Can India beat China in a border war? Studies debunk claims of China's 'superiority'

An analysis of Indo-China capabilities along LAC

China India Rivalry Representational image

With India and China locked in an eyeball-to-eyeball faceoff in Ladakh, and the first incidents of violence reported in almost five decades, Hu Xijin, editor of Global Times that is considered as a Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, tweeted: "Indian society needs to rid two misjudgments: 1. It underestimates China’s will to prevent Indian troops from crossing LAC; 2. It thinks India has military capacity to beat China in a border war. Correct understanding of each other is basis for China-India friendly coexistence".

20 Indian Army personnel, including a colonel, were killed in a clash with Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley. The clash is the biggest confrontation between the two militaries after their clashes in Nathu La in 1967 when India lost around 80 soldiers while over 300 Chinese army personnel were killed. Hitting back, India had taken strong exception to China claiming sovereignty over the Galwan Valley, saying its "exaggerated and untenable claims" are contrary to the understanding reached on the issue between the two sides. 

Eventhough de-escalation is currently underway, what would happen in the case of a military face-off between India and China? Does the conventional wisdom of China's "far superior" military strength, echoed by most commentators, hold water? A close inspection shows it might not be true. Recent studies from Belfer Center at the Harvard and the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) paint a different picture. 

Are there disparities in the growth story? Sure. The CNAS report estimates Beijing’s defence budget in 2019 to be more than five times that of Delhi’s, and the PLA appears to possess a commanding (and growing) quantitative edge over India’s armed forces. The People’s Liberation Army Ground Forces (PLAGF) with almost 1.6 million troops in active service, remains the world’s largest army, whereas the Indian Army, with approximately 1.2 million soldiers, comes in either second or third place.

"Both India and China operate within multi-vectored threat environments. India remains a second-order [albeit important] consideration for PLA strategic planners, who focus the bulk of their attention and military resources on countering US and allied power projection within the so-called First Island Chain extending from Japan to Taiwan and the Philippines. Meanwhile, India continues to grapple with a series of slow-burning domestic insurgencies, and with the many challenges posed by Pakistan’s nuclear-tinged revisionism and proxy warfare," according to the report.

However, the two studies point out that India has key "under-appreciated conventional advantages that reduce its vulnerability to Chinese threats and attacks" that is not properly recognised.

An analysis:

How do the two nuclear strike force arsenal compare?

When it comes to nuclear strike forces, the Belfer report says that, in all, an estimated 104 Chinese missiles could strike all or parts of India. Chinese nuclear forces comprise land- and sea-based ballistic missiles and aircrafts that may emerge as nuclear bombers. The bulk of India’s missile forces are located closer to Pakistan than China, with estimates that around ten Agni-III launchers can reach the entire Chinese mainland. Another eight Agni-II launchers could reach central Chinese targets. India has a retaliation doctrine, which depends heavily on wide dispersal of the arsenal and secrecy of its locations, and poses credible second strike capabilties.


The Belfer report estimates that Indian Army has a total available strike force of around 2,25,000 personnel in the China-facing Northern (34,000 troops), Central (15,500 troops) and Eastern (1,75,500 troops) Commands. Even though the corresponding Chinese figures can be considered numerically close, there are a multitude of other factors at play. the CNAS report credits the experience and battle-hardened nature of the Indian Army, who has, since the 1962 Sino-Indian war, fought the Kargil conflict of 1999 and faces proxy war and regular strife with Pakistan. "Western troops participating in wargames and exercises regularly have expressed a grudging admiration for their Indian counterparts’ tactical creativity and high degree of adaptability," according to the report. The PLA's last conflict, however, has been the 1979 Vietnam War (triggered by Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia), where it faced stiff losses from hardened Vietnamese, battle-ready after the US war. 

Both India and China face threats along multiple vectors; scholar M. Taylor Fravel has written that China takes as a serious threat the US military deployment along Central Asia, and the country also faces internal insurgencies in areas like Xinjiang. Taking the Himalayan frontier, this results in a clear localised advantage for India; CNAS estimates that, in sheer numbers, Indian ground forces outmatch the Chinese—considering the proximity to the LAC, and also with regard to forward-deployed air assets. "India maintains a large number of military and paramilitary troops along the various plateaus, mountain passes, and valleys that provide the most obvious potential points of trans-Himalayan ingress, China—in accordance with its doctrine on frontier defence—stations the bulk of its conventional forces in its interior, to be surged forward in the event of conflict."

