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Commentary: China's military prowess in Tibet

October 25, 2007

TORONTO, Oct. 23
HARI SUD
United Press International

A successful invasion of India by China is the China watcher's
pipedream. They always envision that China could unleash its army of
2.5 million men on India and conquer it. That would only be possible
if China were able to muster all its 2.5 million soldiers on the
India-Tibet border, however. This is highly unlikely. If they did,
they would meet India's army of 1.1 million men, ready to spoil their
party. These China lovers in the West have become more vociferous
since China completed its Tibet-China rail link. They believe it has
become very easy for the Chinese to move men and materials to Tibet.

This newly built rail link is a paper tiger. It is so open to a
missile or air attack that it would be foolish for the Chinese
military to consider it as a vital supply link. Bridges and tunnels in
large number on this route could be targeted by Indian Brahmos cruise
missiles. Rebuilding them would be a long process. In addition, the
hostile Tibetan populace could make it impossible for this rail link
to function.

China maintains about 16 to 18 divisions in Tibet, facing India in
Arunachal Pradesh and Akash Chin in Kashmir. A minor disposition of
troops is maintained in the central sector to safeguard supply routes.
In all, 240,000 men are lightly equipped mountain divisions, foot
mobile and very vulnerable to heavily equipped Indian troops across
the Himalayas. China's more heavily armed troops are retained in
Chengdu military district, 800 miles away.

The Chinese air force is a bulky, poor quality force. It has a very
limited number of high performance aircraft from Russia. The Chinese
have reverse engineered a few Russian and American models, but these
copies are poor quality. Most of these aircraft are deployed opposite
Taiwan. Even if some were relocated to the Indian border, they would
have trouble landing and taking off at elevations of 7,000 to 8,000
feet, with their full complement of armaments in Tibet. That makes it
difficult for them to match Indian fighter aircraft.

China's navy faces certain death, including its aircraft carriers and
their nuclear submarines, if they venture far away from their
homeports. In any India-China war, it is unlikely that the West would
either stay neutral or go to the Chinese side. They would be delighted
if the Chinese navy suffered a major reverse at the hands of the
Indians. This they could ensure by providing timely information to
India on its movements.

Hence, it would boil down to a fight between China's lightly equipped
infantry and India's medium to lightly equipped infantry. The army
with superior tactics, knowledge of the ground and high-tech
surveillance would carry the day. The last military match in 1962 went
to China, as Indians were poorly equipped and poorly deployed.

The Chinese know the Indian military advancements well. They also know
about their own vulnerability in Tibet. In the last ten years, when
they increased their defense expenditures substantially in Tibet, they
built four new airfields and several new missile bases. This in fact
has bolstered their offensive capability, but it also made them
targets to tactical theater missiles.

China spends US$90 billion in defense-related expenditures every year.
It admits to only US$50 billion. The rest is hidden in secret state
security operations and development projects unrelated to the
military. Also a bulk is spent on nuclear submarines, nuclear missiles
and aircraft carriers to match the West. Although China's military
expenditure at US$45 billion is huge, yet consider this: China has to
support an army of 2.5 million men, an Air Force of 3,000 old aircraft
and a navy of 250,000 men, with 45 submarines, destroyers, battle
cruisers and other naval craft. Considering the size of the military
forces, this much expenditure is about average.

Until 1995, Chinese ground forces and air force were equipped with
1950s-era hardware all supplied by the Soviet Union. The Soviets
withdrew all military support from China after the Chinese demanded
the return of large tracts of land from the Soviet Union. The Ussiri
River military clashes followed. This falling out was never repaired.
Hence the Chinese were stuck with old and very old hardware until
about 1995. Modernization is now underway, but modernizing a 2.5
million force is a long and tedious job, especially when no modern
hardware is available for purchase.

China's current military commitments are also large. The country has
stationed 20 percent of its forces on the China-Russia border. The
other 30 percent are stationed opposite Taiwan, together with the bulk
of their high-tech hardware. Of the remaining 50 percent of its
forces, about 50 percent are reserves (about 20 divisions) and the
remaining forces face India and other Southeast Asian neighbors like
Vietnam, Myanmar, and Thailand.

Hence it is not a very large force that faces India.

China does have one advantage -- Chinese troops and garrisons are very
close to the India-Tibet border. This will allow them to reinforce
their border guards very quickly. They could maintain huge pressure on
India's forward positions. That would give them a huge psychological
advantage. The disadvantage would be that depleting the reserves in
Tibet would be an invitation to Tibetan rebels to take advantage.
India would surely help.

Facing all this, India has equipped a total of eight mountain
divisions, with four more that could easily convert to mountain
warfare. These are foot mobile and are larger in strength than their
Chinese counterparts. They are trained in mountain and snow warfare.
Their equipment is a couple of shades heavier than that of the
Chinese. These troops are stationed a bit farther away from the
border, which is a disadvantage. But the Indian border guards occupy
high ground, which would be an advantage in a defensive battle. They
could hold the line until the bulk of the army arrived.

Overall India spends about US$22 billion a year on its defense forces,
which number about 1.1 million and 600 combat aircraft and two dozen
submarines, two aircraft carriers and a multitude of other vessels.
About 50 percent of India's defense commitments are Pakistan-related.
The remaining 50 percent are divided between protecting the border
with China, internal security and reserves. India's military hardware
is a bit more sophisticated. These are not reverse-engineered copies
but the real thing, hence a bit superior. Israel has been India's
conduit for sophisticated hardware. Other sophisticated hardware is
procured through open bidding.

The road networks on both the Indian and the Chinese sides are not
well developed. The Chinese, because they were on a plateau, would
find themselves at an advantage in reaching the border compared to the
Indians. That again would be a psychological advantage.

The situation would change immediately if India vacated its isolated
forward positions in favor of a better defensive line and waited for
the Chinese. If the Chinese did come, they would immediately suffer
the disadvantage of distance from their supply bases, with the
mountains in between. This would neutralize their numbers advantage.

Indian tactical missiles, if cleverly placed, could play havoc to the
Chinese supply lines. The Tibetan plateau is open and treeless without
cover.

India's combat-ready Air Force is more than a match for anything the
Chinese could throw at the Indians. The Indians come from bases which
are at about sea level and carry heavier combat loads. These bases are
located well within 300 to 400 miles of the India-China border.

The same advantage does not exist for the Chinese. First their fighter
planes are inferior, second they cannot carry their full payload as
the available runway length at elevations of 7,000 to 9,000 feet
limits the payload, and third the airbases are in open area and could
be constantly monitored by Indian AWACS. Hence the Chinese would fight
a defensive air war. This would be an advantage for India.

In short, China would fight a highly unsuccessful military campaign
should they ever think of a rematch with India. The Indians are much
better prepared today than in 1962. The military dispositions of India
and China are evenly matched in Tibet, with the Indians having an
equipment advantage. No walkover like in 1962 is possible now.

    --

(Hari Sud is a retired vice president of C-I-L Inc., a former
investment strategies analyst and international relations manager. A
graduate of Punjab University and the University of Missouri, he has
lived in Canada for the past 34 years. (c)Copyright Hari Sud.)

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