As part of its ‘Four Modernisations’, the modernisation of the Chinese Military has made China a force to reckon with. With its ever growing strength, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has resorted to flexing its muscles throughout Asia, in the South China Sea and also in the Indian Ocean Region. (IOR).

In the High Himalayas, when the Doklam crisis took place in June last year, it was the Chinese media led by the state owned Global Times which went ballistic and continuously used threatening language to browbeat India to submission. The Chinese Ambassador to India also echoed the Global Times as did some in the Chinese foreign ministry. But the Indians held firm, forcing the Chinese to change tack till eventually the stand off was eased with the Chinese backing off on the construction of a road inside Bhutanese territory — the cause célèbre that led to the face off.

Why did the Chinese back off? This question has yet not been answered with any degree of certainty, but the fact that China did not pursue the military option to settle its claim over Bhutanese territory points to the fact that its ability to project conventional military power beyond its periphery remains limited.

What China appears to have mastered is the ability to wage psychological warfare. As propounded in Chinese writings, the ‘Three Warfares’ form an important constituent of conflict and can occur at the tactical, operational, or strategic level. Waged against an enemy population as also against its political and military leadership, it also targets third party leaders and populations, in order to encourage support for one’s own side, while simultaneously discouraging or dissuading them from supporting an opponent. Along with psychological warfare, the Chinese advocate public opinion and legal warfare. The former (yulunzhan) refers to the use of various mass information channels, including the Internet, television, radio, newspapers, movies, and other forms of media, to generate public support both at home and abroad for one’s own position and create opposition to one’s enemy. The latter (faluzhan) is the use of domestic law, the laws of armed conflict, and international law to seek a legal basis for one’s actions. A combination of the“three warfares”constitutes a form of defence-in-depth — one that is executed temporally (in order to delay an opponent) and politically (by fomenting public disagreement and doubt), rather than physically. This is what China attempted in Doklam — a strategy it continues to use in its disputes with all its neighbours, where force is not applied ab initio.

This off course, does not mean that China will not use the military option to enforce its claims. It simply means that China’s use of force will be contingent on its ability to achieve a favourable outcome without disproportionate cost. In the Indian context, it remains highly probable that China will exercise the military option to enforce its territorial claims, once the Chinese military has the confidence that it can win a military conflict with India. It also means that an India-China conflict can be averted if India remains strong enough militarily to defend its territorial interests.


The Military Balance

China’s defence budget of 2017 at USD 151 billion stood at three times that of India’s defence budget of USD 51 billion. In terms of manpower, both nations are similarly placed, but in terms of self propelled artillery, armoured fighting vehicles, attack helicopters, fighter aircraft and missiles, the Chinese military has a distinct advantage over India. But numbers by themselves do not tell the whole picture. China has multiple challenges along its vast land borders as also on its sea coast. Of criticality to India is Chinese combat capability over the Tibetan Plateau and on its borders with India in Ladakh. Chinese air capability is being discussed in another article in this issue of SALUTE magazine so it will not be expanded upon here. In terms of ground forces, India as of now, is in a reasonable position to ward off any Chinese military threat at least up to 2025 or so. In the immediate future therefore, the prospects of an India-China war appear less likely.

But the worrying concerns for any Indian military analyst is the consistent increase in Chinese military spending over the last few decades. Since the early 1990s, China has steadily increased resources for the defence sector. Its defence budget for 2005, at approx. 30 billion dollars stood at double the figure for 2000. Since then, in real terms, the official defence budget has increased in double digits. The published military budget for 2011 was USD 91.5 billion, but this did not include foreign weapons procurement, expenses for the paramilitary People’s Armed Police, funding to support nuclear weapon stockpiles and the Second Artillery, now called PLARF (People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force), since the reorganisation of the PLA on 31 December 2015. The latest defence budget now stands at a whopping USD 151 billion. When compared with India’s defence budget which has remained stagnant for many years in real terms, we are fast approaching a situation where the Chinese will have not only a quantitative edge over India but a qualitative edge as well. They may then resort to the use of force to take the areas they claim as their own.

Chinese military capability is reflected in its growing nuclear arsenal. In its 90th anniversary parade in 2017, the PLA unveiled the PLARF’s new DF-31AG intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which featured improved launchers and greater mobility. The PLARF’s DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) has nuclear and conventional precision strike capabilities and is also available in a conventional anti-ship version. China is now developing the DF-41, a road-mobile ICBM capable of carrying multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), and hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) for strategic deterrence and regional strike missions. The elevation of PLARF to the level of a full service is likely to further strengthen the position of the Rocket Forces as the cornerstone of China’s nuclear deterrent and the leading edge of its regional conventional strike capabilities.

Besides nuclear capability, PLARF is also focused on enhancing its conventional missiles capability to achieve better and quicker response to emerging situations, longer ranges, enhanced accuracy and ability to defeat hostile missile defence systems. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, PLARF deploys DF-16 missiles with a range of about 800–1,000 km, conventional DF-21 MRBMs, and the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile. In addition, the Rocket Force has about 1,200 short-range ballistic missiles and a number of CJ-10 ground-launched cruise missiles with a range of about 1,500 km. Improvements in PLARF capabilities include an improved C4ISR structure and command automation capabilities. This has been achieved through laying of thousands of kilometres of fibre optic cable, the deployment of mobile command systems and the “integrated command platform,” all designed to yield improvements in joint campaign command and control and operations.

