This Friday, September 9, saw both positive and negative developments in Indo-Chinese relations. Indian Army and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops have disengaged in the Gogra-Hot Springs (Patrol Point 15) section of eastern Ladakh, and Japan and India have pledged to strengthen their defensive ties.
It comes after US military officials suggested India could be used as a “second front” against China in the event of a clash between the two superpowers in the Western Pacific.
Friday’s news came ahead of a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Uzbekistan next week, which will be attended by both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
It is safe to assume that China wanted to inspire confidence in Indian leaders in the face of US pressure to bolster an anti-Chinese and Russian grouping.
However, on the same day, Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh met with their Japanese counterparts in Tokyo in a “2+2 dialogue” format.
The two parties announced a series of enhanced collaborations in defence, security and defense industry. These include a long-awaited “joint fighter exercise” for “greater collaboration and interoperability”; talks between the Joint Chiefs of Staff of Japan and the Integrated Defense Staff (IDS) of India and; inviting Japanese companies to invest in India’s defense manufacturing corridors.
But other possible areas of cooperation also included economic security, technology partnerships and workforce development, sending the message that India’s only goal was not to be dragged into a camp. anti-Chinese.
Moreover, there was no direct reference to China by Jaishankar, except for the usual “shared values of democracy, freedom and respect for the rule of law” that define the Indo-Japanese partnership.
India as a “second front” against China
On August 25, Admiral Mike Gilday, Chief of Naval Operations of the United States (CNO), told a conference held by the Heritage Foundation in Washington that India presents a “two-pronged problem” to the China.
“They are now forcing China not only to look east, to the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, but now they have to look over their shoulder to India,” Gilday said.
He added that a potential fight with China would be cross-regional, where the “belt and road initiative of the global Indian Ocean economic connective tissue (and their)” could be examined.
This was after Indian strategic commentator Brahma Chellaney wrote an article titled ‘India has a stake in defending Taiwan’ suggesting how Indian activities in the Himalayas could ‘tie down an entire Chinese theater force which might otherwise be used against the island”.
This was after Elbridge Colby, a former Pentagon official in the Donald Trump administration, suggested in June that the United States and Japan employ India to draw China’s attention to a “major problem from the second front”.
Can China fight a war on two fronts?
In simple terms, yes. China created theater commands after 2015, with a dedicated Western Theater Command (STC) facing its entire southwestern and southeastern Himalayan border with India. This means it has dedicated air and ground forces to undertake operations in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh simultaneously.
Even if a localized skirmish breaks out in Ladakh and India opens a new front in Arunachal Pradesh to put pressure on China, it will still be fought by different field armies and air forces – the Indian Army Eastern Command and the Indian Army Eastern Command. The IAF is reviewing Arunachal Pradesh, Indian Army Northern Command and Indian Air Force Central Command concerned with Ladakh and Indian Army Central Command which manages the Chinese border in the Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
Thus, China can concentrate synergized efforts on a single front with few coordination problems between the PLA and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). Heavy losses of air and ground assets will lead India to transfer men and machines from other commands like the Southern and South Western Army Command.
Second, China initiated the standoff with India at the height of the pandemic in 2020 when it was already mobilized in the Western Pacific. It therefore served as a statement to the United States that Beijing can mobilize simultaneously on two fronts during an unprecedented pandemic and has the economic capacity to afford it.
In early August, the first-ever live-fire exercises in the Taiwan Strait involved only Eastern Command assets, with only one aircraft carrier and one submarine from its Northern and Southern Theater Commands.
Thus, for the Western Pacific, China alone has three commands (north, east and south), with the central command possibly transferring resources in the event of a massive conflagration.
This, too, is unlikely, as it will require all three hotspots – the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea – to erupt simultaneously.
In the case of three hotspots, North Korea will be a direct party fighting the United States, South Korea and possibly Japan. Russia, too, is likely to be involved – albeit independently and not as part of a military alliance with China. Either way, it puts pressure on Japan and the United States in far northeast Asia, where China wouldn’t have to do all the fighting.
Former Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) Chief Admiral Philip Davidson and current U.S. Marine Corps Deputy General Eric Smith have admitted the grave disadvantage of the United States to China in the Western Pacific.
China enjoys a huge “home advantage” and can sustain a war for a long time, unlike the United States, which faces an “outside disadvantage”.