While India and China were trading blows on the Himalayan border, Beijing’s sidekick Pakistan tried to take advantage of the situation and sneak in terrorists into Kashmir. While the terrorists were shot dead, it raised the possibility of the communists and Islamists colluding to attack their common civilisational adversary. India is capable of easily swatting away Pakistan – there has never been any doubt about that front. At the same time, the Indian Army can grind down the Chinese forces in Tibet while the Indian Navy chokes the Chinese Navy in the narrow straits of South East Asia. But the big question is, can India handle a joint China-Pakistan attack? How realistic is a two-front war? To understand what we are dealing with, let’s examine two previous wars in which India faced this apocalyptic scenario.
During the 1965 War, as three divisions of the Indian Army blasted through Pakistani defences and were crossing the Ichhogil canal near Lahore, the Pakistanis appealed to China for help. However, Chinese dictator Mao Tse-Tung told Pakistani President General Ayub Khan that “if there is a nuclear war, it is Peking and not Rawalpindi that will be the target”. (1)
As the Pakistani defences collapsed, the Indian regiments crossed the Ichhogil Canal and reached the outskirts of Lahore. In the fierce Battle of Dograi, the Indian Army’s 3 Jats mauled the Pakistan Army’s 16 Punjab and captured a number of districts in Lahore. (2) India’s lightning strikes into the enemy’s heartland now caused alarm in China which sent a strongly word note accusing India of aggression on the Tibetan border. After India denied it was acting aggressively, the Chinese said they were satisfied with the answer. Beijing didn’t do anything except fire a few shots at Indian posts in Ladakh and Sikkim.
The fact is, none of the major powers were prepared to tolerate a simultaneous Chinese attack on India. While British Prime Minister Harold Wilson condemned India and blatantly took Pakistan’s side, both the US and the Soviet Union were neutral throughout the war. The communists in Moscow did some monkey balancing between India and their communist comrades in Beijing, but they were not keen to see India humiliated by China. Both superpowers were of the view that the war was a South Asian matter and should be settled in South Asia. Beijing got the message and backed off despite Pakistan begging for military intervention.
For five long months, the Indian Army was camped on the outskirts of Lahore and Sialkot, thoroughly embarrassing the Pakistan Army in the eyes of the world. (3) The Chinese looked the other way.
The Indian government was confident China wouldn’t open a second front, and moved some of its Mountain Divisions to fight on the Pakistan front. An official Indian report of the 1965 War noted: “In real sense (China) had neither any intention nor any capacity to strike against India.” (4)
On December 10, 1971, as Indian forces blitzed through East Pakistan and the Pakistan Air Force was blown out of the subcontinent’s sky, US President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger requested China to launch some kind of attack on India. (5) But again, the Chinese did nothing.
Barely a week after Pakistan started the war, the Pakistani military in the east was on the verge of collapse. The Indian Navy’s missile boats had struck Karachi harbour twice. They destroyed several Pakistan Navy warships and set fire to the oil farms, creating the biggest bonfire in all of Asia. As the Indian Army and Air Force attacked round the clock, the Pakistani military in the west was becoming demoralised. At the White House, here’s how the conversation went. (6)
Nixon: Our desire is to save West Pakistan. That’s all.
Kissinger: That’s right. That is exactly right.
Nixon: Could you tell the Chinese it would be very helpful if they could move some forces or threaten to move some forces?
Nixon: They’ve got to threaten or they’ve got to move, one of the two. You know what I mean?
Nixon: This should have been done long ago. The Chinese have not warned the Indians.
Kissinger: Oh, yeah.
Nixon: All they’ve got to do is move something. Move a division. You know, move some trucks. Fly some planes. You know, some symbolic act. We’re not doing a goddamn thing, Henry, you know that.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union had assured India that it would launch a massive attack against China if it opened the Himalayan front. Despite Kissinger’s goading and desperate Pakistani calls for help, the Chinese did nothing and sat on the sidelines mutely watching India humiliate their vassal.