The Chinese have also advanced in leaps and bounds in their space warfare capability, which allows China to effect space deterrence. Such deterrence would not take place in a vacuum but would form part of a holistic offensive package that would inter alia include besides the full range of the PLA, all assets in the economic, diplomatic, political and cyber domain, available to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In all probability, China would apply its space warfare capabilities months or at times even years ahead of actual conflict, with an attempt to influence an opponent’s decision-making and reduce its advantage in space.Chinese writings on the subject view space domination as a full range of measures, involving both hard and soft-kill options aimed at the satellites, the terrestrial infrastructure of launch sites; tracking, telemetry, and control (TT&C) facilities; and the data links that bind the system together. They also view space operations as integrated operations, by which is meant the integration ofcivil and military assets and integration of space capabilities with those of land, sea, and air forces, with the goal of generating synergies that will lead to space dominance.

As far as the Chinese Navy is concerned, the PLAN (People’s Liberation Army – Navy) is expanding the geographic reach of its military operations, in alignment with their 1982 maritime strategic plan to assume control of the Pacific and Indian Oceans by 2040.Increased PLAN capabilities are reflected in their advanced submarines, integrated air defence systems, and the development of the DF-21D, land-based anti-ship ballistic missile.

While the focus of China’s military modernisation in the near term appears to be preparing for potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait, analysis of Chinese military acquisitions also suggests the PLA is generating military capabilities that go beyond a Taiwan scenario. How can this impact on India? A possible conflict with India could unfold as under:

  • China would set the strategic stage of the conflict through the ‘three warfares,’ well before onset of hostilities.
  • This would be followed by a series of sequential actions aimed at conflict resolution on Chinese terms with inbuilt conflict control mechanisms. These could include cyber attacks to hit at Indian financial and economic institutions, exploiting the full range of space warfare capabilities to achieve space dominance, concentrated SRBM attack at key command and communication nodes and Integrated Network Electronic Warfare operations along with limited kinetic strikes against key C4 nodes to disrupt Indian battlefield network information systems.
  • Build up of troops in the Tibetan Plateau would take place simultaneously for ground action if the objectives have not been met by the means employed earlier. Thereafter, we could expect a conventional military conflict.

From the Indian viewpoint, the conduct of a successful defensive battle would require negating Chinese actions at each stage. We would require very high capability in NCW, EW and space warfare. It is also essential that the IAF has dominance over the Tibetan Plateau if a successful defensive battle is to be fought. Artillery voids need to be made up at the earliest and logistics capability enhanced to defeat any Chinese designs on our Northern and Eastern borders. The real threat is not from the number of divisions which the Chinese can amass but from enhanced technological capabilities which we need to match and surpass.

India needs time to develop its indigenous capability to thwart any designs on our land borders. Post Doklam, which resulted in a distinct cooling of relations between the two countries, the recent visit of India’s premier to Wuhan to meet Chinese President Xi Jin Ping was designed to set the stage for a new starting point in the relationship. Such a relationship is however fraught with multiple challenges. For one, China’s forays into the Indian Ocean is viewed with suspicion by India, forcing India to look at alternatives to Chinese led economic integration. The idea of the ‘Quad’ thus finds resonance, with India, the US, Australia and Japan looking at ways to counter a potential Chinese threat to the ‘rules based order’ in the Indo-Pacific. India has also inked logistics pacts with Singapore, the United States, and France towards that end. As India’s interests in what it considers as its strategic backyard, overlap with what the Chinese view as their strategic periphery, concerns naturally arise of increased friction which could lead to conflict, unless managed. China remains concerned about Delhi’s rise as a major power in Asia. It is uncomfortable with the thought that the Indo-U.S. strategic convergence could allow India to overcome its technological limitations and attain capabilities on par with China’s. For long, China has tried to hyphenate India with Pakistan and has used the latter to keep India confined to the backwaters of South Asia. India assuming parity with China is thus anathema to the latter.

Writing on the issue, Aparna Pande, in an article published in the American Interest, titled “India and China: The risks of a reset,” posits that a reset in the relationship at this stage is likely to benefit China far more than India. As per Pande, India should be wary of China’s charm offensive, as it is designed to obscure its fundamentally hostile actions. The strategy that Beijing adopts is to instigate a minor conflict (Doklam), then, display aggression, summoning traditional and social media platforms to create a major stir (Three Warfares?), and then, after enough time has elapsed, offer talks or back off, playing the role of the conciliatory peacemaker. This allows the Chinese to play peacemakers to something which they themselves have initiated, which will enhance Chinese prestige without having conceded even an inch of territory. India needs to be wary of the trap, as what China is attempting is getting a foothold in the IOR, which has been traditionally India’s backyard. Delhi’s willingness to accommodate Beijing, thus can only hurt Indian interests.

Evidently, larger games are being played out in the region, reminiscent of the Great Game that was played out a couple of centuries earlier between Czarist Russia and Imperial Britain. China sees India as a rival which has the resources to manage China’s increasing presence in the IOR though dissuasion, deterrence or through strategic alliances. A land based conflict however would be harder for India to manage, as India would have to depend exclusively on its own military capability. So long as India has the potential to make an adventure over the high Himalayas a very costly proposition for China, the possibility of a land conflict will remain at the lower end of the probability curve. The answer for India hence lies in being military strong to thwart any Chinese misadventure on land and to have strong alliances to thwart Chinese hegemony in the Indian Ocean. For that India needs time to build its indigenous capability. So does China. We can thus an interesting variants of the Great Game in the coming decade.

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