Several times in recent years, the chiefs of staff have publicly emphasised the need for the Indian armed forces to prepare to fight a two-front war. Given the ever-deepening nuclear warhead-ballistic missile-military hardware nexus between China and Pakistan, now supplemented by close economic cooperation, the probability of a two-front threat is constantly increasing.
The history of military collusion between China and Pakistan goes back over 50 years. During the 1965 India-Pakistan war, though Pakistani president General Ayub Khan had asked China for military aid, China limited its support to making some threatening military manoeuvres in Tibet. The aim was to keep Indian military reserves tied down so that additional divisions could not be moved from the eastern theatre to the western front.
During the 1971 India-Pakistan war, despite Henry Kissinger's entreaties to China to intervene, China chose to restrict its support once again to threatening noises. It is noteworthy that during the Kargil conflict in 1999, Chinese military advisers were reported to have been present in Skardu in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK).
Since at least the early 1990s, China has been using Pakistan as a proxy to embroil India in perpetual conflict. It provided nuclear warhead designs to Pakistan and reportedly some fissile material as well. China helped Pakistan to test its prototype warhead at its Lop Nur range and gave it M-9 and M-11 nuclear-capable short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs).
China also facilitated the transfer of Nodong and Taepo Dong ballistic missiles from North Korea to Pakistan. American journalist Selig Harrison wrote in the New York Times that close to 10,000 Chinese engineers and personnel of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) have been engaged in road and hydel projects in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) for over a decade.
It is believed that Pakistan has outsourced counter-terrorism operations in GB against extremists of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), active in China's restive Xinjiang, to the PLA. Also, Pakistan has handed over its Gwadar port on the Makran Coast to China. It is possible that as part of China's 'string of pearls' strategy, the port will be turned into a Chinese naval base.
It was in the light of these developments that former army chief General Deepak Kapoor had said during the Army Training Command doctrine seminar in December 2009 that the Indian Army must prepare for a two-front war. Several armed forces chiefs have repeated this formulation since and it has become the sine qua non for India's defence preparedness.
In fact, some former chiefs have spoken of the need to prepare for a two and a half-front war. The implication is that the army is already engaged in a 'half-front war' by way of counter-insurgency operations that drain resources in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and some of the north-eastern states. Also, during a future war with either China or Pakistan, given the unstable internal security environment, there will be a requirement to keep the internal lines of communication safe from interdiction and sabotage. The term half-front war was coined by General Shankar Roychowdhury, former COAS.
The conventional wisdom in the policy community in New Delhi is that if there is a war between India and Pakistan, China may not come to Pakistan's aid militarily unless Chinese troops are directly under attack, for example in Gilgit-Baltistan. China will raise the issue in the UN Security Council, provide weapons and defence equipment as well as logistics support and probably demonstrate some military manoeuvres in Tibet to prevent India's dual-tasked divisions from being moved to the western sector, as it has done in the past.
However, if there is a war between India and China, Pakistan is unlikely to hold back. It is certain to take advantage of the situation in various ways. Pakistan will step up the infiltration of trained terrorists to play havoc with the lines of communication of the Indian armed forces and may, under certain circumstances, open another front against India. If Pakistan does launch offensive operations in support of China, these will probably begin in J&K, but may not necessarily remain limited to J&K.
Can India fight both China and Pakistan simultaneously? The armed forces will be stretched to the limit but, given adequate resources, they could fight a holding action successfully, though with large-scale casualties. However, with the present force levels and combat capabilities, they cannot fight and win. That implies that they cannot hope to terminate the conflict on India's terms and impose the nation's will upon the adversaries. As such, the political and military aims and objectives will have to be kept low.
Should India enter into a military alliance with friendly powers? Military alliances are passÃ© as these are generally too restrictive and it is necessary for India to preserve its strategic autonomy. Ideally, India's key strategic partnerships should be of sufficient significance to ensure that India is never required to fight a two-front war. Though it was not a military alliance, the Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation, which India had signed with the erstwhile Soviet Union before the 1971 war, had ensured that China refrained from aiding Pakistan militarily during the war.
The Indo-US strategic partnership has been described as India's 'principal' strategic partnership. Its defence cooperation element must be taken to the next higher trajectory - joint threat assessment, joint contingency planning and the conduct of joint operations when the vital national interests of both countries are threatened simultaneously. This will ensure that a situation similar to 1971 obtains in future and India's military adversaries are deterred from ganging up against India.
Simultaneously, India should upgrade its present military strategy of dissuasion against China to deterrence, which will come from the capacity to take the war into the adversary's territory, the ability to cause unacceptable damage and the wherewithal to dominate the sea-lanes of the Indian Ocean.
(The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi)