China-India Tensions – Views Of The Pentagon & The Indian Military

We began writing about the military tensions between China and India in June 2008 with our article “Dr. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of Yale – Is his ignorance symptomatic of Global Investors?” (see–is-his-ignorance-sympotomatic-of-global-investors-and-global-media.aspx). At that time, some readers might have considered us as fanciful or even alarmist.  But, our views are getting more visibility in mainstream strategic circles and media.

In March 2009, the “Foreign Affairs” magazine made the emerging China-India military rivalry in the Indian Ocean its cover story for the March-April issue (see our article “Jeffrey Sonnenfeld Of Yale & Erin Burnett Of CNBC – Read The China-India Article in Foreign Affairs” – February 28, 2009 ––erin-burnett-of-cnbc–read-the-chinaindia-article-in-foreign-affairs.aspx  ).

Much of this rivalry stems from China’s drive to become the hegemon of Asia. Dennis Wilder (
China director and then senior director for East Asian affairs at the National Security Council from August 2004 to January 2009), wrote about this facet of China in his opinion “How a ‘G-2’ would Hurt”  in the Washington Post on April 2, 2009.

Mr. Wilder wrote “Some Westerners argue that China’s grand strategy is to become the region’s preeminent power by finding ways to undermine the United States’ alliance relationships in Asia. Some in the Chinese military surely harbor such dreams, but this is unlikely to be a serious consideration in Beijing. A more realistic Chinese goal may be to create a partnership with the United States in which our Asian allies, such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand and the Philippines, are relegated to a subordinate status and the United States and China would share Asian preeminence — at least for a time.”
Some in the Chinese Military do indeed harbor such dreams, It would be a natural aspiration. Let us not forget that. President Monroe of USA, the then emerging superpower, established the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 proclaiming Latin America as America’s sphere of influence and forbade European Powers to interfere in Latin America. This became the defining moment of US Foreign Policy. Later, the Roosevelt Corollary was added to the Monroe Doctrine invoking the right of the USA to intervene militarily in Latin America. 

“Unhappy China”, a collection of essays by five authors, has become a raging best-seller in China. The authors argue that China has been too deferential to a Western world that is hostile toward it. They argue that China needs to use its growing power and economic resources to carve out its own position of pre-eminence. “From looking at the history of human civilization, we are most qualified to lead this world; Westerners should be second,” the book says.

Song Qiang, one of the book’s five authors, says that for a rising power like China, there are only two choices open to it: to become a hegemon or to get cast aside.

So what is the main obstacle for China in its drive for hegemony in Asia? India, a country of a billion plus people that is rapidly growing its economy and that is on its way to become the largest consuming market in the world. India has burst on the world’s consciousness in a way that is beyond China’s forecasts.

Chinese Leadership has always been contemptuous of India. After all, China has dealt India a series of humiliating defeats that would have crushed any other country’s pride and ego. China laughingly seized the enormous geographic prize of Tibet from Indian control sixty years ago to gain its first direct access to Indian Sub-continent. A few years later, the Chinese Military seized the northwestern geostragetically vital territory of Aksai Chin by simply walking in. This allowed China a land route into Pakistan and its first direct land route to the Arabian Sea in its 5,000 year history.  Then, in 1962, China dealt a humiliating military defeat to the Indian Army and seized parts of India’s northeastern provinces.

China has not stopped making demands of India. China now claims the entire eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh as its territory. Why? China claims Tibet as a part of China and so all previous possessions of Tibet also become China’s territory. Of course, China disclaims all treaties signed by the previous governments of Tibet.

This should not come as a surprise to any one. This is how hegemons behave. China simply cannot tolerate a resurgent India that might threaten China’s quest for hegemony in Asia.

The Views of the Pentagon

The Pentagon has begun focusing on the China’s changing perceptions of India. In its recent annual Congressional Report, the Pentagon wrote
“The PLA (People’s Liberation Army) remains concerned with persistent disputes along China’s shared border with India and the strategic ramifications of India’s rising economic, political, and military power,”

The report added “…but the PLA remains worried about the rise of India as a regional and global power and its increasing military might” .  How is the Chinese Military responding to this worry? “The PLA has replaced older liquid-fueled nuclear-capable CSS-3 IRBMs with more advanced solid-fueled CSS-5 MRBMs in Western China, and may possibly be developing contingency plans to move airborne troops into the region,”. 

The Indian Military’s View of the Chinese Threat

In a recent chilling assessment, the Indian Army has concluded that a “Chinese aggression” against India is likely by 2017, reports Bharat Rakshak, a consortium of Indian Military and Defense websites. 

A secret exercise, called “Divine Matrix”, was conducted recently by the Indian Army’s military operations directorate. It has visualized a war scenario with China before 2017. less than a decade away.

“A misadventure by China is very much within the realm of possibility with Beijing trying to position itself as the only power in the region. There will be no nuclear warfare but a short, swift war that could have menacing consequences for India,” said an army officer, who was part of the three-day war games.

In the Indian Military’s assessment, based on a six-month study of various scenarios before the war games, China would rely on information warfare (IW) to bring India down on its knees before launching an offensive.

The war games saw generals raising concerns about the IW battalions of the People’s Liberation Army carrying out hacker attacks for military espionage, intelligence collection, paralysing communication systems, compromising airport security, inflicting damage on the banking system and disabling power grids. “We need to spend more on developing information warfare capability,” he said.

In the past, any action by China would have meant a substantial and long military buildup in Tibet, a period that would have enabled India to build up its own defenses. This has been a key reason for India’s military complacency.  Unfortunately for India, the recent war games dispelled the  notion that China would take at least one season (one year) for a substantial military build-up across India’s northeastern frontiers. “The Tibetan infrastructure has been improved considerably.  The PLA can now launch an assault very quickly, without any warning”, the officer said.

