Indo-China Border War Scenario and the Role of Japan-India Cooperation

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Despite the tension in the June 16 to August 28 2017 Indo (and Bhutan)-China border stand-off have eased, there is still a possibility that a similar stand-off that could escalate to a military conflict, could happen again. If Japan-India cooperation has a role to play, what should it be? To answer this question, this article will analyze two questions; i.e. What kind of a war scenario can we foresee if the Indo-China border stand-off escalates? What options does Japan-India cooperation have?

What type of scenario can we foresee? From a military balance perspective, China has the advantage. For example, geographically, China operates from higher ground. Their ground forces can identify from above where they should aim and fire guns. It is also easier for China to transport heavy cargo because this will be done downhill whereas India will need to transport cargo uphill. China can also overcome the effects of altitude sickness before operation starts while Indian soldiers who remain on lower ground will only be able to overcome altitude sickness after any operation starts. In addition from the perspective of infrastructure development,China has an advantage. Within two days, Chinese armed forces can be ready for battle in the border area whereas India needs one week preparation due to a lack of infrastructure on the Indian side.

However, it is expected the reaction from India will make China restrain the size of operation. Firstly, from an air operation perspective, China does not have the advantage. Their airports are located on high ground. This means that the air is thin and fighter jets therefore cannot get enough lifting power. Chinese fighter jets can carry only about half of their payload in such thin air. If the ground battle escalated to an air battle, this would be a better scenario for India. Secondly, if the international community including the US and Russia think that the Indo-China military conflict might escalate to a nuclear war, they will intervene to prevent this. In such a scenario, it is expected that the US and Russia will support India. India could warn of the possibility that a nuclear war could take place. In addition, if the purpose of the military operation is to provide a warning to India and to other countries to recognize China's power, China needs "victory" even in a small operation. This means that a massive scale military operation is not necessary to achieve "victory". These factors make China restrain the size of operation.

If Japan-India security cooperation has a role to play, what should it be? Dissuading China from Starting a military operation should be any Japan-India’s policy goal.As a good means to dissuade China, Japan and India can make effective use of their respective geographical locations. Because of their geographical locations at opposite sides of China, Japan-India cooperation can lessen their respective numerical inferiority. For example, if India and Japan work together, India would not need to deal with all Chinese fighters at the same time as China is likely to want to keep some of its fighters to its east against Japan and vice versa.

In this case, Japan's infrastructure projects in Northeast India is an effective choice. The main target of this project is to increase India–Southeast Asian trade. However, by using this road, the Indian army can deploy more forces and supply to the border area. In addition, Japan should support India's efforts to modernize India's defence in the Indo-China border area. For example, because India's air defence system is obsolete, exporting Japan's radar system to strengthen India's for air defence and air control capabilities in the Indo-China border area, would be an effective measure.

However, in the event of Indo-China crisis, India needs quick result to dissuade China’s objectives. Viewed from this angle, Japan-India cooperation at the Indo-China stand-off at Doklam was a good model. Though Japan was not a country involved in the June 16 to August 28 2017 Indo(and Bhutan)-China border stand-off at Doklam, Japan played an important role. Firstly, in this Indo-China border stand-off, during the Malabar Exercises 2017, Japan dispatched the helicopter carrier Izumo to join US and Indian aircraft carriers. Because China was concerned by actions taken by Japan, the Chinese media emphasized that India should not depend on Japan's support. Secondly, on August 18, Japanese Ambassador to India Kenji Hiramatu stated that no side should seek to change the status quo by force. Because India had blamed Beijing for changing the status quo, this remark meant unequivocal support for India (and Bhutan). In addition, This timing was also just before Indian Defence Minister Arun Jaitley's visit to Japan on 5-6 September and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to India on 13-15. Given this context, it is thought that China did not wish to encourage increased Japan-India security ties by continuing the border stand-off. Japan can use similar measures in a future crisis.

In addition, Japan should draw China's attention toward Japan instead of toward India. For example, if Japan deployed the Self Defense Forces (SDF) in the Senkaku islands, China will deploy more forces to Japan rather than to India. If the SDF join Freedom of Navigation of Operation of the US Navy in the South China Sea, China could not concentrate its military forces at the Indo-China border area. If China cannot concentrate its forces at the Indo-China border, it cannot commence military offensive operations against India.

To deal with the increasing China’s assertiveness at Indo-China border area, Japan and India cooperation is an effective response.

Dr. Satoru Nagao is a Visiting Fellow at Hudson Institute and a research fellow at the Institute for Future Engineering (He was a research fellow at the Tokyo Foundation) and he is also a visiting research fellow at Gakushuin University (email:satorunagao1s@gmail.com).