December 2, 2020

Will there be war in the Himalayas?

There are risks and rewards for both India and China in escalating the simmering conflict in Ladakh
Keywords: War | Himalayas | China | PLA | Indian Army | Coronavirus | Aksai Chin | CPEC | RCEP | Trade Deficit | Hard Power | Truism | USA | Conflict
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This is practically an existential question for India. Alas, nobody knows the answer.

Here are some reasons why there could be a war: 

  • India is severely affected by the Wuhan virus and attendant economic woes
  • ‘Unrestricted warfare’ can be used to beat down Indian resolve
  • By defeating India, China does “kill the chicken to scare the monkey”
  • Other theatres of war, such as Taiwan and Japan, would invoke US anger
  • Losing the Gosthana (Aksai Chin) link would jeopardize China’s prize BRI project, CPEC
  • India’s rejection of BRI and of Chinese apps emboldens others in Asia
  • “Teach India a lesson”, as in 1962.

The best time to attack is when your enemy is down. India now has the second-largest number of coronavirus cases in the world. India’s economy has taken a hit which makes large military spending difficult; Ladakh deployment costs 8,000 crores a month.

India continues to hang on to various foolish agreements (eg. to recognize One China, to abjure all its treaty rights in Tibet) despite no reciprocal concessions by China. The Chinese are focused like a laser on the US. There is the Chinese lore of “killing the chicken to scare the monkey”. Beating up India (the chicken) should scare the US (the monkey).

India is no longer averse to changing the facts on the ground by force. 

Despite all the noise about the Quad, it is a fact that the US has no military treaty with India. Therefore, it is safer for China to move in Ladakh than against Taiwan or Japan. The invasion of Tibet by China in the nineteen fifties did not provoke a reaction from the US. 

The Daulat Beg Oldie-Darbuk-Shyok road, the new Atal Tunnel in Rohtang, and other rapid Indian infrastructure-building in Ladakh suggest that India could disrupt China’s arterial highway G219. India’s assertive line about Pak-occupied J&K/Gilgit-Baltistan and its occupation of high ground suggest that India is no longer averse to changing the facts on the ground by force. 

Best to nip all this in the bud with a land-grab (similar calculations may underlie the land-grab in Nagorno-Karabakh) while everyone is distracted by the virus and US elections. Especially now that President Trump is ‘COVID-positive’, he is not going to do anything for India, and in any case, China is doing its utmost to bring challenger Biden to power there. 

An attacking force in these mountains will need a 4x advantage to defeat defenders

If India digs in militarily on the Indo-Tibet border, it will be seen as cocking a snook at China while the latter keeps salami-slicing territory in Bhutan and Nepal. An India that is willing to mobilize 100,000 troops, acclimatize, feed and supply them, and invoke Tibetan special forces, needs to be deterred by force and “taught a lesson”.

On the other hand, there are good reasons for war not to happen:

  • PLA setbacks in Vietnam (1979), Nathu La (1967) and Sumdurong Cho 
  • Hardware does not win wars, as Vietnam, Afghanistan, Korea etc demonstrated
  • The volunteer Indian army is more likely to fight than the conscript PLA forces, and the body-bag count may cause less heartburn in India than in one-child China
  • An attacking force in these mountains will need a 4x advantage to defeat defenders
  • Balakot, at one stroke, put rest to Pakistani nuclear blackmail. Anything less than a crushing victory would bring loss of face and credibility to the PLA and to Xi Jinping
  • Modi’s invocation of the Sisupala story in Ladakh indicates he’s finally fed up with Chinese bad faith, after tolerating 99 incidents of perfidy, and that he will take no more
  • Food shortages in China, after floods and swine flu, leading to partial rationing
  • It may be much more cost-effective to use sleeper cells to create chaos in India
  • Lucrative trade with India will suffer, and China views trade as a weapon.

In a nutshell, chances are that the PLA will not achieve its aim of dominating India, as it did in 1962. In the intervening years, the PLA has been humiliated by battle-hardened Vietnam, and India has held them off in Nathu La, S Cho, and at Doklam.

It is a truism that military hardware and on-paper superiority alone does not win wars.Vietnam defeated the US. In Korea and Afghanistan, the US was fought to a standstill.

