New Delhi: In the backdrop of the recent clashes between Indian and Chinese forces at Galwan Valley, experts think that in case a war takes place between the two countries, India has an advantage and the war would be fought on the Tibetan plateau.

An India-China war today will be different from that fought in 1962. As per the general perception, China holds a military advantage over India. However, according to studies by Belfer Centre at the Harvard Kennedy School in Boston, and Centre for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington, India maintains an edge in high-altitude mountainous warfare over China.

According to the Belfer study, India has about 270 fighters and 68 ground-attack aircraft which can be used to counter China. India also maintains a series of small airbases near the Chinese border from which it can stage and supply those aircraft, the study claims. On the other hand, China has 157 fighters and a small fleet of ground-attack drones in the region. India can rapidly boost its strike and resupply capability, especially if backed by the United States.

“The high altitude of Chinese airbases in Tibet and Xinjiang, plus the generally difficult geographic and weather conditions of the region, means that Chinese fighters are limited to carrying around half their design payload and fuel. In-flight refuelling would be required for PLA Air Force to maximize their strike capacity. China had only inducted 15 such tanker aircraft nationally as of 2017, meaning only a handful of its forces will benefit from this solution. Against these underpowered fighters, Indian Air Force (IAF) forces will launch from bases and airfields unaffected by these geographic conditions, with maximum payload and fuel capabilities,” the study titled “The Strategic Postures of China and India: A Visual Guide” says.

The quest for new political influence exerted in Tibet plateau on the part of the Chinese, points to how strategically important the region is. The India-focused build-up started with the 2016 visit of the Chinese President Xi Jinping to north-eastern Tibetan region in Qinghai which clearly signalled that his visit prioritised China’s intention on the LAC. After that, adventurism accelerated. After Xi took control, there was an intensifying of the militarization of the Tibet plateau. There was since Hu Jintao’s period a “Baluchistan model” focus on exploiting Tibet’s water and minerals, particularly lithium and uranium.

Surrendered by India without protest to China in 1950, Tibet holds a central place due to its location in the middle of two Asian giants—India and China. With the Tibetan plateau controlled by a Chinese military infrastructure and giving China a continuous border mainly with Myanmar, India, Bhutan and Nepal, it contributes much to raising the bar of security tensions in South Asia. “Tibet is also strategically important in terms of promoting China’s pet project, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) so much so that calling the Tibet plateau a ‘strategic focal point’ for the Chinese scheme would be appropriate,” Prof Sharad K. Soni, Chairperson of the Centre for Inner Asian Studies (School of International Studies), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), told The Sunday Guardian.

As per a report by the Centre for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington, in the Himalayan region, India has a strong regional air position, in large parts due to the relative paucity of Chinese air-based infrastructure in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). The PLA and PLAAF suffer severe operational limitations, both in terms of fuel and payload capacity, from operating fighter aircraft at extreme altitudes and the complete lack of combat experience of the entire military. China is now taking Pakistani help and several operations concerning Nepal, India and Bhutan are being planned by China’s Central Military Commission (CMC) with inputs from GHQ Rawalpindi.

The Belfer report says that Chinese positions along the Russian border are intact and moving them to the Indian side, in case of hostilities, may present a logistical problem if there is resistance. Indian air strikes may target high speed rail lines on the Tibetan plateau or choke points in the mountainous terrain closer to the border. Indian forces, in contrast, are already largely in position, says the report.

In 1962, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was fearful of using the Air Force as he wrongly believed the Chinese Air Force could target cities in North India in retaliation, when Chinese force lacked any such capability. There is a suspicion that the Indian Embassy in Beijing was feeding disinformation to the PMO because of the faith some there had in Chinese communist propaganda. Release of papers on the subject is yet to take place, despite promises of transparency about past errors.

Prof Soni said that India would be in an advantageous position on the Tibet front: “With enormous strategic significance, Tibet has also created an obstacle to Indo-China cooperation, thus giving way to Chinese insecurity over its control of the Tibetan plateau. Due to the cordial ties between India and the Tibetan government-in-exile, Tibet would lend its support to India which China can never afford. China has only one choice—to maintain status quo at the border as agreed between the two countries given that even a Chinese military expert has recently recognised that India has the world’s largest and experienced plateau and mountain troops equipped with some of the best weapons suited for such terrain in the Tibetan border. Obviously, India has some vantage points.”

“After Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power, India and its revamped foreign policy have become a major concern to the Chinese. Despite whatever happened in recent days along the borders between the two countries’ military personnel in the Tibet plateau, neither side really wants war. However, it cannot be denied that the two sides are candidly happy with the current peace. Therefore, talks at the diplomatic and military levels must continue to thwart any possibility of mis-happenings at the border because war is not the solution which both India and China understand. If at all war breaks out, it would be devastating for both the countries and hence as of now neither side is in a position to afford a war between them,” he said.

Overall, several experts say that the coming border war with China may be 1962 in reverse, with the battle getting carried to the Tibetan plateau. Should a united Quad battle the PLA, the outcome would be even more decisive.

Asked to comment on the issue, Lt. General Prakash C Katoch (Retd) said Tibet was very important to both China and India. For India, he said, Tibet was always strategically important, being the buffer between China and India: “China annexed it along with Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia to give depth to original China. You would be aware Mao Zedong had said, ‘Tibet is the palm of China, and Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and NEFA (Arunachal Pradesh) are its fingers’. Today, Tibet is 26% landmass of China and China’s ‘water tower’. Demographic invasion by 7 million Han-Chinese overwhelmed 6 million Tibetans.”

He, however, said he did not see a full-fledged war between India and China, but a border conflict which would be on Indian territory (not Tibet Plateau) because PLA was already inside our territory—in Depsang they are sitting 19-km inside at Y Junction—same place they had intruded in 2013. “As a country we have forgotten the art of being pro-active. What did we achieve in Kargil? Just threw them out of ‘our’ territory,” he added.