China’s Military Capabilities in the South China Sea, East China Sea, and Conflict with India
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Photo: A naval soldier of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) views through a pair of binoculars onboard China’s first aircraft carrier Liaoning as it visits a military harbour on the South China Sea. Xinhua Photo

By Daniel Robinson*

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has made significant strides in modernizing its military capabilities over the past few decades. The question of whether China has sufficient military capabilities to defend its sovereignty in the South China Sea and East China Sea, as well as manage conflicts with India, is complex and multifaceted. This article delves into China’s current military capabilities, the historical context of its conflict with India, and the strategic and logistical challenges it faces in these critical regions.

The South China Sea and East China Sea: Strategic Importance

The South China Sea and East China Sea are vital maritime regions for China, both strategically and economically. These waters are crucial for trade routes, resource extraction, and military positioning. China’s claims over these seas have led to tensions with neighboring countries and increased scrutiny from global powers like the United States.

Military Assets and Capabilities:

  • Naval Power: The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has grown significantly, with an expanding fleet that includes aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates, and submarines. The PLAN’s modernization aims to project power and protect Chinese interests far from its shores.
  • Air Power: The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has also modernized, with advanced fighter jets, bombers, and surveillance aircraft enhancing China’s ability to control airspace over these contested regions.
  • Missile Systems: China has developed a range of anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) and other missile systems designed to deter and counteract naval forces operating near its claimed waters.

Despite these advancements, there are notable limitations. The PLAN, while numerically strong, still faces challenges in terms of operational experience and logistical support for extended operations far from the Chinese mainland.

Operational Challenges:

  • Logistics and Sustenance: The lack of robust overseas bases poses a significant challenge for the PLAN. Dredged islands in the South China Sea provide limited support and are vulnerable to environmental and military threats.
  • Joint Operations Experience: Effective joint military operations, integrating naval, air, and ground forces, require extensive training and experience. The PLAN’s relatively limited experience in real-world joint operations is a critical gap.

The China-India Border Conflict: Historical and Current Perspectives

The Sino-Indian border has been a flashpoint since the 1962 conflict, where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) decisively defeated Indian forces, exploiting strategic and operational weaknesses. However, the situation has evolved considerably since then.

1962 Conflict Analysis:

  • PLA Strategy: The PLA’s success in 1962 was due to well-coordinated attacks using experienced personnel from previous conflicts, such as the Chinese Civil War and the Korean War.
  • Indian Weaknesses: India suffered from poor military planning, lack of preparedness, and inadequate command and control, leading to significant territorial losses.

Post-1962 Developments:

  • Indian Military Reforms: Post-1962, India undertook substantial reforms, enhancing its military capabilities, establishing better logistical support, and integrating its armed forces.
  • Recent Clashes: Skirmishes in 1967 and 1986 demonstrated India’s improved military posture and willingness to defend its borders. The 2020 Galwan Valley clash further highlighted the ongoing tensions and the need for robust defense mechanisms.

Current Military Posture:

  • Indian Advantages: India now maintains a strong military presence along its northern borders, with improved infrastructure, air bases, and rapid deployment capabilities. The Indian Air Force (IAF) is better equipped to support ground operations, rectifying one of the major shortcomings of the 1962 conflict.
  • PLA Modernization: Since 2004, the PLA has significantly modernized, reducing personnel in favor of advanced technology and better-trained forces. President Xi Jinping has emphasized modernization, focusing on command and control, joint operations, and professionalizing the officer corps.

Strategic and Tactical Considerations

The strategic landscape between China and India has shifted. While the PLA has modernized, India’s military reforms and strategic positioning in the Himalayas have leveled the playing field. The use of air power, improved logistics, and seasoned military leadership now favor a more balanced conflict scenario.

Naval Considerations:

  • PLAN Limitations: The PLAN’s Southern Fleet faces logistical challenges due to the lack of nearby bases. The use of artificial islands provides limited support and is not sustainable for prolonged conflict scenarios.
  • Indian Navy Strengths: India’s naval forces, with bases closer to the conflict zones, have an operational advantage in the Indian Ocean region, potentially countering PLAN movements and protecting vital maritime routes.

Nuclear Deterrence:

  • Strategic Deployment: Both China and India possess nuclear capabilities, which act as a deterrent against full-scale conventional warfare. The deployment of strategic nuclear weapons adds a layer of complexity to any potential conflict, ensuring that both sides remain cautious in escalating tensions.

Assessing whether China has sufficient military capabilities to defend its sovereignty in the South China Sea, and East China Sea, and manage conflicts with India requires a nuanced understanding of both current capabilities and strategic challenges. While China has made significant advancements in military modernization, the effectiveness of these capabilities is tempered by logistical constraints, limited operational experience, and the evolving strategic environment.

India, on the other hand, has transformed its military posture since 1962, addressing past weaknesses and positioning itself as a formidable adversary. The balance of power in the Himalayas has shifted, with India now possessing a more robust and responsive military presence.

In the maritime domain, China’s ability to project power is hampered by logistical limitations, whereas India’s naval forces benefit from proximity and established bases. The strategic use of nuclear weapons also imposes significant constraints on both nations, ensuring that any conflict remains contained and managed.

Ultimately, while China’s military capabilities are formidable, they are not without limitations. The ongoing modernization efforts and the strategic challenges in both maritime and land domains indicate a complex and dynamic security environment, where success is determined not just by numbers but by operational efficiency, experience, and strategic foresight.

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