Understanding Chinese Belligerence and India’s Strategic Options

air power asia, anil chopra, JP Joshi, China, India, Ladakh

The 10 hours of talks at the Corps Commander level on 02 Aug 2020 seem to have made no further progress in the disengagement process, as there appear to be a total lack of trust, as also, varying perceptions between the two sides. On 28 Jun 2020, the Chinese side had claimed that the “process was completed at most locations in the region.” On 30 Jun 2020, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson contradicted this position by stating that “there has been some progress made towards this objective but the disengagement process has as yet not been completed.” It is apparent that the talks being held at the diplomatic and military levels are hardly making any substantive headway. The Chinese ambassador to India has re-iterated the Chinese position that India is to blame for the Galwan incident. All of the above is indicative of the Chinese intransigence in the Eastern Ladakh region, leading to a very unstable situation, with both armies deployed in strength in very close proximity of each other. Any miscalculation/ misadventure, by any side, can lead to a breakout of hostilities. Why did China go belligerent?

Time for the Tiger to Take on the Dragon. Image Source: timesofindia.indiatimes.com

Making Sense of Chinese Belligerence

          As per Dhruva Jaishankar, “there are a few potential theories as to what exactly has changed in China’s foreign policy — they could be considered opportunistic assertiveness, imperious assertiveness, reactive assertiveness, and insecure assertiveness.” Whatever be the reason; opportunism, reaction, or insecurity, this Chinese assertiveness is here to stay, keeping in view that Xi Jinping is the paramount leader, who is here to stay, and is also the one who exercises absolute power in this highly centralised form of governance and strategic decision making structure in China. It is a given that India does not wish to compromise on its sovereignty or self respect. To ensure the above, India will have to clearly define its national interests, and thereafter be resolute to safeguard them, which would entail building the needed military capability, besides taking other needed actions that are based on other tools of state craft, viz, political, diplomatic, economic or technological.

Xi Jinping the Paramount Leader. Trying to be Assertive. Image Source: sundayguardianlive.com

Why Now?

          Chinese belligerence has manifested itself after China achieved a certain degree of economic, industrial (including military industrial), technological and military capability, in a relatively non confrontational and supportive international environment, by following Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of, “hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead.”  China, under Deng’s leadership, initiated economic reforms and trade liberalisation in the late 70s, implementing free-market reforms in 1979, which opened the country to foreign trade and investments, leading to a GDP growth that has been “the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history”. The table gives the relative GDP figures of USA, China, and India, over the years since 1970. While India was 62.5% of the Chinese economy in 1970, it grew to being 81.9% in 1990, but is only about 20.8% of the Chinese economy in 2019. Also, China was 8.5% of the US economy, but grew to be nearly 66% of the US economy in 2019. However, in purchasing power parity (PPP), China surpasses the USA and is today the largest economy. It is also the largest “factory” to the world, merchandise trader, and has the largest foreign exchange reserves.

YearUSAChinaIndiaIndia, % of ChinaChina, % of USAIndia, % of USA
1970107591.27362.49468.46931738.490511635.8134
19905979398.62326.6181.93517646.667001175.4626
20009764119846038.397328912.26956174.7112
20151803611226208818.599679362.242182311.577
20192144014140294020.792079265.951492513.713
Relative growth of the US, Chinese and Indian GDPs over the years. The figures in the table are in billions of US$.

Chinese Exports/ Oil Imports/ Vulnerability

          This exponential Chinese growth has largely been fuelled by imported oil. In 2017, China became the largest importer of oil for the first time. In 2019, China was the largest importer of oil as well as the largest exporter of goods; Chinese oil imports stood at US$238.7 billion; Chinese exports stood at US$ 2.498 trillion. A major part of this trade and the oil imports pass through the Indian Ocean region (IOR). More importantly, about 80% of the imported oil passes through the choke point of the Malacca Straits, on way from the Indian Ocean to its Chinese destinations.

Malacca Straits. Image Source: marsecreview.com

The Malacca Straits

          The Malacca straits, located beween the IOR and the Pacific ocean, link the major economies of China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, etc to West Asia. It is the most important & most used shipping channel from both, an economic as well as a strategic perspective. A large number of heavily laden vessels cross these straits on a daily basis, carrying 80% of the oil transported to North and East Asia as well as one third of the world’s traded goods, including Chinese exports/ imports. The straits are narrow; narrowing further to about 2.8 kms width, in the shipping lanes around Singapore, creating one of the shipping “traffic chokepoints”.

