Who Will Win the Great China-India Naval War of 2020?

Right now China and India are glaring at each other across Doklam, the contested ground along the Sino-Indian frontier high in the Himalayas. It was the Himalayan border that prompted their last serious fight, when China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) dealt the Indians a short, sharp defeat in 1962. But any future war might not be fought on the high mountains, but the high seas.

A Sino-Indian naval war seems improbable, for sure — but so do most wars, before they happen. It’s certainly not unthinkable, and so it behooves Asia-watchers to lay out the odds now rather than be guilty of a failure of imagination should the worst transpire.

Bottom line: Don’t be taken in by numbers indicating that China would steamroll India in a sea fight. Martial enterprises are seldom that neat.

China has settled its border disputes with most in the region — but it prefers to leave the contest with some of its neighbors simmering, especially India. A spokesman for China’s defense ministry, Col. Wu Qian, warned Indians not to “push your luck” in the Doklam dispute. For good measure Wu added that the Indian Army would find it “easier to shake a mountain than to shake the PLA.” Beyond the present conflict, Chinese and Indian media have a long history of competing to see who can shout “By jingo!” in the other’s direction the loudest.

History shows that rancor on land or in the air can easily sprawl out to sea. Or a saltwater conflict could ensue independently of events ashore. Both contestants take a proprietary view of waters off their coasts. China thinks about the South China Sea as a zone of “indisputable” or “irrefutable” sovereignty where Beijing ought to make the rules and others ought to obey. In a similar vein, India models its foreign policy and strategy in part on the Monroe Doctrine, and thus regards the Indian Ocean as an Indian preserve.

Such claims should have a familiar ring to Americans. During its own rise to regional and world power, the United States sought to exclude powerful outsiders from the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico — its outlet to the Pacific Ocean. The Monroe Doctrine started off as a joint defense of the Americas against European imperial powers. It ended up with Washington proclaiming that its “fiat [was] law” throughout these waters, and that it could exercise an “international police power” there — meddling in fellow American states’ affairs to preclude European seizures of territory in the…

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