By Rakesh Krishnan Simha
When the world’s largest democracy is pitted against the world’s largest autocracy, the clash will always be unpredictable. This is because each side has vastly divergent strategic thinking and different ways of dealing with the adversary. However, it is safe to assume that the final outcome will depend on how democratic India plays its cards against communist China. The reason is that historically India has been the reactive power. From 1947 to 2014, India’s approach towards China was marked by strategic paralysis in the diplomatic corps and the political establishment. There was no sense of urgency to counter the destabilising moves of this dangerous and cunning adversary by strengthening the military. In fact, the only plan of action was to do nothing. This was the bitter legacy of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who meekly acquiesced before the Dragon’s aggression. Today, with India’s political leadership taking an uncharacteristically strident stance and the military raring to have a crack at the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Beijing’s options are limited. There may be no clear winners in an India-China clash, but the communists are guaranteed a bloody nose and global embarrassment.
History is against communist China. If the Cold War offers any lessons, one should not forget that less than 30 years ago the world’s most powerful democracy defeated the world’s most powerful autocracy. The United States had fewer soldiers, ballistic missiles, atomic weapons (25,000 vs 40,000), tanks, artillery, warships and maritime bombers, and yet ceaseless American pressure – which included economic sanctions, proxy wars and an arms race – hastened the breakup of the communist Soviet Union into 15 separate countries. This eliminated a formidable foe and turned Russia into a pale shadow of its former self, never again to be a serious threat to the United States. India could do the same to China if it sheds its post-Independence reticence for total war (across military, economic and cultural fronts) and digs in for a drawn out duel.
However, India’s strengths are camouflaged by the dissonance within its society, politics and the media all of which speak in divergent ways. Most of Delhi’s Lutyens media outfits are known for their trenchant hatred for the idea of India and the Indian armed forces, but some stand out because their editorials uncannily mirror the views of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Sometimes one wonders if these editorials were dictated by the CCP mouthpiece Global Times. The Hindu, which is openly Marxist, has long been a virtual representative of the CCP. The Indian Express, The Wire, Print, Quint and sometimes the Times of India are also known to target the armed forces.
In a December 2020 article in The Wire titled “2020 Gave India a Sharp Lesson on the Chinese Military. When Will Indian Generals Take Heed,?” Pravin Sawhney writes that the “PLA’s war preparedness cannot be matched by the Indian military embarking on some rapid learning course.”
According to the writer, “By grabbing 1,000 square km of Indian territory in Ladakh, China has made it known that bilateral peace and stability will be on its terms. Incapable of evicting the People’s Liberation Army forcefully, and unwilling to accept Beijing’s military coercion, India has become the United States’ de facto military ally to purportedly contain China. Signing the sensitive Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) is the latest step in this direction.”
He adds: The Indian military – even seven months into the crisis – remains oblivious about what lies ahead. Under the Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, the Indian military is three decades behind the PLA in its war concepts (for campaign); and tactics, techniques and procedures (for battles). While it is preparing for war with ‘human soldiers in the lead’, the war that the PLA will fight would have ‘machines with autonomy in the lead’.”
After quoting data about artificial intelligence, military-technology ecosystems and war concepts – basically matters in which he’s way over his head – the writer concludes that the PLA’s war preparedness cannot be matched by the Indian military.
The Wire article could belong to either of two categories – misinformation or disinformation. Misinformation is false information that is spread, regardless of intent to mislead. If you are spreading around information that is wrong but you don’t know it is wrong, then you are, well, technically, spreading misinformation. Disinformation on the other hand is devious. It means false information, as about a country’s military strength or plans, disseminated by a government or intelligence agency in a hostile act of tactical political subversion. It is also used more generally to mean deliberately misleading or biased information; manipulated narrative or facts; propaganda.
Now let’s look at Chinese views and compare it with Sawhney’s report to understand whether it is dictated by the CCP or inspired by the communist nation’s media.
A June 2020 piece in the Global Times (https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1192460.shtml) is uncannily similar to The Wire article, which claims much the same – that Indian soldiers, weapons and tactics are no match for the PLA. It quotes Chinese experts who say India refuses to “acknowledge the gap between India’s weaponry, deployment and equipment and those of China”.
According to the Global Times article, India’s Apache AH-64 and CH-47 helicopters and T-90 and T-72 tanks are outclassed by Chinese weapons. “Chinese military experts said these weapons and equipment are no match for their Chinese counterparts like the PCL-181 and PLZ-05 self-propelled howitzers, Z-10 attack helicopters, and Type 15 and Type 99A tanks, as the capabilities of Chinese weaponry in terms of firepower, mobility, level of informationisation and tactics are far superior, and more so in high-altitude regions.”
The article also dismisses the deployment of IAF aircraft such as MiG-29s, Su-30 MKIs, Mirage 2000s and Jaguars to frontline airbases. “While these aircraft are popular products on the international market, they are no match for China’s domestically developed J-10C and J-16 fighter jets, which are equipped with powerful AESA radar systems and PL-15 beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles. Not to mention, Chinese military’s J-20 stealth fighter jets, which has a generational advantage over Indian aircraft, is a gap that cannot be fulfilled by any means, Chinese analysts said.”
