An India-China Military Conflict? – Analysis


By Bhaskar Roy

There have been projections among some Indian experts and think tanks that a limited Chinese attack along the unresolved Sino-Indian border may be imminent. This view cannot be totally faulted. They are based on China’s aggressive official and semi-official postures and warning to India, especially on the sovereignty of Tawang, an important Buddhist pilgrim town in India’s north-east state of Arunachal Pradesh.

China claims officially the whole of Arunachal Pradesh as its territory. The official Chinese media, have started referring to Arunachal Pradesh as South Tibet. This is a very important shift in China’s nomenclature of Arunachal Pradesh. This is an effort to now make this Indian state a historical part of Tibet which China militarily occupied in 1950. With India among other countries in the world having acknowledged the original Tibet as a sovereign part of China, extension of Tibet to Arunachal Pradesh may give China an opening into its sovereignty claim on Arunachal Pradesh. Beijing believes it as another instrument to pressure India.

China - India Relations
China - India Relations

Although historically and according to international law China’s claim on Tibet is legally tenuous and questionable, the political and economic importance of China have won them the battle.

But Beijing’s claim on Tawang is the critical issue. Notwithstanding the facetious evidence being presented by China on Tawang’s ownership, the fact is that this town, located in the tri-junction of Tibet, Bhutan and India is of high strategic value to China. Tawang is located near the Siliguri corridor/chicken-neck which connects the larger India by land to its vast north-eastern region. It is now common knowledge that China continues to support insurgent and separatist groups in north-east India. w If Tawang went to China it could garrison its troops there, ignite a major turbulence in north-east India, and roll down from Tawang to engage or cut off the Siliguri chicken-neck, preventing or slowing down Indian military movement. A success of this strategy would be disastrous for India. One can, therefore, understand China’s strong objection and criticism against India’s enhanced force deployment in north-east India.

What is particularly galling for Indian observers is the fact that China is quietly building its military deployment in Tibet or Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) that does not appear normal. The Chinese military has constructed or upgraded five airfields in close proximity of the border from the western sector to the eastern sector. There are indications that round the year air deployment is taking place or has already taken place. In the height of winter in January this year, People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAF) conducted live fire exercises in TAR.

The railway net work in Tibet may be projected by the Chinese as for development purposes, but its military and strategic emphasis are obvious. At least one full train load of transfer of arms and ammunitions from Golmud to Lhasa has already been conducted. The next step is bring one line to Xigaze (Shigatse) near the eastern sector border, and another to the Nepal border and then on to Kathmandu.

The road infrastructure along the border on the Tibetan side is being continually upgraded, and high altitude military exercises have also been conducted. In fact, two-dimensional military preparations in TAR can be said to be in an advanced stage.

In his report (unclassified) to the Senate Intelligence Committee (Jan 31), Director of the US National Intelligence Agency said “despite public statements intended to downplay tensions between India and China, we judge India is increasingly concerned about China’s posture along the border and Beijing’s aggressive posture in the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific Region (APR)”. The report went on to say that the Indian army believes a major Sino-Indian conflict is not imminent, but it was making preparations to balance Chinese power projection in the Indian Ocean.

The unclassified NIA report supports the general belief in India to never forget the Chinese deception in 1962, and be prepared. But, for a number of domestic reasons and influences, a real effort to balance the Chinese Force projection started late, only about four years ago,. What the classified version of the report contains is anybody’s guess, but will be certainly more thought provoking than the unclassified version.

Tantalisingly, the unclassified report has this line for all to see “India has expressed support for a strong US military posture in East Asia and US engagement in Asia.” This is a probing observation and would further reinforce Beijing’s suspicion of India joining the US along with Japan to contain China.

China’s military modernization programme is widely discussed by governments and experts all over the world. Area denial to the US and naval power projection in the outer reaches of the Indian Ocean in the east are discussed by the Chinese themselves. What is more secretive in nature are its cyber warfare capabilities, C4ISR and electro-magnetic weapons.

