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Recent events on the Sino–Indian border, which have seen China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) deploy a reported 5,000 troops in border positions near Galwan and Demchok represent a significant escalation in the ongoing regional competition between the two Asian powers. Admittedly, standoffs and limited clashes in disputed territory are not unprecedented. However, this would represent the first major PLA incursion into territory that both sides’ maps recognise as being on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) – the de facto border between the two countries. And while it is too early to deduce precisely what caused this latest escalation, it is possible to identify the various geostrategic factors which may have contributed to China’s decision to mount this incursion.
The decision to escalate tensions on the Indian border even as China adopts a more emollient stance with some of its other neighbours fits with what some scholars view as China’s approach to counter-containment – the strategy of selectively and sequentially targeting individual members of what it views as a nascent encircling alliance in order to prevent such a tie-up. Such an incursion could also represent a form of coercive issue linkage, whereby China utilises pressure on disputed territories to secure concessions with regards to another issue area. For example, China could hold out the offer to withdraw from Indian territory as well as the threat of further limited escalations as leverage with which to shape Indian policy with regards to issues such as any renewed future push for Taiwanese observer status at international organisations such as the World Health Organization. This would be consistent with the coercive linkage seen with regards to disputes such as the Senkakus, where China’s decisions to escalate or minimise tensions over the Senkakus have often had less to do with the value China places on the territories themselves than they have with attempts to shape Japan’s wider foreign and security policies.
That being said, the causes for this escalation are likely to be more local. The immediate catalyst for the crisis – Chinese attempts to disrupt the construction of Indian military infrastructure in the region – should not be understated. Recent incidents reflect a wider pattern of behaviour by which the PLA utilises localised escalations to disrupt or freeze the construction of Indian infrastructure. The fact that this latest escalation has left the PLA holding the heights straddling a critical Indian road artery would suggest that it intends to hold the territory rather than use it as bargaining leverage.
The Sino–Indian Military Balance
On paper, PLA forces in the Western Military Theatre operate at a significant advantage to their Indian counterparts. The PLA’s Western Theatre Command fields 230,000 troops compared to the 225,000 troops which can be mobilised from India’s Northern, Central and Eastern commands. However, the concerted construction of road and rail links on the Chinese side of the border – vastly outstripping Indian efforts – means that the PLA can redeploy forces to the region at increasingly rapid rates. By contrast, many of the roads on which the Indian army would rely end 40–80 km from the front lines of a likely conflict.
This being said, the local military balance of power – at least in the early days of a conflict – may tilt against the PLA. Most PLA units in the Western Theatre Command are deployed in depth, partially as a result of deployments on the Russian border and deployments to support internal security missions. In Tibet and Xinjiang – the regions closest to the Indian border – the PLA deploys 40,000 and 70,000 troops respectively. Moreover, many of the 70,000 troops in Xinjiang are deployed near urban centres such as Urumqi – hundreds of kilometres from the Indian border – in order to manage internal threats. In wartime, the People’s Armed Police may relieve PLA forces of some of their internal security missions in regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang, but these missions will likely draw on PLA manpower all the same. At the point of immediate contact, then, the PLA is numerically inferior by a significant margin to the generally forward deployed forces of India’s China-facing military commands, and will take time to redeploy forces from the Chinese interior.
The PLA also faces a mountainous terrain that heavily favours the defender. The fragmented geography of the valleys of the region and the altitudes at which combat takes place will attenuate the effects of firepower and impede targeting using airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). The Indian Army has begun a programme of renewed modernisation specifically for this theatre, with recent investments in rapidly re-deployable artillery under the aegis of the airmobile 17 Mountain Strike Corps. This might give the Indian Army a competitive fire support capability in the early days of a conflict, though the process of acquiring and fielding these artillery assets is not yet complete.
Despite this, the relatively limited artillery capability of PLA forces in Tibet – currently a single forward-deployed artillery regiment backed by an artillery brigade deployed 200 km from the front line near Lhasa – would mean that the PLA lacks a significant fires advantage in the first days of a war. While Indian ISR and fires capabilities may be difficult to employ effectively, the locally superior Indian manpower and their deployment to physically control mountainous terrain limits the PLA’s options for offensive manoeuvre and opportunities to penetrate Indian territory in depth without first engaging in the difficult task of dislodging dug-in Indian forces at any given point along the front. Moreover, given their initial numerical preponderance, Indian forces could envision localised counteroffensives to seize critical territory either as bargaining chips or to permanently improve their position.
The balance of power in the air is likely to be similarly skewed in India’s favour in the early days of a conflict. By virtue of India’s smaller size, the Indian Air Force operates significantly more air bases and advanced landing grounds within reach of the border region than does the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), which will rely on eight airbases in the Western Theatre. Moreover, the high altitudes of PLAAF bases on the Tibetan plateau limit the tempo of operations possible using aircraft operating from these bases. This handicap is not shared by Indian aircraft operating from bases at lower altitudes. Finally, despite the PLAAF being a qualitatively and quantitatively superior force in aggregate, its forces in the Western Military Theatre are numerically inferior to their Indian counterparts. They are also at a qualitative disadvantage by virtue of being largely comprised of older J-10 and J-11 aircraft compared to aircraft such as the SU-30MKI fielded in the Indian Eastern Command.
All of this, however, will likely change if a conflict is not very short. China’s investments in road and rail infrastructure will allow it to redeploy 32 divisions from deep within the Western Military Theatre to the border region in a span of around six weeks. Moreover, the construction of airstrips and refuelling points would enable the redeployment of more PLAAF aircraft from other military regions and bring the PLAAF’s aggregate superiority in numbers to bear. In a longer conflict, we would likely see newer aircraft such as the J-20 redeployed to the Western Military Theatre, shifting the balance of power in qualitative terms. Finally, the Strategic Rocket Force’s arsenal of land-attack ballistic and cruise missiles such as the DF-21C and CJ-10 could disrupt operations at Indian airfields if Chinese decisionmakers deemed this worth the cost of using scarce precision strike assets that would be needed in an East Asian conflict. Perhaps most importantly, the Indian Army’s chronic shortages of munitions, while no longer acute due to the initiative in recent years to purchase and hold more in reserve, would likely limit its ability to prosecute a conflict that was not resolved within less than a month.
That being said, the PLA’s advantages can only come into play if it can hold the line in the opening stages of a conflict. This precarious position would, however, be eroded by any construction of additional infrastructure by India, as well as permanent military infrastructure to enable sustained forward deployment.
The Importance of the Galwan Valley to the PLA
The construction of what appears to be a permanent position across the LAC is a significant escalation. The tactical value of the areas seized, the Indian army’s decision to hold off annual presence missions as a result of Covid-19 and the belief that the situation could be deescalated if India was presented with a bloodless fait accompli likely all played a role in this decision.
By virtue of its position, the PLA’s new outposts in the Galwan valley effectively allow it to offset improvements in India’s regional infrastructure. The outposts overlook the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DSDBO) highway which passes through the valley and places this fragile road link at risk from PLA artillery. This means that the road links to the Indian army’s northern sector can be severed in wartime. The tactical significance of this territory, coupled with reports that the PLA has commenced the construction of permanent structures in the region, would suggest that it has not been seized as bargaining leverage. Rather, this represents an effort to permanently alter the status quo in order to offset India’s local military advantages.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: High Mountains near the India-China Border landscape. Courtesy of Jeevan/goodfreephotos.com.