Chinese challenge

Strategic Encirclement of India

The Statesman | May 9, 2000

China's growing power and influence in Asia poses a long-term strategic challenge to India. The long-term requirement is to match China's strategic challenge in the region and develop a credible military deterrence against the use of nuclear and missile weapon systems.

China’s growing power and influence in Asia poses a long-term strategic challenge to India. For many decades now, despite protestations to the country, China has been pursuing a carefully orchestrated plan for the strategic encirclement and containment of India and has been gradually enlarging its sphere of influence towards South East Asia and the Bay of Bengal.

Chinas strategic manoeuvring and its intransigence in resolving the long-standing territorial and boundary dispute with India are sources of potential conflict. Its foreign and defence policy initiatives are quite obviously designed to marginalise India in the long-term and reduce India to the status of a subregional power.

China continues to be in occupation of and lays claim to large areas of Indian territory. In Aksai Chin in Ladakh, China is occupying approximately 30,000 sq km of Indian territory since the 1962 war with India. In addition Pakistan illegally ceded over 5,000 sq km of territory in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir to China in 1963. Through this China built the Karakoram highway that now provides a strategic land link between China and Pakistan.

China continues to claim that the reunification of Arunachal Pradesh with China, about 90,000 sq km of Indian territory, is a sacred duty and is yet to formally recognise Sikkim’s accession to India. The China-Pakistan nexus in the nuclear, missiles and military hardware fields poses a present and future military challenge. It should be clear to any perceptive observer of the India-China scene that, eventually, Indian and Chinese strategic and economic interests will clash.


It is not so well known that the post-1962 Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China. that is much different from the disputed 4.100 ‘km boundary along the McMahon Line, is yet to be physically demarcated on the ground and delineated on military maps. The un-delineated LAC 1s a major destabilising factor as incidents such as the Nathu La clash of 1967 and the Wang Dung stand off of 1986 can recur. Also, patrol face-offs are fairly common and armed clashes can take place at any time. Despite the Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement (BPTA) of 19938, the Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) in the Military Field agreed in 1996 and over a dozen meetings of the Joint Working Group and the Experts Group, it is remarkable that even the LAC is yet to be demarcated. There cannot be a better CBM than to immediately demarcate the LAC mutually without prejudice to the known positions of both the sides on the territorial dispute.

It is in India’s interest to strive for an early resolution of the territorial dispute with China so that India has only one major military adversary to contend wit and is able to redeploy at least some of the 10 to 12 mountain divisions and perhaps four to six squadrons of the Indian Air Force from the Tibetan border to its western border to gain a decisive military edge against Pakistan. India may even be able to consider “downsizing” a few army divisions and utilise the savings for the qualitative upgradation of the army.

Perhaps the real reason that compels China to drag its feet in resolving its dispute with India is to enable Pakistan to continue to destabilise India through its proxy war without fear of major military retaliation due to the spectre of a two-front war. The only conclusion that can reasonably be drawn is that China is deliberately stalling further progress on these substantive issues as its suits China to put them on the back burner for the time being.

India also needs to be watchful of China’s increasing military involvement in Myanmar, which has the potential to impinge on India’s trade and maritime interests. China’s wooing of Nepal and Bhutan, its sale of sophisticated military technology to Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, and the possibility it acquiring naval bases, and over-land and Air-routes to such bases the countries around India, are areas of concern for India’s security. Even though Chinas navy is still decades away from acquiring the long-range capability necessary to operate with some degree of assurance and freedom in the Indian Ocean, these aspects need to be constantly monitored and vectored into India’s calculations.

Since the Gulf War of 1991, China has stepped up its efforts to modernise the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA). The PLA army has been engaged in raising a large number of rapid deployment divisions and 1n improving mobility and logistics support capability, while simultaneously upgrading its ability to undertake operations, improve air defence capability and institute state-of-the-art command and control systems. In this context, Chinese aspirations to gradually upgrade the PLA navy to a ‘blue water’ navy, to acquire deep penetration-strike and strategic lift transport aircraft for the PLA air force and to obtain mid-air refuelling capability for long-range operations, are also relevant.

Limited War

All these endeavours aim at creating a modern fighting force capable of undertaking swift offensive operations in area away from China’s borders in keeping with China’s strategy of fighting a limited war under high-tech conditions. It is noteworthy that the upgradation of the military logistics infrastructure in Tibet is continuing at a steady pace. China has been actively engaged in building new roads, supply lines and airfields close to the Indian frontier. A resurgent and militarily strong China may eventually attempt to force a military solution to the long-standing-territorial and boundary dispute. Hence, a future border conflict between these two Asian giants, though improbable, cannot be ruled out.

In the short-term, India’s strategy should be to ensure sanctity of the LAC, that is, effective border management, while maintaining adequate dissuasive conventional military strength. India must substantially increase its diplomatic efforts to seek early resolution of the territorial dispute, particularly the immediate demarcation of the LAC.

Efforts to develop military infrastructure in the border areas for the speedy induction of forces need to be stepped up to ensure that local conflagrations can be immediately addressed when the need arises India must also maintain a strong capability to defend its island territories in the Bay of Bengal and to safeguard its maritime interests in its Exclusive Economic Zone.

India needs to establish strategic linkages with the US, Russia, Israel, South Africa, Iran, Myanmar, Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea to counter-balance China’s growing power and influence. India’s strategy should also focus on developing adequately powerful leverages to make it incumbent on China to act quickly to resolve the territorial dispute between the two countries. There would be immense advantages in commencing the sale of modern military hardware to Vietnam, including some quantities of Prithvi missiles with launchers under government-to-government soft loans. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) could provide technical known-how to Vietnam’s nascent armament industry. The Chinese people’s latent yearning for democracy should also be discreetly encouraged.

If it becomes necessary, India should also be ready to play the Tibet card, something it has consciously avoided doing for almost half a century. A more assertive policy is called for on the question of Tibetan autonomy, the honourable return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet, India’s growing concern at the violations of the human rights of the Tibetan people and early resolution of the issue of thousands of Tibetan refugees in India.


Concerted diplomatic efforts should simultaneously be made to increase India’s influence and leverages in the Central Asian Republics, Myanmar, Nepal, Bangladesh and with the ASEAN countries. The large number of multinational companies (MNCs) that are unhappy with their business ventures in China should be persuaded to invest in India instead through attractive offers. This would make both business as well as strategic sense.

The long-term requirement is to match China’s strategic challenge in the region and develop a credible military deterrence against the use of nuclear and missile weapon systems. Threats posed by nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles cannot be countered by the deployment of land forces and conventional air power alone. Nuclear weapons are only deterred by nuclear weapons and, as a logical corollary, only missiles can deter missiles. Hence, India must develop, test and operationally induct Agni-I and Agni-II IRBMs into the armed forces so as to be able to upgrade its present strategy of “dissuasion” to one of a genuine credible “deterrence” against China.

India’s foremost strategic priority should be to field a 5,000 km plus ballistic missile within the next three to five years. The acquisition of air-to-air refuelling capability to the range of India’s nuclear capable fighter-bomber aircraft, is an urgent requirement. In due course, India must develop ICBMs and induct the SLBM-armed nuclear powered submarines (SSBN’s) and thus put in place a “triad” of nuclear forces.

Realistic deterrence against China can only be achieved by developing a demonstrated capability to target major Chinese cities with megaton clash nuclear weapons. There is no need to be either hawkish or wimpish in relations with China and no need to fear China militarily.