A Consideration of Sino-Indian Conflict
The Indian position on the power balance is Asia is that there exists enough space in
Asia for both states and civilisations.1 Consequently India’s policy towards China is one
of multifaceted engagement.2 Yet, there is considerable concern among strategic analysts
in India about the possibilities of conflict.3 Despite the focus on the ‘China threat’, there is
surprisingly little in the open domain on the possible military manifestation of the threat.
The popular narrative restricts itself to pointing out the head start China has had in
infrastructure building in Tibet and the military uses to which this can be put. Its capability
for sustaining forces is taken in one account as 34 divisions and half a million men in
another.4 The factors leading to war that find mention are the boundary dispute, pressure
tactics by China in ‘balance of power’ games, outward projection of internal political
unrest in China and stand-off over markets and resources elsewhere.
This Brief sets out hypothetical conflict scenarios against the spectrum of conflict.5 It first
outlines the contours of conflict,6 including that of the ‘collusive’ threat, and then discusses
limitation. It ends by looking at the two buffer states Nepal and Bhutan in context. The
conclusion is that coping with China will be a test equally of military jointness as of
‘jointedness’ of the Indian national security establishment.7
The spectrum of conflict is a conceptual aid to discuss conflict and subsumes along its
continuum subconventional conflict; conventional war in its limited and total dimensions;
and nuclear war in its limited and strategic dimensions. Placement along the spectrum
would depend on the aims and intensity of conflict, troops and resources committed, etc.
In the subconventional level are proxy wars. The Chinese support for rebels in the North
East up until the late sixties can be subsumed under this. It has been suggested that
IDSA Issue Brief 3
India must prosecute an asymmetric contest vis-à-vis China by: ‘(a) …reach[ing] out to
the restive, discontented and oppressed Tibetan population, particularly the youth, in
Tibet; [and] (b) support[ing] the cause of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang Autonomous Region
(XUAR) and Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (IMAR).’8 Such playing of the proxy
war ‘card’ can be done in peacetime and it can be enhanced in war to keep the
communication zone of the adversary unsettled for operational gains. However, the
factor of India’s own multiple vulnerabilities in this sphere cannot be overlooked.9
While the foregoing are intelligence operations, military actions can also occur at the
subconventional level. These include patrol clashes and border skirmishes.10 Reports of
border ‘transgressions’11 suggest that patrol clashes can occur inadvertently or by design.12
This was the pattern in the run up to the 1962 conflict as part of the ‘forward policy’
adopted of both states resulting in clashes at the grassroots level.13 Such occurrences
could build up to a border skirmish or this could be engineered as a separate incident.
The 1967 stand off at Nathu la and the Walong-Sumdorong Chu incidents of the late
eighties are examples.
This is the key area of focus of the Indian military. The military takes its primary task of
safeguarding territorial integrity seriously. The border and Line of Actual Control (LAC)
is over 4000 km long. Much of this is disputed and China claims Tawang and even the
whole of Arunachal Pradesh. The Army’s ‘Transformation’ study reportedly proposes
urgent and long term action necessary for preserving the status quo till a resolution is
arrived at.14 Infrastructure improvement in the form of road building is underway.15
The Army’s proposal for a mountain strike corps for the eastern sector, in addition to the
two mountain divisions under raising there currently, stands approved. To supplement
firepower resources that have been revealed as critical in mountains, a regiment of
8 Mandip Singh, ‘Asymmetric Wars in the Indian Context’, IDSA Comment, http://www.idsa.in/
9 The North East insurgencies are currently at a low ebb while the Maoist challenge is acute. China
can exploit these in retaliation in case India plays the ‘Tibet’ card. Such cards are avoidable since
they would impact both Indian friends (Tibetans) and Indian citizens.
10 Doctrine of Sub Conventional Operations, Shimla: HQ ARTRAC, p. 2.
11 ‘No increase in deployment of forces on China-India border: Army’, Economic Times, 14 January
12 ‘India-China Territorial Dispute: Way Ahead’, CLAWS Article 1933, 25 August 2011, http://
13 Srinath Raghavan, War and Peace in Modern India, New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2010, pp. 270-87.
14 This is a confidential study reportedly conducted under the current army chief during his former
assignment as Eastern Army Commander.
