Dragon’s dilemma: Why China can’t win a war with India

The PLA will need to construct a new road—a challenge considering the snow may render the region inoperable soon—which will be vulnerable to attack from the Indian Army.

Published: 04th October 2020 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 25th October 2020 11:03 AM   |  A+A-

An Indian Army man

An Indian Army man

War is a theatre of tragic irony and unforeseen contradictions. In 1962, Subedar Dashrath Singh was captured by the Chinese after receiving an entire AK-47 magazine in his stomach. He was saved by, of all people, a Chinese military nurse who had studied nursing in Allahabad—Jawaharlal Nehru’s birthplace. Nehru’s China policy is once again being exhumed from the compost pit of history as India and China stand on the brink of war.

The 1962 war was fought by soldiers and lost by politicians and Generals. In spite of the extreme bravery of Indian soldiers such as Dashrath Singh or Shaitan Singh at Rezang La fighting against impossible odds in Nam Ka Chu, Bum-la, Tawang, Se-la, Thembang, Bomdila, Ladakh and Chushul, India was defeated. It scarred the army’s psyche deeply in the manner Pakistan is scarred by the 1971 war it lost to India. To avoid a similar situation, India is now upgrading existing systems in all its three branches—the Army, Navy and Air Force—and has put in place the most modern technological devices and boosted cyber warfare capabilities.


China has been nibbling on India’s territory slowly but surely, stopping Indian patrols, building outposts, roads, bridges and infrastructure. It appropriated 640 sq km of territory in Eastern Ladakh during UPA II though the government did not admit it and kept silent.

The Indian government’s current precision-guided military policy has surprised China after the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) incursions. India now enjoys military advantage against China in many border areas. The great Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu says in The Art of War, “All warfare is based on deception.

Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.” Under the smokescreen of the 22 Special Representative-level negotiations, the Chinese PLA crossed the Line of Actual Control (LAC) to occupy the Finger 4 ridgeline by surprise (the eight spurs of the Chang Chenmo mountain range are called Fingers). India’s tough response clearly stating that a military option is on the table astounded the Chinese who were used to New Delhi’s traditional conciliatory policy.

On August 29, the Indian Army launched its own deception with ‘Operation Snow Leopard’ and took control of the dominating heights in the Chushul region, making the important Chinese Moldo Garrison vulnerable. It has consolidated positions in the vulnerable Spanggur Gap to block further Chinese movement. Mountain fighting is about height as the Kargil War exemplified; occupants of the tallest positions have the enemy at a disadvantage. Recent studies by the US-based Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Center for a New American Security (CANS) point at India’s superiority over China in high-altitude mountainous warfare.

Indian soldiers have long Himalayan experience such as Siachen Glacier—PLA soldiers will need at least 10 to 14 days of acclimatisation before they are deemed combat-ready, rendering them useless in a battle if it should break out now. In a nighttime stealth operation, thousands of Indian troops ascended mountain peaks to take strategic vantage points along the south bank of Pangong Tso, clearly overlooking Chinese troop movements. The angry PLA placed an anti-aircraft gun on Black Top, another dominant position overlooking positions in Rezang La. Then, in a nocturnal raid, India’s Special Frontier Force (SFF) took Black Top Hill, say media reports.

According to the reports, Indian forces have secured all tactical heights on the Kailash Range that include Helmet, Gurung Hill, Magar Hill, Mukhpari, Rezang La and Rechin La. Kailash Range was vacated in 1962 once Rezang La and Gurung Hill fell to PLA, cutting off the road to Chushul. The Chushul airfield was destroyed. The Chinese road to the south bank of Pangong Tso that passes 1.5 km to the east of Black Top and 1.5 km to the North of Helmet has been knocked out, preventing PLA from reaching the south bank of Pangong Tso.

The PLA will need to construct a new road—a challenge considering the snow may render the region inoperable soon—which will be vulnerable to attack from the Indian Army. The army now controls 3 km of the south bank, which had been previously held by the Chinese. China is resorting to outlandish tactics, showing desperation and anger. In the context of the Galwan Valley clash, which killed Colonel Santosh Babu, an interesting fact is that the Chinese Army has recruited martial artists in five new militia divisions comprising former members of a Mount Everest Olympic torch relay team and fighters from a mixed martial arts club, reported China National Defence News.