Balance of power
There’s no doubt China has the larger economy and more powerful military. In 2019, Beijing allocated US$261 billion for the defence whereas India spent a little over US$71 billion. Considering China opened up its economy 20 years before India, the Dragon enjoys a huge lead in terms of technology and industrial strength. A cursory look at the plethora of Chinese websites that sell electronics, toys, household products and consumer goods will give you an idea of how advanced the Chinese economy is in comparison to India’s which is still weighed down by archaic laws and corruption. It could easily take India two decades to be where China is today.
While the arrogance of wealth has emboldened the Dragon to breathe fire, it is certainly not a behemoth that cannot be defeated. Disinformation is a favourite tool of communists everywhere and the Chinese will use all their assets – including and especially those in the Indian media and political parties – to create an image of itself as larger than life. This would be a mistake. As the late Arjan Singh, Marshall of the Indian Air Force, once said India’s “biggest folly was over-assessing the threat from China.”
Let’s hear that again. In an interview to the New Delhi-based Manohar Parrikar Institute of Defence Studies & Analyses, (https://idsa.in/system/files/InterviewwithMarshaloftheAirForce.pdf) Arjan Singh spoke about India’s blunder in not deploying fighter aircraft against China: “In my opinion, we over-imagined the danger based on the intelligence input provided by a foreign country. Since we didn’t possess, as a country, a strong intelligence network, we relied on the information provided by the Russians and Americans and did not retaliate with all our strength.”
India v/s China
Instead of comparing how many soldiers, missiles, ships and tanks each side has, one gets a better picture of the Indian and Chinese militaries when looking at morale, tactical skills, innovation of the individual officer class and fighting qualities of the average soldier. For, it is not numbers or technology alone that wins wars but a combination of multiple factors.
On paper, the Chinese military appears to be stronger than India. But man for man, the PLA flunkey is no match for an Indian soldier. Chinese soldiers are conscripts and suffer from straitjacketed tactics as they are generally afraid to innovate. In contrast, Indian soldiers are better equipped to fight in extreme climates, according to an analysis by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs in Harvard Kennedy School. India also has more experience in fighting wars than China. It has fought five wars with Pakistan over the years and won all of them. China, on the other hand, fought the last war in Vietnam in 1979, with the PLA suffering an astonishing 65,000 casualties against the battle hardened Vietnamese Army.
The story is the same in the air. For instance, IAF pilots are known for their high level of innovation and battle tactics. This is due to the fact that Indian pilots train hard year round; the high crash of IAF fighter aircraft is partly due to intense combat training. A former IAF chief once said that he’d rather lose pilots in training than during war. An IAF pilot who crashes a Rs 400 crore Sukhoi will be back in the air after a debrief. In contrast, PLA Air Force would face a firing squad if he strayed from the script and crashed his Sukhoi in the process.
With the induction of large numbers of class leading Sukhoi-30 MKI fighters – bolstered by the latest Rafales plus highly capable Mirage 2000s and MiG-29s – the IAF has not only made a huge technological transition from a MiG-21 dominated fleet, its war fighting doctrine has also changed, focusing on long-range and strategic missions.
Aggressiveness is a fundamental requirement of air combat, and the IAF has traditionally been an attack orientated force. In previous wars, it didn’t matter if their opponents had better aircraft and radars, IAF pilots compensated for it with their superior training and innovativeness. IAF pilots truly internalised what Sergei Dolgushin, a Russian air ace with 24 kills in World War II, said is a prerequisite to be a successful fighter pilot: “A love of hunting, a great desire to be the top dog.”
Geography is against the PLA. Sure, PLA forces on the ground enjoy excellent mobility due to the incredible number of highways running close to the Indian border. But this advantage won’t last in the backdrop of intense – though belated – Indian road construction activity that will within a few short years allow India to move divisions quickly from the Gangetic heartland to the Tibetan border. What will not change are China’s long supply chains from the Han heartland that can be snapped by Indian attack aircraft or accurate cruise missile strikes.
Geography also works against the PLA Air Force. According to the Belfer Center, “The high altitude of Chinese air bases in Tibet and Xinjiang, plus the generally difficult geographic and weather conditions of the region, means that Chinese fighters are limited to carrying around half their design payload and fuel. In-flight refueling would be required for PLAAF forces to maximize their strike capacity. China had only inducted 15 such tanker aircraft nationally as of 2017, meaning only a handful of its forces will benefit from this solution. Against these underpowered fighters, IAF forces will launch from bases and airfields unaffected by these geographic conditions, with maximum payload and fuel capabilities.”