15 The BRO has a budgetary allocation of Rs. 5,425 crore. See ‘Progress of 61 roads to be built on
Indo-China border reviewed’, Economic Times, 13 September 2011.
A Consideration of Sino-Indian Conflict
Brahmos missiles is to be deployed in Arunachal.16 Strategic commentary variously has
it that it needs two or three such corps.17 The Air Force has placed its latest strike assets,
the Su 30s, in the North East and is expanding its infrastructure and capability in Ladakh.18
The lower end of the conflict at this level could be a Kargil-like situation. China’s aim
could be to ‘teach India a lesson’ so as to influence India’s rise before its capacity building
underway acquires traction. This could be a limited war confined to a specific section of
the border or LAC, limited in duration and amenable to a negotiated termination. At a
higher level could be a territorial grab by China, for example a bid to take Tawang. At
the next rung could be a more ambitious bid southwards up to its claim line. Lateral or
horizontal expansion of conflict from one theatre to another is the next step, with the
conflict engulfing one or more of the four possible theatres: Ladakh, Central Sector,
Sikkim and Arunachal. Alongside, it may impact the buffer states, Nepal and Bhutan
(discussed later). A higher end war may spread outwards from the mountains to include
air and missile action against the hinterland and the ‘mainland’ or strategic heartland.
There is a possibility of the involvement of allies, in the least in a supportive role. The
most extensive dimension of this could be the ‘collusive’ threat.19
16 P. Samanta, ‘China flexing muscles, govt clears Brahmos for Arunachal’, Indian Express, 17 October
17 Gurmeet Kanwal, ‘Wars in the mountains: Capacity building needed for future conflict’, CLAWS
Article 1927, 14 August 2011, http://www.claws.in/index.php?action=master&task=928&u_id=7;
GD Bakshi, ‘The Age Of Differences...Wasn’t It Born Before 1962?’, Outlook, 3 October 2011.
18 ‘IAF raises new squadron of SU-30 warplanes in NE’, Hindustan Times, 1 March 2011.
19 VK Kapoor, ‘Fighting a Two Front War’, http://www.spslandforces.net/story.asp?id=124
IDSA Issue Brief 5
The Collusive Threat20
Such a threat has not transpired historically and has not developed so far. However, the
‘threat’ has been envisaged now due to juxtaposing of infrastructure developments in
Tibet with taking over of transport corridor projects and infrastructure such as dams by
the Chinese in Pakistan’s Northern Areas.21 The manifestation of the threat in terms of
scenarios could be either Pakistan- or China- led. Alternatively, it could be with either
state taking advantage of an adverse situation for India brought on by the other state.
Lastly is a grand strategic design between the two.
From this emerge five possibilities: China instigated, Pakistan instigated, Chinese hyena
act, Pakistan’s hyena act and lastly a planned twin strike. Since China can act on its own,
it does not need Pakistani collusion. In fact it may find such collusion escalatory since it
would place India in a worse position, from which India would only want to come out
fighting. On the other hand, Pakistan can do with Chinese support. Yet, China would not
want to be physically drawn in though it could use the transport corridors being developed
in the Gilgit-Baltistan region to send in logistic support.
In a China-led case, a twin threat could be in case of Chinese designs to the east. These
could be grandiose in terms of seizing limited territory such as Tawang or the whole of
Arunachal, or to ‘teach India a lesson’. This may entail tying India down in the western
sector by having Pakistan make diversionary moves in Siachen or Kargil. This could
result in 14 Corps based in Ladakh being forced to look both ways. The possibility of
Chinese participation with movement through the Gilgit axis is possible, but the logistics
and possibility of Indian air interdiction makes this unviable.
A Pakistan-led case is difficult to visualize since China would not like the ‘tail to wag the
dog’. China could nevertheless participate in such an adventure if it were to set India
back and restrict India’s strategic space to South Asia. Dual use formations that could tilt
the balance in India’s favour would then not be available, making for greater symmetry
A ‘hyena act’ by Pakistan is easier to visualize than by China since China is more likely
to be able to place India at a military disadvantage than Pakistan. In such a case, with
India militarily distracted in an engagement with China, Pakistan could try and gain
psychological ascendance, remove vulnerabilities through military action or recreate
proxy war conditions.