Discussions among Chinese experts on acquiring military bases abroad especially in the Indian Ocean region, and the use of military as an option on territorial issues are issues that call for close watch. China has already said that the return of the US in the Asia Pacific Region has disturbed stability and peace in the area. The fact is, the US re-entry has diminished China’s domination, and helped the countries of the region who have territorial disputes with China over the Spratly Islands in the South China sea to stand up for their rights.

Japan is another country with which China has territorial disputes (Senkaku Islands) and, despite China being Japan’s largest trade partner, political and security confrontations have only sharpened over the last two years. Japan has become proactive, officially declaring (2011) China’s military posture as “aggressive” for the first time. China has also raised several questions about the intentions of the India-Japan defence agreement.

As is well known, the Chinese Communist Party and the government have kept their people starved of information on the happenings in the world. The people have been fed by the state and party controlled media, tailored to project official views and thinking. China’s 500 million netizens’ views on different countries are shaped by official media. A study made by Simon Shen, Associate Professor in the department of social sciences, Hong Kong Institute of Education (published, China Quarterly, Sept. 2001) reveals interesting insights into the minds of these netizens. One thing that emerged from Simon Shen’s three-year research was that 90 percent were hostile to India. On territorial issues, the result was “why should China negotiate with India when it is superior and can hold off India?” India is also seen as servile to the west, and also as imperialist. Over all, the views are anti-India and based very closely if not exactly to the Chinese official propaganda.

This deliberately created mind set by the Chinese authorities can be a double edged sword. While it creates support for the party and the government, at times this can also pressure the authorities to do what they may not want to do. The Sino-India border issue is one of the questions discussed by the Chinese netizens who prefer a military strike in “South Tibet”’ Arunachal Pradesh, to teach India a lesson. These views are not of the 1950s or 1960s, they are contemporary and relevant.

The Chinese are past masters of the mind game, developed and sharpened over 4000 years. Therefore, their propaganda frequently mentions the 1962 border war when a rag-tag Indian army was routed in the cold October of that year. They also report India’s military acquisition and development as a threat to the South Asian region. At the same time, the Chinese authorities have completely left out the mention of their attack on Vietnam in 1978. The attack was ordered by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping to not only teach Vietnam a lesson but also cut the Soviet Union’s finger in the far east. The attack was not a suo moto decision. The US was taken into confidence, and the White House is said to have given an indirect support. It was a much bigger game played by China, but too long to be detailed here. The fact is that the PLA went into Vietnam with a force of 450,000, and the air force. Suffice it to say that China had to retreat with a bloody face and in shame.

The PLA has fought three wars. In 1950 in Korea, where they overwhelmed the US forces through sheer numbers irrespective of causalities suffered. In 1962, it was not only the rag-tag Indian army, but confusion in command and control from New Delhi, and misapprehensions of Chinese aircraft bombing Calcutta if India used its air force. The Chinese forces retreated not out of goodwill as they claim, but they were fully aware that they could not hold on to the ground once the Indian army reorganized and the political leaders awoke from their stupor. The third war was with Vietnam in 1979.

Today, the scenario is different. The PLA is not prepared to fight a revolutionary war where giving up one’s life for the communist party was a matter of pride. It has not fought a battle for more than 30 years. Even the PLA’s fight against terrorism against small bands of Uighur separatists in Xinjiang does not show any special expertise.

At the same time there is the PLA’s significant advancement in the areas of armaments, information supported warfare, and tri-services coordination.

India’s military planners have been assessing these developments. A nuclear warfare in a limited confrontation is not in the calculations of military planning. That is a separate aspect.

Despite China’s naval projection in the Indian Ocean and offer from Seychelles to open a naval base (obviously as a repayment to Chinese aid), an India-China confrontation on the high seas is a distant speculation. This, unless China perceives India’s Look East policy is conflicting seriously with China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

An India-China conflict can manly be visualized along the borders. This issue is just not moving forward, and China does not want to under the current bilateral agreements. The issue is that China signed an agreement at the Prime Ministerial level in 2005 that there will be no exchange of settled population areas. Since then, they have reneged on this. The recent (Jan 16-17) Senior Representative (SR) level talks on the border and other issues not only saw little progress but rather froze such meetings for some time to come. Hence, one can safely believe that the boundary talks have gone to the mode of ‘time buying’.

