India is possibly the only nation in the world which has two nuclear-powered adversaries on its borders, both seeking Indian territory. The close relationship between Pakistan and China, dubbed as ‘higher than mountains and deeper than oceans’, always creates a threat of a two-front war, which would be the worst-case scenario for India’s military.
While China has not supported Pakistan in earlier conflicts, there is always a possibility of Pakistan attempting to grab Indian territory in a limited offensive in case of an Indo-China conflict. Border issues with both nations are far from being resolved, while India faces a proxy war imposed by Pakistan in Kashmir.
That Pakistan feels emboldened to challenge Indian military might has only been possible because of the staunch backing of China. Thus, in the long term it does appear it is China which despite claiming on multiple forums that it is keen to be a facilitator for Indo-Pak talks would prefer that the animosity continues.
Indo-China rivalry has existed for decades. For China, Indian sanctuary to the Dalai Lama has always been a thorn, for it still fears the power he wields. It has continuously applied pressure on India to restrict his movement and activities, but to limited avail. In fact, after the nuclear test in 1998, then Prime Minister Vajpayee stated that the test was essential because, “an overt nuclear state exists on our borders, with whom an atmosphere of distrust exists.”
Increased Indian engagement with the US and its participation in the QUAD (including Japan, US and Australia) are a matter of concern for China. Further, India’s increased military collaboration with Vietnam, Indonesia and the ASEAN countries indicates India’s intention to step on its toes, which adds to its unhappiness with India.
China has always considered itself as the pre-eminent power in Asia and India would always be a challenger. The Chinese opine that ‘India possesses an ambitious belligerent and expansionist strategic culture.’ Hence it has always propped Pakistan as a counter balance to India ensuring that the latter cannot focus only on China.
The Chinese military, now reorganised, is focussing on two major aspects, its navy and strategic missile forces, while reducing its army strength. Its western theatre command is solely directed against India and has the capability to challenge India. This restructuring is a new challenge for India, as it could be a signal that the next conflict may be dominated by naval engagements and missile strikes, aimed at the heartland of the country rather than simply an operation along the disputed border.
Zhou Bo, from the PLA academy of military science wrote last month, “China has built more warships since 2000 than India, Japan and South Korea combined”. However, post Doklam, Anthony Wong Dong, a Macau based Chinese strategist stated, “China should realise that even if it defeated India in a land war, it would be impossible for the PLAN to break India’s maritime containment”. He implied the Malacca straits, through which a large part of Chinese trade transits.
Chinese actions in recent times, which directly impact India include their military and diplomatic support to Pakistan. Pakistan’s nuclear and missile technology is China’s gift. In addition, there has been an enhancement in incursions and standoffs, its growing naval power leading to an increased movement of ships and submarines in the Indian Ocean as also its string of naval bases around India. Financial support at high rates of interest to nations in South Asia, threatens the stability of the sub-continent and could limit Indian influence as India cannot match Chinese contributions.
The overall Chinese strategy towards India has been to marginalise India’s influence in regional and international organisations, thus containing its rise as a global power. Therefore, it has neither accepted India into the NSG, nor would it support Indian entry into the UNSC. It would continue to keep the border issue festering by regular incursions and standoffs as also support Pakistan as a counter-balance to India.
Therefore, the recent visit of the Chinese defence minister to India was billed as ‘much ado about nothing’. It ended with multiple options for moving forward, but no concrete decisions.
By supporting Pakistan, Beijing would achieve multiple benefits. Firstly, India would always be concerned about a two-front war, thus being forced to dissipate its resources on both fronts. Financially, India would need to maintain a modern force capable of handling both frontiers, which would be an economic burden. This involves elements which are specific to the Pakistan frontier, mainly mechanised formations.
India, aware that it first needs to grow economically to meet the demands of its growing population, has kept defence spending to the bare minimum. It has never projected itself as a counter to China in any forum but has relied on international organisations and institutions – SCO, ASEAN and BRICS – to keep China at bay. Its military alignments with the US and Japan are only to enhance its security. It has sought to engage China diplomatically to reduce tensions.
Indian emphasis had always been on its western borders with Pakistan. To deny China any advantage in operations, India had ignored development of roads close to the Chinese front. With growing military power and the ability to rapidly switch forces employing aerial means, India has begun developing roads close to the Chinese front.
The difference between the two countries is that while China reorganises itself to counter growing US threat, as it desires to replace the US as a military and economic power, India modernises to meet challenges emanating from China and Pakistan. The two forms of warfare for which India still needs to be adequately prepared to counter the Chinese are its growing missile and naval power.
Despite all Indian attempts to improve ties with China, the two nations would always consider each other a threat. While peace reigns on the border and talks to enhance confidence-building measures progress, India needs to reassess the new threats emanating from China and prepare to counter them.
The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.