Military build-up in Tibet provides China with multiple strategic advantages (September 2010)
Brig. Arun Sahgal (retd)
‘US is the only one country who can threat China’s national security interests, Japan hasn’t such capability, Russia has this capability but no intention, India worried about China too much.’
— Rear Admiral Yang YI, PLA Navy
India ’s China policy has been marked by friendship, sentimentalism, fear, diffidence, appeasement, brinksmanship, wishful thinking and engagement. Off late, despite several positive political overtures there remain undercurrents of growing negativism in relations. The negative elements include slow progress in border talks marked by renewed and publically expressed claims on Twang and the whole of Arunachal Pradesh (euphemistically referred to as Southern Tibet). Continuing military modernisation together with incremental up gradation of its military posture in Tibet in terms of infrastructure, development of additional forward airbases, creation of forward logistics and communications nodes, and significantly deployment of rapid reaction forces both for exercises and at times over longer period particularly during campaigning period (Apr –Oct when snows begin to melt and start to fall again).
Then there are growing tensions over incidences of border incursions both in the Ladakh sector in the West, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh in the East. Keeping the tensions alive are tactics aimed not so much at military but means of political coercion to keep India restrained. More than this China has been unnecessarily needling India on J&K issue. It has begun attaching separate sheet of paper for J&K citizens and those who give their address in J&K. Biggest affront has been non clearance of visit by army’s northern army Commander on the pretext that he is in charge of J&K a disputed territory. In order to put the Sino–India debate in perspective it is important to underscore the growing Indian concerns about Chinese military build up in Tibet which provides China with multiple and glaring strategic advantages.
First and foremost is the Chinese doctrine of ‘Active Defence’, underlying its military modernisation and force development. The new doctrine is more assertive and is not bound by any restrictions to confine and limit future conflict to within China’s national boundaries. According to China’s White Paper, active defence is a defensive military strategy. The doctrine demands the creation of a capability to project force across China’s borders through rapid deployment, conventional SRBMs and cruise missiles, information warfare, electronic warfare, precision-guided munitions, night fighting capabilities and other advanced military technologies. The PLA expects to fight the next war under conditions of what it calls ‘informationisation’ Chinese euphemism of net centric and RMA assisted warfare.
Second and importantly is the infrastructural and capability up gradation in Tibet. China can support a force over 20-25 Divisions in Tibet which can be build over a single campaigning season. This is backed by forward location of operational logistics that are being structured to support large forces. Aiding to above posture is the Chinese rapid reaction and punitive strike capability. As per current assessments, PLA has the capacity to air transport pproximate
a division plus (15,000 troops) in one go and air drop a regiment worth (3,000 troops) in a single airlift. Its helilift capacity is nearly two battalions in a single lift. This capability was on display during exercise ‘Stride-2009’, involving transportation of 50,000 troops from four major regional military commands — stationed in the cities of Shenyang, Lanzhou, Jinan and Guangzhou. The sophisticated nature of the far-flung deployments together with projected manoeuvres 12 — 1600 km away from their bases was an exceptional power projection display that involved rapid force mobilisation using high-speed civilian rail and air links.
These developments become significant in the backdrop of possible rapid reaction force deployment in Tibet. Chinese Rapid Reaction Forces, better known as ‘Resolving Emergency Mobile Combat Forces’ (REMCF), are prepared for a 24 to 48 hour response to any contingency that might threaten Chinese interests. This implies China today is in a position to deploy upto 3-4 divisions in a rapid deployment mode following induction of its REMCF at a place of its choice along the Sino–Indian border.
Third and in some sense more dangerous development is the integration of conventional missile forces which are part of the strategic second artillery (Chinese nuclear forces command) with military area commands and their deployment in conjunction with PLA troops in the Chinese hinterland including Tibet. An associated development has been greater terminal accuracy of missiles together with their integration as an operational precision strike weapon in Chinese theatre offensive plans. According to reports China’s arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) is growing in both size and quality. Modern variants of the CSS-6 and CSS-7 SRBMs are being deployed in large numbers; these are missiles with sufficient accuracy and the necessary variety of warheads to pose a serious threat to a wide range of targets.
