A Reporter Looks Back: China Should Never Underestimate India

The current standoff between the Chinese and Indian Armies in the Himalayas took me back nearly five decades to a time when India was battling its then arch-rival Pakistan.

As a reporter at the time covering the India-East Pakistan War of 1971, I learned one important lesson: Never underestimate India.

We all knew that a war was coming that spring and I wanted to get as close to the action as I could.

So I made contact with a Pakistani battalion located near the Indian border where Indian forces were building up. The commander, an army colonel, asked one of his lieutenants to take me along on a supply mission to a location close to the border.

Lieutenant Rashid assured me that all would go smoothly and that “the Hindus won’t fight.”

Fortunately, I was far from Lt. Rashid and out with his ammunition carriers when the Indians attacked. I learned later that Lt. Rashid had been killed. I waited until the shooting stopped, kept the ammunition carriers from panicking, and then at dawn led them back to the Pakistani lines.

The Pakistani military officers had many illusions about the Indians but these were shattered as the Indian army rapidly advanced toward the capital city of Dhaka and began attacking its airport with fighter planes. The Pakistanis had completely underestimated the Indians’ courage and ability to coordinate their attacks on more than one front.

The Pakistanis had Chinese support. But this was before China had become a powerful nation, and there was little that the Chinese could do other than issue a protest letter to India.

The war marked the liberation of Bengalis from Pakistani rule and the birth of the state of Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, today’s China and India have both become nuclear powers and have strengthened their armed forces considerably since those days so long ago.

A clash along the China-India border

Current tensions along the 2,167-mile-long (or 3,488 kilometer-long) border between China and India flared up on June 15, when at least 20 Indian soldiers were killed after being attacked by a Chinese border patrol.

The Indian government says that Chinese soldiers also suffered casualties, but China has refrained from providing any details.

It was the biggest border clash between the two Asian giants since 1975, when four Indian soldiers were killed in an ambush set by a Chinese patrol at Tulung La in Arunachal Pradesh.

In 1967, China and India clashed in India’s northeastern state of Sikkim, which borders Chinese-controlled Tibet to the north and Nepal to the east. More than 800 Indian soldiers were killed while some 400 Chinese soldiers were estimated to have died.

And in 1962, India suffered what was widely regarded as a defeat in a war with China in which 80 Indian soldiers were killed.

When it comes to the current standoff, the good news, according to The Times of India (TOI), is that the two sides have been communicating through diplomatic and military channels and have achieved a “breakthrough.”

As described by the Indian newspaper, the two nations have agreed to a step-by-step disengagement from the two-month confrontation in the Galwan Valley and Gogra-Hot Springs area of eastern Ladakh.

According to this account, Chinese soldiers have moved back slightly from a location called Pangong Tso, have removed some tents, and seem to be pulling back toward a mountain spur inside China.

How did the June 15 incident start? According to Indian military officers, Chinese troops armed with baseball bats wrapped in barbed wire and nail-studded iron rods attacked Indian troops who were checking on reports that the Chinese had a crossed the poorly demarcated China-India border at a location in the Galwan Valley.

It should be stressed that this is in high-altitude terrain, which makes it difficult for army units on either side to easily maneuver. Much of the terrain in question rises to 11,000 to 12,000 feet.

Ajai Shukla, an Indian journalist and retired Indian Army colonel, described it earlier this month during a webinar sponsored by the Washington-D.C.-based Jamestown Foundation as “the most difficult fighting terrain that you can imagine.”

India’s under-reported advantages

Although it often goes under-reported, India holds an advantage over China in conventional, non-nuclear weapons

A recent study conducted by Harvard University concludes that India has enough of a conventional advantage over China to help it to avoid any 1962-level setback in case the situation escalates.

A research paper published by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School earlier this year analyzed data dealing with India and China’s strategic capabilities.

The study says that India has “key under-appreciated conventional advantages that reduce its vulnerability to Chinese threats and attacks.”

India, it says, “appears to have cause for greater confidence in its military position against China than is typically acknowledged in Indian debates, providing the country with an opportunity for leadership in international efforts toward nuclear transparency and restraint.”

When it comes to China’s conventional capabilities, the Harvard report says that an apparent near equivalence with the Indian Army in ground forces is “misleading.”

Even in a war with India, the report says, “a significant portion” of Chinese forces will be unavailable.

Many of these units are positioned near China’s border with Russia or stationed in Xinjiang and Tibet to counter any possible insurrection there.

The majority of China’s forces near its border with India are located farther from the border than India’s forces, “posing a striking contrast with the majority of forward-deployed Indian forces with a single China defense mission,” the Harvard report says.

In the meantime, it might surprise some observers to know that India’s Air Force holds a distinct numerical advantage over the Chinese aircraft that can be assigned to the border area during a conflict.