Lt Gen Deependra Singh Hooda points to the deep distrust between two sides on the border. He rules out war, because neither country wants it— an unintended mistake could escalate into a local situation. Says Iqbal Chand Malhotra, author of Red Fear: The China Threat and producer-director of documentary, Chinese Checkers, Tibetan Ambivalence and Indian Delusions, “India and China have had nearly 24 rounds of border talks and signed five treaties with zero results or benefit for India. Surely that is enough diplomatic jaw-jaw?”

ARMY  Power Punch 
It was in 1962 that for the first time since Independence that the Army HQ in New Delhi issued the order “to fight to the last man and the last round”. Indian troops had occupied Daulat Beg Oldi in Ladakh around 16 km from the Karakoram Pass, a terrain so harsh that it is littered with the skeletons of humans and animals. There were only 10-20 soldiers to man each of the 60 new posts along the unmarked border while the Chinese PLA had many times that number. Such discrepancies don’t exist anymore. The Indian Army is a formidable war machine with decades of fighting experience and winning wars, while China’s is used mainly to put down political unrest.

The myth that the PLA, the world’s largest army, is numerically superior to India is a misconception. China’s troop strength is 22.6 lakh soldiers while India has 13.6 lakh. However, China has only 14.52 lakh reserve soldiers while India has 28.44 lakh. The Global Firepower website monitors the armed forces of over 100 countries of which India and China are ranked 4th and 3rd respectively. According to the website, India has a total of 42.07 lakh soldiers, while China has 37.12 lakh soldiers. There are 200,000 to 230,000 PLA troops in the region bordering India but many of these units are posted to suppress dissent in Xinjiang or Tibet, and protect its border with Russia.

The PLA does not rotate its JCOs who will stay in that theatre command throughout his career. The PLA has its own problems. Retired veterans have not been paid their dues causing discontent in the ranks. Many of the soldiers rushed to Ladakh are greenhorns. An October 2019 CNAS study reports, “To weather a potential PLA attack, India has placed greater emphasis on infrastructure hardening; base resiliency; redundant command, control, and communications systems; and improved air defence.”  However, Lt Gen Hooda warns of underestimating the PLA. “Chinese military equipment is world class. Its indigenous capability to make defence equipment is also very good.” China has also invested heavily in professionalism. In contrast, no government has been able to reform India’s bureaucracy-controlled DRDO that consumes tens and thousands of crores to produce vastly inferior military material.

ARMOUR Shield of Fury
As British military historian Maj Gen JFC Fuller put it, “Artillery conquers and infantry occupies.” India’s artillery regiments have a formidable reputation: the Battle of Basantar in 1971 is considered the biggest tank fight in the subcontinent as outnumbered Indian tanks destroyed an entire Pakistan tank force. Indian units, reinforced by a regiment of T-90 battle tanks, are deployed in the Chushul sub-sector to defend the vulnerable Spanggur pass. On paper, China is ahead of India in tank strength. Though it has 6,457 battle tanks as against the Indian Army’s 4,426 tanks, Indian tanks are bigger and more powerful. India has 6,704 armoured combat vehicles, while China has 4,788. India has 7,414 artillery pieces while China has 6,246. India has 6,704 armoured combat vehicles, while China has 4,788. The Indian government has cleared the production of 114 ‘Dhanush’ guns, the K9 Vajra and the Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System to give its Bofors guns company. The Artillery is also inducting 145 heli portable guns 

to augment the firepower of M 777 Ultra-Light Howitzers, Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers and missiles like Pinaka to Brahmos. These are delivered using the indigenous Swathi Weapon Locating Radar—the future lies in directing artillery fire with radars and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, using precision guidance systems. A CNAS report says many of the Chinese missiles based on the Tibetan plateau overlook Indian border posts. The report doubts the efficacy of the advantage.

China’s 1,000 to 1,200 missiles are enough to neutralise in the initial stage all marked targets in the unlikely scenario of an all-out war; it requires 220 ballistic missiles to knock out one Indian airfield for a day. So, China would quickly finish its missile stock. India has only 10 Agni-III launchers capable of hitting the entire Chinese mainland with eight Agni-II launchers to reach central China. India’s retaliation doctrine dictates the dispersal of the arsenal, the secrecy of its locations and strong second-strike capabilities.

