Hundreds of skirmishes happen each year at the disputed and un-demarcated 3,488 km India-China border. In May 2020 once again the frontier heated up after Indian and Chinese troops got into a fistfight at the Pangong Tso lake, located at an altitude of 14,000 feet in the Ladakh region of the Himalayas. With the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) despatching over 10,000 soldiers and war fighting equipment to the Chinese held region of Aksai Chin, commentators in Lutyens Delhi started predicting that it was only a matter of time when Chinese hordes would start pouring across the mountains into the plains of India. Every time there is tension between the two countries, these so-called intellectuals ratchet up their fear mongering, citing the example of the 1962 war.
While the dragon is indeed cunning and dangerous, India isn’t Hong Kong. The assertion of fake news peddlers that India will face another 1962 is laughable. For, they – as well as the Chinese – have conveniently forgotten that since that conflict nearly 58 years ago it is China that has suffered defeats, at the hands of India, Russia and Vietnam in that order. In fact, in 2017 in Doklam, when the PLA faced off against the Indian Army, it had to endure the ignominy of a humiliating climb down.
But first, a reality checks. The 1962 defeat happened because of two reasons. One, wedded to Gandhian policies, the political leadership under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru refused to provide the Indian Army the divisions and weapons for the defence of the Himalayan border. To illustrate, when the Chinese invaded, an entire Indian brigade (of at least 2,000 troops) was equipped with just 100 rounds of ammunition and no grenades. Nehru and his arrogant sidekick, Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon, kept up the pretense that China would not attack thereby playing the role of useful idiots for the communists.
Secondly, India’s armed forces were not allowed to fight to their full potential. Ignoring his commanders, Nehru conferred with American ambassador John Kenneth Galbriath who advised him not to use the Indian Air Force against the Chinese intruders. Before the war, the Nehru-Menon duopoly had ended the career of Korean War hero General Thimayya – who very early on saw the Chinese as a threat to India. They later promoted the cowardly Lt General BM Kaul and the incompetent army chief, General Pran Nath Thapar. These officers literally did not know where the border was.
However, with Nehru and Menon’s exit, the era of the neglect of the defence forces ended to some extent. The impressive showing of the Indian Army in the 1965 War with Pakistan restored some pride. Russian and American military supplies boosted military strength. In the subsequent conflicts, the Chinese discovered that the Indian military was not the same as in 1962.
While evaluating the Chinese threat, it needs to be noted that the Chinese are not exactly known for their fighting skills. The PLA may be the world’s largest army but it has performed atrociously in a series of major conflicts. In particular, the Japanese have regularly trounced China for centuries, with the last defeat, in World War II, leaving a huge scar in the Chinese collective memory.
This article examines four of China’s post-1962 conflicts and how the PLA fared against well-armed and professional armies.
Conflict: Nathu La and Cho La
Result: Chinese defeat
Dead: PLA 340, Indian Army 65
On September 7, 1967 a PLA commissar asked the soldiers of 18 Rajput to stop fencing the border at the Nathu La border pass in Sikkim, which back then was an Indian protectorate. When the soldiers refused, the Chinese launched an artillery attack. Unlike in 1962, this time the Indian Army was prepared – it had placed howitzers at strategic locations aimed at Chinese military positions. The Indian guns launched a withering counter attack that stopped only after three days. Indian gunners scored several direct hits on enemy bunkers, including a command post from where the Chinese operations were being directed. After the battle the Chinese side of the border resembled Swiss cheese, with the warzone littered with dead PLA soldiers. On September 13, India announced a unilateral ceasefire–a fitting reply to China’s ceasefire offer exactly 25 years earlier.
Smarting under their humiliation, on October 1 the Chinese launched a second attack at the nearby Cho La pass. This time it was men of the Gorkha Regiment who engaged in close-quarter combat killing 40 elite Chinese commandos resulting in a massive PLA rout. However, the Indian Army needlessly withheld fire on their retreating enemy (a suicidal Hindu tradition that is well past its use by date). The defeated Chinese left Sikkim and withdrew three km from the border. Since then Nathu La and Cho La have been under Indian control, and China has never claimed these passes.
Conflict: Ussuri River Clash
Result: Chinese defeat
Dead: PLA 800, Soviet Army 61
At 4,380 km, the Russia-China land border is the world’s longest, but since Tsarist times it had been poorly demarcated, with both countries having overlapping claims. In the 1960s, following the ideological split between the two communist allies, the border became a flashpoint with 658,000 Soviet soldiers facing nearly a million PLA troops. In March 1969, 61 Soviet soldiers died in a Chinese ambush, and their corpses were mutilated. The Russians hit back so hard that, in the words of the CIA Director at the time, the Chinese side of the river bank was pockmarked like a moonscape. The Chinese death toll: over 800, with hundreds more injured.
The Chinese stab in the back made the Russians so pissed that they seriously planed to nuke China. A Russian military attache secretly asked his US counterpart how the Americans would react to a Russian nuclear attack on Chinese military targets. Washington was half hoping that the Russians would eliminate the Chinese threat – and their madman communist leader Mao Zedong – but ultimately the Americans decided that a hostile China on Russia’s border was necessary to keep Moscow off balance.
China narrowly escaped nuclear bombing but it was so traumatised by the disproportionate Russian military response that it immediately started looking for a strategic alliance with the US.
The bottom line: the Russia-China border has remained peaceful ever since.