The “Malacca Dilemma”

          In 2003, President Hu Jintao had identified this vulnerability, describing it as China’s “Malacca Dilemma.” China’s end-goal is to circumvent this crucial vulnerability, in order to safeguard its energy and economic security. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that was launched in 2013, besides attempting to boost the Chinese economic activity; putting the large foreign exchange reserves to work; as also putting to use the vast overcapacity in infrastructure-related industries in China, is also an attempt to overcome the Malacca dilemma, in  addition to the Chinese geo-political and military considerations.

The Malacca Dilemma: No panacea but multiple possibilitie. Image Source: sicsin.org

China – Seeking Solutions to the Malacca Dilemma

          The associated projects in the form of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), string of pearls in the IOR; projects to secure port facilities in Myanmar, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Maldives, Horn of Africa, Gwadar, and the most recent – Chabahar, are all attempts to safeguard/ find alternate land routes/ pipe line transfer terminals for its crucial oil supplies, which are the heart of the Chinese growth engine and energy security. There are proposals to develop land-bridges and oil pipelines – linking ports on the west and east coasts of the Malay Peninsula in Malaysia. The proposal of constructing a canal across the narrowest part of the Malay Peninsula, in southern Thailand, known as Isthmus of Kra, has been facing political resistance within Thailand. This is being pursued through various channels. Thus there is a future possibility of this Panama canal like, Kra canal, coming in to existence in to Southern Thailand, under Chinese control. China has also expressed interest in Arctic shipping routes along the Northern Sea Route and through straits located south of Malacca straits. These would add time and cost to the shipments but their feasibility amidst challenges of climate, lack of infrastructure, navigability, etc, have/ are being studied.

Image Source: freightforwarderquoteonline.com

Oil and Gas Pipeline links to China

          The Chinese government has taken a number of steps to reduce the country’s over-reliance on the Straits of Malacca. These include the Kazakhstan-China Pipeline, which brings in oil from the oil rich Caspian sea region, and the Myanmar-Yunnan Pipelines which siphons oil and gas from the Bay of Bengal to Yunnan, avoiding the Malacca Strait for the Kazakhstan and Burmese oil imports respectively. However, the Kazakhstan-China and Myanmar-Yunnan pipelines only provide 400,000 and 420,000 barrels a day respectively, compared to the 6.5 million China-bound barrels that pass through the Malacca straits on a daily basis. The Kyaukpyu Port which is being developed by the Chinese government in Myanmar is another alternative for China to pump the oil coming in via the IOR, by utilising the Myanmar – Yunnan pipelines. In the short to medium term however, China will have to live with the Malacca dilemma and this is one area that needs India’s full attention in case of a conflict.

Major Oil Pipelines to China. Image Source: businessinsider.in

India – China Face-off. Relative Strengths & Vulnerabilities

          China scores over India in most facets of national power; be it economic, technology, industrial strengths; indigenous defence industrial production of all air, ground, surface and sub surface platforms, weapon systems and missiles. India’s GDP is 1/5th that of China; our defence industrial production is not able to sustain our needs and most of Indian air assets and weapons are imported, leading to vulnerability in  an extended war scenario. India’s active military strength in absolute numbers is less than the PLA, but the Indian military is more battle tested and is a professional, volunteer force, whereas the PLA has last fought a battle in 1979; is composed of mostly one-child policy soldiers at the field level, most of whom are conscripted for a 2 year term. Considering that the IA and IAF are both deployed in strength at the Tibet – Indian boundaries, the Indian armed forces will be able to prevail in a short, limited war. However, wars of longer duration would need to be undertaken smartly, by hitting at the Chinese vulnerabilities in the IOR and the Malacca straits.

Chinese People’s Liberation Army Lack of Comabat and Exercise exposure Image Source: (STR/AFP/Getty Images) foreignpolicy.com

Proposed Immediate Actions by India

          Efforts to prevent a war must continue with an aim to restore the status quo ante. However given the Chinese intransigence, this seems highly unlikely, in the short term, without some major push in the form of collective diplomatic, economic, political, and military effort by the countries that are most impacted by the Chinese belligerence, which includes India, Japan, Australia, ASEAN countries, Taiwan and the US. India must continue its politico-diplomatic efforts to bring about a consensus on the Chinese belligerence and its impact on world peace.