Next issue is the growing Chinese air capability in Tibet. China has three main airfields in Tibet — Hoping, Pangta and Kong Ka. In addition, there are two at Lhasa and four more in the region that can be activated with little effort. These airfields allow China to speedily induct the REMCF into Tibet. In addition there are number of forward airstrips that can be activated on short notice. In terms of air combat capability, Chinese PLAAF can support approximately two divisions in support of Xizang Military District. Furthermore, these resources can be augmented by air operations from Yunnan province or use of Myanmar airspace under extreme circumstances, given Beijing’s close relationship with the Military junta. Added to the above is the enhanced surveillance and independent Beidou-based global positioning system that the Chinese have developed, which in effect enhances the operational capability including weapon delivery.
The next logical question is why conflict? Major issues defining India — China relations are geopolitical factors and Chinese leadership’s perception of India’s rise. Issue that will define the possibility of conflict is when and under what circumstances can ‘competition’ turn into ‘conflict’. China is not a ‘status quo’ power and will react politically and militarily should it feel threatened by inimical strategic shifts either stand alone or induced by changing balance of power, in this context India’s relations with US and Japan together with attempts to control Asian Rim through which major sea lanes of communication pass could provoke the Chinese.
Within the same construct it also needs to be noted that India too is a civilisational power and emerging economy, with cultural identity too deeply bound with Tibet to acquiesce to Chinese demands unilaterally, having already accepted in good faith Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. Needs to be noted that whereas India looks upon Tibet as a cultural buffer Chinese sees it from the perspective of strategic depth to its vulnerable periphery. Therefore as long as China continues to make Tibet central to resolving the boundary issue undercurrents of hostility will prevail, at least in the short to medium term.
India does not want conflict with China but prudence and military logic demands that it take such steps that will safeguard its national interests and maintain harmonious regional balance
Above scenario is aggravated by continuing border tensions underscored by Chinese intrusions and aggressions. Another trigger could be events post demise of fourteenth Dalai Lama and Chinese attempts to foster their own nominee against the nominee selected by Dalai Lama which is violently objected by the Tibetans in India who counter this by anointing their own Dalai Lama.
Flowing out of above following broad conflict emerge:
- Teach politically and economically rising India a lesson using any of the contingencies highlighted earlier as a trigger.
- An uprising post anointing own Dalai Lama in Tibet can be projected as Indian sponsored or in collaboration leading to heightened tensions including military deployments.
- Chinese strategy of ‘string of pearls’ and attempts to securities its energy flows through forward naval deployment could lead to dangerous escalation as these will be contested by Indian countervailing deployments.
- Intimidating deployments by China in contested areas in support of its all weather ally Pakistan leading to tensions forcing both sides to deploy their military forces.
Supporting environment of such a conflict could include; perceptions of force comparison and geo strategic trends; favourable for strategic coercion or alternatively regional strategic balance emerging in India’s favour. Tensions could also get heightened owing internal factors in China on account dissensions and unrest within the country over issues such as wages and workforce, migratory labour and above all collapse of ‘Factory Model’ in the Chinese heartland. To counter such trends it is possible local incidents with potential to spill over can be created.
Within the above construct Chinese penchant against surprise might push them to launch a first strike (War is the error term- Gartzke). Chinese believe that decisive action is required in dangerous situations. In the context of current strategic discourse Chinese hysteria about threat from India could precipitate action? Second PLA’s growing self image and increasing dominance in the regional foreign policy discourse has potential for political miscalculation. The manner in which PLA is being talked about as guarantor of regional peace and stability and its growing power projection propensities underlie such a perspective.
Levels of Conflict
Faulty perception does not necessarily entail only underestimation. Overestimation too can have serious implication for a country’s security. In case of China, this dilemma looms large over India regarding perspective threat as obtaining in and around 2020. Discernment of threat is concerned with analysing the existence and status of threat and its subsequent manifestation. The evaluation of threat from China is related to assessment of the mode or type of threat, the magnitude of force application and the manner in which threat actually results into conflict. It is an incremental process and likely to pass through various stages of escalation, i.e. ‘activation’, ‘likelihood of war’, before reaching the ignition point. In Sino–India scenario, following levels of conflict can be visualised:
Opening Gambit: This could take the form of either proxy war or more likely coercive muscle flexing. Idea will be to intimidate Indian political leadership into submission.
Intermediate Level Conflict: This will be in the form of ‘Limited War of High Intensity’ relating to territorial gains or deal a bloody blow to Indian military attempt at causing 1962 type of political and military dislocation.
Major confrontation: Limited war in the current scenario could escalate into major conflict nuanced with nuclear overhang. Since a major confrontation will have serious regional destabilising effect; appears unlikely in the immediate and midterm scenario.
