By Rupakjyoti Borah
India’s decision to stand up a new mountain strike corps of more than 45,000 soldiers for deployment along the India-China border — at a cost of approximately $11 billion over seven years — is one of the biggest strategic gambles taken by the country in recent times. While observers have questioned its utility in countering China, an important question is the timing of this move. What pressed India’s hand? There are four key considerations.
First, India’s strategic planners are worried that China now enjoys a distinct advantage in terms of the strength and reach of its land forces in the area, due to newly developed road infrastructure and rail connectivity in Tibet. The Qinghai-Tibet railway will allow China to quickly move troops into Tibet and from there to the Indian border.
Second, the April 2013 incursion by Chinese troops into the Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) sector within the Indian border states of Jammu and Kashmir seems to have pushed India’s hand. People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops entered nineteen kilometers into Indian territory before heading back, an incident which shook the Indian security establishment.
Third, China’s close ties with Pakistan continue to develop. Newly elected Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s first foreign trip was to Beijing where he reaffirmed friendship with China. During this visit, Beijing and Islamabad agreed to jointly improve the strategic Karakoram Highway. Meanwhile the operation of the Pakistani port of Gwadar has passed into the hands of a Chinese company from a Singaporean company.
Fourth, new leadership has formally taken over in China following the 12th National People’s Congress in March. Unlike previous leaders, President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang are relatively unknown in India and could seek to deflect attention from China’s well documented territorial disputes in East Asia.
Is a new mountain strike corps the answer for India to the strategic challenge China presents? Partly, yes. India would be able to blunt any future PLA land offensive with a dedicated mountain strike corps. It will also be useful if China were to dam shared rivers, like the Brahmaputra which flows out into Northeastern India from Tibet. Many parts of China are water deficient and in the absence of a water-sharing treaty, China may be tempted to dam. However, the fact that the new Indian unit will be headquartered in Panagarh in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, may allow the PLA to continue to indulge in incursions in the western sector of the border.
While there is no likelihood of war breaking out between India and China in the near term, it is important for India to be prepared to avoid a repeat of 1962. A new army unit is only one tool in India’s arsenal. Hence, India should also invest money and resources in other areas.
New Delhi should augment the Indian Navy, since this force is what will help India choke China’s lines of supply passing through the Indian Ocean in case of any eventuality. China depends heavily on these routes for energy imports from the Middle East and raw materials from Africa. The gap between the Indian Navy and the PLA Navy is closing fast, with China deploying its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning.
India should pursue other options, like boosting cooperation with Southeast Asian nations including Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam. In a sign of things to come, India has offered a line of credit worth $100 million to Vietnam to buy Indian military equipment. India should also focus on weaning away Myanmar from China’s embrace. India should take on board its private sector to invest in Myanmar, which will create both jobs and goodwill for India in Naypyidaw.
It will also be critical for India to maintain involvement in Afghanistan. Recently there was an attack on the Indian consulate in the Afghan city of Jalalabad, yet India must sustain a presence there, because it abuts China’s restive province of Xinjiang.
At the same time, there is evidence China also realizes that it needs to mend at least some of its fences with India. Chinese premier Li Keqiang visited India on the initial stop of his first foreign tour. Trade levels between the two countries stand at $66 billion in 2012 and are expected to touch $100 billion by 2015, though the balance of trade is heavily tilted in China’s favor.
The bottom line is that a mountain strike corps is only one option in India’s arsenal and hence India would well to keep other options open, instead of putting all its eggs in one basket.
Dr. Rupakjyoti Borah is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the School of Liberal Studies, Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University, India. He was previously a Visiting Fellow at the University of Cambridge (U.K.). The views expressed here are personal.