          Also, India must continue to be operationally deployed to thwart any further misadventure by the PLA. India needs to stock up and be logistically prepared to stay deployed in full force at the operational locations, even through the harsh winter months at those altitudes. All the different armed personnel along the Tibet China boundary, be it IA or ITBP, should be brought under one operational chain of command. The political leadership, in consultation with the military, must decide on a ‘not beyond’ date, to restore the status quo ante. Talks are important, but the end state of status quo ante is more important, as decided. This ‘no war, no peace’ situation can last long and thus it is important to not let the guard down, and should continue to be used to collect and update intelligence information.

India deploys T-90 Bhishma tank in Ladakh amid border row with China at LAC. Image source: defenceaviationpost.com

          Collection of Intelligence Information. Intelligence on the enemy should be sought through all possible means, including satellites, airborne platforms of all organisations, and ground based assets. Human intelligence (HUMINT) assets of IA, as well as of all other organisations, specialising in HUMINT must already be in full use. Preparation for war should be done as per standard operating procedures by each service. India must build her capability in military terms, while pursuing other tools of state craft.

          Economic Actions. Economically, as a first step, India must stop import of all non-essentials from China; try to encourage foreign investments, expertise and technology, as per the Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative, which in the words of a cabinet minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, does “not mean isolating away from the world. Foreign direct investment is welcome, technology is welcome”(….) “but a lot of it is about self-reliant India, which translates to being a bigger and more important part of the global economy.” Indian supply chains need to be carefully reworked, keeping in mind its national interests. Technology wise, India has done well to ban 106 apps that are suspect due to national security issues. The restrictions on import of LED screens for TVs, is a good step. More non essential goods need to be identified, and put on the restricted list. Mukesh Ambani has announced that an in-house indigenous 5G solution is already developed, and will be ready for trials as soon as 5G spectrum is available. The govt would be well placed to allot the spectrum and ensure that the architecture meets our data security requirements. Countries like USA, UK and others opting out of the Huawei 5G may be interested in due course. Other countries too can be discouraged from opting for Huawei.

Image Source: moneycontrol.com

          Political/ Diplomatic Actions. Politically, internally, India needs to unite as a nation; the government and the opposition leadership have to show maturity and come together in a spirit of bipartisanship on national security issues. This is crucial during this phase, when our forces are on high alert; but our political system is going at each other as if it is business as usual. The government has to take the opposition into confidence; a national security panel of eminent MPs from all parties could be a good start point, where-in information on need-to-know basis can be passed on/ discussed. Externally, India needs to politically/ diplomatically work towards a much better relationship with neighbours, especially ones that have common land or sea borders with us, and this is despite Chinese efforts at influencing them through coercion, loans, bribes to media, development projects, promises, etc. PM Modi’s remarks at the joint inauguration ceremony of the Mauritius Supreme Court building of “No conditions for our co-operation”, “History has taught us that in the name of development partnerships, nations were forced into dependence partnerships.”, and China’s “global debt-diplomacy” tactics, are a good step in reminding our vulnerable neighbours about the dangers of courting the dragon.

China’s “global debt-diplomacy” tactics Through OBOR. Image Source: fes-connect.org

Breakout of War

          Considering the Chinese intransigence and the operational deployment of both militaries, the chances of a conflict cannot be ruled out due to any reason, perceived or actual. In case of breakout of war, the strategy of defensive offence along the Tibet-India border would yield the most effective and efficient results. It implies holding on to/ occupying what we consider to be our territory. Relatively speaking, defence requires much lesser resources to hold the ground. With the IA severely restricted in mobility, manoeuvre, target acquisition, and destruction with its organic fire power, air power will have to play a vital role taking the fight into enemy territory, carrying out various roles. These would also facilitate our ground forces to re-occupy vantage positions on our understanding of the LAC. IAF does enjoy a degree of superiority in the Ladakh-Tibet region, due to reasons of geography.

IAF Su-30 MKI in Ladakh. Image Source: http://www.theweek.in

          The strategy in the IOR should correspond to offensive defence, which implies going on the offensive to achieve our overall defensive national objectives. This plan should be activated as soon as war starts with an aim to utilise our advantages in geography in the region, vis-à-vis the PLAN and PLAAF. ISR assets of the IN are already active and must have collected enough information on the PLAN in the IOR, as also movement of their shipping and oil tankers, through their ISR and other assets. In addition to the IN surface, airborne and sub surface assets, joint operations between the IN and IAF, would pack a substantial punch in the IOR to deter the prolongation of war. Wood Mackenzie’s latest analysis (23 Mar 2020) reveals that China’s crude stock (including strategic and commercial petroleum reserves) is equivalent to 83 days of oil demand. Attacking and disrupting China’s long and vulnerable sea LoC (SLOC) therefore represents an opportunity for India, in the IOR. A large area can be covered by the IAF maritime Jaguars armed with Harpoons and Su-30MKI armed with the BrahMos, with the help of inflight refuelling through the IL-78 tankers. In addition the naval P8I platforms too can carry Harpoons and Torpedos.

Indian Navy’s P8 I in ladakh. Represntative Image Source: You Tube

Resolving Border Disputes

          India has never had any territorial ambitions but would do all it takes to safeguard its sovereignty and self respect. Chinese belligerence should be a lesson to India that informal summits do not always translate to better relations, and that formal summits and institutional frameworks, following all international protocols, are the best way forward to discuss/ resolve differences, or to find solutions to deep rooted legacy issues. The border settlement has been left unresolved for far too long, and needs to be mutually resolved and settled, even if it involves a mutual give and take, which until now has been considered to be political hara-kiri, as the issue is very emotive, having been kept alive by successive parliaments by passing resolutions, which translate to, ‘not an inch of Indian territory…’. However, time has come to face reality, so as to prevent ambiguity hereafter. 73 years of inaction are unpardonable, but it cannot continue to be a “work in progress” indefinitely, through generations. Our nation, and more importantly our political class, has to come together in a spirit of bipartisanship to make a realistic risk/ reward, cost/ benefit assessment, and educate the Indian people on the subject. Finally it is up to the people to decide as to how much they are willing to contribute/ sacrifice/ leave behind for future generations of Indians, by continuing with the present state of affairs.

India China Border Issues. Image source: eurasiantimes.com

Practical Solution to Counter China’s Belligerence

          Chinese belligerence is a direct result of its economic, military, technological and industrial, including defence related industry, capabilities, and its “expansionist world view”, cloaked in strategic obfuscation/ ambiguity. China is a threat to countries of the region, and beyond. It can only be countered through collective effort of all affected countries. Political leaderships in the region and globally have to be brought together to remedy this crisis, by employing all possible means of state craft, short of a world war. India being the largest Chinese neighbour will have to take the lead to show the way/ act/ build/ assist in the building of multi lateral institutions to counter this threat, growing, even as of now. Countries in the neighbourhood and in the region, which are under Chinese radar, like Bangladesh, Maldives, Afghanistan, Nepal, Myanmar, Malaysia, Iran, and Thailand should be discouraged from partnering with China, through effective use of our politico-diplomatic channels.

Chinese Influence and Counters. Image source: nytimes.com

If War is Thrust on India

          China’s economic and energy security vulnerabilities stem from its SLOCs in the IOR, which get even more acute during its passage through the Malacca straits. China has oil reserves for 83 days, as of Mar 2020. CPEC and the BRI are other large Chinese investments that are vulnerable in the Northern areas. However, unless there is a political mandate for all out war to take back Aksai Chin and POK; these are best avoided, as China is likely to put all it has to protect its lines of communications in the North. Any attacks on Pakistani held territory could act as a trigger to Pakistan opening fronts on our West. These must be planned for, but need not be instigated through our offensive actions. Pitting our strengths against Chinese vulnerability in the IOR would pay better dividends, whereas in the Northern region would amount to pitting our strengths against their strengths; our wherewithal in terms of economic, infrastructure, military industrial & military assets dictates a defensive offence strategy. It is thus best to adopt a defensive offence strategy in the Ladakh theatre and an offensive defence strategy in the IOR, while keeping a defensive posture to our West.

Author: Wing Commander JP Joshi (Retd) was a fighter pilot in Indian Air Force, and has done Command and Staff College in USA. The views expressed are the author’s own.

Picture Credit: You Tube

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

2 thoughts on “Understanding Chinese Belligerence and India’s Strategic Options

  1. Unfortunately, in the present, when it comes to the so-called PRC, India has compromised its sovereignty and self-respect. Heck, when it comes to dealing with the so-called PRC, India has no self-respect. India allows this so-called PRC to trouble and humiliate it at every international forum, twiddles its thumbs while the so-called PRC’s PLA forces intrude into Indian land, sea and air space. And what does India do when the so-called PRC does all this by slapping India in the face? India, without even putting up a fight and without even calling the so-called PRC by its name, shows its other cheek to the so-called PRC so that it can get slapped on the other cheek.

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  2. No quite like that. Indian Armed Forces are firmly in position. The Chinese lost no less soldiers in the clash in Galwan. After India banned Chinese APPs. Many other countries in the world have rallied around. Affects will be visible soon enough. Don’t worry

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