It is however underscored that whatever be the level the following factors would have direct impact on the conflict:
- Conflict will be function of relative conventional and strategic balance. Perceived asymmetry could embolden China to unilaterally escalate secure in the hope of exercising escalation dominance and force early Indian compellance.
- State of strategic nuclear deterrence and doctrinal perspectives together with resolve of political leadership. Vacillating and weak leadership could induce provocation or even escalation.
- Physical conflict is more likely to take place in high altitude and difficult terrains in conjunction with air and naval dimensions including amphibious operations.
- Both countries possess sound economic base but relative military balance is a function of indigenous capability (China) vs acquisition model (India). These factors among others will have direct bearing on the nature and level of conflict including the prospects of horizontal or vertical escalation. Another factor of relevance will be the understanding of the nature and efficacy of nuclear deterrence.
In all probability this will be the first stage of conflict ‘activation’ and remains imminent in near and medium term. It will manifest in force posturing, deployment and even calibrated use of military force. The aim would be to induce compellance without resorting to application of major force. Idea will be to force Indian leadership to accept Chinese demands or compel India not to raise the ante on issues in which China feels threatened. Conflict could continue at the same level or may escalate further and gain dangerous proportions; where conflict management will become a function of either side’s propensities at managing conflict escalation. Chinese are capable of undertaking these actions and raise the ante at any stage where their interests are challenged by India in any form.
Intermediate Level Conflict
A limited war aimed at gaining specific disputed territories and ultimately forcing a boundary resolution on Chinese terms remains a distinct option. A high intensity limited war undertaken in ‘high tech/informationaised’ conditions is the basic military doctrine being propagated by China. Such a decision in the near term will be a calculated one and grown out of serious provocation (political or military) forcing china to react militarily. India in the initial stages is likely to adopt dissuasive defensive profile.
Two possible contingencies are; one, despite massive modernisation and infrastructure development in Tibet the existential force balance; do not allow Chinese any serious advantage unless it is willing to escalate to higher levels of escalation. This is primarily on account of near symmetry in force levels between India and China in force application despite popular thinking. Thus Chinese resorting to unilateral action either on Tibet issue or boundary skirmish in a teach India scenario remains limited at best.
It is however possible that should capability differential increase exponentially and Chinese footprints gain salience in South Asia as a result of concerted moves in enhancing its influence in Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, together with salience of Indian Ocean on account of energy hubs being created particularly in Bay of Bengal an over confident China could bring about such a conflict scenario to teach rising India a lesson. Such a scenario will get exacerbated if India continues callous neglect of its own force transformation, modernisation and infrastructural development.
The issue that will force such a precipitate action will be the understanding by both sides of the escalation dynamics in particular understanding of the Chinese perceptions of exercising escalation control. Another important issue that needs to be highlighted is that given the nature of Indian ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) cover over Tibet and Chinese mainland which is growing exponentially attempts at ‘punitive cold start oriented strategy’ is both unlikely and unworkable. Chinese deployments and force mobilisation will be picked up and provide India sufficient time and opportunity for build up.
Possible Conflict Scenario
Once Chinese have made their intentions clear they could resort to rapid build up of RRF units and launch operations to secure their claim lines. This could be done within one to two weeks of decision time (while launch time is less some minimum logistic preparations to support these forces are essential). As part of pre-emptive strikes, they will aim to cripple Indian command and control centres and forward deployed sensors, through relentless information operations that could include cyber and information attacks, jamming of speech and data communication systems.
Besides exercising all options possible in the proxy war/coercive muscle flexing contingency, they could attempt at show of force including deployment of SSBN’s in Arabian Sea, IOR and Bay of Bengal. Navigation and communication satellites and economic infrastructures could also be targeted as a strategy of political coercion. In order to deter Indian forces from mobilisation, Chinese will target rail and air movement through cyber warfare, jamming and pre-emptive air/missile strikes on bottlenecks, defiles and main railway yards in the East.
It is important to note Chinese will need to mobilise sizeable forces for such an option. Analysis indicates China can ill afford to undertake such an enterprise with only RRF or locally mobilised forces. They would require anything upto 8-10 divisions for an initial operations with capacity to rapidly build up additional forces taking cognizance of the nature of escalation. To presume that such an adventure can be undertaken by limited forces will be an operational miscalculation.
