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Vijay Sakhuja: India, China face off on long border

It is winter now, the Himalays passes have closed, and the armies on either sides of the India-China border have retreated to their bunkers. Likewise, patrolling and probing by the troops has declined significantly, although the cross-border signals have just begun.

     At a recent public forum, Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval fired a salvo of warnings at China and Pakistan, the country's two nuclear-armed neighbors, announcing that India must prepare for a "two-front war" and "build deterrence." Although the tenor was aggressive, he added, in a less confrontational tone, that "economic development is the best way to ensure security," that war is not a "necessary option" and that "economic interdependence" could help build peace in South Asia. Surely, these statements were not only meant to please the his countrymen; instead, New Delhi is visibly upset with Beijing, and has conveyed its intention to challenge any aggressive moves across the Himalayas or in the Indian Ocean.

The big five

There are at least five issues that prompted Doval to make such remarks in public. First, incursions by the People's Liberation Army along the India-China border have continued unabated. In the last few years, the incursions have increased from a little over 200 in 2010 to over 400 in 2013 and, by August this year, nearly 350. Indian officials acknowledge that some of these incidents could have been avoided if the two sides had a "common perception of the border demarcation." But the new government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is unable to accept China's assertiveness -- a factor that prompted the Indian leader to raise the issue of incursions with President Xi Jinping during his visit to India in September 2014.

     Second, India is concerned about the Chinese military presence in what it calls Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), which India claims is part of its Jammu and Kashmir state. Reports suggest that PLA troops, engineers and technicians are deployed in parts of the state and are engaged in building and servicing highways, particularly the Karakoram Highway, as well as bridges, dams and other support infrastructure. Well-placed Indian sources noted that PLA activities in PoK are both economic in nature as well as strategic, and that the "present arrangement suits both China and Pakistan, since the former gets a sizable presence in the PoK region while the latter benefits from development."

     Third, the presence of Chinese nuclear and conventional submarines in the Indian Ocean has rattled India. A Chinese Type 039 diesel-electric Song-class submarine along with a submarine support ship made port calls at Colombo in September this year just before X's visit to Sri Lanka. Earlier, a Type 093 attack nuclear submarine was spotted in the Indian Ocean, and China's defense ministry reportedly informed India of its presence. While the presence of a Chinese submarine in the Indian Ocean came as no surprise, Indian observers claimed the PLA navy had breached its "bastion."

     Fourth, China's multipronged strategy to build a Maritime Silk Road (MSR) through Southeast and South Asia into the Indian Ocean worries India. In its political construct, the MSR is a diplomatic initiative aimed at building robust relations with countries in Asia and beyond. The economic component features building infrastructure to support its trade relations with countries along the route. In the cultural context, it would help Beijing to promote Chinese culture and enhance tourism. The strategic construct pivots on the notion of building outposts for the PLA navy and facilitating operations in the Indian Ocean. The latter has invited sharp reactions from India's strategic community, which argues that China's agenda of building maritime infrastructure is yet another attempt to "encircle" India.

     Fifth is India's growing concern about Chinese cyberwarfare activities to probe Indian military establishments. Computer specialists have noted that most cases of hacking against India have been traced to China. For instance, a few years ago, Chinese hackers successfully broke into the Indian military's administrative computer systems and may have transmitted data to IP addresses in China. More recently, the Indian Air Force warned its force and families not to use powerful Xiaomi smartphones, which it claimed were "retrieving user information and sending it back to data servers in Beijing." In a similar vein, several Chinese technology companies have been barred from investing in India due to security concerns, and on many occasions, Chinese-made equipment has been rejected for use in Indian projects due to growing fears of economic and military espionage.

Proactive measures

New Delhi is watching these developments with concern and, over the last few years, has initiated a number of proactive operational, organizational and infrastructural measures. At the operational level, India announced it was adding two specialized mountain divisions with a combined strength of about 80,000 troops for "rapid reaction force capability in the mountains." There are also plans to upgrade road networks in the mountain regions, for the dual purposes of helping to develop the region and facilitate military supply chains.

     Likewise, the Indian Air Force has forward deployed its Russian-built Sukhoi fighter jets and has revived a number of landing grounds. China too has positioned several fighter squadrons in the Tibet Autonomous Region.

     At the strategic level, India has developed robust long- and short-range missile capability. Some of these missiles, such as the Agni-V intercontinental ballistic missile, can hit targets at a distance of 5,000km -- well into the Chinese heartland. In addition to these is a host of short- and medium-range missiles that can hit tactical and strategic targets on the Chinese side.

     These developments highlight India's responses to growing Chinese capabilities across the mountains. India is also developing robust capabilities to counter the Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean. It acquired one nuclear submarine on lease from Russia and another one -- built in India -- is slated to be ready for operations within 2015. It also acquired six P-8I long-range maritime patrol and anti-submarine aircraft, which would serve to challenge PLA navy submarines in the Indian Ocean.

     While China is still not paramount militarily, the Indian navy may not be able to compete with the PLA navy in terms of number of platforms.

     China will continue to probe India in the mountains and the latter will make sustained efforts to bridge the capability gap. In the Indian Ocean, China will continue to make frequent forays and challenge India's superiority. Pakistan, an all-weather ally with which China has a strategic partnership that extends into political-economic-strategic-military and nuclear domains, could provide access to the PLA navy from the port at Gwadar, built with Chinese financial assistance and operated by a Chinese company. That is sure to undermine India's naval dominance.

     It is fair to argue that in the long term, China and India, the two rising powers in Asia, will compete with each other and invest enormous fiscal resources to build military capabilities. This will weigh further on Asia-Pacific security, and increase the concerns of all countries in a region plagued with hot spots arising from contested boundaries, territorial disputes and asymmetric threats and challenges.

Vijay Sakhuja is director of the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. A former naval officer, he is the author of "Asian Maritime Power in the 21st Century" and co-author of a forthcoming academic work, "Climate Change and the Bay of Bengal."

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