20 Ali Ahmed, ‘The Sino-Pak ‘collusive’ threat’, CLAWS Article 1794, 31 March 2011, http://
21 Lok Sabha Unstarred Question No. 653: ‘Chinese presence in POK’, http://www.idsa.in/
A Consideration of Sino-Indian Conflict
The last possibility of a concerted twin strike is the ‘most threatening-least likely’ one. In
such a case, India may turn its attention and weight first towards Pakistan while it holds
in the North. This serves as deterrent to Pakistani participation in such an enterprise.
Since India would be greatly imposed upon, the possibility of going beyond the ‘limited
war’ profile exists. India could legitimately rescind its NFU in such circumstance as a
clear signal. This brings up the nuclear level.
Both India and China subscribe to a ‘No First Use’ (NFU) doctrine. Since this is a unilateral
undertaking, it may be rescinded at any time. Therefore this level cannot be ruled out ab
initio. Retracting from NFU itself would be a significant move to indicate that thresholds
are being crossed in a conventional war. Nuclear exchanges can be either graduated or
spasmic. The former indicates that within this level there is also space for Limited Nuclear
War.22 Theoretically, despite its implausibility, limitation in the nuclear domain can be
restricted to specific targets or theatres; for instance, strikes on strategic lines of
communications such as mountain passes or strategic bridges in the hinterland. The
variegated capability available with both states in terms of types of weapons and delivery
platforms and the nuclear weapon numbers make this possible. Counter value targeting
would be a step up from such exchanges. In effect, a wider war may have all three levels
of the spectrum in play: proxy war, conventional war and nuclear war. This brings to
fore the imperative of limitation.
The pattern of Indian procurements, infrastructure building and force restructuring
suggests preparedness for conflict scenarios across the board. In future, India could be
subject to China’s hegemonic attention. Since India would be better prepared by then,
China may instead wish to set India back now by a preventive war. This means current
day preparedness is as essential as preparation for the future. A reverse now will have
as severe political costs, internally and externally, as it had back in 1962; for, as then,
India is yet again contemplating a global role.
While India’s is taken as a ‘benign’ rise, China’s projection of ‘peaceful rise’ meets with
scepticism.23 China is better positioned for gaining super power status and may attempt
to gain a position of dominance. This may place it at odds with India which wishes to
preserve its autonomy and image. Short of this ‘worst case’ developing, perhaps a decade
22 Indian Army Doctrine, p. 12.
23 Baladas Ghoshal, ‘India and China: Towards a Competitive-Cooperative Relationship?’, IPCS
Issue Brief No. 153, August 2010.
IDSA Issue Brief 7
or so from now, there are conflict scenarios that may spool out in the interim. The issue of
‘saving face’ and reputation for both sides will have an escalatory affect.
Against such a background, India’s national aim, in light of its economic trajectory and
national interest of strategic autonomy, is war avoidance. In case of conflict breaks out,
limitation is desirable. At the upper ends of conflict, early conflict termination recommends
itself, lest escalation result. Applying the Limited War concept makes sense in that it
would not deflect India from its economic trajectory overly. Limitation would help ensure
that the No First Use (NFU) doctrine, subscribed to by both states, holds. Localised
conflicts are easier to terminate since ‘saving face’ is easier as resources committed are
less and prestige is not staked inordinately. Limited War is a concept that has been aired
in India since 2000, though this has found greater reflection in the India-Pakistan context.24
Likewise, the Chinese concept of ‘limited war in informationalised conditions’ seemingly
Limited War by definition is one limited along one of several dimensions. In the case in
question, compartmentalising a conflict zone, easier brought about in the Himalayas,
helps keep the conflict limited. There are potentially four conflict theatres: the Ladakh
theatre, the central theatre, the Sikkim theatre and the last along the erstwhile McMahon
Line. Restricting the conflict to one or more of these theatres would help localise it. For
limitation in weapons used, saliencies exist in the employment of air power, as was done
in 1962. Additional thresholds are the limit of employment of air power in terms of
spread and type of targets; employment of weapons systems such as missiles; levels of
employment of proxies in irregular war in the communication zones and hinterland and
the opening up of the maritime front.