US diplomatic documents reveal that the Indian political leadership knew the Soviets had factored in the possibility of Chinese intervention. According to a cable referring to an Indian cabinet meeting held on December 10, “If the Chinese were to become directly involved in the conflict….the Soviet Union would act in the Sinkiang region. Soviet air support may be made available to India at that time.” (7)
Today India is a different beast – it’s a far bigger economy and has much improved war fighting capacity. Defence analyst J.A. Khan says that in the event of a flashpoint with Pakistan, “its air power will be obliterated by the quality and quantity of air weapons India possesses”. (8)
“With the present air power preparedness, India will have the capability to hit every single important military and economic target in Pakistan. And given Pakistan’s size, each target there is ten times as valuable as an equivalent target in India. As far as Pakistani attack capability, it can only be minuscule. Pakistani air power will have an extremely difficult time protecting Pakistan skies. The token numbers available for attack can, if at all, get to target only in western India.”
So realistically, the chances of Pakistan jumping into the ring when the two titans clash are smaller than small.
But war strategists must plan for every possible scenario. The two-front threat is not new. Since the sixties, the prospect of the dragon intervening to bail out Pakistan has been a constant factor in India’s war planning. In the 1965 War, the Indian Army moved its Mountain Divisions to the Lahore front only after it was convinced the remaining forces could undertake a holding operation if the Chinese opened a second front. Again, in the 1971 War, the Indian Army waited until the Himalayan passes were snowed under – effectively blocking out the PLA – before launching its blitzkrieg into Pakistan.
Learning from the Past
In the past, India’s political leadership ignored a number of red flags raised by foresighted generals. For instance, in 1951 when the political leadership led by Jawaharlal Nehru was singing the ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai’, army chief K.M. Cariappa saw the looming threat and presented an outline plan for the defence of Arunachal Pradesh. Nehru snubbed him, saying that it was not the commander in chief’s business to tell the Prime Minister how to defend the country. “He advised Cariappa to worry only about Pakistan and Kashmir; as far as (Arunachal Pradesh) was concerned, the Chinese themselves would defend our frontiers.” (9)
In 1958, when a Chinese military delegation visited Ambala, Haryana, Lt Col (later Lt Gen) JFR Jacob of 4 Infantry Division was asked to organise a firepower demonstration for them. During the banquet organised for the visitors, Jacob was taken back by the highly provocative remarks by a Chinese general who said, “China would never forget that Indian troops took part in the sacking and looting of the Summer Palace (in Beijing) during the 2nd Opium War.” He went on to make other contentious remarks, writes Jacob (10).
Jacob (the only Jewish general in the Indian Army) reported the conversation to his commanding officer Maj Gen B.K. Kaul, who dismissed the matter, saying Jacob must have misunderstood the Chinese general. Jacob replied that he had not, which caused Kaul to show his resentment.
Considering how often the military leadership has been right – and how often the politicians have blundered – it would be ill-advised to disregard the statements by both the army and air force chiefs that India must be prepared for a worst-case scenario.
On September 6, 2017 army chief General Bipin Rawat said the country must be prepared for a potential two-front war with China and Pakistan as reconciliation with the latter looked bleak. (11) Referring to the 10-week Doklam standoff in the Himalayas, Rawat said the situation on India’s northern border could worsen in future, in which case Pakistan on the western front could take advantage of the situation. Similarly, IAF chief B.S. Dhanoa sent a personal letter to 12,000 officers, asking them to be prepared for operations “at a very short notice”. (12)
While the Chinese are clearly rattled by India’s aggression in Galwan Valley, where Indian Army soldiers killed 43 PLA soldiers as payback for the Chinese treacherously killing 20 unarmed Indian soldiers, the Pakistan Army’s pride has taken a huge knock by the Indian Army’s deep strike in Balakot in Khyber-Pakthunkhwa. The two adversaries are clearly desperate to exact some revenge. Also, they would like to humiliate in the eyes of the world so that India’s image suffers and India’s booming economy tanks.
Enemies Grow Closer
The Chinese and The Pakistani world views are uncannily similar. The Chinese elites want to restore the country to the so-called glory days of the Middle Kingdom, implying that the country occupies a central position in the world, and therefore China is superior to all other nations. Similarly, many Pakistanis dream of restoring the Mughal Empire over the Indian subcontinent. Because the Chinese cannot become masters of the world if there’s a powerful India next door, and Pakistanis cannot reinvent the Mughals until India is balkanised, these views neatly dovetail into a common hostility against India.
