Orchestrating New Postures

India’s unresolved territorial and boundary dispute with China and an un-demarcated Line of Actual Control (LAC) on the Indo-Tibetan border do not augur well for long-term peace and stability between these two Asian giants. Territorial and boundary disputes that are carried over from history and left unresolved carry within them the seeds of future conflict. The next major incident on the LAC could possibly lead to a localised border conflict as either Indian patience with Chinese intransigence wears thin or the Chinese view Indian attempts to build infrastructure and develop the border areas as the adoption of an aggressive forward posture. Hence, in the foreseeable future, a limited border war between the two Asian giants, though improbable, cannot be entirely ruled out. China’s continuing opposition to India’s nuclear weapons programme; its nuclear and missile collusion and intimate defence cooperation with Pakistan; its support to the military regime in Myanmar; its covert assistance to the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) in Sri Lanka and increasing activities in the Bay of Bengal; its attempts to isolate India in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF); and, its relentless efforts to increase its influence in Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh; are all pointers to a carefully orchestrated plan aimed at the strategic encirclement of India. 

PLA Modernisation

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is rapidly modernising itself and is known to be preparing to fight a “limited border war under hi-tech conditions”. China is engaged in developing a “revolutionised, modernised and regularised people’s army with Chinese characteristics. (It is) endeavouring to transform its armed forces from a numerically superior to a qualitatively superior type and from a manpower-intensive to a technology-intensive type, as well as to train high-quality personnel and improve the modernisation of weaponry in order to comprehensively enhance the armed forces combat effectiveness.”  

The Gulf War of 1991 had brought about a rude awakening as China realised that there was a wide gap between its technological capabilities and those of the West. In August 1991, President Jiang Zemin said, “The Gulf War let us further realise the importance of technology in a modern war. Although we believe that the decisive factor in winning a war is human power not firepower, advanced weaponry is very important and we cannot neglect (the impact of) science and technology (in a modern war).  Despite the rhetoric about “human power”, the Chinese military planners were forced to accept that the PLA was still in the so-called “people’s war” groove and that it would be quickly out-gunned, out-manoeuvred and hopelessly upstaged electronically if it were to face a modern army – or, air force and navy, for that matter. Since then, the Chinese defence budget has witnessed a double-digit rate of growth.

Land forces are receiving the least priority in the PLA’s modernisation plans. The Chinese are engaged in developing rapid deployment capability with strategic airlift for the PLA. One rapid reaction division is being given to each Military Region. The PLA is improving its air defence capabilities, EW systems, mobility fir its field formations and logistics support to them. Heavy investments are being made in introducing better C4I2SR systems at the tactical, operational and strategic levels. Para-military forces have been downsized consistently over the last two decades. The PLA is steadily improving the logistics infrastructure in Tibet. With the inauguration of the Gormo-Lhasa railway line, it can now pre-position large war-fighting stocks in Tibet over a single season to obviate its difficulties in building up for and then sustaining a ground conflict. The road infrastructure in Tibet is also being improved and new airfields are rapidly being built. With regard to China, India faces what Prof. Raju G. C. Thomas calls a “capabilities-intentions” dilemma.  China is rapidly creating enhanced capabilities for trans-border offensive operations. While the intentions appear to be benign at present, these can change virtually overnight, as has often happened in history. 

Military Doctrine: Active Defence and Local Wars under Hi-tech Conditions 

Since China’s ignominious incursion into Vietnam in 1979, PLA doctrine has evolved from Mao’s “people’s war” to “people’s war under modern conditions” through a “limited/local war” phase to the current doctrine introduced in 1993. The new doctrine is more assertive than previously and is not bound by any restrictions to confine and limit future conflict to within China’s national boundaries. Underpinning the new professionalism of the PLA is the basic doctrine of “active defence” (jiji fangyu) that seeks to conduct “people’s war under modern conditions” (better understood as “local wars under hi-tech conditions” – gaojishu tiaojian xia de jubu zhanzheng). 