Lastly, is the use of the nuclear plane for posturing and for ‘tacit bargaining’. Rescinding
the NFU when warranted can help send an unambiguous message of thresholds being
reached. Lower order nuclear first use, such as against a geographic target such as a
critical pass for operational gains and the strategic purpose of signalling would bring
about a nuclear war. Consideration of keeping nuclear outbreak limited is in order,
since neither state would prefer its ‘mainland’ being attacked. This means limitation to
Limited Nuclear War also needs to be factored in for contingency planning purposes,
howsoever far-fetched the enterprise otherwise appears.
Limitation can thus be both horizontal and vertical. Horizontally, it may mean opening
of other fronts, including the maritime front. Vertically, it means stepping up the ladder,
not necessarily in a graduated manner. It could mean introduction of air power, missile
24 Swaran Singh, ‘Indian Debate on Limited War’, Strategic Analysis, XXIII (12), 2000:
A Consideration of Sino-Indian Conflict
strikes with conventional warheads, use of tactical nuclear weapons, etc. In the upper
end of the scale, both vertical and horizontal expansion are virtually assured, since both
sides may want to capitalise on their advantages in other fronts or compensate for any
advantage the other has on a particular front. This means that saliencies and thresholds
need to be identified.
An example could be when would India prefer to employ its maritime advantage in the
Indian Ocean to pressurise China in case of outbreak of war in the Himalayas? This
would perhaps be less useful for a short duration encounter such as a border skirmish,
but would be consequential as an escalatory manoeuvre designed as war termination
pressure in case of a wider war.
Likewise, at the nuclear level, for instance, a consideration could be at which hypothetical
stage of an adverse situation would India rescind NFU and introduce nuclear weapons
into the conflict? A scenario could be if and when a Chinese breakthrough is threatened
onto the Siliguri corridor, in conjunction with an adverse situation developing on the
Arunachal front. The aspect of in-conflict nuclear deterrence of strategic nuclear exchanges
is catered for by India’s second strike capability, likely to be increasingly sea-based by
the turn of the decade.
Since it takes two to keep war limited by cooperating to prevent escalation, firstly, their
communication through direct and indirect channels and tacitly by action manifest on
the ground would help condition the other to follow suit. This means that diplomatic
channels need to be kept open and governmental communication uncluttered by political
rhetoric. Secondly, choice in fighting at a particular level may be with the initiator of a
conflict, though escalation cannot be ruled out in all cases. To deny the enemy the
advantage he seeks at his level of choice, there may be a need to respond in a more
vigorous fashion. But getting the conflict to stabilise at that higher level of seeming
advantage would require communication of sorts. In effect, game theory kicks in with
defection and cooperation in evidence. Limited War in a sense is cooperation to mutually
avoid the worse penalties of war, such as to prevent a conflict from going nuclear.
Impact on Nepal and Bhutan
What would be the implication of a conflict between the two Asian giants for the two
buffer states, Nepal and Bhutan? Nepal will unlikely see military operations progressed
through its territory in violation of its sovereignty due to it being geographically distant
from the consequential theatres, Ladakh and Arunachal. Conversely, being close to Indian
base areas India has a defensive advantage in case China were to open up a front through
Nepal in an extensive war. For these reasons, China is unlikely to involve Nepali territory.
The lack of infrastructure on the far side of Nepal for the progress of an Indian offensive
would also make Nepal a less likely theatre of operations.
IDSA Issue Brief 9
Myanmar has figured in conflicts earlier during World War II with the airlift ‘over the
hump’ forming part of legend. Given its improving infrastructure links with Yunnan, a
threat developing in this direction can figure either in the context of a localised war
restricted to the tri-junction or a much wider Total War. The other link to conflict is in
case of external support for insurgents in the North East. This last factor influences India’s
deepening relations with Myanmar.
In the case of Bhutan there is greater likelihood that it could emerge as a future site of
contest, given its border dispute with China along the Chumbi valley. India has inherited
military-strategic ties with Bhutan. These ties include the permanent presence of an Indian
military training team in Bhutan and strategic stewardship of that state. Bhutan’s strategic
location may make it critical to war at the upper level of the spectrum. As can be seen in
the map, its eastern and western flanks abut Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim respectively.
In the hypothetical case of conflict in the eastern Himalayas, it is not implausible that
Bhutan may get embroiled. China could offensively exploit its territory for outflanking
Indian forces so as to pressurise India’s vulnerability in the 21 km wide Siliguri corridor,
aptly dubbed as ‘Chicken’s Neck’. Fearing such movement, Indian forces may stage
forward defensively. Given the military advantages that would accrue to the force acting
first in the mountains, pressures to pre-empt the other side will arise.