China sees India along with the US and the west as a spoiler of its Asia ambition. It suspects India supports the Dalai Lama and his allegedly sponsored Tibetan uprisings inside China to disintegrate China. And the boundary issue is an available cause to launch a “teach India” limited military attack where the air force will be used along with the army and electronic warfare.

China’s foreign policy has certain goals, many of them hid in a shell of opacity. This makes China’s interlocutors uneasy. Hence, there has been a constant demand for China to be more transparent in its military modernization and strategic policy. It is not to say that China has not improved. It is far more transparent to outsiders than it was in 1960s – 1980s. But even that is not good enough.

The Chinese have perfected, in a sense, the strategies of “denial” and “deception”. But increasingly these strategies have degenerated from a fine art in the battle field to one of ham handedness. For example, as a part of ‘deceit’ they embed intelligences officers with expertise in different fields in appropriate delegations. This has become known. At the same time they vehemently ‘deny’ officially as conspiracy whenever their agents in a foreign country get caught, or violation of international treaties and conventions / regimes to which they are signatories, are exposed. Examples are numerous and need not be discussed here. Hence, it has become difficult for most countries to establish a relationship of trust with China. Pakistan is, perhaps, the only exception.

Since ancient times China has been a self-centred nation or nationality. In a manner, it is correct to say that China never colonized another country. But it is equally true that China tried to colonize Vietnam, raided Indonesia and coveted neighbouring territories. Their sovereignty over Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia is highly debatable. History is very clear that China had to take over Tibet militarily. Unlike in the Indian case where different languages, cultures and traditions joined together voluntarily to form the Indian union in a long process, in China’s case all the three regions are still struggling for independence in one way or the other.

At the same time, however, the Chinese emperors did not go too far across the seas to establish colonies which they would find impossible to rule. It was, perhaps, one of the most important strategic decisions not to over stretch.

China, under Mao Zedong, drew out contours of sovereignty, suzerainty, and countries who will kow-tow to the Middle Kingdom along the borders. It was made clear at that time China wanted Ladakh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh with it, with Nepal and Bhutan under its suzerainty. Tibet had already been taken over. This was far looking strategy for a forward defence line.

As China grew stronger it unveiled its territorial claims in the near seas – East China Sea, Yellow Sea, and South China Sea – and became more assertive leading small clashes at times in recent years. This has turned the entire region unstable if not a “hot spot”. If this is not coveting territories of others, what is it?

Authoritative Chinese writings over the last decade have indicated that China is impatient to exercise its influence from the Gulf through the Indian Ocean to Western Pacific. This embryonic strategy has very deep and long term reasons. China is energy and raw material starved and has to source them from abroad. The resources are “core interest” for China, and must be protected by any and all means. Protection means use of a superior force than those which can obstruct the flow of resources. Once such a force is deployed tensions are bound to rise, and can be the reason for a potential conflict.

Apart from the India-China border issue which both sides are trying at the moment, with some difficulty to put on the back burner, both sides are watching each other closely. What are the other imperatives?

Clearly spelt out “core interests” of China, which are paramount to its sovereignty and territorial integrity are as follows: dominating rule of the Chinese communist party; reintegration of Taiwan with the mainland; maintaining a stable, peaceful and integrated Tibet.

The Party’s paramount position, in China’s perception, is not threatened by only internal challenges but by insidious western machinations led by the US. After the 1989 Tiananmen Square riots, Deng Xiaoping described it as result of USA’s operation called “Peaceful Evolution” – sabotaging a communist country’s people through western democratic values. The Soviet Union was the first victim, and the Chinese Communist Party is the next target. The Chinese authorities mince no words about it, but can do very little. They believe if the party disintegrates so will the country.