The ‘active defence’ doctrine calls for integrated, deep strikes – a concentration of superior firepower that is to be utilised to destroy the opponent’s retaliatory capabilities through pre-emptive strikes employing long-range artillery, short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) and precision guided munitions. The new doctrine and the strategy and tactics associated with it have been influenced by the lessons of Gulf War I in 1991 and the Iraq War of 2003, both of which have been extensively studied by Chinese scholars. The doctrine requires 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. Beijing has defined the following five likely limited war scenarios: Military conflict with neighbouring countries in a limited region; military conflict on territorial waters; undeclared air attack by enemy countries; territorial defence in a limited military operation; and, punitive offensive with a minor incursion into a neighbouring country.

The PLA expects to fight the next war under conditions of what it calls “informationisation” or “informationalisation”.  In the White Paper on National Defence issued in 2004, informationisation was explained only in general terms, but bears repeating: “To adapt itself to the changes both in the international strategic situation and the national security environment and rise to the challenges presented by the RMA worldwide, China adheres to the military strategy of active defense and works to speed up the RMA with Chinese characteristics:  
To take the road of composite and leapfrog development.  
To build a strong military by means of science and technology. 
To deepen the reform of the armed forces. 
To step up preparations for military struggle. 

PLA analysts have called the ongoing RMA an “informationised military revolution”.  It emerges that informationisation “clearly relates to the PLA’s ability to adopt information technologies to command, intelligence, training and weapon systems. This would include broad investment in new automatic command systems linked by fibre-optic Internet, satellite and new high-frequency digital radio systems… The PLA can also contest the information battle space with its new space-based, airborne, naval and ground-based surveillance and intelligence gathering systems and its new anti-satellite, anti-radar, electronic warfare and information warfare systems… there is increasing ‘information content’ for new PLA weapons as it moves to link new space, airborne and ELINT sensors to missile, air, naval and ground-based ‘shooters’ to enable all its services to better use new precision-strike weapons.”  According to the 2004 White Paper, “In its modernisation drive, the PLA takes informationalisation as its orientation and strategic focus.” The PLA has adopted what it calls a “double historical mission” and a “leapfrog development strategy” – accelerating military informationisation while still undergoing mechanisation. 

Cyberwarfare Challenge

Developing cyberwarfare capabilities is seen is presenting a level playing field in an otherwise David versus Goliath scenario as Chinese hardware is no match for the weapons technology fielded today by the US and its allies. Recent cyber attacks directed against Taiwan and the US are indicative of the efforts to develop new techniques, viruses and logic bombs. Information warfare will be crucial in the opening phases of a war aimed at the re-unification of Taiwan or a border conflict with India as it will be important to knock out the adversary’s communications infrastructure by cyber as well as physical means. A private army of young civilian hackers on whom the state can bank during crises is being developed for this purpose besides the employment of regular PLA personnel.  

Compared with China’s historically reactive stance of luring the enemy in deep and destroying him through strategic defence, the present doctrine is essentially pro-active and seeks to take the battle into enemy territory. It also strives to achieve surprise in a pro-active manner that is demonstrated by new “quick-strike” tactics. The aim is to catch the enemy unprepared in order to inflict substantial damage on strategic targets and disrupt logistics to gain psychological ascendancy. While the land frontier is expected to continue to generate some local tensions, the CMC has identified space and the oceans as the new areas where future conflict might take place.

China is modernising rapidly and steadily enhancing its military capabilities. The military gap between China and India is growing as India’s military modernisation is constrained by its low defence expenditure, which is now less than 2.0 per cent of the GDP. The Chinese are continuing to drag their feet over resolving the territorial and boundary dispute with India. Hence, China poses a long-term strategic challenge to India as a competing regional power in Asia, but will remain a military threat till the territorial and boundary dispute is resolved. India needs to take this reality into account and distinguish between what China professes, that is peaceful co-existence, and what it actually does. In the near future, a situation of tenuous peace and tranquility is likely to continue to prevail along India’s Himalayan frontier. It will be punctuated increasingly by patrol face-offs, Chinese incursions and intrusions across the LAC and new claims on Indian territory as happened in the Finger area of the Sikkim plateau in May-June 2008.