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(Project of Kajima Institute of International Peace)

What is Japan's Role in the Indo-China border conflict?

Dr. Satoru Nagao
Research Fellow, Institute for Future Engineering
Associate, SSDP

Though Japan was not a country involved in the June 16 to August 28 2017 Indo(and Bhutan)-China border stand-off, Japan played an important role in this stand-off. There are three reasons for this. 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. This was the first occasion for Japan to dispatch such a large helicopter carrier to the Indian Ocean. Because China was concerned by actions taken by Japan, the Chinese media emphasized that India should not depend on Japan's support1 . 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 on June 30, this remark meant unequivocal support for India and Bhutan. Because major powers including the US and Australia expressed a "neutral" position at that time, Japan was the only major power to clearly support India.

In addition, when the border stand-off eased, Japan showed its presence. The tention from the Indo-China stand-off decreased on 28 August just before the BRICS summit in China. 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. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Defence Minister Jaitley expressed their gratitude for Japan's support. Given this context, it is thought that China did not wish to encourage increased Japan-India security ties by continuing the border stand-off.

Despite the fact that tensions have eased, there is still a possibility that a similar stand-off that could escalate to a military conflict, could happen again. If Japan has a role to play, what should it be? To answer this question, this article will analyze three questions; i.e. What is China's goal in such a border stand-off? What kind of a war scenario can we foresee if the stand-off escalates? What options does Japan have?

1. What is China's goal in such a border stand-off?

China's activities during the border stand-off have three caracteristics. Firstly, China's activities were highly militarized. China started to build a military road where Chinese tanks can operate in a security sensitive narrow region connecting India's "mainland" and its Northeast region2 . Against India's some hundred soldiers, China deployed 12,000 soldiers, 150 tanks and howitzers. In addition, activities of the Chinese Air Force also increased in the Indo-China border area3 .

Secondly, despite reason for the stand-off was a territorial issue, China did not demonstrate its total efforts to occupy the territories it claimed. The withdrawal of troops on August 28 proved that territory was not the main issue.

Thirdly, there is a possibility that China wanted to show its influence toward not only India but also toward other countries. On this occasion the area of an Indo-China stand-off was territory claimed by both Bhutan and China. Because India was security provider of Bhutan, India intervened in the stand-off on Bhutan's behalf. And not only in Bhutan, but also in many countries around India including Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives, India and China have competed for influence. One of the purposes of China's use of power and its military activities were aimed to persuade these countries to support its position and join its side.

These three caracteristics were seen in past Indo-China border crises such as the Indo-China war of 1962, the 1967 Nathu La and Chola incidents and the 1986-87 Sumdorong Chu incident. These cases were obviously military crises. China withdrew from most of the territories they claimed despite the fact that they won in battle in at least two cases. There were also background diplomatic reasons related to China's influence in the world. What kind of diplomatic considerations were there in these crises? In the case of the Indo-China War of 1962, China's victory proved that they were stronger than India as a leading country in the third world. In the case of the 1967 Nathu La and Chola incident, these incidents occured during the Sino-Soviet split. The Soviet Union was expanding its influence not only toward India but also toward Pakistan by mediating the 2nd Indo-Pakistan War of 1965. But once the Indo-China clash took place, the USSR had to support India, and Pakistan supported China. China was able to maintain its influence toward Pakistan. There was also a diplomatic background to the 1986-87 Sumdorong Chu incident. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Following this, the US started to support Afghanistan guerrillas through Pakistan. The Soviet Union asked India to attack Pakistan to cut this support instead of using military support from the Soviet Union. In addition, India was preparing massive size military exercises in the border area with Pakistan. Chinese troops entered Sumdorong Chu to draw Indian troops toward the China side to protect Pakistan and maintained China's influence with Pakistan.

