Doklam: A bitter pill for China

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Doklam: A bitter pill for China

Certainly, a India-China war is not on the cards. The use of military force requires tactical and strategic objectives to achieve targets. Besides, geo-political implications too have to be considered

The Doklam stand-off between India and China is close to two months but there is still no solution in sight, as neither side is willing to take a step back.

Beijing continues to use its media to wage a psychological warfare, in order to scare New Delhi to pressurise it to back off. The latest of such threat was witnessed in an editorial in China Daily, which said that the countdown to war has begun. The editorial titled, ‘New Delhi should come to its senses while it has time’ said, “The countdown to a clash between the two forces has begun, and the clock is ticking away the time to what seems to be an inevitable conclusion.”

This writer is frequently faced with a question if war with China is inevitable. And his answer has always been in the negative. The use of military force requires tactical and strategic objectives and the ability to force a win, to achieve these objectives. Wider geo-political implications must also be considered.

In the current stand-off the tactical objective of the Middle Kingdom is clear: To evict Indian forces from what Beijing considers to be its sovereign territory. But can China achieve this objective? In this writer’s opinion, the answer is no.

Ever since the stand-off started, India has quietly built up troops in the area, which was already considerable. The Indian Army’s Eastern Command has three corps numbering over two lakh troops at its disposal. Apart from this, India has air assets in the area, which can provide close air support to the troops as well as strike Chinese positions, supply lines, forward bases etc. Besides, Indian troops are better positioned in the area, overlooking China’s Chumbi valley that ends in a dagger shape near Bhutan’s Doklam area that China claims to be its own. Indian forces can cut off Chinese supply line and, in fact, take on the Chumbi valley.

China cannot spring a surprise on India as it will have to move at least two lakh troops to take on the nearly 60,000 well-trained and

well-acclimatised Indian troops that are deployed along the eastern sector. Such large movements will be picked up by satellites and other reconnaissance platforms.

Having said that, what are the options for China if it does decide to use force? First, it can open fire on the Indian troops who have blocked the road construction in Doklam. This will be swiftly retaliated by the Indian troops. It will be no more than a shooting contest which will result in casualties on both sides but not alter the positions and end the stand-off. It could also lead to the conflict spiraling out of control.

Second, China can start building up troops in the area over the next month or so into September-October. The 1962 war was started by China in October. The 1967 Nathu-la and Cho-la skirmishes, which India won, was in the month of September and October respectively. But like this writer mentioned earlier, there will not be any element of surprise. India will lie in wait for the Chinese troops, resulting in a bigger shooting contest in which India holds better positions. It can also inflict heavy casualties to China.

Third, China can start a full fledged war against India across the 4,000-kilometres India-China border. This will involve the use of missiles and the Air Force. China has thousands of conventional cruise and ballistic missiles that it can rain on India while New Delhi can cause serious damage to Chinese infrastructure in Tibet.

India is raising a mountain strike corps whose first of three divisions has been raised and is operational. The strike corps’ is being raised to capture the Chinese territory; to bargain any loss of territory to China in areas where Indian defences are weak. India’s air assets are also well placed to conduct offensive operations over Tibet and Xinjiang.

Moreover, Chinese jets have to take off from high altitude bases in Tibet, which restricts the payload it can carry and its range and endurance. On the other hand, Indian jets will take off from near sea level bases and it can carry its full load of weapons and fuel. They also carry variety of modern sensors both indigenous and western which gives it an edge over the Chinese jets.

Besides that, Indian pilots are well trained and also have the advantage of training with the best pilots in the western world.

In fact, a report by NDTV by Vishnu Som, talked about an assessment paper written by Squadron Leader Sameer Joshi, a former Indian Air Force Mirage 2000 fighter pilot. Som writes, according to Squadron Leader Joshi, “Terrain, technology and training will assuredly give the Indian Air Force an edge over the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) in Tibet and southern Xinjiang, thereby counter-balancing the numerical superiority of the PLAAF, at least for some years to come.”

India is also well placed to hurt the Chinese Navy and its trade and energy flows, should the war include the maritime domain, which is likely in the event of a full fledged war.

So, India can counter the Chinese military aggression and take it to a stalemate. The costs in terms of men and material will be immense in the case of a full-fledged war and will come as a huge set back for the economies of both countries. But it won’t help China achieve its military or strategic objectives. On the contrary, the geo-political losses of such a stalemate will be immense for China.

First, it will make a rising India its permanent enemy. It already has generated a lot of ill feeling amongst Indians for bullying Bhutan and precipitating the current stand-off. Chinese industries stand to gain enormously from India’s industrialisation and infrastructure development. It already runs a trade surplus with India to the tune of $60 billion.  India will certainly impose trade restrictions on China denying it any share of India’s economic growth.

Second, it will expose the limitations of China’s military power to the rest of the region which is increasingly being bullied by China into territorial concessions.

Third, it will push India into the US corner, something that China doesn’t want and has repeatedly warned against. It could also lead to some kind of alliance with other regional powers, undermining China’s quest for military dominance in the region.

Fourth, it will affect the One-Belt-One-Road project of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China is due in November this year. Will Xi risk a war with India which can result in a stalemate dealing a blow to China’s prestige and Xi’s power or will he swallow a bitter pill and look for a way out of the current crisis? Analysts can only speculate what’s running in the mind of China’s most powerful leader since Mao.

(The writer is editor, Defence Forum India)

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