On immediate external challenges, Taiwan figures at the top. The Chinese believe if Taiwan declares independence it will encourage Hong Kong and Macao to move similarly, and encourage Tibetan independence. The US position on Taiwan is complex. While it does not encourage independence, it also keeps Taiwan armed with a strong self-defence against a Chinese attack. The US Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1978 obliquely enjoins it to come to Taiwan’s aid in case of a Chinese attack. Mainland–Taiwan relations have improved significantly , but not to the extent of integration. In the January Taiwan presidential elections the mainland friendly KMY led by Ma Ying-Jeo won, but the opposition anti-integration Democratic Peoples Party (PP) won a solid 20 percent vote, keeping the question mark well and truly alive. Those who voted for the KMY need not be pro-integration. They are the status quoits who see a stable relationship with the mainland to their economic advantage.

The PLA is not yet capable of waging a war in two theatres at the same time. It has cornered Taiwan with around 1300 medium range nuclear capable missiles, and is working on area denial capabilities to the USA. Yet, in China’s calculations if it gets involved in serious military engagement in another theatre, Taiwan may move for independence.

China’s concerns over Tibet should be an issue of concern for India. After the Dalai Lama resigned from his political role last year, China’s counter action policy went awry. They clearly did not expect this, and find themselves on the back foot. The Tibetan government in-exile has Harvard educated lawyer Lobasang Sangye as the Prime Minister. China does not want to talk to him as it may give the new Tibetan administration in-exile political recognition. And the Dalai Lama has taken his hands off. At the same time, Tibetan monks and nuns in the Tibetan areas of Sichuan province have raised their anti-China activities, calling for independence and the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet. Since March 2011, 20 Tibetan monks and nuns resorted to self-immolation, and the protests have spread wider. China’s response has been on harsher methods, and trying to overwhelm them with re-education and propaganda to support the motherland.

In China’s calculations, the resurgence in Tibetan protests in China is a US-Dalai Lama conspiracy in which India may be involved, and the spring board is Nepal. Beijing, it appears, has failed to completely stop anti-China Tibetan activities in Nepal because of US and Western pressures. Their disapproval of Nepal’s position was demonstrated when Premier Wen Jiabao cancelled a 3-day visit to Nepal in December, and only spent 4 hours later in Kathmandu on his way to the Gulf countries. Wen Jiabao reportedly spent most of his four hours in Kathmandu on the Tibetan activities in Nepal and threat to China’s security.

China strongly feels that the presence of the Dalai Lama in India, location of the Tibetan Kashag in Dharamsala, and more than 160 thousand Tibetan exiles in India comprise a serious threat. This is interlaced with the Sino-Indian border issue, and can emerge as a critical question in Sino-Indian relations.

But Beijing has equally important issues to consider along its eastern sea board, Far East to South East Asia. The general details are very well known and documented. At the centre are three imperatives (i) oil and gas (ii) extension of maritime territory, and fisheries which is a major economic basket, and (iii) control of sea lanes.

China contends with Japan and claims exclusive sovereignty over the Senkaku (Diayotai in Chinese) islands in East China Sea; similarly, it claims in entirety the South China Sea and the Spratly group of islands, which are in part or whole claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.

China’s assertive position in 2010 on these issues, and a surreptitious attempt to persuade the US to accept South China Sea as its “core interest”, and earlier a separate unofficial offer that a line be drawn in the western pacific to divide China’s and US’ domination. Both were outrightly rejected by the US. This has changed the whole scenario in the Asia Pacific region. The US has returned to the region, creating a new challenge for China. Beijing’s assertions with military backing backfired.

China is, at the moment, faced with options of protecting its territorial claims in its near sea areas which are imminent, and Sino-Indian border ard the Tibetan issue on the other.

Currently, China is overburdened by the developments along its sea board. It is setting up a fourth naval fleet in Hainan island which overlooks the South China Sea. The US is also planning to base special ships in Singapore which can quickly intervene in the same area. The situation is complex.