The military believes that China would have swamped Tibet with sweeping demographic changes in the medium term. For the purposes of Divine Matrix, China would call Dalai Lama for rapprochement and neutralise him. The top Indian brass also brainstormed over India’s options in case Pakistan joined the war too. Another apprehension was that Myanmar and Bangladesh would align with China in the future geostrategic environment.

The GeoStrategic Precariousness of North-Eastern India 

Why is China so keen on Arunachal Pradesh? Apart from its hegemonist impulses, the capture of Arunachal Pradesh by China will provide China a natural and direct land access from Tibet to Myanmar and to the Bay of Bengal. It would also cut off India’s land access to the vibrant countries of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. 

(Colored portion is Arunachal Pradesh)            (Tawang, a strategic entry point near Radi)

China is a master of coercive diplomacy. For years, China has demanded the strategic enclave of Tawang (near Radi on the map on the right above) as a small price to settle its immediate border grievances. The Indian Army is not exactly stupid. They know that Tawang is the strategic entry point that would enable Chinese Military to cut off Arunachal Pradesh from India in one sharp thrust from Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.

Look at the map on the left. Arunachal Pradesh (shown in color) sits on top of North-Eastern India at the tip of the borders of Tibet, Myanmar and Cambodia. 

The area in grey represents Tibet to the north, Myanmar to the right and Bangladesh to the south. Look how exposed is the entire North-Eastern part of India (shown in white) to capture by China with collaboration from Myanmar and Bangladesh.

The small overview map to the right makes this point starkly.   The small area in red is Arunachal Pradesh; the area in yellow is the rest of India and the areas in brown are Pakistan (west), Tibet (north), Myanmar (east) and Bangladesh (south).

Look at the tiny sliver of yellow land that connects the Indian mainland to the North-Eastern States through the narrow neck between Tibet and Bangladesh. This is called the Siliguri neck and like all thin necks, it can be choked off very easily.

This is how the partition of Bengal into Indian West Bengal and Bangladesh in 1947 made the entire north-eastern portion of India extremely vulnerable. This is what happens when the leader of India, the venerable Jawaharlal Nehru, happens to be strategically illiterate. His daughter, Indira Gandhi, the toughest Prime Minister that India has produced, also made a terrible mistake in 1971. She and the Indian Army were entirely responsible for the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan. She was encouraged at that time to ask the new Bangladesh Government to cede enough territory to enable India to widen the Siliguri neck to make it less vulnerable. She did not consider this as true ‘Indian” behavior and gave up a great opportunity to reduce the vulnerability of North-Eastern India.

The two blue lines (our annotations) in the small map above shows how easily North-Eastern India could be chopped off from the rest of India. The right thrust in blue represents a thrust thru Tawang to cut off Arunachal Pradesh. The left thrust in blue represents a parallel thrust through the strategic Nathula Pass to cut off the entire North-Eastern India from the Indian mainland. See how easy this is in the larger map below. 


The Nathula Pass was a major battleground in the 1962 China-India war. It was also the main theater of the China-India skirmishes in the late 1980s. A sharp, powerful thrust through the Nathula Pass would enable the Chinese Army to close the Siliguri neck and cut off all of north-eastern India from the Indian mainland.

The two small areas of Nathula and Tawang represent entry points on the left and right borders of Bhutan, a small, peaceful Buddhist kingdom and a protectorate of India. As far as we know, China has never accepted the protectorate status of Bhutan or the accession of Sikkim (area between Nepal and Bhutan in the map above) to India.

So, the two powerful but limited thrusts of the Chinese Military would enable China to:

  • Cut off the entire North-Eastern section of India from the Indian mainland,
  • Offer parts of North-Eastern India to Myanmar and Bangladesh to secure their allegiance to China and in exchange for direct land access to the Bay of Bengal and naval bases at their ports in the Bay of Bengal,
  • Seize the small kingdoms of Bhutan and Sikkim to extend Tibet’s dominance over the entire Himalayan range. 

This will allow the Chinese Navy to threaten the Indian eastern seaboard. On land, this will bring Chinese dominance to the doorstep of Kolkatta and the entire mineral-rich region of eastern India. 

In short, with these two bold, limited but powerful military thrusts, China can destroy India’s claim to any real status in Asia. It will make China the true hegemon of Asia. 

The Chinese Army is far stronger and bigger than the Indian Army in the North-East. The major strength of the Indian Army is concentrated on its western border with Pakistan. If India redeploys its western divisions to fight China in the East, it would present a golden opportunity for Pakistan to attack India in the west to link up with the Chinese Army coming down into Kashmir from Western Tibet and cut off Kashmir from the Indian mainland. 

Historically, the Indian Airforce has been India’s best military offensive threat. But, in the past few years, the Indian Government has allowed the size of the Indian Air Force to dwindle so much that it is no longer capable of fighting a two-front war. Mr. Antony, India’s Minister of Defense, has “committed” to build up the Indian Air Force to its necessary strength by 2022, a full five years after the Chinese attack forecast by the Indian Military.

The “Divine Matrix” exercise by the Indian Military shows it is getting ready to respond to a Chinese attack with conventional means. But will the soft Indian Government allow the Indian Military to acquire the means to do so?

If it does not, then the only choice left for India would be to respond to a Chinese attack with nuclear weapons. But that depends on the will of the Indian Society. Will Indian Society be willing to risk a Chinese nuclear retaliation to defend its remote North-Eastern states? That is the trillion-dollar question.

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