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Report prepared by Naireen Khan, Research Assistant; Aastha Gupta, Research Intern & Gaurav Kumar, Editorial Assistant, and edited by
Dr Roshan Khanijo, ADR and Maj Gen Rajiv Narayanan, Head CS3, USI of India.


India-China relations have gone through a noticeable slump in the past decade, culminating in the recent violent events along the LAC. This together with China’s collusivity with Pakistan and Nepal against India, emphasizes the burgeoning hostility and strategic competition between the two states. Concurrently, there is a wave of anti-China sentiment within India, ranging from economic boycott to pressurizing China on its vulnerabilities.

To discuss these developments, the USI conducted a Webinar titled, ‘India-China Relations: A Reality Check and Options for India.’ The session was Chaired by Maj Gen BK Sharma, AVSM, SM & Bar (Retd); Director USI and the panellists were:

  • Lt Gen Praveen Bakshi, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd).
  • Air Marshall Anil Khosla, PVSM, AVSM, VM (Retd).
  • Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, PVSM, AVSM, NM (Retd).
  • Lt Gen (Dr) RS Panwar, AVSM, SM, VSM (Retd).
  • Sanjay Baru, and
  • Ambassador Gautam Bambawale (Retd).

Discussion highlights are given in the subsequent paras:

Assessing China’s Continental, Aero Space and Maritime Strategies: India’s Options for Creating a Credible Military Deterrence

Strategic messaging is implicit in China’s recent offensive posturing. China believes in the policy of ‘one sun in the sky’; it cannot accept a rival or a competitor in its own region. Hence it will not hesitate to use its military power to attain its political and diplomatic objectives. The intent of China therefore is clear; it wants to showcase itself as an unrivalled power in the Asian region, prior to its ascendency as a world power.  While India had been ambivalent in its approach towards China, the gloves are off now, and India needs to show China the limits of its power.  While India’s intent should be conflict prevention / avoidance; however, its response to China’s offensive posturing should not be myopic and impulsive. The messaging to the armed forces needs to demonstrate unequivocal firmness and India’s intention to restore the status quo at the border.

Since, the character of war has evolved, an all-out war may no more be an option, but local skirmishes / limited or sectoral war cannot be ruled out. In a limited or sectoral war, it is likely that China could prefer Ladakh rather than the Northeast since its strategic communications and economic corridors are relatively more vulnerable in this region. India also needs to factor in the Pak-China collusivity / collaboration factor it in its plans. In the long term, India should be prepared for two or two and half front war.

India’s Military Strategy

India needs to get its National Security Strategy (NSS) right in this perspective. It should shift its focus from counter insurgency operations to conventional operations and rebalance from West to the North shedding the extant Pakistan centric approach. There is also a need to enhance the conventional operational capabilities, concurrently with asymmetric capabilities and disruptive technologies. For this, structural organizational reforms starting from the apex level are of paramount importance.

Towards this end there is a need to consider the following,

  • Assimilate the compounding power of the Indian Air Force (IAF).
  • The importance of the maritime dimension, where India is doing adequately.
  • The border management policy warrants reconsideration to ensure better coordination.
  • Need for reform to the military-industrial complex for self-reliance; especially including the private players.
  • Why despite increased spending, its strategic options are shrinking even as the challenges become more complex.
  • The need to include the military in the policy and decision-making loop.

There are two offshoots of Chinese history that affect their strategic thought – the century of humiliation and the middle kingdom syndrome. China does not consider itself as a nation-state but an empire and adheres to the rudiments of zero-sum politics. It views the international order as being composed of two categories of states: hostile to it or its subordinate. Thus, Chinese have interests, not friends; and they are, therefore, shy of multilateral engagements.  India considers China as a belligerent and untrustworthy power in the region. Keeping in mid the Pak-China strategic nexus, today India is facing a security threat on three and half fronts – Covid19, China, Pakistan, and terrorism. India therefore needs to spend more on developing its military capabilities to effectively counter these.

