After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 90s the risk of a massive Soviet land attack declined drastically, thereby allowing the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to instantly turn to the risk of regional disputes.
By Debajit Sarkar
Modern day China was essentially forged through conquest and for centuries has been controlled by a series of warlords. However, China also underwent periods of reconciliation when it enthusiastically traded with its neighbours. There have also been lengthy eras where China detached itself from external influence and converted into a closed-minded civilization. These events have strongly shaped contemporary Chinese culture and strategic thinking. And through its recent transgression in Ladakh, China has made it amply clear to the Indian leadership that the economic and military transformation, under the present communist administration has the capability to seriously endanger the future well-being of India.
MILITARY & STRATEGIC REFORMS IN CHINA
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 90s the risk of a massive Soviet land attack declined drastically, thereby allowing the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to instantly turn to the risk of regional disputes. The First Gulf War also had a substantial impact on the Chinese administration and the battle was studied in great detail. The Communist leadership realized that the PLA was lagging significantly behind the West in a number of military technologies. As a consequence, an up-to-date defence strategy materialized, based on fighting modern conflict by means of sophisticated technology. Over the next 20 years, China spend billions to develop an indigenous defence and aerospace industry that can rival the best in the world thereby allowing China to reduce its dependency on imported military hardware. Associated with this newfound economic and military power has been a rise in the belligerence in China’s territorial assertions in the Indo-Pacific region.
DRAGON FIRE: ENEMY AT THE GATES
Despite this growing security threat, India’s strategic policy vis-à-vis China was in a state of bewilderment throughout the 80s and 90s. For more than 30 years as the Indian Army was forced to focus on counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism at the expense of other capabilities. The PLA watched and learned and adapted and transformed and eventually created strategies that put the Indian armed forces at a place of comparative disadvantage in locations where the Indian armed forces may be compelled to fight. Taking advantage of an unsuspecting India and seeking a window of opportunity to exploit, the PLA intruded into the Galwan Valley in the summer of 2020. This intrusion could well be a part of PLA’s “salami-slicing” strategy – which entails encroaching upon small sections of the opponents’ territory over a large period of time.
THE POWER OF A WORTHY ADVERSARY
It is unwise to believe that the PLA and the Communist politburo in Beijing did not plan extensively about this intrusion. Their most important consideration was probably the fact that the Indian armed forces perennially dependent on the import of weapons lack a credible offensive capability against the PLA. And yet more than two months after the intrusion, the Indian Army has stopped the PLA in its tracks. By underestimating both the will and the resiliency of the Indian military the PLA lost perspective about its adversary. In fact, having viewed the PLA’s strengths, adversaries like India will now be able to recognize their weaknesses. The Communist politburo realizes that the PLA lacks the strength needed to fight a high-intensity war against India over an extended period of time. Instead, they carried out psychological operations and cyber-attacks to undermine the confidence of India’s political leaders and also provided support to terrorist groups in Pakistan and North East India in an attempt to create pro-Chinese opposition groups around South Asia.
FUTURE & OPTIONS
If the past is any indication it has become abundantly clear that India’s policy of openly engaging China and establishing a wide range of contacts has not had any major influence on the Communist leadership. In the future too China will remain a major threat to India’s integrity. It is critical that New Delhi not be naive to its intentions. So, what are New Delhi’s hard options against a rampaging China?
Seriously invest in developing an indigenous defence industry: Indigenisation is a potential groundbreaking solution. China realized this back in the 80s. Not only will indigenisation allow India to produce military hardware in large scale and at a competitive price it will also allow local talent to gain substantial technological expertise.
Achieve Nuclear parity with China: Data pertaining to the number of nuclear warheads released by Western think tanks suggest that Pakistan has as many nuclear warheads as India has. This is despite the fact that India’s GDP is around 10 times that of Pakistan. During the days of the Cold War, the USSR achieved nuclear parity with the US despite having an economy almost half the size of the US. So, there is no excuse for India not being able to achieve nuclear parity with China. As long as India doesn’t achieve nuclear parity, China will continue to dictate the rules of the game.
Acquiring real-time ISR capabilities: Over Tibet’s airspace, Indian aircraft and cruise missiles will be constricted in terms of sensor picture by terrain and radar horizon constraints when flying at very low altitude. Almost all contemporary Chinese SAMs are mobile and in combat, settings move frequently especially if standoff weapon launches are detected. This means IAF could not simply depend on pre-flight/pre-launch target coordinates. The necessity for real-time ISR to dynamically track and target mobile Chinese cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and SAMs means low-flying aircraft and cruise missiles’ own offensive selections against such targets depend on to a large degree on obtaining real-time off-board targeting data, which will be made difficult by wide-ranging Chinese electronic warfare capabilities.
Procuring the appropriate weapons: The current stand-off with China resulting in the emergency buying spree has revealed that the Indian armed forces lack the weapons that are best suited for the high altitude of Ladakh. It’s indeed a tragedy that despite spending billions of dollars in procuring weapons from abroad India still lacks weapons that will be most effective in the current scenario. For instance, there is ongoing talk of purchasing light tanks. Light tanks are intended for soft grounds like swamp or mud and have restrictions on gun elevation limits. In mountains, it will be difficult to elevate the barrel to shoot at targets across the way. Instead upgraded artillery vehicles fitted with 120mm gun/mortars will have great gun elevation and can fire shells and mortar bombs.
China sees India as a hurdle in its path to become a global superpower. New Delhi does not need to escalate tension with China immediately, but should put it across to the Chinese leadership in no uncertain terms that in this conflict no quarter will be asked or given.
(The author is a subject matter expert on competitive intelligence and market research in the defence and aerospace industry. Views expressed are personal.)