In so far as Bhutan would incline towards India in any such conflict, an Indian position
could have it that this is in India’s interest. The 2007 treaty states that the two ‘shall
cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests’. It goes on
to state that ‘neither Government shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful
to the national security and interest of the other.’25 Thus, even as Bhutan contests any
Chinese ingress, it would be free to call upon India for assistance. This could enable
India to respond militarily on request. Such military movement would help India defend
its own territory better.
However, two problems arise. One is that a potential Indian-Bhutanese linkage may
tempt China to be both offensive and pre-emptive. This could lead to a race between
those ‘rolling down’ and those ‘rushing up’, reminiscent of the military action in Belgium
at the start of the First World War and at the end of the ‘phoney war’ in the Second
World War. Second, an inadvertent expansion of the conflict could take place from what
is originally intended as a localised theatre.
Therefore, in case Bhutanese territory does not figure in the military calculus of either
state, it may be better for both. While there may be military compulsions, predicated on
gaining a position of operational advantage or denying the same to the adversary, these
25 ‘Indo-Bhutan Friendship Treaty’, text available at http://www.carnegieendowment.org/
A Consideration of Sino-Indian Conflict
need to be weighed against the strategic imperative of limitation to conflict between
nuclear states. A measure to this end would be to respect Bhutan’s neutrality. This would
require Bhutan to emerge as the ‘Switzerland of the Himalayas’.
Bhutan has been released from its 1949 treaty obligation of being ‘guided by the advice
of the Government of India in regard to its external relations’ by the exclusion of this
clause from the new 2007 friendship treaty.26 This reflects India’s respect for the sovereign
right of Bhutan to act by its own lights. Since an extension of war into Bhutan by
inadvertence or design is not in India’s or Bhutan’s interest, respect for neutrality of
Bhutan could be considered. This can be done by arriving at a tacit strategic
understanding with China as part of the strategic dialogue.
From among a menu ranging from compellence, deterrence and defence, India’s strategic
doctrinal choice is evident. Compellence is ruled out, as is defence. The former cannot be
tried against a strong nuclear power and the latter has not worked adequately earlier in
the fifties. The choice is restricted to deterrence, with its two variants: offensive deterrence
and defensive deterrence. The former involves more expensive offensive capabilities
and is predicated on deterrence by punishment. The latter is based on deterrence by
Defensive deterrence makes grand strategic sense as articulated by the National Security
Our goal must be defence, not offense, unless offense is necessary for deterrence or to protect...
We must recognise that other countries too could have similar imperatives as ours and
their own reasons for what they do. And why create self-fulfilling prophesies of conflict
with powerful neighbours like China?27
The military is also on board with this formulation. The former Chairman Chiefs of Staff
Committee, Admiral S. Mehta had stated, ‘On the military front, our strategy to deal
with China must include reducing the military gap...The traditional or ‘attritionist’
approach of matching ‘Division for Division’ must give way…’28 These must be
supplemented by ‘harnessing modern technology for developing high situational
awareness and creating a reliable stand-off deterrent.’29 This will enable the fine
26 ‘Treaty Between India and Bhutan 1949’, text available at http://www.indianembassythimphu.bt/
27 Shivshankar Menon, ‘Our ability to change India in a globalised world’, Tribune, 14 August 2011.
28 Admiral Sureesh Mehta, ‘India’s National Security Challenges – An Armed Forces Overview’, Address
At India Habitat Centre – 10 Aug 09, p. 3, http://maritimeindia.org/sites/all/files/pdf/
IDSA Issue Brief 11
distinction between offensive and defensive deterrence. The strategic doctrine would
require being ensconced in grand strategy involving diplomacy, trade ties, etc.
accordingly, as, is indeed, already the case, albeit one under-appreciated.
The bad news is that conflict scenarios are not impossible to visualise, but the good news
is that the higher one moves up in the spectrum the less likely the scenario. The sobering
aspect is that the likelihood depends on the level of preparedness; but one not necessarily
confined to military preparedness. The ‘China threat’ thesis requires being placed in
perspective. The stridency attending it has the advantage of focusing attention on the
challenge. Conflict potential cannot be ignored; but, coping cannot be solely a military,