Publication: China Brief Volume: 1 Issue: 9

India’s defense minister, George Fernandes, has identified an implicit Chinese threat in the shared border between the two countries. In his words, “[t]o underplay the situation across the Himalayas is not in the national interest; it can in fact create a lot of problems for us in the future.”

China now occupies approximately 38,000 square kilometers (km) of Indian territory in Akshai Chin in the west bordering on the Hindukush Range and Pamir Knot and claims a further 90,000 square kms in the east. In June 1998, as a sequel to India’s nuclear tests, Beijing forcefully reiterated its claim to these areas. Since then, both India and China have deployed substantial military forces in an eyeball-to-eyeball posture along 3,380 km of what is called the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in place of a mutually recognized international border between them.


Despite having signed an agreement–“On Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility”–along the LAC in 1993, Chinese incursions across the recognized border continue to be a regular practice. The frequency of these intrusions increased after the demise of Deng Xiaoping in February 1997, and again after India’s nuclear tests in May 1998. What is little known amongst Western analysts is that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues to indulge in a comprehensive set of hostile acts, such as:

  • regularly crossing the western and eastern extremities of the LAC, “on more than 100 occasions in the last two-and-a-half years” [1]
  • developing new defense works in areas earmarked to be resolved through the mechanisms of the so-called maintenance of peace and tranquility agreement
  • proceeding with comprehensively upgrading strategic communications–road, rail and air–to facilitate the logistics required to deploy massive military forces along the Sino-Indian border and to support these in war [2]
  • continuing to develop a forward network of roads and mule tracks to facilitate tactical operations in the forward areas, which according to the treaty are to be vacated by troops to reduce tensions–including the Pangong Tso Lake (Srijap) in Ladakh, Dibang district, Tawang division, Taksing and Maja areas in Arunachal Pradesh [3]
  • constructing strategic surface communications around the flanks of the disputed territory to Pakistan in the west and Burma in the east.

Even Benjamin Gilman, former chairman of the U.S. House International Relations Committee, recognized that the greatest threat to peace in Asia was not the tensions between India and Pakistan, but China’s activity on India’s northern border. In addressing the committee he said that “the PLA has worked feverishly to build networks of all-weather roads, crisscrossing …Tibet. [A]llowed China to move large military formations swiftly along the entire length of the Indian border, affording Chinese generals the ability to concentrate mutually supporting armies almost anywhere along the frontier. A chain of permanent bases, many with huge underground storage sites and heavy fixed fortifications, linked to rear echelons by good roads.” And so on. [4] Gilman acknowledged that China has four armies based in western China that could be employed to support operations from Tibet against India through flanking attacks through Burma or reinforce an offensive from the north.


To support its military strategy, China has built a network of intelligence-gathering stations along the southern edge of the Tibetan plateau to monitor Indian air space, electronic communications and troop movements. It constructed fourteen major air bases on the plateau, along with innumerable satellite airstrips, providing the PLA Air Force with the potential to dominate the air space over Tibet and a capability, for the first time, to execute combat operations over Indian Himalayas. Given its acquisition of mid-air refueling capabilities and the increased runway lengths of upgraded air bases, China is fast increasing its prospects to prosecute deep penetration air strikes against major Indian cities in the hinterland.

The second leg of the Chinese strategy to prevail over India is directed at gaining military linkages and economic influence amongst India’s South Asian neighbors.

Burma, which was recognized by both the British and the Japanese as “the back door to India,” has in the past three decades been targeted by China to steadily increase its political, military and economic influence. It bought its way into favor with the Myanamarese Burmese military government by facilitating a peace agreement with the Communist Party of Burma, selling them nearly US$2 billion of arms, providing cheap consumer goods, re-building strategic surface communications and upgrading port facilities to enhance maritime activities. This strategy has given it considerable strategic leverage including a secure hinterland to the Indian Ocean from where it can prosecute its seaward strategy. China’s PLA Navy is responsible for, among other things, four directives:

  • creating naval bases at Munaung, Hainggyi, Katan Islands, Coco Islands, Mergui and Zadaikey Islands–along Burma’s coastline in the Bay of Bengal–and the strategic port of Gwadar off the Hormuz Straits on the Western extremity of Pakistan
  • provisioning Pakistan’s navy with ship-borne cruise missiles [type 802] and LY60N surface-to-surface missiles
  • creating and managing China’s sub-surface strategic nuclear forces (which Admiral Zhang Liaozhong defined as “the chief objective of this century”)
  • preparing the PLA Navy to emerge into the Indian Ocean in the coming decade.

