By virtue of being the two most significant players in Asia, India and China display a peculiar mix of competition and cooperation. The complexities of Sino-Indian geopolitics display a convergence of interests that is deftly matched by an equally, if not more vital, strategic divergence. Till about a few years ago, it was often argued that at the strategic level, it appeared China was maintaining stability with India, albeit artificially. However, the past few years in particular, have witnessed a string of geo-strategic developments involving India and China, regionally as well as globally, which have emitted rather ominous signals for this relationship.
The major determinants that are shaping the expanding fissures of strategic tensions between India and China crucially include: firstly, China’s relationship with Pakistan, especially as it evolves with reference to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), coupled with its impact on the evolving conventional military deterrence scenario in a potential two-front situation for India; secondly, the impact of China’s 2016 military reforms on the border regions shared with India; thirdly, China’s quest for increasing influence and gaining long-term strategic advantage in the Indian Ocean Region, and, finally, diplomatic wrestling between China-India globally at the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
The China Pakistan Economic Corridor puts on display China’s march towards making a bid for regional primacy by virtue of its expanding economic and military clout in South Asia. India is facing growing complexities and pressures while ensuring continuing and survivable deterrence at varying levels. The presence of China, and Pakistan, jointly, is becoming progressively compelling in so far as planning and achieving deterrence at operational levels is concerned. While the actual number of Chinese PLA troops present in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir has been a subject of debate, what can no longer be doubted, or debated, is that China has firmly perched itself in PoK alongside the 772-km long Line-of-Control running between India and Pakistan. Due to the ongoing Chinese economic investments in the CPEC, it could well be possible that Beijing’s motivations might well get modified and that military portends of the CPEC cannot be denied entirely. The CPEC might just not merely be an “economic” corridor as is being projected by both China and Pakistan.
Moreover, the new unified Western Theatre Command of the Chinese PLA opposite India holds grave ramifications for India’s security and stability. India’s land borders with China now come under the purview of one single Western Command. As opposed to that, on the Indian side, the Ladakh region comes under the Indian Army’s 14 Corps of the Northern Command, while Arunachal Pradesh under the Eastern Command is divided in two parts: Tawang area under 4 Corps, and Rest of Arunachal Pradesh (RALP) under 3 Corps. Although the Indian Army’s Dual Task Formations have been mandated to operate from the Eastern to Western sector, and from the Western to Eastern sector, depending upon the operational requirements, what is critical is the lack of lateral mobility including switching over of forces, magnitude of equipping and mobility of forces in shorter-durations and lesser warning periods—all likely to have their own share of limitations.
In this backdrop, China’s new Western Theatre Command is now spread across all through to meet with India’s Western, Northern, Central and Eastern Commands. In any future conflict between India and China, be it limited or otherwise, the application and coordination of operations between Chinese PLA’s single Western Theatre Command and the four separate commands of the Indian Army shall have grave ramifications primarily over synergy related aspects of war and conduct of operations. More importantly, the variables of deterrence that India seemingly would have to cater to, range from conventional deterrence in the Indo-China border areas, to campaign planning for flexible deterrent operations (including joint operational planning).
Regionally, the land borders of South Asia and its surrounding waters will continue to witness increasing Chinese capabilities in the region seeking a rapid quest for strategic outreach and expanding influence. China’s politico-diplomatic belligerence brings to focus the larger debate structured around the growing power and influence of China. And, as part of this chessboard, Beijing will continue to keep India confined regionally, expectedly through the Pakistan angle (including during future discussions at the NSG). Given the latest upgrades and developments owing to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and its military portends, India appears to be getting pushed to cater for a seemingly growing strategic asymmetry with China. Beijing is a vital player in the conventional deterrence situation in South Asia—one, that might not remain virtuously “neutral” in the quintessential sense, both diplomatically, and militarily, in the event of a limited, or protracted, regional conflict in the near or, distant future.