air war during the Kargil conflict. Limited conflicts can be contained to India’s advantage if India takes recourse to the use of air power.
The belligerent tone of Chinese writings and the improved connectivity to its borders notwithstanding, China may not go in for a military attack, given its understanding of improvements in India’s military capabilities. India should not, however, rule out the possibility of occasional Chinese adventurism till such time that there is a clear demarcation of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) on the ground and in military maps.

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