Given the one-child policy, many ‘little prince’ conscripts in the PLA, the apple of the eye of two parents and four grandparents, are unlikely to want to fight at all. Using conventional weapons, it is hard for attackers to overwhelm entrenched defenders in mountains. 

It is a truism that military hardware and on-paper superiority alone does not win wars.

And the Indian media, and quite possibly western media outlets, will magnify and gloat over Chinese casualties; the resultant loss of face may even jeopardize Xi’s position.

India has been pushing back against China. It refused RCEP membership, was the only clear voice against BRI and has made a stir by banning some 125 Chinese apps. The signal is that, yes, you can decouple from China, and its supply chain stranglehold in pharma APIs, electronics etc. is not insurmountable. India’s trade deficit has shrunk, too.

India, by consensus the likeliest market to grow in the near future, would be a big prize for Chinese firms to lose. 

Recent severe flooding and earlier swine flu have raised the spectre of food shortages in China, and India is a useful source of food products.

India, by consensus the likeliest market to grow in the near future, would be a big prize for Chinese firms to lose. 

Finally, why go to the trouble and expense and uncertainties of war? It would be much more efficient, elegant, and effective to use unconventional tools to weaken India. Plausible deniability, too.

What if, when pushed, India, and the Quad, were to pursue a ‘Seven-China policy’: occupied Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, HK, Manchuria, plus Taiwan and the real Han heartland? 

Will the empire hold? 

So, there are risks and rewards for both India and China in escalating the simmering conflict in Ladakh and Tibet. Without a crystal ball, it’s hard to predict which way they will go.

23 comments

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  • It’s a fairly clinical article which puts it all threadbare to the reader. My compliments. Well nothing comes easy. They deserve no concessions.

    • The article missed discussion on the importance of malacca strait and the response from India in case of a war with respect to CPEC and Gilgit baltistan. India has carried itself with pride and should continue without being boisterous.

  • True sir.The CPC is obsessed with too much confidence in dealing with India by occupying, intimidating by showing their robbery , copying military hardware and software right under the nose of US ,etc. But it has no war experience. Where , India won wars and all the combat experience we have. Indians once war borne it is difficult for China to face us.The pick pockets will be biting nails when we attack

  • No, there will be no war. War is not only solution for problems. India and China know very well. China has SIGNED on CTBT TREATY BUT INDIA NOT. AND CHINA YET TO RATIFY TO TREATY. THERE ARE WEAPONS SELLERS IN THE WORLD AND THEY ARE JUST EXITING TO SEVERAL COUNTRIES TO SELL THEIR WEAPONS.. EVEN THEN IF THERE IS POSSIBILITY OF WAR THEN THERE WILL BE WWW

  • Instead of stopping with discussion around war or no war, let us try to think a long term view. China, when faced with a similar situation in the 1960’s first tried to align with USSR who were idealogically closer and when that did not work out satisfactorily, got support from the USA. China made a bipolar world into a triangular world. Those days it was USA, USSR and China; today it could become USA, China and India. We need to decide with a clear understanding of our national interest about which of the 2 powers can become our partners.

  • India should thank the Chinese for precipitating this crisis on the border. The advantages that have accrued to India are:
    1. The policy of appeasement has had to be discontinued and at long last we have called the dragons bluff.
    2. Decoupling from the Chinese economy will involve some short term pain but will give a tremendous boost to our manufacturing in the near future.
    3. Indians had become traders selling cheap Chinese knockoffs to its people. The flooding of the Indian market with cheap Chinese products had knocked out Indian manufacturers who could not compete on price. This will hopefully change with non trade barriers firmly in place.
    4. The additional Defense expenditure of Rs. 8000 crores a month should hopefully give a boost to the domestic manufacturers of equipment for the Armed Forces.
    5. India should take this golden opportunity to declare that Tibet is occupied territory. We should question the Chinese as to why they are in Tibet in the first place.
    Indians always have needed a major cricis to act decisively. We should hope the Chinese continue to keep us under pressure to act in our best interests.

  • China chickened out the day it saw the Bihar Regiment boys hit the Chinese with their own Clubs …. It was India all the way thereafter …. Indians have drawn the Red Line and it’s towards China !!!!