Two issues emerge as a result. One Chinese can perhaps launch first phase with limited mobilisation but would need a longer mobilisation period for build up of additional forces, second that it will have to cater for Indian horizontal escalation perhaps in Ladakh, or even in East. This will mean a much larger initial contingency based deployment to cater for Indian pro active horizontal escalation. A large and elaborate mobilisation in the ‘limited war model’ suggests real chances of conflict escalation to dangerous levels. Issue is will Chinese resort and with what consequences?
Ground Forces : The force application model will take the form of multidimensional attacks to include direct attacks on key selected areas e.g. ‘Tawang’ to gain territory and force and force India to accept Southern Tibet as part of TAR in a sort of fait accomplice. These will be accompanied by cyber, information and precision attacks on military and value targets however aim will be to restrict collateral damage to prevent these being used as propaganda tool to focus international attention. Special Forces will be used to attack major artillery concentrations, logistic deployments and cut off routes for reinforcements.
Contingency deployment will also be carried out including build up to cater for India launching ripostes in areas of choice as a bargaining chip. The scenario will in all probability result in targeted missile warfare to degrade forward sensors and airfields etc. In all probability operations will be high on kinetic power and focussed attacks in an effect-based mode rather than simple war of attrition. Chinese will try their best not to get caught up in the same as it has potential for unacceptable escalation and high casualties.
Air Strategy : The PLAAF strategy in such a conflict scenario will be based on rapid gaining of favourable air situation through medium and long range attacks; this will require major deployment of assets from mainland and upgradation of Tibetan airfields and new airstrips being developed. Above will be backed by air-land doctrine, based on Combined/joint operations to support PLA field and RRF formations. Concept of air defence will shift from point defence to “joint anti-air raid campaign doctrine based on a modern, integrated air defence system capable of offensive counter air and defensive counter air”. Rapid response will be facilitated by strategic aerial reconnaissance assets. These details are covered in a more elaborate manner in the accompanying article in this issue.
Naval Strategy : Security of SLOC will be dominant Chinese concern. The issue of various interpretations is that will China attempt to cover this vulnerability by pre emptive deployment in Bay of Bengal proximity to Myanmar or in Gwadar and the level of force levels? It could deploy some SSN and by around 2020 one or possibly two carrier task forces in IOR. It will however have to be sanguine that such a pre emptive deployment will constitute a serious escalation that will surely result in suitable Indian response.
Indian Response Matrix
Chinese doctrine of fighting a high intensity war under conditions of informationisation with medium power like India is still under development. It is perceived that even though its force modernisation is developing rapidly it will take another decade or so for them to fully transform its force to the desired levels. Resultantly, it is entire process is likely to fructify only around 2020 or there about. This provides India a breathing space of about a decade for own modernisation and focused capability development.
There is growing realisation in India that despite improved relations it would be foolhardy not to take cognisance of its growing military power. It is therefore imperative that India takes steps necessary to upgrade its dissuasive conventional posture to deter China from initiating hostilities. Some of these steps include:
- Acquiring offensive capability for trans-LAC operations.
- Enhance ground, air, and helicopter firepower punch.
- Invest in modern ISR technologies for border management.
- Upgrade military infrastructure in border areas.
- To respond to the limited war situation in particular, India has begun to enhance its strategic intelligence and surveillance capability together with RRF and Special Forces. China will employ its technological and standoff capability in all possible forms and India thus needs to develop robust command and control systems combined with safeguards for cyber and electronic warfare to ensure their functioning to give a proper response. It is in this context India’s attempts at bolstering its capabilities in the eastern theatre need to be seen.
Capability more than intention matter in dealing with threat and challenges. Seen from the perspective purely in conventional balance China has taken visible strides and today possesses rapid deployment capability to meet multiple contingencies. India’s recent new raisings and other steps to enhance its military profile are purely defensive measures to dissuade escalation and maintain viable conventional deterrence.
India does not want conflict with China but prudence and military logic demands that it take such steps that will safeguard its national interests and maintain harmonious regional balance. Present conventional force balance is not decisively in Chinese favour and in any border war of limited nature India is expected to hold its own including pro active offensive actions. This, however, requires focuses capability and infrastructural development. The whole issue of Tibet and boundary question will be raked up by China at will if it realises India to be militarily weak and above all politically vacillating.
The security of SLOC in Indian Ocean its main energy and resource highway is likely to force china into greater projectionist motivation, which will carry its own conflict dynamics and require India to develop its own version of ‘anti access strategy’ both in technological and doctrinal terms. We need to understand to deal with Chinese challenge India must show compatible military strength and resolve.
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