Conflict: Full scale Chinese invasion
Result: Chinese defeat
Dead: PLA up to 63,000, Vietnamese army 26,000
In 1978 the battle hardened People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) – which had only three years prior defeated the mighty Americans – launched an invasion of Cambodia. The invasion was launched to end the genocide being committed by the US and China backed Pol Pot regime, which had murdered two million of Cambodia’s eight million population.
In order to “teach Hanoi a lesson”, the following year a 200,000-strong Chinese army (the Vietnamese claim the force comprised 600,000 troops) invaded Vietnam. (Interestingly, the invasion took place when India’s Foreign Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was visiting Beijing.) In the 29 day war that ensued, the highly trained VAPN mauled the PLA killing up to 63,000 Chinese soldiers and capturing hundreds.
In his 1985 book ‘Defending China’, Gerald Segal writes that China’s 1979 war against Vietnam was a complete failure: “China failed to force a Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia, failed to end border clashes, failed to cast doubt on the strength of the Soviet power, failed to dispel the image of China as a paper tiger, and failed to draw the United States into an anti-Soviet coalition.”
The chastised Chinese never dared invade tiny Vietnam again. After years of unsuccessful negotiations, a border pact was finally signed between the two countries in 1999.
Conflict: Sumdorong Chu Standoff
Result: Chinese pullback
Dead: No casualties
In 1986-87 the Chinese did a Kargil on India in Arunachal Pradesh. In 1984 and 1985, the Indian Army had set up camps in the border areas in summer and returned to the plains in winter. When they went back in the summer of 1986, they found the PLA had crossed the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and set up a military camp in the pastures on the banks of the Sumdorong Chu river in Tawang district. Incidentally, this was close to the Thag La ridge, where the two armies had fought a bloody battled in 1962.
With the Chinese refusing to move back and “supreme leader” Deng Xiaoping declaring his intention to teach India “another lesson”, army chief General Krishnaswami Sundarji launched Operation Falcon, airlifting T-72 tanks and BMP armoured personnel carriers to the area, occupying the high ridges overlooking the Chinese positions. It was the exact opposite of the 1962 situation when the Chinese had the higher ground. Both armies were eyeball to eyeball for seven years when in August 1995 the Chinese finally blinked. The Chinese knew if the two armies clashed, 1962 would be reversed.
India is a different beast today
While the Chinese military has made a huge leap forward in terms of quality and firepower, and is also miles ahead of India in weapons development, let’s not forget that India is an ascendant power today. India’s military is highly professional, mobile and modernising at a rapid pace. The Indian Navy conducts regular patrols in the South China Sea, sometimes alone, sometimes with the navies of the US and Japan.
India has also built roads, bridges and tunnels right up to the Tibetan border in order to improve the army’s mobility. And it continues to build infrastructure with several Himalayan highways in the construction or approval stage. This is perhaps the chief reason why China is alarmed and is therefore needling India, and yet Beijing can do precious little about it other than move some troops and vehicles around.
India has deployed plenty of heavy artillery, mountain divisions, BrahMos missiles and Sukhoi fighters stationed near the Himalayan border to prevent the dragon from making any rash moves. India is also a nuclear power with transcontinental range Agni missiles that can flatten Beijing and transform downtown Shanghai into a parking lot. According to reports, New Delhi may have a fissile material stockpile to produce up to 2,600 nuclear bombs. It is in this backdrop that in 2017, Beijing issued an appeal that the Indian Army should “conscientiously withdraw” its troops to end the Doklam standoff.
Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute writes in the National Interest: “Xi Jinping may believe he can digest Hong Kong and crush its freedom spirit, but he will be wrong to believe that India is weak or that the United States – even under the Trump administration -would simply ignore his aggression. Instead, the United States would likely open the floodgates to provide any intelligence and weaponry which India would need to defend itself and bog down China in a morass of Xi’s own making.”
Taming the dragon
For decades Beijing has pursued a strategy of boxing up India in South Asia so that New Delhi is unable to compete the former globally. As strategist Subhash Kapila observes, “China is a compulsive destabiliser of South Asian regional stability and security, with the end aim of keeping India off-balance.”
Beijing will therefore use asymmetric warfare – using client state Pakistan – to keep India down. In this backdrop, New Delhi must adopt a similar gameplan. India’s asymmetric warfare strategy should have the following components:
1. Weaken and destroy Pakistan by supporting independence movements in Balochistan, Sindh and Khyber Pakthunkhwa. This will not only further isolate China but also kill a large market for Chinese weapons.
2. Take up the repression of Tibet at global forums such as the United Nations to keep China off-balance internationally.
3. Establish full diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
4. Offer nuclear weapons to Vietnam. This will create a powerful adversary in China’s south and also be payback for Beijing’s role in helping Pakistan develop nukes.
5. Offer military bases to the US. China is in a state of panic at the unprecedented Japanese-American military buildup in the Pacific; US military bases in India will complete the encirclement of the dragon and unhinge the Han leadership. New Delhi has discarded non-alignment; now it should burn its corpse. If Japan, Germany and South Korea can host thousands of American soldiers and still be proud, independent and creative nations, what stops India?
China is basically a coloniser – land shark. It claims the South China Sea as its private lake; it wants all of Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh; it wants the Spratly Islands; it has its covetous eyes on Siberia and the Russian Far East; it has territorial claims against tiny specks on the map such a Cambodia and Laos. The only thing that is truly Chinese but is not claimed by China is the Coronavirus. You get the picture – the dragon is a dangerous beast which must be tackled without much delay.
The author is a New Zealand based defence analyst. His work has been quoted extensively by leading think tanks, universities and publications worldwide. The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda.