India Builds Counter-Strike Capabilities Against China

Military tension has continued to rise at the India-China border since 2020.

By Satoru Nagao


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Military tension has continued to rise at the India-China border since 2020. It all started in the spring of 2020 when Chinese forces on a large scale entered India’s territory and built a position there. In June, the two troops clashed, resulting in nearly 100 deaths or injuries on the Indian side alone. After that, Chinese forces increased pressure by dispatching elite troops equipped with the latest weapons at the border with India.

India also took a strong countermeasure. It imposed economic sanctions against China, conducted 12 missile tests in 45 days, and purchased and deployed the latest weapons from countries such as the United States and France. Its focus was to possess and display its capabilities to attack enemy bases, meaning in case of an attack by China, India will counterattack Tibet and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

What is the implication of the standoff between India and China for Japan? Since 2020, in response to India’s resistance, China has directed military spending and military force to counter both Japan and India at the same time. Therefore, cooperation between Japan and India in a framework such as the Quad is a meaningful measure against China. However, to promote such cooperation, Japan needs to engage in more continuous information-gathering and analyses of the security situation in India.

Russia’s built up of troops at the border with Ukraine in 2022 was a major event that has attracted worldwide attention. However, the fact that the Chinese army has amassed its military force at the border with India has not attracted much attention.

In fact, since the spring of 2020, a large-scale military standoff has continued at the border between India and China, and the June 2020 clash caused nearly 100 injuries and deaths on the Indian side alone. If an incident occurred around the Senkaku Islands that killed or injured nearly 100 Self-Defense Force personnel, it would presumably cause a huge shock.

In this article, I would like to lay out how India is confronting the threat from China and draw lessons for Japan.

Ⅰ.The Chinese Army Has Begun a Large-Scale Military Deployment

Nikolic Vladimir

1.Incursion and clash

It all started when Chinese troops invaded the Indian side of the border in the spring of 2020. Chinese incursions had been common, but a few things were different this time around.

First, the scale was larger. About 5,000 Chinese troops entered the Indian side of the border in at least four areas, built positions, and continued to occupy these areas. Moreover, these Chinese troops were armed with nail stubbed iron rods and long-handled swords. Then in June 2020, the two forces clashed in the Ladakh region, leaving 20 dead and 76 injured on the Indian side alone.

What was behind China’s move? The fact that their troops came armed with rods and l long-handled sword suggests this was intentional. There is an agreement between the two sides that troops cannot use any firearms at the India-China border zone, as a measure to prevent accidental clashes from escalating into war.

In fact, in 2017, India and China clashed, but at that time there were no deaths as troops used bare hands or stones to fight. However, in 2020 the Chinese troops entered the Indian border armed with a large number of iron rods and long swords. In other words, the weapons suggest that the Chinese army planned this invasion.

2.China deployed the latest weapons

The question is what happened after that. In fact, by the time the Chinese troops invaded the Indian side, China had already deployed large tank units and fighter jets. However, after June 2020, it deployed more forces from all over the country to the India-China border. Table 1 shows what kind of weapons were deployed by the Chinese forces at the border.

This shows that the Chinese army has redirected elite troops equipped with the latest weapons from other regions to the Indian-Chinese border to put pressure on India. For example, the DF-21 ballistic missiles, J-20 fighters, and H-6 strategic bombers equipped with cruise missiles shown in table 1 are China’s newest weapons originally prepared to fight the U.S. and Japan. Such units have been redeployed to the China-Indian border to attack India.

After that, at the India-China border, Chinese troops withdrew from Pangong Tso in February 2021 and withdrew from another area in August 2021. However, in at least two other areas, Chinese troops have occupied the Indian side. Chinese forces continue to be deployed with tensions in the region remaining high.

China is also constructing facilities for the long-term deployment of military power. It is building 100 to 600 “villages” in areas 4000 km from the border. The border between India and China is about 5000m above sea level, which is higher than Mt. Fuji and goes down to -30 °in the winter, so various support is needed to station military officers long-term.

There are villages with different types of support capabilities; some are built near the border with the aim to expand the territory, and some villages are built further back for the families of Chinese military personnel. In any case, the existence of the villages shows that China has not given up expanding its territory through the long-term deployment of military forces.

Ⅱ.India’s Response

How did India respond? India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared in a televised speech that the deaths of his soldiers killed in a clash with the Chinese troops “will not go in vain.” Indian troops from each region gathered at the border between India and China to prepare for war, and trains full of tanks and artillery were seen heading to the front lines.

People boycotted Chinese products. There were incidents where children in poor villages voluntarily left home and headed to fight at the India-China border and the police had to persuade them to go home.

From the spring of 2020 to August 2020, when the incursions occurred, India responded by imposing economic sanctions against China. For example, in April 2020, the government made its prior approval mandatory for investments from countries that have a land border with India. Since China is the only such country making large-scale investments in India, in effect, the requirement was directed to China.

Also, when there were casualties in June, India raised tariffs on 300 items imported from China. Furthermore, the government banned 59 Chinese-made apps, including TikTok, at the end of June. This ban on Chinese-made apps has since expanded to more than 300 products.

In July, the government reviewed 50 investment projects from China and designated seven Chinese companies as affiliated with the Chinese military. At the end of July, it announced it would ban the import of products in 370 categories mainly from China, citing poor qualities, unless they meet Indian standards by the end of March 2021. The measures were so strong that China accused India of trying to force decoupling.

In addition to the economic sanctions, India has implemented military countermeasures. It gave the military an extraordinary budget and the authority to act flexibly. India rushed to buy new weapons and conducted missile tests as much as 12 times in 45 days from September to October 2020.

One can infer from the types of missiles tested and the weapons purchased and deployed during this period the kind of countermeasures against China the Indian forces has in mind. The missile experiments in India included those shown in Table 2.

The characteristics of these missiles mean that India is seeking the capabilities to attack China, that is, the Chinese troops deployed in Tibet and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Hypersonic missiles and supersonic missiles can also break through China’s defense network and attack Chinese military bases far passed the border.

The anti-radar missile Radrum can also be used to attack the Chinese radar at the start of the attack. It seems that India has demonstrated its ability to counterattack as China increases military pressure by deploying the latest missiles and fighter jets.

At the same time, India hastened to purchase and deploy weapons from overseas. Table 3 lists some of the weapons delivered to India during this period.

These weapons also imply the same trend as the tested missiles. The Rafale is a fighter jet that can fly at very low altitudes, penetrate deep into enemy territory, and accurately attack with long-range bombs. The Indian Army also formed the XVII Corps to counterattack the Chinese side, which became ready to operate in 2020. The XVII Corps is a large unit of 90,000 troops (In comparison, the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force has 150,000 troops). The purchased and deployed helicopters are meant to support the transportation of the XVII Corps.

In this way, looking at the missiles tested by India and the weapons purchased, it seems that India is trying to improve its ability to counterattack the Chinese side. To put it in the Japanese military language, India is shifting from “exclusive defense” to possessing “counterstrike capabilities.”

Ⅲ.Lessons for Japan

As described above, China has concentrated its military power on the border with India and continues to take positions there as the military confrontation carries on. Meanwhile, India has strengthened its opposition to China and is shifting from exclusive defense to possessing counterstrike capabilities. What are the implications of this situation for Japan’s strategies?

The first thing to consider is that Japan and India share a common problem. Figure 1 compares the number of Chinese public vessels that invaded the continental zone surrounding the Senkaku Islands with the number of incidents in which Chinese troops invaded the India-Chinese border.

What can be seen from this figure is that when China is increasing activities against Japan, it is also doing so against India. Between 2012 and 2019, Chinese incursions increased in both territories. Japan and India both share the same problem coming from China and should cooperate in responding to it.

How should Japan and India cooperate? We know that there is a pattern in China’s territorial expansion. In the South China Sea, it occupied half of the Paracel Islands after France withdrew from the Indochina Peninsula in the 1950s. It occupied the other half of the Paracel Islands after the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam in the 1970s. When the Soviet Union reduced its troops stationed in Vietnam in the1980s, China occupied six features on the Spratly Islands. And in the 1990s, when the U.S. withdrew from the Philippines, China occupied the Mischief Reef.

When there is a change in the military balance, China finds a vacuum of power and moves in. Conversely, maintaining the military balance leads to deterring China’s actions. In recent years, the military balance has been changing due to the rapid increase in China’s defense spending.

According to a Swedish think tank the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), in the decade from 2011 to 2020, the U.S. reduced military spending by 10% while China increased it by 76%. Therefore, to maintain the military balance, we need new methods as the conventional methods will no longer work.

One new way is for Japan, an ally of the U.S., and India, a partner of the U.S., to work together (for example, as a member of Quad which also includes Australia). If Japan and India cooperate, China will have no choice but to disperse its enormous defense spending between Japan and India.

As mentioned above, looking at what happened at the India-China border after 2020, one can see China is deploying forces from other regions to attack India. Originally, the latest weapons such as the J-20 fighter, H-6 bomber equipped with cruise missiles, the DF-21 ballistic missile, and the S-400 surface-to-air missile were deployed to attack Japan. They are now being redeployed to India. When Japan and India stand together, they can force China to disperse military spending.

However, to cooperate, one must grasp the situation of the other party. In the case of Japan, there is a tendency that it is not fully understanding the situation in India. In particular, there is a lack of information on India’s security situation. From the summer to the fall of 2020, when India was countering China’s military threat by conducting economic sanctions and missile tests, Japan was working to persuade India to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

However, India refused to participate in the agreement that would deepen its economic ties with China. Many experts in Japan explained from an economic point of view why India did not join the RCEP. However, no expert pointed out from a security perspective that India would not enter the RCEP as long as military tensions at the India-China border continued.

A prominent Indian expert had clearly explained that RCEP would mean “coupling” with China and this is unfitting for India when it is trying to “decouple” with China. However, in Japan, no expert comments were reflecting such a view (as far as I’ve seen). According to reports in Japan at that time, there was no news reporting that military tensions continued at the border between India and China and that India conducted 12 missile tests in 45 days. It is evident that this lack of information is an obstacle to Japan-India cooperation.

Japan-India cooperation is beginning to help counter China’s territorial ambitions. It has great potential. However, to fully realize its potential, Japan will need to pay more attention to the security situation in India and increase its accumulation of knowledge and analyses.

This article is a translation of the Japanese original published in the May/June 2022 issue of the World Economic Review.

Dr. Satoru Nagao
Fellow (Non-Resident) at Hudson Institute. Director of International Security Industry Council of Japan, Senior Research Fellow at Japan Forum for Strategic Studies; received Bachelor’s, Master’s and Ph.D. degrees at Gakushuin University, author of “Strategy for the Indo-Pacific: Perceptions for the US and Like-Minded Countries” (Hudson Institute), and “Examining India’s Military Strategies” (in Japanese.)
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