China has for decades propped up Pakistan as a counterweight to India. According to Pakistani author and columnist F.S. Aijazuddin, in the early 1960s Chinese Premier Zhou-Enlai had travelled to Pakistan and suggested to President Ayub Khan that Islamabad should prepare for a prolonged conflict with India instead of short-term wars, and raise a militia force to act behind Indian lines. Heeding to China’s advice, the Pakistanis went on to create terrorist groups like the Lashkar to wage an undeclared war against India. (14)
With the signing of CPEC (the much touted China-Pakistan Economic Corridor), the equation between the two virtual dictatorships has become even more skewed in Beijing’s favour. It has come to a point where Pakistani commentators are describing it as a master-client relationship, where Pakistan has no choice but to dutifully follow China in all strategic matters. So, even if Islamabad is not keen to enter a joint war against India, it may not be in a position to say no to Beijing.
Considering such deep-rooted hostility from two nuclear armed adversaries, India should be in a state of constant battle readiness – like Israel, which is also surrounded by enemies. The government should be prepared to spend at least 5 per cent of its GDP on defence. This isn’t as big as it looks. For, it is better to spend 5 per cent to defend all that is dear to us than to lose 50 per cent of it in war.
Sparta, the warlike Greek state, used to be in a perpetual state of war readiness. On several occasions Greece was saved from certain defeat against much larger Persian forces because, unlike the other city states, the Spartans trained for war 365 days of the year. Similarly, the Mauryan Empire founded by Chandragupta more than 2,300 years ago was always prepared for war, with a standing army of an astonishing 600,000 infantry, 30,000 cavalry and 9,000 elephants. This massive military ensured that for nearly two centuries, India remained free of invasions. Military might and preparedness are therefore the primary guarantors of peace and prosperity.
1. G.W. Chaudhury, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Major Powers: Politics of a Divided Subcontinent
2. Battle of Dograi, India Times, https://www.indiatimes.com/news/the-battle-of-dograi-when-the-3-jat-battalion-sealed-the-victory-for-india-in-the-1965-war-259753.html
5. Russia Beyond the Headlines, https://www.rbth.com/articles/2011/12/20/1971_war_how_russia_sank_nixons_gunboat_diplomacy_14041
6. US State Department, https://2001-2009.state.gov/r/pa/ho/frus/nixon/e7/48542.htm
7. US State Department, https://2001-2009.state.gov/r/pa/ho/frus/nixon/e7txt/50163.htm
8. J.A. Khan, Air Power and Challengers to IAF
9. General V.K. Singh, Leadership in the India Army, page 43
10. JFR Jacob, An Odyssey in War and Peace, page 37
13. Indian Defence Review, http://www.indiandefencereview.com/news/role-of-the-iaf-in-a-two-front-war/0/
14. F.S. Aijazuddin, ‘From a Head, Through a Head, To a Head – The Secret Channel Between the US and China Through Pakistan’
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Rakesh is a globally cited defence analyst. His work has been published by the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi; US Air Force Center for Unconventional Weapons Studies, Alabama; Russia Beyond, Moscow; Hindustan Times, New Delhi; Business Today, New Delhi; Financial Express, New Delhi; BusinessWorld Magazine, New Delhi; Swarajya Magazine, Bangalore; Foundation Institute for Eastern Studies, Warsaw; Research Institute for European and American Studies, Greece, among others.
As well as having contributed for a research paper for the US Air Force, he has been cited by leading organisations, including the US Army War College, Pennsylvania; US Naval PG School, California; Johns Hopkins SAIS, Washington DC; Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi; Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington DC; Rutgers University, New Jersey; Institute of International and Strategic Relations, Paris; Institute for Strategic, Political, Security and Economic Consultancy, Berlin; Siberian Federal University, Krasnoyarsk; Institute for Defense Analyses, Virginia; International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, Washington DC; Stimson Centre, Washington DC; Foreign Policy Research Institute, Philadelphia; Center for Strategic & International Studies, Washington DC; and BBC.
His articles have been quoted extensively by national and international defence journals and in books on diplomacy, counter-terrorism, warfare, and development of the global south.