India-China Air-Power Balance

The India-China Air-Power balance could be compared based on numerical numbers of combat platforms, technology, defence industry, combat support aircraft, weapons, ISR capability, training status, Infrastructure and other capabilities related to Cyber and Space. Numerically China has an advantage but has limitations in their simultaneous application.  Technologically it is ahead of India in many fields, the advantage being its robust defence industry. However, in training and tactics it lags in experience.

The terrain favours India, since all the airfields are at much lower altitudes than China and thus do not face any load carrying limitations. Therefore, in a short war the capabilities of both countries are comparable, with slight advantage to India. China aims to offset this with its missiles (including cruise and hypervelocity missiles), both conventional and nuclear, UAVs / UCAVs / Drones, and the emerging swarm technology.

Capability Development.

Therefore, there is a need to invest in Combat platforms (numbers and high technology), long range vectors, advanced air and missile defence to deal with the emerging aerial threats, infrastructure, digital networking, and emerging technologies. India needs to increase the numbers of fighter aircrafts, AWACS, mid-air refuellers and UAVs and UCAVs. Need to develop modernised airfields with aircraft shelters in Ladakh and additional aircraft shelters in the eastern sector and underground for storage facilities. High altitude ranges and highways as runways are other areas to be looked into. As far as defence reorganization is concerned instead of the AD and theatre commands priority needs to be given to enhancing capability of Andaman and Nicobar Command and formation of Cyber and Space commands. Due attention needs to be given to joint operational planning, logistics, communications, training and maintenance and repair.

PLA’s Capability in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and Pakistan’s Role in the Region

The PLAN in IOR is not present in large numbers, however, their activities are recurrent and often. The detection of Chinese presence, especially those of submarines, is well within Indian capacity. It needs to be understood that the Indian Navy is the strongest resident power in the IOR, apart from the US. Thus, in a conflict situation with China, the Pakistan Navy will also have a role to play to balance the equation; it can be expected that both China Pakistan would work together.

It is essential to note that war is not an option for both sides, at present. However, India does have options for applying maritime pressures on China, in case of stand-offs and aggressive posturing by it on the continental borders. One method of applying pressure on China would be to conduct large scale fleet exercises, including with friendly foreign countries, in the SLOCs which lead to Straits of Malacca, which are strategic routes for China’s oil and copper imports. Such long duration maritime exercises, with NOTAM along Chinese SLOCs, would force a large detour and send a strategic message to China that two can play the game.

Impact of US Navy’s presence on the Maritime balance in the IOR

Post COVID, the initial American approach of inward focus resulted in declined presence in the region. However, this has now changed with increased presence in the South China Sea (SCS) to restrain an aggressive China from threatening Taiwan, Japan, and countries of ASEAN. While the US is way ahead of China in areas of military technology, yet, by opening multiple fronts, China is possibly indicating that the time for it to replace the US from economic and military leadership in the region, and then the world order, has arrived. Has it miscalculated, and grasped the implications?

A school of thought is that the US is waiting for China to initiate an offensive act in the SCS, which could invite multiple countries to join US for united campaign to teach China a lesson. These conclusions by China could be the reason for its eagerness of quick engagement with India’s leading think tanks and not through official diplomatic channels to find a face – saver for disengagement along the LAC.

India has emerged as an important partner that the US would need to resist Chinese assertiveness in the maritime domain. However, it needs to be understood that the US and France would only provide strategic assets to India, the differences with China, along the LAC and in the IOR, may have to be resolved bilaterally.

India-China Imbalance in Disruptive Technology Domain: Options for India’s Asymmetric Response

Though India is well poised to respond in conventional operations, in the non-kinetic warfare, facilitated by disruptive technologies, the Chinese may have a significant edge. The non-contact, non-kinetic warfare strategies are driven primarily by Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) with some elements of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Robotics. Disruptive technologies, in general, may can be classified into: –

  • Revolutionary, i.e., those that have the potential of changing the nature of warfare. The ICT revolution has spawned two operational concepts: network centric warfare (NCW) and information warfare (IW). In the foreseeable future, AI, nano, and bio technologies, and Robotics are expected to bring in revolutionary changes in warfare, in the long, medium and near terms.
  • Transformative, i.e., those which would have a significant impact on warfighting methodologies, but not necessarily change its nature. Quantum and Hypersonic technologies are two examples for this category. Quantum cryptography and quantum radar technologies are respectively expected to render most current military encryption systems and stealth technologies obsolete.

