Are India’s elites complacent about the prospects of a border war with China? Former diplomat and current Lok Sabha MP Shashi Tharoor sees a dangerous nonchalance among decisionmakers and the commentariat. In a new column in ThePrint, he lays out the reasons he believes Xi Jinping’s China could choose to go to war with India.
For one, Tharoor is concerned about the unremitting belligerence in the Chinese media. Two, he points out that diplomatic jamborees like the upcoming BRICS summit don’t matter to the Chinese ‘as much as its sovereign pride or territorial integrity.’ Three, ‘short, swift and decisive action to “teach India a lesson”’ could help Xi consolidate his power ahead of the 19th party congress sometime later this year.
Tharoor concludes ‘there’s nothing like a little war to rally people around the flag, and exalt the leader who’s conducting it. Neither Mao nor Deng Xiaoping suffered from China’s last two military engagements on the border.’
Tharoor’s analysis partly follows an earlier article by Australian National University’s Feng Zhang, whom he quotes.
In his article, Feng points out that Chinese hardliners will argue that a ‘punitive war promises unique strategic benefits.’
‘Aside from bending India to China’s will it would send a ripple effect throughout Asia about the new strategic reality of Chinese power and resolve. Moreover, with a weakened US, isn’t this an opportune moment for some strategic surprise?’ Feng asks.
Tharoor adds that India remains isolated on Doklam. ‘Beijing knows that India has no allies willing to rush to its aid or extend it diplomatic, logistical or military support in the event of war. If the shooting starts, let’s face it, we would fight alone.’
What would a border war look like?
The Indian side appears to be confident it can hold its favourable position in Doklam. Following conversations with senior officials earlier this month, Business Standard’s Ajai Shukla concluded that ‘China would face significant military disadvantages in mounting a frontal attack to evict Indian troops from Doklam. This would involve advancing through the narrow Chumbi valley, overlooked by Indian troops deployed on the heights.’
This view is seconded by Brahma Chellaney of the Centre for Policy Research: ‘Even localised hostilities at the tri-border area would be beyond China’s capacity to dominate, because the Indian army controls higher terrain and has greater troop density.’ Chellaney believes that ‘it is difficult to see how Xi could turn the situation around.’
Unfortunately, there’s no reason to believe the Chinese will choose to fight in a way that suits India. Lt. General H.S. Panag, the former head of Northern Command, argued that China could eschew the usual artillery barrage and infantry assault altogether. Instead, Panag suggests the Chinese might wait until winter ‘when conventional ground operations are severely restricted.’ (This would also be after the 19th party congress.) Just prior to an attack, Panag imagines, the Chinese will quickly evacuate their own troops from the immediate area, and then unleash a storm of precision guided munitions, including cruise missiles and artillery on Indian troop positions in Doklam.
‘Simultaneously,’ according to Panag, ‘a massive cyber attack will be launched to neutralize our command and control systems and our fire power means. The strike will be with a declared limited aim of evicting us from Doklam. Depending upon our strategic and operational response, the PLA will escalate with similar attacks on more defensive positions in Sikkim and other sectors.’
Panag’s imagined war is not a prediction. Instead, it is an excellent example of ‘red teaming’- challenging current assumptions on your side by thinking like your adversary. Indeed, the Chinese continue to wield several other options. This blog has previously reported that a ‘senior general’ told Ajai Shukla that the PLA might occupy the Lipulekh pass on the India-China-Nepal trijunction. Last week’s incursions in Ladakh are also likely to be part of a Chinese ploy to increase pressure on India. And finally, China’s simple act of withholding hydrological data has already proven to be a potent weapon because it has denied the Indian side information that might have helped anticipate the Assam floods better. China’s retaliation for Doklam has just begun.