Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Simmering Nuclear War

While the world focuses on the deteriorating geopolitical relationships between the United States and Russia and the United States and China and the potential for a conflict to accelerate into a nuclear exchange, a long-term simmering conflict between two populous nuclear powers has been pretty much ignored by the mainstream media.  Before you dive into this posting, I would like to apologize for its length, however, given the long history and complexity of the issue, a significant amount of background is necessary to put the conflict into context.

For decades, there have been tensions along the 4000 kilometre border between China and India.  After the 1962 Sino-Indian war in which the Chinese suffered 1400 casualties and India suffered 3120 dead, 3100 captured and 1000 wounded, China declared a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew from the front lines of the battle.  The war did, however, seal the fate of Tibet as a long-term source of tension between the two nations.  To this day, China claims the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh and India claims the Chinese-controlled Aksai Chin territory as shown on this map:

While these two regions have proven to be a diplomatic nightmare, tensions over another border region located between Bhutan and Nepal have recently flared up. 

Let's now look at map to help us put the current events in another border region into perspective:

Sikkim, outlined in red, is bordered by Nepal to the west, Tibet to the north and Bhutan to the east and forms part of the Himalayas. 

Here is a closeup map of Sikkim:

As you can see, most of the state is mountainous and is quite remote with the closest major Indian city, Kolkata (aka Calcutta) being located 700 kilometres to the south.  Despite its relative remoteness from both China and the highly populated regions of India, this part of the border region remains as one of the long-term disputes between the two nations.  According to the Indian press (Hindustan Times), India is adopting a "patient and peaceful" approach to the problem whereas China is insisting that India withdraw its troops from Doklam (the narrow plateau in the  border junction of Bhutan, Tibet and India) and that the longer that India keeps its soldiers on "China's territory", the more likely that there will be a military confrontation.

Here is a summary of the military presence of the two nations along the disputed border regions from NDTV (New Delhi Television Limited):

"Defending the nearly 4,000 km-long Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India is the Lhasa-based Western Theatre Command of the Chinese army, a sprawling military formation spread across 4 provinces including the Tibetan Autonomous Region, where the drills were held. The command includes elements of the Chinese air force and its rocket (missile) forces.

In the event of an escalation, China can use its massive railway infrastructure to bring in additional troops. That has not happened. Since 2009, China has been training in Transregional Support Operations: shifting men and weapons between regions in training exercises.

Countering the Chinese presence along the de facto border are elements of the Northern, Western, Central and Eastern Commands of the Indian Army. Specifically, the Indian defense is centered around deployments made by the Leh-based XIV Corps, the Sukma-based XXXIII Corps, the Tezpur-based 4 Corps, the Dimapur-based III Corps and the Panagarh-based XVII Corps. The overall strength of the Indian Army here would be close to 2 lakh men and women. China's Western Theatre Command would have a similar number of soldiers though China doesn't deploy as many soldiers directly on the LAC but can, instead, use its superb road and rail network to surge troops to areas along the de facto border between the two countries. Despite the tension between the two countries, this has not happened.

NDTV has learnt that China cannot make any significant inroads with the present number of soldiers it has deployed in the region and would need to bring in soldiers from elsewhere, a move that would give Indian military planners a clear indicator of a potential attack. At the same time, India would be hard-pressed to deploy more soldiers along the LAC should that be required since several formations are busy defending the border and the Line of Control with Pakistan in addition to fighting terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir and in parts of the Northeast.

The Indian Air Force has 22 airfields and is developing a network of smaller air landing grounds in the Eastern sector. The Chinese air force has 15 air bases and 27 smaller airstrips but operates at a significant disadvantage vis-a-vis the Indian Air Force. This is because all of Chinese bases in the region are located high in the Tibetan plateau which makes it impossible for the jets to take off with a full weapon load because of the rarified atmosphere. The Indian Air Force, on the other hand, does not face any such constraints. All its major bases in the region are located in the plains and IAF fighters can take off with a full fuel and weapons load, a significant operating advantage in the event of a conflict between the two countries."

Here is a discussion about the ongoing border tensions between the two nations:

According to Firstpost, one of the main problems facing both nations was the poor surveying capabilities that were in existence when the Sikkim-Tibet border was surveyed back in the late 1800s and when the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890 was agreed upon.

Now, let's move to the present.  Here is what China has to say about the most recent flareup of the Sikkim border dispute through the Communist Party of China's outlet Global Times :

"On June 16, Indian border guards crossed over the Sikkim section of the China-India border to the Chinese side, triggering a face-off with Chinese troops. India's action this time is a blatant infringement on China's sovereignty.

As the confrontation goes on, China needs to get ready for the face-off becoming a long-term situation and at the same time, needs to maintain a sense of rationality. Within China, there are voices calling for the Indian troops to be expelled immediately to safeguard the country's sovereignty, while Indian public opinion is clamoring for war with China. However, the two sides need to exercise restraint and avoid the current conflict spiraling out of control.

One important reason that prompted India triggering the border dispute this time is its worry over China's development in recent years. As two big developing countries, India and China both had a history of past colonization, and now both are enjoying fast economic growth. But China has risen quickly to be the world's No.2 economy. As time is on China's side, New Delhi is deeply concerned with China's rapid rise. Provocation at the border reflects India's worry and attempt to sound out China.

China doesn't recognize the land under the actual control of India is Indian territory. Bilateral border negotiations are still ongoing, but the atmosphere for negotiations has been poisoned by India. China doesn't advocate and tries hard to avoid a military clash with India, but China doesn't fear going to war to safeguard sovereignty either, and will make itself ready for a long-term confrontation. 

According to the Indian media, Indian troops are stationed at the border area and have set up logistical support. They even claim that India will continue the confrontation with China at the Sikkim section of the China-India border until the Chinese troops withdraw. In response, China must continue strengthening border construction and speed up troop deployment and construction in the Doklam area. These are legitimate actions of a sovereign country. 

The 3,500-kilometer border has never been short of disputes. Since the 1962 border war, the Indian side has repeatedly made provocations. China must be prepared for future conflicts and confrontation. China can take further countermeasures along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). If India stirs up conflicts in several spots, it must face the consequence of an all-out confrontation with China along the entire LAC.  

If India plans to devote more resources in the border area, then so be it. China can engage in a competition with India over economic and military resources deployment in the border area. With growing national strength, China is capable of deploying resources in remote border areas. It is conducive to the economic growth of these regions, as well as to safeguarding integration of China's territory. Road and rail in the Tibetan area have been extended close to the border area with India, Nepal and Bhutan. It's a competition of military strength, as well as a competition of overall economic strength." (my bold)

In closing, let's look at a graphic which shows the total estimated global nuclear weapons inventory:

As you can see, India has an estimated 130 nuclear weapons compared to China's 270.  According to Global Firepower, China has 2.26 million active military personnel compared to India's 1.363 million and China has a total of 3.713 million military personnel compared to India's 4.207 million when reservists are included. 

A ramping up of the current tensions across the disputed India-China border could prove to be quite different than it was in the early 1960s; this time, both nations have nuclear weapons.  This decades-long simmering nuclear war could well have a far less palatable ending than the 1962 hostilities.   

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