China is aiming to be the world leader in AI, Nano, and Quantum Technologies. In the present context, China’s primary military strategy is based on fighting and winning informationized wars, which is a combination of NCW and IW. Two of its doctrines related to IW are: –

  • Integrated Network Electronic Warfare (INEW) Doctrine: a blend of cyber and electronic warfare
  • Three Warfares Doctrine, comprising of psychological, media and legal warfares.

Notably these doctrines, conceptualized only at the turn of the century, have already been operationalized in the form of the formidable PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF). PLASSF is an outcome of restructuring and amalgamation of existing organisations. Its two defining departments, the Space Systems Department (SSD) and Networks Systems Department (NSD), have resulted in three major types of synergies at the strategic level: –

  • Synergy between Space and Information Warfare (IW) capabilities
  • Synergy amongst the three IW component capabilities of cyber warfare, EW, and psychological warfare, all of which are now the charter of the NSD
  • Synergy between the attack and exploit functions of cyber and EW capabilities.

Of late, China has been investing heavily in space and cyberspace, both of which were designated as operational warfighting domains in its Defence White Paper of 2015. In the 2019 Defence White Paper, the electromagnetic domain has also been included. Space is strategically important, being the basis for navigation, communication and ISR capabilities. It is clear that a huge differential in space and counter-space capabilities exists between India and China.

A similar differential may be assumed to be existing in IW capabilities as well. Keeping in view the above differentials and the synergies created by the PLASSF, it would be prudent to assume that India would be adversely affected in any conflict with China. The worst impact is likely to be felt in the Electro Magnetic (EM) Domain, followed by the effects of Counter-space, Cyber and Psychological operations, in that order.

India’s Response

Transformative Restructuring in the Information Domain. India needs to formulate well thought out doctrines for cyber, electronic warfare and psychological operations. Cyber governance also needs to be given a complete relook. The Defence Forces need to be at the helm for cyber deterrence and protection of our national cyberspace, and there is a need to upgrade to a full-fledged Cyber Command at the earliest. In the EM domain, force accretions would be needed, as well as induction of sophisticated equipment, indigenous or imported. Further, Psychological operations need to be treated as a highly specialized field and capabilities developed accordingly.

Developing Disruptive Technologies and Boosting Military Industry Complex:  A much higher synergy is essential between the Industry, Academia, DRDO and Government, with the Services at the fulcrum, with the necessary funding. The Services need to graduate beyond only giving Qualitative Requirements (QRs) and be fully participative in the R&D process. For this the project management needs to be transformed and be based on a culture of specialisation. Also, the DRDO must be made directly accountable to the Services.

India-China Economic Relations: Boycott as an Option and the Push Towards Make in India

There are mainly two areas in which India is dependent on China and where the boycott will likely hurt India. One is in the import of electronics and hardware and the other is the Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (API). Both these dependencies are acquired i.e. they are not a function of resource deficiency and are thus easily reversible. Therefore, domestic manufacturing should be promoted in these sectors.

The recent boycott of Chinese goods, these may prove to be vulnerabilities for India. India and China are both being members of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) are bound by procedural rules, which dictate that normal trade relations between the two countries, that cannot be abandoned. Hence there are only two ways by which India can reduce Chinese imports:

  • Through the imposition of non-tariff barriers; and
  • By creating a general public consciousness regarding the boycott of Chinese goods. This reduces the demand for Chinese imports by default without the imposition of an official ban.