China remains–overwhelmingly–the main supplier of arms to Sri Lanka, which lies off the southern tip of India, and provides military equipment and materials to Bangladesh as well.

The pincer movement to isolate India from other South Asian militaries is completed by the massive arms supplies to Pakistan and assistance of technological, material and human resources to enhance its fledgling defense industrial establishment. Yet another area of considerable concern to India is China’s extant and emerging nuclear strategic capabilities, which has serious ramifications for India’s long-term security interests.

Not only is China an established NWS with a carefully thought-out nuclear strategy, but:

  • it continues to make significant increments in its nuclear weapons arsenal;
  • it is creating a nuclear powered sub-surface potential to deploy nuclear weapons in the Indian Ocean;
  • it has tested and produced tactical nuclear weapons;
  • it introduced nuclear war fighting doctrine in the PLA;
  • it has demonstrated ominous trends by integrating missile warfare with nuclear and conventional capabilities into its concept of war; and,
  • its ‘no first use’ strategy is directed towards nonnuclear weapon states Party to the NPT, thus excluding India from this dubious assurance.


There is sufficient evidence to indicate that China has at least twenty-five nuclear-tipped medium range ballistic missiles based in Tibet, along with an undisclosed number of nuclear-configured short-range tactical missiles. These deployments are singularly India specific because their range limitations preclude engagement of more distant targets.

According to a declassified report by the U.S. Air Force’s National Intelligence Center on China’s medium rang missile deployments–“in areas where the CSS-2’s 3,100 km range capability is required, crew training activities remain robust and the number of deployed launchers likely remains unchanged.” However, CSS-2 activity in the 53rd Army at Jianshui launch complex and Kunming training area continues unabated. The USAF report concludes: “The reason for this activity is probably related to the CSS-2’s maximum range capability [and] allows… missiles at Jianshui to target most of India.”

Of specific concern to India is “the large scale CSS-2 training activity involving at least two launch units from Datong field garrison has also recently been noted at Haiyan training facility in the 56th Army, located in Central China [Tibetan Plateau–assets located at Da Qaidam, Delingha and Xiao Qaidam].” The report goes on to explain that “From Datong the CSS-2 can strike targets in India and Russia…. [and] there is evidence of replacement of some CSS-2 assets in Datong with the CSS-5 Mod 1.” [5] This means that the potential to strike Indian targets is being changed to mobile launchers from silo based launch facilities.

Another source from the Russian Federation reports that the up-gradation of the network of highways stretching from Jianshui-Kunming-Yunan-Chengdu-Lhasa-Haiyan-Datong in China’s southeast is specifically designed to take heavy mobile missiles with suitably surveyed and recorded launch sites.

Because the strategic assets the PLA has created in this region are relevant only to the Indian subcontinent it would be foolhardy to underplay Chinese strategic designs vis-à-vis India and ignore the special issues that need to be thrashed out between these two nuclear-armed states.

The projection of the Chinese nuclear strategy to the subcontinent gains further credence with its blatant assistance to Pakistan in developing its nuclear weapons arsenal through its transfer of nuclear weapons systems, warhead designs related materials, technology, training nuclear scientists and their presence at China’s nuclear tests. The deep strategic linkages between these two countries provide the basis for strategic collusion to be extended in the time of conflict thereby increasing the threat to India manifold and the complexities of formulating and implementing an appropriate nuclear strategy.

A fourth and equally ominous leg of China’s strategy to gain leverage over India lies in its national water resource strategy. One of the objects of which is to manipulate the Asian sources of water to establish a “hands off’ control over the river basins flowing through other regional powers that China considers a threat to its long term national interests. This strategy will hold millions of Indians hostage to Chinese potential to flood them or withhold their water supply.

Conclusions of a ‘nonthreat’ scenario arrived at by Western strategic analysts notwithstanding, the Indian government must take all these issues into account in formulating a national security policy for India.


1. Interview with senior military officials after the chief of army staff visited the LAC in the eastern theater in October 2001.

2. Jawed Naqvi. Quoting a senior Indian Army official in “Chinese Action Irks India,” The DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2001 Dateline. January 2001.

3. Jane’s Intelligence Digest, “Tension On Indo-Chinese Border.” November 3, 2000.

4. Benjamin Gilman. Chairman of the House International Relations Committee. Statement released on April 6, 2000 at a Full Committee hearing on “The Status of Negotiations between China and Tibet”

5. Declassified report by the U.S. Air Force’s National Intelligence Center on China’s medium rang missile deployments.

Vijai K. Nair is a defense analyst, specializing in nuclear strategy formulation, and author of “Nuclear India.”

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