The Indian Air Force, the Harvard report says, can field some 101 fighter planes against China.

India’s Russian-designed, Indian-produced Su-30MKI is described as “superior to all theater Chinese fighters.”

A demonstrator shouts slogans while holding a poster of Chinese President Xi Jinping during an anti-China protest near Chinese embassy in New Delhi, June 17, 2020. Credit: AFP

China’s threat and warning against India

China has warned India not to escalate border tensions.

The nationalistic Chinese Communist Party newspaper The Global Times warned India on June 15 that China could conscript regional partners such as Pakistan and Nepal to help counter India.

A Chinese scholar quoted by the newspaper said that “if India escalates the border tension, it could face pressure from two or three points.”

The Global Times said that “China is an industrialized country with a GDP (gross domestic product) five times that of India” and spends more on defense than India does.

It also reminded India that it suffered “a crushing defeat” during its war with China in 1962.

India can ill afford the costs of fighting a war at this time.

According to recent reporting by the Financial Times from New Delhi, a surge in COVID-19 cases in India has meant that reviving Asia’s third-largest economy will be a major challenge.

India has the world’s fourth highest number of coronavirus cases, behind those of the United States, Brazil, and Russia.

Moody’s, a global risk assessment firm, expects India’s economy to contract 3.1 percent in 2020.

The Economist magazine, reporting from New Delhi, concluded that India has “few good ways to punish China for its Himalayan land-grab.”

Given the recent news that China appears to be pulling back into Chinese territory from the incursion by its patrol, this may become irrelevant.

But The Economist reports that India’s reaction so far has been to issue a ministerial decree announcing a ban on Tik-Tok, a Chinese video-sharing platform that is popular in rural India.

Tik Tok and 58 other smartphone apps used in India are linked with China.

The ban was billed as a “defensive measure, meant to protect citizens from possible data mining by elements hostile to national security.”

But few Indians doubt that its real intent is to retaliate for the Chinese troops’ border attack in June that killed some 20 Indian soldiers, The Economist said.

Since the border attack, Indian officials have been consulting with local businesses over a list of more than 1,000 Chinese-made items on which it intends to raise tariffs.

But India’s pharmaceutical industry depends heavily on imported Chinese ingredients.

According to The Indian Express newspaper, sentiment in favor of boycotting imported Chinese goods is growing. But Indian companies are warning that this could prove counterproductive.

Despite the difficulties facing India’s economy, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has emerged as a popular figure who is willing to confront China and make tough decisions on a variety of economic and political fronts.

According to two Financial Times reporters in New Delhi, Modi’s popularity “remains undiminished.”

Morning Consult, a U.S.-based pollster, found that 74 percent of Indians approved of his leadership as of June 30—“far higher than any other leading democratic world leader.”

Some observers now speak of a new Cold War between India and China. That may be an overstatement. But while all-out war appears unlikely, mutual mistrust may prove to be long-lasting.

And as Bertil Lintner, a veteran Asia correspondent notes, “By probing borders and boundaries from the Himalayas to the South China Sea, Beijing is gauging responses and acting accordingly to maximize its claims.”

“An all-out war with Beijing is unlikely,” he concludes in a commentary published by the Hong Kong-based Asia Times.

But he adds that bickering over the India-China border is unlikely to be easily resolved.

Writing for The Times of India, Nayan Chanda, an associate professor at India’s Ashoka University, says that “India has been a disappointment to China.”

India’s refusal to join Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature policy, his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and India’s cooperation with the United States have shown India to be “a fly in China’s imperial ointment.”

But he adds that China “is too big a fly to be swatted away.”

“For a chastened India, going to war is not an option,” Chanda says, “but there will be no return to business as usual.”

In Chanda’s view, President Xi’s overriding aim is to restore China’s imperial glory.

When it comes to China’s border conflict with India, he says, Xi’s aim is to “teach India a lesson.”

In 1979, when China invaded Vietnam, China’s then supreme leader Deng Xiaoping used similar language. The invasion was intended, Deng said, to “teach Vietnam a lesson.”

In the end, some Indians are left simply perplexed about China.

Writing for the website BloombergQuint.com recently, Indian commentator Raghav Bahl expressed his feelings this way:

“China simply leaves India nonplussed,” Bahl says.

“We’re never quite sure how to treat our gargantuan neighbor. As a powerful enemy who needs to be poked gingerly, handled with kid’s gloves? Or an inscrutable giant we would like to befriend, but warily, with great trepidation.”

“It’s this ambiguity in our collective national consciousness that leaves our foot hanging in mid-air…unsure whether we should stride forward or roll it back.”

Dan Southerland is RFA’s founding executive editor.

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