RUSI provides an analysis of China and India military balance and the border war situation. Royal United Service Institute (RUSI) is the world’s oldest and the UK’s leading defense and security think tank. Its mission is to inform, influence and enhance public debate on a safer and more stable world. RUSI is a research-led institute, producing independent, practical and innovative analysis to address today’s complex challenges.
China is attempting to disrupt the construction of Indian military infrastructure in the region. China’s army uses localized escalations to disrupt or freeze the construction of Indian infrastructure. China has occupied high ground straddling a critical Indian road artery. It seems they want to hold the territory rather than use it as bargaining leverage.
On paper, PLA forces in the Western Military Theatre operate at a significant advantage to their Indian counterparts. The PLA’s Western Theatre Command fields 230,000 troops compared to the 225,000 troops which can be mobilized from India’s Northern, Central and Eastern commands. China has built a lot of road and rail links on the Chinese side of the border. China can redeploy forces to the region at increasingly rapid rates. Roads on the Indian side tend to end 40–80 km from the front lines of a likely conflict.
Mountainous terrain heavily favors the defender. This means it is tough for either side to make substantial offensive progress.
India has re-deployable artillery available in 17 Mountain Strike Corps. The Mountain Strike Corps can be moved in helicopters. There are about 90,000 soldiers in the Mountain Strike Corps.
Indian forces could envision localized counteroffensives to seize critical territory either as bargaining chips or to permanently improve their position.
China can redeploy 32 divisions from deep within the Western Military Theatre to the border region in a span of around six weeks.
China can build airstrips and refueling points in a very small number of weeks that would enable the redeployment of more PLAAF aircraft from other military regions and bring the PLAAF’s aggregate superiority in numbers to bear. In a longer conflict, we would likely see newer aircraft such as the J-20 redeployed to the Western Military Theatre, shifting the balance of power in qualitative terms.
India does have an early airpower advantage. India’s smaller size means India has more airbases and advanced landing grounds within reach of the border region than does the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). Chin has eight airbases in the Western Theatre, but the Western Theatre is huge. High altitudes of PLAAF bases on the Tibetan plateau limit the tempo of operations from aircraft operating from these bases. This handicap is not shared by Indian aircraft operating from bases at lower altitudes.
War on the Rocks Analysis
China views India as strategically unreliable. China has no interest in acquiescing to India’s attempt to advance its position on territorial disputes to trade for concessions.
If a strategic friendship with India is untenable, then China is looking for tactical gains. In the near term, China is taking the intersection of the Galwan river and the Shyok river in order to make the Galwan Valley off-limits to India. China is building posts in this location.
India believes its construction of roads is on its undisputed territory. But since there is no agreed boundary. China sees the Indian construction as changing the status quo. These two perspectives will be hard to reconcile.
Both China and India will lose in a bigger conflict. India exports about $18 billion per year to China and China exports $80 billion to India.
India built roads. China took and is holding a key location. Neither side will accept the other side seizing and taking new positions at this point. There would be no point to ramping up to thousands fighting and using artillery. There is no point to fully mobilizing and throwing 100,000 at each other. There will just be consolidation.