SIRPI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) data counts China has around 320 nuclear warheads while India has 150 with China’s nuclear growth rate four times over India. However, a nuclear war can be safely ruled out because it would invite all the global major powers into the Asia theatre. Says Lt Gen Hooda, “America would like to escalate the pressure diplomatically, economically and technologically but will not in any situation want a conflict.”

 NAVY Small and Mobile
China is the world’s biggest navy and wishes to overthrow the US ocean superiority. India’s eastern coastline is safe from attack while China’s 22,457 km of seaboard is vulnerable, thanks to its hostility with most of the 14 countries on its coastal borders. CNAS notes that the Indian Navy has around 137 ships and submarines, and 291 aircraft. According to the report, the peninsular Indian geography has provided the country to dominate the northern parts of the Indian Ocean, and Lakshadweep and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. China dominates the Indian Ocean, with monetary investments for strategic means by upending India’s diplomatic big brother attitude.

Beijing’s use of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port with a 99-year lease, presence in Gwadar in Pakistan and naval push westward of the Malacca Strait is indeed worrisome for India. The Chinese navy has an overwhelming 4:1 advantage over the Indian Navy. By the end of this year, it will have 73 attack submarines while the Indians will operate 17 such craft. China’s navy has 30 guided-missile destroyers with missiles to counter aerial, missile and subsurface assaults, and lead surface action groups against the enemy on sea and shore. India will have just eight.

The PLA navy will have 92 frigates and corvettes against India’s 32. India’s advantage lies in the constant mobility of its navy unlike its Chinese counterpart’s. A naval battle against India would take place in India’s Indian Ocean backyard where the navy can ply direct, shorter routes to potential conflict scenes while the PLA navy will have to make a long journey, which will stress both hardware and crews. It’ll also have to cart all the fuel, stores, and ammunition while the Indians do not have to. Additionally, a Chinese naval foray in the Indian Ocean will alert the formidable US-Japanese fleet parked at China’s door. The CNAS report believes the Indian Navy must urgently update its infrastructure to stay in the game; its share of the overall defence budget has been dipping continuously from an average of 15 to 16 percent in the mid-2010s, to 12 percent in 2018-19.

A reason for India’s defeat by China in 1962 was that it decided not to use the Air Force. Now, China has numerical superiority over India in the skies—1,385 Chinese aircraft vis-a-vis India’s 809 aircraft. The Belfer Center study notes while India has 270 fighters and 68 ground-attack aircraft, it advantageously maintains numerous small air bases near the Chinese border as staging and supply points in Tibet and Xinjiang. In contrast, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) has only eight bases in the region, most of which are civilian airfields at high altitudes and hence can only carry half the payload.

The study says, “China hosts a total of around 101 4th-generation fighters in the theater, of which a proportion must be retained for Russian defence, while India has around 122 of its comparable models, solely directed at China.”  The CNAS report points out the induction of the S-400 air-defence system in the IAF will free up India’s inventory of multi-role fighters to focus on air-to-ground missions rather than in defensive roles. Though China’s J-10 fighter is technically comparable to India’s Mirage-2000, the Indian Su-30MKI is superior to all other Chinese fighters, such as the J-11 and Su-27 models. The Rafael fighters give India a formidable edge over PLAAF, with help from the existing fleet of Mirage 2000 and Sukhoi Su-30 jets.

The Belfer Center report notes, “Recent conflicts with Pakistan give the current IAF a level of institutional experience in actual networked combat.” Lacking such experience, Chinese pilots would be hard-pressed to think dynamically in a real-time aerial battle. India regularly participates in joint military exercises with the US, Japan, France and Australia while China is restricted to defence drills with Pakistan and Russia. The real PLAAF threat comes from the new high-end J-20 fighter jet loaded with virtual goodies that help the pilot concentrate on actual combat than flying the plane. Reports say the longer-ranged Chinese PL-15 missiles on the upgraded JF-17 jet have caused anxiety in the IAF—its infrared search and track system and cross-section radar reduces its airframe, enabling better flying and manoeuvring.