And less said about the PLA Navy the better. Chinese warships may strut around the Indian Ocean in peacetime but war will be different. Once the Indian Navy sinks Chinese support vessels at the Malacca Straits chokepoints, these flotillas will be virtually defenceless as they are hunted by Indian Sukhois armed with the anti-ship supersonic BrahMos missile. With round the clock intelligence provided by ISRO satellites as well as Indian, American and Japanese Poseidon P-8 naval reconnaissance aircraft, the Indian Navy and IAF will pick them off like shooting fish in a barrel.
China’s sneak attack in June 2020 that killed 20 unarmed Indian soldiers proved to be both a tactical and strategic blunder. The Indian Army’s devastating counterstrike not only killed 35-100 PLA troops, it also led to the capture of land that had been under Chinese control since 1962. These were the first Chinese soldiers killed in action outside United Nations peacekeeping operations in more than four decades.
With its quick retaliation and grabbing of several square kilometers of Chinese land, India got rid of the albatross of appeasement which had slung from its neck for over 70 years. From the strategic point of view, India rushed tens of thousands of soldiers and heavy weapons to the Himalayan border, limiting China’s ability to pressure India. It is mindboggling that it took the loss of so many brave men for India to militarise the border. A costly strategy no doubt but it is peanuts when you realize half-starving North Korea has had a militarized border for nearly 70 years.
From China’s point of view, the greater strategic loss was that the cold blooded murders permanently etched the image of the Chinese as a mean, cunning and dangerous foe in the minds of the majority of Indians. India made concrete moves to lessen its economic dependence on China and move away from the Chinese supply chain. The chances of Chinese company Huawei being awarded contracts to build a 5G network in India evaporated. And that’s just for starters – there is now a growing consensus in India’s leadership that the Dragon needs to be cornered and defeated.
In the 1962 War, Indian soldiers were sent into battle with a single magazine of four bullets. In 1967, the Indian Army defeated the PLA in a ferocious artillery duel that left 300 Chinese soldiers dead. In 1987, in response to a Chinese incursion into Arunachal Pradesh, the Indian Army rushed tanks into the area, leading to a 12 month long Mexican standoff which ended with a PLA retreat. Doklam 2017 and Ladakh 2020 also ultimately ended in Chinese humiliation. You get the picture – India’s strength against China has grown with each passing decade. Considering these standoffs were won by India with its comparatively smaller military, Beijing should be very worried. Over the long-run, India’s military buildup and defence manufacturing capabilities are only going to gather momentum, allowing it to catch up both qualitatively and quantitatively.
And that’s not all. By attacking India, Chinese has forced the fence sitters in the Indian establishment to discard nonalignment and enter into a closer military relationship with China’s adversaries. It has ended strategic ambiguity in India, resulting in widespread support for a closer relationship with the US. This will be music to America’s ears as Washington has wanted to partner India against communism since the 1940s. In recent years the US has become more overt in its efforts to woo India, as a balancing force against the Dragon. In 2018, the US military renamed its Pacific Command as USINDOPACOM or the Indo-Pacific Command. The anti-China Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – comprising the US, Japan, India and Australia – could become the next big headache for China.
While individually India may take a century or more to overtake China, its alliance with the West and Japan becomes a force multiplier. With the demise of Pax Americana, policy wonks Richard Fontaine and Daniel M. Kliman describe India as a “global swing state”. Such a state possesses a large and growing economy, occupies a central position in a region or stands at the hinge of multiple regions. In an interview to the Seattle-based National Bureau of Asian Research, they say alliances with swing states can “deliver a geopolitical pay-off” because the choices these nations make may “decisively influence the course of world affairs”. India thus acts as the catalyst that brings down China.
China’s biggest weakness is that communism carries the seeds of its own destruction. The Soviet Union suffered from shortages throughout its 70 year existence. Cuba is again a prime example of communist decay. China’s rise is due to the West propping it up as a bulwark against the Soviets, not realising the folly of feeding one monster to destroy another. However, away from the glitz of its big cities, China remains a poor and blighted country with all the problems that afflict developing nations. These problems include joblessness, lack of freedom, shortage of women and a population that is smart enough to copy but not creative enough to build the next Google or Intel. If the West, India and Japan and their allies close ranks, they can isolate and bring down China.
Jan Kallberg, a research scientist at the Army Cyber Institute at West Point, says all chauvinist cults will implode over time because the unrealistic assumptions add up, and so will the sum of all delusional ideological decisions. “China’s belief that it can be a global authoritarian hegemony is likely on the same journey. China is today driven by its flavor or expansionist ideology that seeks conflict without being strategically able. It is worth noting that not a single major country is China’s ally.”
According to Kallberg, during the last decade, the countries in the Indo-Pacific region that seek to hinder the Chinese expansion of control, influence and dominance have increasingly formed stronger relationships. “The strategic scale is in the democratic countries’ favour. If China, still driven by ideology, pursues conflict at a large scale, it is likely the end of the communist dictatorship.”
–The writer is a globally cited defence analyst. His work has been published by leading think tanks, and quoted extensively in books on diplomacy, counter terrorism, warfare and economic development. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda