Over the past few months, as the China-India stand-off escalated, efforts to disengage and de-escalate have continued. However, such efforts are yet to show results. Even as on July 2020, China pushes its claims for Pangong Tso wherein Chinese troops have marched up to eight kilometres west of the point. China’s Ambassador to New Delhi, Sun Weidong, claiming that the Chinese customary traditional boundary line “is in accordance with the Line of Actual Control (LAC)”. Amid these developments, this article analyses China-India standoff and what could China and India’s military response be. The article also highlights how Pakistan could play a role in this stand-off.
The Chinese Summer 2020 military adventure in LAC was not a surprise given the criticism China is facing at domestic level as well as in the international forum for its mishandling of the COVID-19 and spreading of misinformation that led to the spread of the pandemic. The need to divert attention from domestic grievances regarding the COVID-19 and the need for coercive diplomacy towards the global order to accept China’s rise is one of the reasons why the Summer 2020 LAC military adventure by China took place.
As Chinese troops continue to occupy regions in Eastern Ladakh including Pangong Tso, Gogra and Hot Springs, reducing the scope of disengagement between the two countries, de-escalation has also become an impossible task to achieve. Again, according to reports, satellite images show that China has commenced studying the terrain and is training its forces for a possible future attack in the Helen Shan region.
However, complete disengagement can only happen when both the powers are able to display hard power prowess in parity with each other. In other words, deployment of weapon systems on the border is the only way to disengage for India vis-à-vis Chinese military incursions. ‘Force projection to escalate and then to disengage so as to de-escalate’ is the only option for India to deal with China’s recalcitrance regarding the LAC violations.
Recent military preparedness
Even as border stand-off went on, China continued to modernise its armed forces in 2020. There is little doubt that in any warfare, artillery plays a crucial decisive factor in helping a state achieve a decisive victory. Force projection for achieving foreign policy objectives is common phenomena followed by most revisionist powers among which China is one. Such powers continuously try to alter the status quo in a region by assertive and aggressive military posturing. However, in the Summer 2020 clashes, not only has China projected its existing military might but also have inducted and commissioned new weapon systems amid the stand-off as a message to India regarding its unwillingness to disengage at any cost.
China has already commissioned in May 2020, the 155mm advanced wheeled chassis self-propelled howitzer called the PCL-181 replacing the PL-62 152mm towed howitzer. The PCL-181 is the lightest howitzer in Chinese artillery arsenal and this lightweight will enhance mobility especially in a mountainous region. The weapons system is quick, robust and is capable of being air-lifted or driven on road and railways. All of the other self-propelled 155mm howitzers of China are tracked.
China also has the new PHZ-11 in its service which is a 122mm multi-launch rocket system (MLRS) with the Western Theatre Command. Not just this, last year the PCL-191 MLRS that China paraded is now deployed near Ladakh borders. This is a wheeled chassis, high mobility system carrying 370mm rockets and is viable for high altitude warfare given the high mobility of the system.
Even as border stand-off went on, China continued to modernise its armed forces in 2020. There is little doubt that in any warfare, artillery plays a crucial decisive factor in helping a state achieve a decisive victory.
Not just artillery, but the People Liberation Army (PLA) recently inducted the first batch of indigenous four-wheeled armoured vehicles that can reportedly be airdropped over complex terrain for a range of operations and mission objectives. According to reports, the light armoured vehicle is capable of wading, thereby improving the credibility of the system. Chinese Airforce is also possessing advanced fighter jets like the J-20s. The aircraft is reported to be carrying pylon adapters that could adapt a ‘beast mode’ and give up a part of its stealth capability to be able to carry larger payload including extra missiles also including the PL-15 air-to-air missile systems.
India, on the other hand, has learnt the importance of artillery most importantly from the Kargil conflict in 1999 when its artillery achieved decisive results. Since then, artillery modernisation has been one of the key focus areas of the Indian Army’s force modernisation. India has deployed in the LAC near Ladakh region the 155mm M-777 towed howitzers that are lightweight and are capable of providing greater firepower.
These M-777 howitzers have been deployed near the Ladakh region. Indian Air Force (IAF) has also received combat clearance to use the air-launched version of the BrahMos missile systems. Moreover, since June 2020, there has been intensified combat patrols conducted by the IAF including sorties by the Sukhoi30MKIs.
In July 2020, IAF has conducted night-time sorties near Ladakh region for increased preparedness for both day and night time actions. By July 2020, a sizeable number of IAF’s frontline Sukhoi 30 MKI, Jaguar and Mirage 2000 aircraft have been moved to several key airbases including Leh and Srinagar. India has also deployed sophisticated air defence systems to counter Chinese air power prowess.
Possible military response
Force projection is one of the best options to deal with a revisionist power like China. The Indian military is actively involved in this ‘force projection’. Conducting of sorties by IAF is an ideal offensive means to counter Chinese aggression in the region. These sorties and deployment of sophisticated weapon systems like the M777 is a means of ‘denial by offence’. Again, Indian air defence system and future possible deployment of S-400s would add to India’s ‘defence by denial’ capability. Both ‘denial by offence’ and ‘defence by denial’ strategies would strengthen India’s bargaining chip at the diplomatic negotiating table.
But both these strategies need to be robust. For instance, with the deployment of the air defence system in the border, India needs to take stock the air defence observe orient decide and act loop (OODA). India has already deployed Special Forces reportedly in Ladakh to provide infantry greater support. Such responses do have a psychological impact on the Chinese military as Special Forces successfully conducted the surgical strikes inside Pakistan post-Uri in 2017.
Not just Indian Army and IAF, but following the Galwan episode, Indian Navy in July 2020 has strengthened its forward posturing in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) ensuring that Chinese warship that was entering the Indian Ocean through Indonesia returned due to Indian Navy’s preparedness.
Regular sorties by the IAF will not just improve and increase reaction time for the IAF in times of crisis, but also help them provide greater support to India’s artillery forces. With the new Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) coming into being, such joint operations of the IAF and Indian Army’s artillery forces would become easier.
Not just Indian Army and IAF, but following the Galwan episode, Indian Navy in July 2020 has strengthened its forward posturing in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) ensuring that Chinese warship that was entering the Indian Ocean through Indonesia returned due to Indian Navy’s preparedness. Strengthened navy posturing in the IOR by the Indian Navy would convey a message to China that it would not be easy for China to gain dominance in the region. Conducting maritime exercises with the US Navy and Japanese Navy and also Australian Navy—four crucial players in the IOR, would become a deterring factor against China.
Both India and China possess sophisticated solid-propelled, mobile and survivable ballistic missile capabilities. Chinese ballistic missiles are dual-capable like the DF-21s that are deployed in Tibet. Dual-capable missiles are better suited as psychological weapons especially in the case of China where its nuclear no-first-use doctrine is not applicable to territories it considers its own.
Force projection between the two countries will continue until any military diplomacy and negotiations on the LAC issue succeed. Given the present circumstances, de-escalation is unlikely to take place this year and may well extend to the summer of next year and beyond. Massive “advance winter stocking” by India, especially in “depth-areas”, implies that scope of disengagement and de-escalation is thin. Hence, until both sides agree for de-escalation, there needs to be force projection and posturing in-depth areas and in the vicinity of the LAC.
Military manoeuvres undertaken by China at the four friction points have called for modification in strategies and tactics of age-old drills of showing banners and disengaging when both countries engage in patrolling.
Infrastructural development near the LAC would need to be continued as a negotiating and bargaining chip in future negotiations. Infrastructural development near the LAC and also in the regions nearby would imply that India could rapidly mobilise its forces and weapon systems towards the border. In addition, the transport aircraft and helicopters and their increased promptness would mean troops can be air-lifted from any part of the country and rapidly mobilised along with heavy weapons being airlifted and being mobilised. All these actions on the part of the Indian military would strengthen their ‘defence by offence’ capability.
Military manoeuvres undertaken by China at the four friction points have called for modification in strategies and tactics of age-old drills of showing banners and disengaging when both countries engage in patrolling. Again, new means and methods should be adopted to ensure Indian troops regularly visit mandated patrolling points on a regular basis. In view of the recent military manoeuvres undertaken by the PLA at the four friction points on the LAC, the present border management posture of Indian Army and Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) wherein the forces station themselves in a non-tactical fashion in camps along the LAC to carryout patrolling to the 65 patrolling points may require reassessment.
Changing over to a more tactically sound defensive posture even after de-escalation, even at the cost of increased application of forces within the Leh Corps Zone would certainly pose a deterrent to any further misadventures by the Chinese forces. Also, greater focus must be given by India to strengthening intelligence and surveillance mechanisms to avoid such catastrophes in the near future. Moreover, de-escalation would need to be a two-sided approach with Chinese side also agreeing to reduce troop strength, artillery, air defence radars, jammers, rocket forces and other weapon systems in the region. If that does not happen, de-escalation cannot take place.
Force projection to impose military pressure would be an ideal way to deal with China especially as China itself is also entangled in territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea and have also started displaying aggressive military posturing in regions like Arctic region, Africa and in the Persian Gulf.
The Pakistan factor
India’s dealing with China would also have to factor in a threat from Pakistan. In fact, India would have to deal with not just Pakistan, but also Pakistan’s proxy wars on the Indian Territory. Cross-border firing and artillery shelling across the Line of Control (LOC) can become common in the next few months. Amid the India-China border clash, Pakistan has taken advantage and tried to push more terrorists into Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan would surely, take advantage of this India-China stand-off and send COVID afflicted terrorists into Indian Territory as an inexpensive means to jeopardise India’s non-traditional security aspects, thereby waging biological warfare in a way that India may not be able to respond militarily.
However, Pakistan too is entangled in increased problems in Balochistan along the Pakistan-Iran border. Pakistan is also involved in border clashes with Afghanistan. It would be wise for Pakistan to maintain peace with India in this crisis hour where the country too is facing cross border tensions and proxy wars.
As the India-China border stand-off continues, both the countries would be seen pushing for their sophisticated weapon systems across the border. Indian Navy may have to deal with more and more Chinese aggressiveness in the IOR as the stand-off continues. Such actions would need to be dealt with military force projections in order to strengthen India’s diplomatic bargaining and negotiating stance vis-à-vis China.