The Communist Party plenary in China is taking place, which will confirm Xi Jinping as the country’s president for an unprecedented third term and cement his position as China’s most powerful leader since Mao. There will be global security implications and for India in particular, which has territorial disputes with China and with whom it remains locked in a border conflict precipitated by Beijing last year, leading to a deadly clash in Galwan which left 20 Indian soldiers dead.
Xi stressed that he would not cede an inch of what his ancestors left behind. This eliminates any hope of a compromise settlement, even for territory China does not own but claims, such as Arunachal Pradesh, which it claimed in its entirety in 2006. In a new border law, China proclaimed that its sovereignty and territorial integrity were sacred and inviolable and instructed the state to safeguard territorial integrity and land boundaries, guard against and combat any acts that undermined them.
However, Taiwan remains the ultimate objective for China, on which Xi Jinping recently said— “Taiwan independence separatism is the biggest obstacle to achieving the reunification of the motherland, and the most serious hidden danger to national rejuvenation.” China has ramped up military provocations against Taiwan, repeatedly sending large numbers of aircraft into Taipei’s air defence identification zone and issuing belligerent statements through state media. China could wage war against India to secure multiple objectives.
Why China Could Go To War with India
Historically, China has used force to deter alliances against it. By attacking one opponent, it intimidates others. Although it has not engaged in war since the Vietnam War ended in 1979, China used the interim period to grow its economic and military power in accordance with Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of “hide and bide”.
In China’s view, India has joined the US in an alliance against it. The Quad countries are also Taiwan’s main backers. US President Joe Biden recently said the US would defend Taiwan if China attacked. The US is undertaking “strategic planning” with its Australian ally to consider potential joint responses to a war over Taiwan. Japan’s deputy defence minister said Taiwan must be protected “as a democratic country”.
Apart from realizing its territorial ambitions, China’s objective in waging a war with India will be to test the Quad, France, the UK and the international community at large. If China could punish India which does not get adequate support from its friends, it will eliminate India as a challenger and establish Beijing’s domination over the region and also make India move away from any alliance against it.
Moreover, it will impact Taiwan, which relies on the US and its allies for its defence. The failure of the Quad to provide India with any meaningful assistance will negatively impact trust between the US, Japan and Australia in Taiwan to defend it, making it easier for China to either secure Taiwan without fighting, or to take it by force.
It is possible that China’s actions against India are linked with its actions against Taiwan and its ultimate goal of securing the island. China has the largest navy in the world, but crossing the 160 km-wide Taiwan Strait with an invading force is still a challenge for it. The Himalayas are easier.
Following the Chinese offensive last year, and India’s counteraction with an operation on the Kailash Range, military level talks resulted in the disengagement from Galwan River, the finger areas of Pangong Lake and Gogra. Despite this disengagement, China has been rapidly expanding its military presence.
China has started to negate India’s air advantage by upgrading its airfields and installing advanced air defence systems, from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh, along with artillery and long-range rockets across the entire Line of Actual Control (LAC). It has also increased its military exercises, especially across Arunachal Pradesh. A recent Pentagon report said— “PLAA units conducted extensive combined arms and joint training throughout 2020. Significant training likely prepared the PLAA for any escalation of border tensions with India, as well as preparing to support a Taiwan contingency.”
This year, Xi Jinping visited Nyingchi, which is just 20 kms from the Arunachal Pradesh border, as a symbolic act and a message to India. In Lhasa, he exhorted the PLA to “comprehensively strengthen training and preparation work”.
China has routinely released pictures of the injured Indian soldiers it had taken from the Galwan clash violating Geneva Conventions, in an attempt to wage a psywar. India has countered China’s massive buildup with mirror deployment. However, the question still remains. Why is China doing this—after 13 rounds of talks and disengagement at some points?
Is India Ready for a Cyber War?
There are several reasons behind China’s aggression against India. The land grab is just one of them. It wanted to dissuade India from joining any alliance against it led by the US. Punish India and portray it as a weak, inferior power, so as to undermine its role as a security provider in the region, thereby establishing China as the regional hegemon. Scare the other smaller countries of the region with whom it has territorial disputes and send a message to other major powers of the world, especially the US, Japan and Australia who are the members of the Quad.
Chinese aggression comes at a time when India’s economy has been slowing for the past few years, which has also impacted its military modernization, as the defence budget is at its lowest percentage of GDP since 1962. The impact of COVID-19 in India has helped China. China did not view India as a military threat earlier, and it did not have much presence in the depth areas of the LAC. But with permanent military structures and presence, the People’s Liberation Army is showing that it now considers India to be a serious threat. In response, India has deepened its engagement with Quad members and signed four foundational agreements (three of these in the last five years) with the US, as well as logistics agreements with Japan, Australia, and France. PRC officials have warned the US officials against interfering with its relations with India.
With decades of experience in high-altitude warfare and battle-hardened troops, India’s troop numbers and equipment match China’s. So China could launch a first-ever integrated cyber and kinetic attack on India.
The Chinese could launch a massive cyber attack on India’s electricity, financial and communications systems, and employ stand-off weapons on military installations, formations and critical infrastructure. China has a sophisticated cyber-warfare capability, as well as a huge arsenal of long-range rockets and missiles, which it has repeatedly advertised in its propaganda videos. In the event of a border war, India can thwart the Chinese offensive. Nonetheless, China could fight a very different kind of war, one in which it has tremendous capabilities. To win the war by inflicting material and psychological disintegration and taking away the will to fight.
Cyber security is at the top of the Quad’s agenda. It will take some time for India to leverage this to improve its cyber security. However, if India is the target of a major cyber attack in the near future during a war, it will need the assistance of Quad and other allies with strong offensive cyber capabilities.
Yusuf Unjhawala is Editor, Indian Defence Forum. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.
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