China and India on brink of armed conflict as hopes of resolution to border dispute fade
Chinese military primed for battle, military sources say; Indian troops ‘prepared for any eventuality’
Chinese and Indian troops are readying themselves for a possible armed conflict in the event they fail in their efforts to achieve a peaceful resolution to their border dispute on the Doklam plateau in the Himalayas, observers said.
On Friday, India’s defence minister Arun Jaitley told parliament that the country’s armed forces are “prepared to take on any eventuality” of the stand-off, Indian Express reported the same day.
Sources close to the Chinese military, meanwhile, said that the People’s Liberation Army is increasingly aware of the possibility of war, but will aim to limit any conflict to the level of skirmishes, such as those contested by India and Pakistan in Kashmir.
“The PLA will not seek to fight a ground war with Indian troops early on. Instead it will deploy aircraft and strategic missiles to paralyse Indian mountain divisions stationed in the Himalayas on the border with China,” a military insider told the South China Morning Post on condition of anonymity, adding that he believes Indian troops will probably hold out for “no more than a week”.
“There is a voice within the army telling it to fight because it was Indian troops that intruded into Chinese territory in Donglang [Doklam],” the second source said. “Such a voice is supported by the public.”
Both sources said that China’s military believes any conflict will be controlled, and not spill over into other disputed areas, of which there are currently three along the 2,000km border between the two Asian giants.
However, Indian defence experts warned that once the first shot is fired, the conflict may escalate into full-scale war. That in turn could result in New Delhi blockading China’s maritime lifeline in the Indian Ocean.
“Any Chinese military adventurism will get a fitting reply from the Indian military,” Dr Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy, a research associate at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, told the Post.
“Certainly, it will be detrimental for both, but if Beijing escalates [the conflict], it will not be limited. Perhaps, it may extend to the maritime domain as well,” he said.
“If China engages in a military offensive against India, New Delhi will take all necessary measures ... [and will] respond to Chinese actions in its own way. Why only a border war? It could escalate to a full-scale India-China war,” he said.
Rajeswari Rajagopalan, a defence analyst from the Observer Research Foundation think tank in New Delhi, said that “in the event of a full-scale war, definitely India’s navy will prevent the Chinese navy from moving into the Bay of Bengal or the Indian Ocean.”
China is heavily reliant on imported fuel and, according to figures published by state media, more than 80 per cent of its oil imports travel via the Indian Ocean or Strait of Malacca.
Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said that India in 2010 established a naval base in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, close to the Strait of Malacca, where the narrowest sea channel is just 1.7km wide.
“Since 2010, India has also upgraded two airstrips on the islands to serve fighters and reconnaissance aircraft,” he said.
“All these moves pave the way for India to be able to blockade Chinese military and commercial ships from entering the Indian Ocean in the event of a naval conflict between the two countries.”
In July, India, the United States and Japan completed their 10-day Malabar 2017 naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal, while around the same time the US approved the US$365-million sale of military transport aircraft to India and a US$2-billion deal for surveillance drones.
As a result, the Indian navy now has eight Boeing P-8A Poseidon submarine hunters patrolling in the Indian Ocean.
Chinese and Indian troops fought a war in 1962 after a series of skirmishes heightened tensions on the border. That conflict ended largely in a stalemate, despite China’s large military advantage.
However, Chaturvedy said that India has learnt lessons from its past mistakes and is now better prepared to defend itself against China.
Macau-based military expert Antony Wong Dong said that both sides have underestimated each other.
“If the border conflict expands to the sea, it will be very difficult for the PLA to defeat the Indian navy, whose capabilities are much stronger after the purchase of the P-8A Poseidon submarine hunters,” he said.