Given these developments it is unlikely that China will endeavour on a military conflict with India in the near future. Unless, of course, it concludes India is sabotaging its sovereignty over Tibet. From 2003, when Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee visited China, India has bent over backwards to assure China that India does not wish to interfere in Tibet. A conflict with India in 2012 does not seem feasible. But in the next few years New Delhi must look out for “denial” and “deception”.


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

7 thoughts on “An India-China Military Conflict? – Analysis

  • February 10, 2012 at 6:44 pm

    A very well studied thoughts. However the only way to keep your enemies in check is to keep yourself strong enough so nobody can even think of the harming your interest.

    Indian intellectuals mostly are engrossed in catching up with west in living standard levels.However India has enough think tanks and policy makers who can handle the situation.China should always understand that this is not 1962 when India’s priorities were different and few strategic mistakes cost them the war even though only 1/6th of the army was involved.

    They should learn from today’s situation of their friend Pakistan’s failed strategy of Harming India by 1000 cuts.The country is beyond repairable and struggling for existence as it is stabbed itself thru terrorism.

    Yes India should be well prepared and the same is being done by modernizing and expanding the military strength.


    • July 10, 2017 at 2:04 pm

      tell me more, i am in china, but i know few of the fact happening around the confusing world. i am a people hoping to see the fact, not those adjective comments.

  • February 11, 2012 at 2:51 am

    This article lays bare the totally untrustworthy and dishonest nature of the Chinese govt and the jingoistic mindset of what is clearly Han ‘superiority’ over non-Han chinese subjects and neighbouring countries. India not only needs to build its defence capabilities but should also have an active program to hamstring the chinese state using internal dissent in Tibet and Xinjiang in much the manner as Pakistan is being used against us, whilst at the same time building an alliance with similarly affected and concerned states.

  • February 11, 2012 at 8:49 am

    it is deemed from this the designs china has mobilised and intend to admonish its territorial claims, towards indian eastern borders, and also the littorals islands along the south china seas are not only a fantasy but could evolve to a reality. india, has this fear and apprehensions of the chinese ambitious expansionist plans and hence the preparatory of its eastern borders and astuting the enforcement of its defence assets alongwith marshalling additional mountain divisions and strike corps are not predatory but defensive in nature. Unlike,the 1962, disastrous unpreparedness and trust deceits of the chinese regime, india has now far reaching abilities to thwart such a misadventure of china.China, is well aware of indias preparedness and ever vigilance and will now not surprise with their misadventure. It is sad with so much at hand chinas greed is still unquenched.

  • February 11, 2012 at 10:37 am

    The founding myth, or myth cycle, of the ccp, features a theme that is significant in this discussion: china is surrounded by rapacious enemies who want to pull it apart and keep it on its knees. That, i believe, is the very potent fear that is hurling china along its ill-considered path toward unquestioned regional supremacy. China will never get there, it is burning out its environment, and it is wearing out its people. But the destructive drive remains. So the task for foreign countries is to somehow get a genuine warmth over to the chinese, to combat the dangerous narrative that we are all rapacious or jealous and ready to pounce and divide. Speaking as a westerner who has lived in china, i think that india cannot show china much face because india has no face with china. It is seen as too poor, too dirty, and frankly too brown. I think that india’s best chance to promote deep, close ties with chinese people are through academic exchanges, especially in the humanities. I don’t know how interested indians are in their long history, but many chinese are big fans of the hackneyed propagandized copy of national history that the ccp promotes throug school, tv and books. India has an inroad here to try for a tentative, limited distant cousin of pan-asianism.

    • February 12, 2012 at 9:27 am

      Interesting analysis. I’m Indian, done business with a lot of Chinese people. Nothing but love from them. The one interesting thing I noticed is that Chinese people do not like to discuss politics. Whereas in most democracies it is a national pastime.

      The only time we came close to discussing politics was when my hosts got drunk and ranted about Western imperialism.

      I’m thinking your Chinese friends just told you what you wanted to hear (poor, dirty, brown Indians etc)

  • February 11, 2012 at 12:08 pm

    China has always been ambitious. The Indians should not be caught napping another time. It’s time, New Delhi become wiser to the Chinese threat and did something.


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