China’s Massive Attack Against India: A Looming Possibility – Analysis


By Kartik Bommakanti

Now that the dust has settled with the conclusion of the 2024 parliamentary elections, it is time to take stock of India’s ongoing boundary confrontation with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Notwithstanding Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s conciliatory statement that India and China must restore peace and tranquillity on their contested boundary, all adversarial relationships, especially involving territorial disputes, hold the distinct possibility of culminating into a full-fledged war and the India-China relationship is no exception.

The wider strategic community believes that a massive attack by the PRC against India will never happen. In fact, one former Indian envoy to the PRC observed recently: “So there is a pattern of aggressive behaviour [from China], of trying to change status quo [against India and in the South China Sea (SCS)] through salami slicing, incremental steps by staying short of an all-out military conflict and changing ground realities.” This statement by itself is not wrong, but salami slicing and incremental gains, which the PRC has already made against India, are among a menu of possibilities, which includes a massive attack and full-scale war. The difficulty with worst-case assumptions about the prospect of menacing adversary behaviour is that they mandate economic sacrifices that civilians do not want to make. 

Unfortunately, the worst is possible, and India experienced this with the outbreak of the Sino-Indian War in 1962. After all, as Krishna Menon who was Defence Minister during the 1962 war ruefully observed: “…I make no secret of the fact that we were not prepared for a war [massive attack] against China…We expected negotiation and diplomacy to play their part [not war].” The run-up to the war also sowed civil-military tensions especially under the Indian Army Chief General Thimmaya to the extent that the latter, who was “acutely” aware of the China threat warned that the Nehru-led leadership was not paying attention to China’s robust military strength and the distinct possibility that Beijing could attack massively. At most, the Nehru government saw only a “limited attack” as a possibility that India could counter with the defences it was preparing.

History is instructive in the present challenge that China poses India. The ongoing confrontation between India and China is similar, but not identical to the one faced by Nehru’s India in the run-up to the 1962 War. Before the onset of the 1962 conflict, Nehru was wedded to his own assumptions that the superpowers would restrain the Chinese which would be adequate to head off a Sino-Indian War. At best limited military measures both in capabilities and logistics from India’s end would suffice, Nehru concluded. The leadership was also convinced that China would not want war with India because it would trigger a world war, which in turn rested on the assumption that India was too critical to the balance of power for the two Cold War superpowers—namely the United States (US) and the erstwhile Soviet Union. They believed that the Soviets would restrain the Chinese.

A critical corollary reinforcing these assumptions for the Nehru-led Indian government was that the series of skirmishes along the Sino-Indian boundary such as the violent, yet limited clashes in geographic scope and force that occurred in Longju and Kongka Passwould be the shape of Chinese conduct obviating the need for India to robustly build-up its defences against a massive Chinese attack. It turned out to be a fatal error because the Nehru-led leadership fell victim to Chinese deception as it inferred too much from skirmishes in that it provided confirmation bias to Nehru’s existing belief that China cannot want war along the contested Sino-Indian boundary and rested on the assumption that these limited clashes would be the enduring pattern of Chinese military conduct along the disputed frontier. 

These were the deeply held beliefs until the Chinese shattered them in October of 1962. In the Eastern sector of the boundary during the 1962 War or formerly called the Northeast Frontier Agency (NEFA), the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) overran Indian Army defences to the point that they almost reached the outskirts of Guwahati. They also killed thousands of Indian soldiers and took several thousand Prisoners of War (POW). What saved the day for India in the Eastern sector or the erstwhile North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) and what is now called Arunachal Pradesh was the Chinese decision to withdraw their forces behind the McMahon Line unilaterally.

In the Western sector of the boundary, the Indian Army performed better, because its defences and logistics capabilities were better built. These were the only two consolatory outcomes for India from that humiliating war. Otherwise, poor leadership at the national level, low spending on defence capabilities, poor command, low force morale among Indian troops and weak logistics combined to produce a disastrous military outcome, especially in the NEFA. 

While India has improved significantly over the years in terms of logistics, airfields, a greater number of all-weather roads and capabilities for the IA,  China’s  capabilities in the form of air defences, air bases, heliports and logistics along the Sino-Indian boundary and the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) has also improved considerably.

There is a widespread consensus in India that a massive attack will not be executed by the PRC with the latter confining itself to the seizure of territory in Eastern Ladakh as what happened in April-May of 2020, the bloody Galwan clash that ensued the following month and the attempted seizure of Yangtse by the PLA in the eastern sector of the Sino-Indian boundary in December 2022. It rests on the rather quaint assumption that China has already made the territorial gains it intended to make against India in 2020 and at best a limited attack of some sort is likely, but not a massive attack—a view held by a wide swathe of Indian strategic establishment. It is entirely plausible that India might be falling prey to the same level of deception as before that China in contemporary parlance would restrict itself to “grey-zone operations” or the odd skirmish and intrusion throughout the Sino-Indian boundary and will not pursue an all-out war or a substantial attack. This assumption may be psychologically comforting but potentially damaging. 

Spending on defence as the Interim Budget tabled before the Parliament vividly shows is simply inadequate to meet the shortfall in capabilities the Indian Armed Forces currently face. Constraints on military spending have been further exacerbated by supply bottlenecks due to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war with the IAF unable to spend the allocations made to the service in last year’s full budget.

In any potential Sino-Indian boundary war, the IAF will have a pivotal role to play and if the service is inadequately equipped due to military supply constraints, New Delhi will need to move away from reliance on Russian military hardware or weapons and spares. If anything, it lends more urgency to India’s need to diversify away from Russia, because China could see an opportunity to launch a massive attack against India, due to India’s dependence on Moscow for military supplies. Tacit or even explicit collusion between Beijing and Moscow could also crystallise if the former launched a massive attack against India as what happened in the 1962 Sino-Indian boundary war.

India’s dependence on Russian military hardware only compounds India’s Russia supply problem. Even worse, there is still a presumption in India that an outright war triggered or caused by China will catalyse US to intervene on India’s behalf. This is highly conditional. Again, history is instructive. Lest we forget, Washington intervened and extended military aid on behalf of India only after the Nehru-led government sought it in late October 1962.

In the event of a Sino-Indian War today, it may happen if India solicits American military assistance or may not happen even after India seeks aid from the US. There is neither automaticity nor inevitability to the extension of American military aid to India because Washington retains the choice not to do so and may be compelled to demur due to its commitments to Israel, Ukraine and its East Asian allies in the Indo-Pacific. This will leave India confronting a militarily hostile and aggressive PRC entirely on its own making it imperative to augment India’s conventional military strength. Therefore, taking American support for granted will, at a minimum be risky and at a maximum dangerous, for New Delhi. The costs of leaving things to chance are prohibitive for New Delhi.           

History provides illuminative value for the realities India confronts today against China. Now that the Modi government has been re-elected to a third term, it is time to prioritise defence spending, especially capital acquisitions, and for a broader defence roadmap to tackle the China challenge on the military front. 

  • About the author: Kartik Bommakanti is a Senior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation
  • Source: This article was published by the Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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