If China has diplomatic objective in the Indo-China crises, what was the objective on this occasion? It is possible that China wanted to give a warning because PM Modi's policies were viewed as a challenge to China. Since PM Modi's swearing in, Indian naval ships have made port calls and held joint exercises with more than 50 countries. There were, however, no port calls to China by Indian naval ships. India also agreed to the Dalai Lama's visit to India's Arunachal Pradesh which China also claims. With Japan, India implemented many infrastructure development projects which diminish China's influence. For example, India and Japan have implemented the Trincomalee port development project which decreases the importance of China's Hambantota port project in Sri Lanka. In Iran, India also collaborated with Japan to develop the Chabahar port project which decreases the importance of Gwadar port project in Pakistan. India also started the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor project with Japan to lessen China's influence in Africa. And finally, in June, India has refused to join the "One Belt One Road" or "Belt and Road" summit because India opposes this initiative. India opposed to this project because China ignored India's sovereignty in Kashmir and Chinese troops have been constructing a road in Pakistan occupied Kashmir. In addition, India also concerned about China's way to use their high interest loans that borrowers cannot return on time, to expand its influence. The view from China is that India's position is a challenge to China's "authority". Like the last three Indo-China border conflicts and other stand-offs, China wanted to demonstrate its power to warn against similar challenges and to indicate to other countries the cost of such challenges.

2. War scenario should a stand-off escalate

There is a possibility that a stand-off could escalate to a military conflict. What type of scenario can we foresee if these stand-offs escalate?

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 roads on the Indian side4 .

However, there are factors that will make China restrain the size of military operation. Firstly, 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". Secondly, 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 air5 . The Indian side does not face such problems. There is a possibility that the Indian Air Force can rectify its respective numerical inferiority. China does not wish to escalate a ground battle to the level of an air battle. In addition, 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, because China started the attack, it is expected that the US and Russia will support India. Considering these factors, China wishes for a limited ground battle with no escalation.

However, it is expected the reaction from India will be completely the opposite. If the ground battle escalated to an air battle, this would be a better scenario for India. India could also warn of the possibility that a nuclear war could take place. And the US and Russia would intervene to stop China's invasion to prevent a nuclear war. And even if India were to lose territory in one area, India could obtain more territory in another area if India widens the battle line. In such a scenario, when ceasefire negotiations would take place, India could deal with the territory it lost and recover it.

There are many examples when India chose the above three options. When Chinese forces entered Sumdorong Chu in 1986-87, India's reaction was one of escalation. Not only did it dispatch one brigade to deal with Chinese troops as Operation Falcon, but also India started massive size Chocker Board Exercises to prepare for China's invasion. The US and Soviet Union intervened because they worried about a larger war. As a result, China needed to reconcile with India. In 1999, when the Kargil Crisis took place between India and Pakistan, despite the fact that the attackers were only ground forces, India decided to use its air force to push back. India was also preparing a large operation to attack Pakistan. These moves also invited US intervention to support India. The US blamed Pakistan, a nuclear power, for its irresponsible movements. In the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965, though the attack from Pakistan was limited in Kashmir, India started to attack Punjab. Because India lost some territories in Kashmir but obtained other territories in Punjab, they were able to deal with territories during the ceasefire negotiations. These are examples of the reactions from India.

3. What kind of options does Japan have?

As mentioned above, China's military operations have diplomatic considerations. Once military operation started, China sought to limit the operation but India did not do so. Therefore, though the tensions eased, the possibility exists that a similar stand-off which could escalate to a military conflict, could happen again. If Japan has a role to play, what should it be? There are some options both in peace time and in time of crisis.

In peace time, dissuading China from starting a military crisis should be any Japanese policy's goal. As dissuasion, 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.

Viewed from this perspective, Japan's infrastructure projects in Northeast India is an effective choice. The September 2017 "Japan-India Joint Statement: Toward a Free, Open and Prosperous Indo-Pacific" on September 2017 mentioned that "The two Prime Ministers welcomed the Japan-India cooperation on development of India's North Eastern Region (NER) as a concrete symbol of developing synergies between India's Act East policy and Japan's Free and Open Indo Pacific Strategy6 " 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.

In the event of Indo-China crisis, India needs quick result to dissuade China's objectives. Dispatching the helicopter carrier Izumo with US aircraft carrier for Malabar Exercise 2017and the August 18 statement of the Japanese ambassador which support India achieved good results. Japan can use similar measures in a future crisis. In addition, as a good means to dissuade China, 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.

China has used one fourth of its defence budget against India. To deal with the increasing Chinese defence budget, Japan and India must cooperate more closely. Viewed from this angle, Japan-India cooperation at the Indo-China stand-off at Doklam was a good model and we must enhance cooperation to a higher level.