  • It will be a great day dream for China looking for. Victory over India. India is not of 1962 and any move by crooks will be given a befitti g reply like Galwan. Crooks are terrified with Galwan attack lesson by India and hope they will not venture anything to attack India. If it is their date nobody can stop. This time both China and Pak will be wiped out by our brave jawans and indian people. Crooks will learn s hard lesson about India in it’s any of misadventures. Let the crook don’t think they are far advanced in technology. Actually they are all third rate wuality weapons which India will take care.

  • Your are right sir, China and Mr Xi are caught in a catch 22 situation due to their ill-conceived , ill-advised miss-adventure.

    As a result not going to war means a huge loss of face for China and going to war run a huge risk and actual possibility of massive loss to PLA.

    Nations use military options and go to war not in vain but to attain specific war objectives which is within the capabilities of their armies .

    Indian quick response, mobilisation, concentration of forces, its high level of preparation , visible resolve and motivation makes it clear that China will not be able to achieve its war objectives this time against India easily.

    Going to war, suffering heavy losses ( that Indian forces are capable to inflict ) and achieving only stalemate will be equal to china accepting its defeat in front of the world specially when it is trying to prove its might and invincibility of to scare the world.

    Withdrawing from Ladakh and not going to war will also be treated by the world as China’s defeat and India’s victory. This will be exploited to the hilt to improve Mr Modi’s domestic fortune.

    At the same tIme it will be a huge loss of face and damage to Xi’s credibility, reputation and national and international image .

    But one thing is made certain by Modi jee. He has made sure this time that India will not back out.

    India is ready to make sacrifices, prepared to take losses but make China pay heavy price and make its actions so expensive that it no longer remains cost effective for it.

    Great article Sir bringing out the true military and diplomatic options of this face off .

    • Yes We the Indian People must fight with China on Come what may , Our Forces must Crush down Chinese Troops , We are Strongly Standing with our Prime Minister Modi,
      We must form 2-3 Universities only for Guiding our Forces and Prime Minister that What Tactics we should use over War with China.

  • The article has meticulously explained the entire geopolitical scenario on the boarders with China. I am thoroughly convinced that this is not the right time to relax. The steps taken by india are quite appropriate. Next step is only a sacred war. We should be ready and face whatever be consequences. Teach China a lesson. The sooner the better.

  • It will be more difficult for China to maintain troops far away from Main land. Nothing comes free. China has to pay higher prices to maintain troops. China has long supply line from main land. And they are not familiar and acclimatized to severe cold desert weather of Tibet. Now China is trapped and thinking how to come out by saving his face. We should give full support to freedom of Tibet. If one go by Tibetan history.
    They even conquered Peking and controlled China. Our border is not with China but is with Tibet which China is forcefully occupying.

  • Article is good. In my opinion china has not understood changed india and it’s leadership. Xi could never understand soft spoken shrewed Modi, who visited Nawazsharif in his daughters marriage but when continued with terrorism surgical strike was a lesson. That too, without hiding the strike. Whole world was against china but scared to attack or critise. Once india took a stand to ban 125 apps, many others started following.
    Financially also no one can predict china.
    Internal brickring in China not sure
    Xi can’t match Modi.
    PLA can’t face Indian army.

  • If we bleed Chinese now they will bleed for a thousand years. Better to terror them and declare for Tibet independence

  • A country which has deployed about a million armed troops to control 200 Kashmiri rebels and failed to do so for the last 3 decades, needs 1 Billion troops for China and may be some mutations in their genes.

  • Good luck to the PLA and Kashmiri brothers and sisters and Pakistan mujahideen brave army. Time to liberate Kashmir from the Indians and finish the Indians once an for all

  • We occupied (!) all of Asia with our knowledge and culture last, at least,
    15,000 plus years. China knows very well about our big messy history. We will win our without firing a shot!!!

  • We should instigate the chinese staying outside China to fight against the communist rule and establish the democracy. Whether that state stays as one or multiple (like Russia) …why bother!?! It has done enough nuisance so far, and sure to continue the style for ever!

Rajeev Srinivasan

Rajeev Srinivasan

Rajeev Srinivasan is a management consultant and columnist. He focuses on strategy and innovation and has taught at several IIMs. He is an alumnus of IIT Madras and the Stanford Business School.

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