The nature of war is directly related to the technology of the times and the resources available, but how we can fight and how long we might fight increasingly depends on the willingness of the world as a whole to allow it. War between countries and particularly war between major powers will not be without consequences to the ever increasingly inter-dependent world and hence international pressure to terminate conflicts before they expand and/or spiral out of control is only to be expected, specially when the nations in conflict are armed with nuclear weapons. How many nuclear weapons a country has does not matter, as for the world outside even the use of one will not be without huge collateral consequences. Considering this, this may be a good time and place to ponder over the future nature of war and how this would impact India. China has many advantages over India along the Himalayan frontier. The benefit of inner lines in Xinjiang, Tibet and Yunnan, much more developed and populated frontier regions, PLAAF airbases within easy reach of Indian population and industrial centres, airbases and cantonments give many advantages, particularly in a war that is limited by time and space. India’s advantages are more seaward.
The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is now the world’s most dynamic economic area and over two-thirds of the world oil production transit through its sea lanes, most of which run close to the Indian peninsula. Here the strategic advantages China might have along the land frontier are largely reversed. In all, 64 per cent of China’s oil imports are from Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The importance of this to China’s future economic trajectory is evident. China’s distance from the Middle-eastern oilfields and its oil supply lines transit through difficult passages. Thus, while China will be interested in keeping any conflict local, it will be in India’s interest that it quickly escalates to theatres where it can bring its disruptive power into play. Given the consequences to global stability an India-China conflict even on the remote land borders will result in an active and even irresistible mediation. Thus, a long-drawn war between two major powers, particularly between two nuclear powers is extremely remote. The time window for such a conflict, if there is one, will be very narrow. Thus at best the two countries can fight a very limited war that does not cause irremediable loss of face to either one. It will be very important for both countries to have their nations believe that they have not emerged worse-off in the conflict. Saving face then becomes everything.
The national mood, not territory or space, is what the next conflict will be about. This kind of a conflict requires quick escalation to high kinetic levels before the conflict is forced to a halt by outside powers. Unlike the Iran-Iraq conflict few were bothered about, an India-China conflict, if it is allowed to happen, won’t last long. The illusion of victory has to be created in this very limited space. Since time is the other constraint there will be no room for wars of manoeuvre. Victory will be a matter of perception. There will be no time and place for strategic victories. The sum of tactical victories will be the ultimate perception of victory. We have seen how soon air power came to be deployed over Kargil. The terrain and array of forces on both sides of the India-China border suggests that air power comes into play fairly early to score the wins that will influence perceptions.
Kargil was India’s first living room war where controlled electronic feeds lit up emotions in homes nationwide that fostered a groundswell of jingoism. While it would be rather difficult to award points like in a boxing match, India clearly emerged as the winner in terms of perceptions, despite greater losses in men and material. Since modern wars are usually militarily indecisive and inconclusive, perceptions are much more important than costs. Nothing illustrates this better than the reported conversation in April 1975 between an American colonel, visiting Hanoi to finalise the modalities of the US withdrawal from Vietnam, and a Vietnamese colonel. The American said: “Don’t forget we beat you every time we met on the field.” The NVA colonel replied: “That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.”
While 1962 will still be the seminal year for Sino-Indian relations, it is in 1967 when Indian and Chinese troops last clashed with each other at Nathu La. Nathu La at 14,200 feet is an important pass on the Tibet-Sikkim border through which passes the old Gangtok-Yatung-Lhasa trade route. Although the Sikkim-Tibet boundary is well defined by the Anglo-Chinese Convention of March 17, 1890, the Chinese were not comfortable with Sikkim being an Indian protectorate with the deployment of the Indian Army at that time. During the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, the Chinese gave an ultimatum to India to vacate both Nathu La and Jelep La passes on the Sikkim-Tibet border. On October 1, 1967 this event repeated itself at Cho La when 7/11 Gorkha Rifles and 10 JAK Rifles were tested by the People’s Liberation Army and similarly not found wanting. The lesson of 1967 has been well learnt by China, just as the lesson of 1962 has been absorbed by India. Not a single shot has been fired across the border since then and even today the Indian Army and the PLA stand eyeball to eyeball.
As for serious asymmetry, it does not occur now. India’s arms build up and preparations make it apparent that a conflict will not be confined to the mountains and valleys of the Himalayas but will swirl into the skies above, on to the Tibetan plateau and the Indian Ocean. It will be logical for India to extend a Himalayan war to the Indian Ocean, particularly the Arabian Sea, as India’s geographical location puts it astride the sea lanes that carry two-thirds of China’s oil imports. To pay for this oil, 41 per cent of China’s exports are now to the MENA region. Like India, China too is a major remittance nation. In 2016, India received almost $70 billion as remittances, China was not far behind with $66 billion. Over half these remittances are from the MENA region. While China may hold reserves for several months, it still cannot easily afford any likely disruption caused by the Indian Navy’s exertions.
The Chinese media has frequently mentioned the demonstrated range of the IAF’s SU-30MKI fighter, the mainstay of the IAF and how its long-range missiles give it a standoff capability to reach several large industrial centres in the Chinese heartland. Likewise, the PLA is aware of the strategic advantage India enjoys in the IOR. The IOR has been the world’s oldest trading region, and is now fast emerging as the world’s most important trading region. Asia is now the most dynamic economic region in the world. Six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing major economies in the coming decade (including China and India) will be Asian countries. India has been careful about not semaphoring its capability too overtly, but it is sometimes useful to subtly convey this. There is an old Chinese saying that to scare the monkeys you sometimes have to skin a cat.