CNAS claims India’s recent acquisitions of Apache and Chinook rotary-wing assets and military transport aircraft such as the C-130 and the C-17 Globemaster will give critical rapid firepower support to isolated troops. The IAF plans to induct 114 medium-weight multirole fighters made in India at a budget of $17 billion with significant foreign technology transfer with offers invited from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Dassault Aviation, Saab AB, Airbus Defence and Space, Russian Aircraft Corporation, and Sukhoi Company.

India is set to buy 21 new MiG-29 fighter jets and 12 Su-30MKI aircraft from Russia along with the upgradation of 59 existing MiG-29 jets. Its entire fleet of Jaguar, Mirage-2000, MiG-29 fighters and Su-30MKIs will also be upgraded. Apart from the 36 Rafales, India would be buying S-400 air defence systems from Russia, Apache attack helicopters and Chinook heavy lift helicopters from the US. Since China is wary of US military power, it has strengthened its bases on its eastern and southern flanks, leaving only four PLA airbases to counter Indian fighter planes. China has only 157 fighters here and not enough ground-attack drones.

Beijing is deeply concerned with America’s economic and military might and presence in the region and New Delhi’s growing proximity with Washington. A book by former CIA operative Bruce Riedel, JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA and the Sino-Indian War, quotes Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s frantic letter to President John F Kennedy seeking 12 squadrons of American fighter jets and a modern radar system to fight the Chinese in 1962.

Kennedy offered India $500 million as military assistance, but was assassinated before it could go through. Says  Malhotra, “The 1962 war was lost because of Nehru’s passionate obsession with China; his contempt for the military; inept Indian Generals; ill-equipped troops and a conspiracy between IB chief (BN) Mullik and US Ambassador (John Kenneth) Galbraith to ground the IAF during the war.” Indira Gandhi’s pro-Soviet tilt soon soured Indo-US ties. The relationship has now dramatically changed since the 1970s when US President Richard Nixon sent an aircraft carrier to intimidate India, which had marched into East Pakistan.

Today the Pentagon, which holds a deep distrust of Chinese military and economic expansionism along with growing US estrangement with Pakistan, has included India in its global strategic plans. India’s allies are the US, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and South Korea while China has just Pakistan on its side. North Korea is in political turmoil. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s realpolitik will keep Russia away from a war because he distrusts both the US and China, and would like Kremlin to be dominant power in the region after China’s devastation.

Political similarities exist between the public situation in 1962 and 2020. Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution was disastrous for his country where over a million Chinese died of hunger. It also nearly destroyed its economy. The Indian economy is now going through its worst phase ever since the 1980s. After the US trade sanctions, boycott of Chinese goods and apps, and the Covid-19 epidemic, China’s economy is reeling. The hyper-nationalist Chinese President Xi Jinping is sensitive to the internal rumblings within his party. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has no such problems.

Though not to the extent of the food catastrophe in the Mao era, China’s current food shortage crisis is deepening, especially after floodwaters in the Yangtze River basin brought six million hectares of farmland under water. Like Mao then, Xi is now rattling sabres to stoke up Chinese nationalism. Nehru too was under pressure from the public to retaliate like the Indian people are backing Modi today. Lt Gen Hooda dismisses the comparison. “The (Modi) government is unlikely to bow to social media pressure.” A joint survey by the China’s Communist Party-run Global Times and the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations in affiliation with the Ministry of State Security, found over 70 percent of the 1,960 people surveyed from August 17-20 believed India is being too hostile against China.

Nearly 90 percent support Xi to retaliate strongly against Indian provocations. Says Malhotra, “The forthcoming war will be fought over many domains where China has an advantage. Today, the PLA is at a distinct disadvantage in a localised conflict. The ‘ghatak commandos’ of 16 Bihar Regiment stole the initiative away from the PLA, Xi Jinping and Modi.” With the regiments standing eyeball-to-eyeball on the border, many senior Indian policy-makers would be aware that the 1962 war hasn’t been formally declared over. Nehru and his Generals only heard about the ceasefire on radio. Some wars continue, doomed to never end. 

1962: Tragedy of Errors

* China’s attack was well planned catching India unawares. The PLA offensive was synchronised in all west and east sectors of the border at 5 am IST on October 20, 1962, as per Beijing time.
* Before the attack, Defence Minister Krishna Menon was in New York on September 17, 1962, to attend the UN General Assembly. He was even at the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference on September 8, returning to New Delhi only on October 2, and flew to Colombo on October 12 just eight days before the war, returning only on October 16, 1962—four days before the war. This shows they were unaware of Chinese military plans. Chief of General Staff Lt Gen Kaul was holidaying in Kashmir till October 2. The Director General of Military Operations was on a cruise on the INS Vikrant.
* Menon dismissed Lt Gen SPP Thorat’s plans about requirements on the border. He didn’t show them to Nehru either. 
* The Indian Army had no map on the McMahon Line.
* IB Chief BN Mullik predicted the Chinese won’t attack and provided intel only eight days before the war.
* Till late 1959, only the Indo-Tibetan Border Police was assigned to patrol the quiet Indo-Tibetan border unaware of what was to follow.
* In Ladakh, Indian intelligence estimated that the PLA would position only one regiment and a few tanks. Indian Army HQ estimated only a company or battalion was enough. By the end of 1960, the Western Command (WC) could only deploy one infantry battalion and the Jammu and Kashmir militia due to the remoteness of the area. Eastern Command (EC) deployed just one infantry division in the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) to counter China’s division facing Sikkim and Bhutan, two regiments on the McMahon Line in western NEFA and one regiment in eastern NEFA. 
* Intelligence told the government that China was “consolidating its hold on Tibet” and wouldn’t attack. To man NEFA’s 900km border with Tibet, the Army had a single division while the brigade was detached and sent to Nagaland without explanation.
* The WC was denied even a single additional unit. The light infantry battalions had no armour, mortars and medium machine guns. The EC’s request for additional troops was dismissed. The army commands on WC and EC was to avoid confrontation and only establish posts, patrol the areas in between and show the flag. The troops were to fire only in self-defence. 
* The army adopted the aggressive Forward Policy and mucked it up. Army HQ ordered WC to erect a post on the Galwan River. It was immediately encircled by PLA. The WC advised that the post must be supplied by air. HQ dismissed it causing damage to supply columns in four days. In NEFA, the EC erected 24 new posts, which were two weeks’ march from their bases that put the troops at risk of death through exposure, disease and starvation. 

Sources: RS Kalha, a former Indian ambassador to Iraq; IDR; Neville Maxwell; Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report

Air Forces China

Parent Command
 Western Theater Command
Total Forces ~157 fighters ~20 x GJ-1/WD-1K precision strike UAVs,12 x WD-1 ground attack and 
reconnaissance UAVs,12 x WD-1 precision strike UAVs,~8 EA-03 reconnaissance and electronic warfare


Parent Command 
Western Air Command
Total Forces  ~75 fighters, ~34 ground attack aircraft

Parent Command 
Central Air Command
Total Forces  ~94 fighters, ~34 ground attack aircraft

Parent Command
Eastern Air Command
Total Forces  ~101 fighters

Total ~270 fighters ~68 ground attack aircraft

Source:  ‘The Strategic Postures of China and India: A Visual Guide’, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, US.  

Note: The data are based on strategic military strike concentrations as India and China are postured against one other on the border. Some of the force locations are rough estimates.

Conflicts Over the Years 
India and China share a long history of clashes along their 3,488 km border

1962 Aksai Chin
A four-week war leaves thousands dead on the Indian side. Beijing retains Aksai Chin, a strategic corridor linking Tibet to western China. India still claims the entire Aksai Chin region as its own, as well as the nearby China-controlled Shaksgam valley in northern Kashmir.

1967 Nathu La
Nearly 80 Indian and 400 Chinese casualties are reported during a series of clashes at India’s highest mountain pass in Sikkim.

1975 Tulung La
Four Indian soldiers are ambushed and killed along the border in Arunachal Pradesh. New Delhi blames Beijing for intruding into the Indian territory.

2017 Doklam
India and China had a months-long high-altitude standoff in Bhutan’s Doklam region after the Indian Army sent troops to stop China’s road construction work.  

2020 Ladakh
Twenty Indian soldiers are killed on June 16 after a violent clash with Chinese forces in the strategically important Galwan Valley. The clash follows weeks of low-level tensions after several Indian and Chinese soldiers were injured in a high-altitude fistfight on the border in early May. The tensions still simmer at the border.


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