Notwithstanding the negative effect on demand and despite adversely impacting the bilateral economic relationship between India and China, the boycott of Chinese products is unlikely to have a disciplining impact on China itself. China’s total trade with India is less than 3 percent of China’s total external trade; therefore, unless India’s allies join it in curbing Chinese imports, China can brush off the reduced demand from India. A study on the impact of economic sanctions elucidates that the only successful example of economic sanctions was those which were imposed on South Africa for the removal of apartheid. Otherwise unilateral/bilateral economic sanctions do not register a significant impact on the recipient. The example of Iran in recent times is instructive. Therefore, to expect that the Chinese behaviour would change as a result of these actions alone would be farfetched.

If the Chinese state absorbs the economic spill over of the recent ban of fifty-nine technologies by India; it is unlikely to induce a behavioural change in China. However, if the current boycott triggers a wider global inquiry into the rest of the world’s dependence on China’s technology, there may be some change. With regards to domestic manufacturing, India has been inhibited in its approach. Manufacturing only accounts for 15-16 percent of the GDP. The reluctance to allow total (100 percent) Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) especially in the defence sector has limited progress on the ‘Make in India’ front. Therefore, relocation of foreign companies to India will not happen unless India becomes more hospitable to foreign investment.

India’s Strategic Communication

India needs to streamline and better co-ordinate its information management so as to effectively disseminate its narrative to the world. Currently, there is no apex agency designated by the government to dispense information. This together with the proliferation of social media has complicated the situation. Given China’s declining global appeal and largely negative perception internationally, India has the opportunity to get its message across.

The battle against China, as far as India is concerned, has to be an all in one effort. India has decided for the first time to deal with China as an enemy but the fact that it is a different adversary than Pakistan warrants attention. China is a country with enormous global influence. Therefore, India must deal with China through a range of interventions especially by solidifying its position in the emerging Asian economic architecture. India has decided to opt out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) because it is of the view that this is an organization where China is the major player. However, the RCEP also includes Japan, South Korea, ASEAN, and Australia which are India’s future markets. Therefore, India must re-enter negotiations with the RCEP. India requires an Asian architecture that recognizes and is mindful of the Indian influence. RCEP is an adept platform to achieve that. India must re-engage and actively participate in it.

India’s Diplomatic Response to a Belligerent China in Bilateral and Multilateral Platforms

In 1976 India decided to restore ambassadorial relations with China. Since then, India has followed a policy of engaging with China which continues till today. There was a reciprocal engagement from the Chinese side as well, but the recent Chinese military actions have clearly signalled two things:

  • On the tactical side, China wants to unilaterally define the LAC by moving their actual ground positions in accordance with their conceptions of the LAC.
  • On the strategic side, China is signalling that India should understand its place in the pecking order of Asia; that China is the numero uno power in Asia and that the 21st century is a Chinese century.

Strategic autonomy considerations dictate that India must strengthen its partnerships with the democracies of the world including USA, Australia, Japan, and Indonesia as well as other like-minded states, such as Vietnam.  On the ground India has signalled that it will not tolerate Chinese hegemony and bullying. We need to reiterate that message at the policy level by undertaking a reassessment of our China policy and recalibrating that policy.

One China Policy

Overthrowing the ‘one China’ policy can be decided in due course, but India most certainly needs to leverage China’s vulnerabilities where Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang are concerned. India must also strengthen its economic ties with Taiwan by way of encouraging Taiwanese companies to invest in India and relocate the supply chains so that these entities play a much more important role.

Nepal and Bhutan

Bhutan is clear that their way of life and sovereignty is imperilled from their North and not from their South. However, with regards to Nepal, India’s diplomatic efforts are found wanting as Nepal does not share the Bhutanese point of view. Hence India needs to engage more with Nepal. Diplomatically, India needs to work closely with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD, also known as Quad) and other democracies in the region. India also needs to establish deeper ties with other partners in the multilateral sphere especially as India has been recently elected as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). This improves India’s leverage over China.



Report prepared by Naireen Khan, Research Assistant; Aastha Gupta, Research Intern & Gaurav Kumar, Editorial Assistant, and edited by Dr Roshan Khanijo, ADR and Maj Gen Rajiv Narayanan, Head CS3, USI of India.
Report uploaded on 18-07-2020
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI of India.

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