The report also dubs the recent Indian acquisitions of Apache and Chinook rotary-wing assets, along with military transport aircrafts such as the C-130 and the C-17 Globemaster, as critical rapid firepower support to isolated Indian troops. 

However, there are growing threats. In the Himalayan frontier, massive infrastructure construction from the Chinese side in Tibet, including highways and high-speed rail, allows PLA the benefit of “trans-theatre mobility”; Beijing thus could engage in rapid lateral movements across the Tibetan Plateau while Indian forces remain somewhat constrained by the rugged nature of the topography on their side of the border, according to the report. 


According to the CNAS, the Indian Navy is widely considered to be a capable and balanced maritime force, with approximately 137 ships and submarines and 291 aircraft under their command. In case of a multi-front assault, India enjoys a 5-to-1 quantitative advantage over Pakistan. Acccording to the report, the peninsular nature of Indian geography has provided the world’s largest democracy with commanding positional advantages in the northern reaches of the Indian Ocean, compounded by the island territories like Lakshadweep and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

However, India is facing a tight contest from China over its dominance in the Indian Ocean, with experts closely watching Beijing's use of Sri Lanka's Hambantota port, Gwadar in Pakistan, and naval forays westward of the Malacca Strait. China is also cementing its position in the South China Sea, with the construction of multiple artificial outposts. In addition, the CNAS report claims the Indian Navy is in crucial need of infrastructure updation; the Indian Navy’s share of the overall defence budget has continued to plummet over recent years, dropping from an average of 15 to 16 per cent in the mid-2010s, to 12 per cent in 2018–19.

Air Force

Taken broadly, CNAS estimates that, at least in the Himalayan theatre, India has a strong regional air position, in large part due to the relative paucity of Chinese air-based infrastructure in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and to the severe operational limitations, both in terms of fuel and payload capacity, induced from operating fighter aircraft at extreme altitudes. 

In all, the Belfer study estimates that Indian Air Force (IAF) has an estimated 270 fighters and 68 ground attack aircraft across its China-facing Northern, Central and Eastern commands, with focus on an expanding network of Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs), which provide staging grounds and logistics hubs for aircraft strike missions. Crucially, they are all situated permanently close to China’s border, shortening their mobilisation time and limiting the prospects of a successful Chinese cross-border advance. 

According to the CNAS study, the induction of the S-400 air-defence system will emerge as a key enabler, freeing up India’s dwindling inventory of multi-role fighters to focus on air-to-ground missions rather than on defensive counter-air.

Comparing the fourth generation fighter jets, Belfer estimates that China’s J-10 fighter is technically comparable to India’s Mirage-2000, and that the Indian Su-30MKI is superior to all theater Chinese fighters, including the additional J-11 and Su-27 models. Numerically also, India holds a clear advantage. "China hosts a total of around 101 4th-generation fighters in the theater, of which a proportion must be retained for Russian defence, while India has around 122 of its comparable models, solely directed at China."

Battleground South Asia

Post Chinese incursions, an influential US think-tank has said that China's "immediate goal" in South Asia is to limit any "defiance" from India and hinder its burgeoning partnership with the US. The report titled 'A Global Survey of US-China Competition in the Coronavirus Era' by the Hudson Institute also noted that China's deep partnership with Pakistan and close relationship with Sri Lanka are critical to Beijing's plans for dominating the region. It notes that Islamabad is Beijing's closest ally in South Asia, and unlike Colombo, has fallen into China's arms with eyes wide open.

The segment on South Asia titled 'China's Thrust into South Asia: Considerations for US Policy' argues that China's "immediate goal" in South Asia is "to limit any defiance from the world's largest democracy, India, and hinder its burgeoning partnership with the United States". According to the report, the real counter to China in South Asia is India. "In South Asia, unlike Southeast, East, or Central Asia, there is a natural hegemon: India. China cannot cast it aside easily," it said.

"India has traditionally viewed China as an equal, rather than a superior, and has been wary of Beijing's aims and suspicious of China's advances into its periphery. To this day, an ongoing territorial dispute with China mars relations. All of this creates a competitive rather than collaborative dynamic," the report said.

-Inputs from PTI