By Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
India has the upper hand in military deployments along its border with China, says a recent Harvard University assessment. If the Chinese attacked, co-author Frank O’Donnell of the US Naval War College told HT, “due to the larger permanent military presence of Indian forces vis-a-vis Chinese forces along the border areas, India would eventually be able to force China back across the LAC, although casualties would be extremely high on both sides.” One unknown in such a conflict would be China’s ability to use cyberattacks to disable Indian communications and logistics.
Over the past dozen years India has not only closed the gap with China in this military theatre, it may now have a slender superiority. Indian officials largely concur with this view though prefer to stress India does not enjoy a position of complete dominance. Chinese military assessments began recognizing this problem from the mid-2000s and this may have contributed to its border belligerence.
India and China have a similar number of soldiers along the border, a little over 200,000 each, but a portion of Chinese troops are reserved for the Russian border and handling insurgents in Tibet and Xinjiang.
India holds a slight edge in fighter aircraft numbers but, more importantly, its Su-30s are superior to any Chinese fighters in the area and its base network allows it to better survive the missile exchanges that would follow. “India has more and better aircraft along the border, more experienced air crews, as well as a resilient basing position,” says O’Donnell.
“China is regularly operating with a permanent Indian conventional force advantage along its border areas,” says the report. It notes this is not “typically acknowledged” in Indian debates and optimists regarding the military balance against China were “a minority” in India.
For decades, going by the People’s Liberation Army’s journal, Science of Military Strategy, India was rated only as China’s number four external security concern. This has begun to change.
The China National Defence Daily by 2013 spoke of India’s “surge of forces” along the border. A 2017 Nanfang Daily survey of Chinese strategic thinkers said some were worrying that “the defensive strategy of the Indian Army has shifted . . . toward the offensive.”
Two Chinese experts on territorial issues warned in 2014 that “keeping our military’s advantage in the Sino-Indian border area is not only a national defense requirement, but also to prevent China from being disadvantaged in border negotiations.” There is more literature in the Chinese language about India catching up in terms of military infrastructure and force deployment after the Doklam crisis, says General G. L. Narasimhan Rao, head of the Centre for the Study of Contemporary China.
India is far from being in a position of military preponderance. Indian defense officials point to the “touch and go nature” of the mountain environment means a numerical advantage in men and aircraft can be wiped out by inclement weather.
China keeps most of its military firepower along its Pacific coast and would almost certainly redeploy to go for a “round two,” warns O’Donnell. M. Taylor Fravel, an MIT professor who has written on China’s border policies, says that “China has just over 10 percent of its ground forces [in its western theatre], a very large part of the country, and not even all these troops are focused on India.”
But because China does not want to deploy a large fraction of its forces in Tibet or Xinjiang, he added, “I think this disparity in the local balance makes China especially sensitive to changes that improve India’s position.” Did India’s steady military improvement trigger Beijing is harder to ascertain. O’Donnell thinks China’s greater border aggression is a general trend evident in its behavior with all its neighbors and not just about India.