In recent weeks, public attention in India has reached feverish levels over what is perceived to be the growing threat lurking north of the border. Tensions along the Himalayan frontier with China have spiked noticeably since a round of Sino-Indian talks over long-standing territorial disputes this summer ended in failure. In their wake, the frenetic Indian press has chronicled reports of nighttime boundary incursions and troop build-ups, even while officials in both governments downplay such confrontations. Elements in the Indian media point almost daily to various signs of a Beijing plot to contain its neighbor's rise, a conviction aided by recent hawkish editorials from China's state-run outlets. This week, leading Indian news networks loudly catalogued Chinese transgressions under headlines such as "Red Peril" and "Enter the Dragon."
Strategypage looks at the India-China military balance, where these two giants can't really get at each other:
The commander of the Indian Air Force is openly complaining that China has three times as many warplanes as India (which has 1,700, have of them combat, the rest support). The head of the Indian Navy has been complaining about Chinese warships being more numerous, and more frequently showing up in the Indian Ocean.
The Indian Army is less concerned. Three years ago, India adopted the Russian T-90 as its new main battle tank. There is now local production of about a thousand T-90s over the next decade. India already has imported 310 T-90s. Under this plan, by 2020, India will have 2,000 upgraded T-72s, over 1,500 T90s, and few hundred other tanks. This will be the most powerful armored force in Eurasia, unless China moves ahead with upgrades to its tank force.
Recent Indian plans to move two infantry divisions to the northeast, while useful to hold the border, in the short run is more about fighting ethnic separatists.
But again, two divisions could help hold the border rather than forcing the Indians to rely on their armor superiority to reclaim land lost in an initial Chinese attack.
The basic point is that the two most populous nations on the planet don't really have a front for a land war despite their long border. Ironically enough, despite their size and border, the main arena for a war would lie at sea and in the air.
And given that neither has a fleet ready to reach the usual patrol areas of the other, the main method of fighting in the near future is in the air--where India is badly outgunned.
India needs to downgrade their army (and shift emphasis from Pakistan) to one capable of defending their border, while maintaining limited offensive capabilities in the west that could bite off terrain in Pakistan useful as bargaining chips. That would also tend to allow Pakistan to devote more resources to fighting their own frontier jihadis without worrying about being conquered. Besides, India's nuclear weapons should constrain any Pakistani attempts to invade India.
Shifting ground offensive resources away from Pakistan would be better for restoring Indian control of the northeast should China attack and for having an offensive option versus China's ally Burma.
Money should be redirected toward air power as the priority and to naval forces as the next higher priority.
Air power needs to be able to defeat any Chinese efforts to attack India while giving India the capabilities to attack Chinese air fields and the rail line into Tibet.
Naval power in the short run needs to be able to smash any Chinese effort to operate in the Indian Ocean. They have that now. This gives India the power to interrupt China's sea line of supply to Africa and the Middle East.
In the long run, India needs to be able to project power into the South China Sea to make sure India can pose a threat to interrupt China's trade.
For that, India also needs a diplomatic offensive to gain the friendship of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia,Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan. Alliance with America, Japan, South Korea, and Australia wouldn't hurt, of course.
Just getting the first group would allow India to operate safely in the South China Sea without worrying about hostile air power from their flanks and put that worry on China. The latter group would doom China's fleet.
With conventional combat between China and an Indian-dominated alliance (assuming no US involvement) limited on land and the probability that air and naval warfare would not be particularly decisive in the long run (I assume air only wouldn't break the other side's will or capability to fight and that China could--at great expense--eventually reroute sea supply lines across the Pacific unless India's navy really gets powerful), it could be that stoking insurrection could be the main weapon.
China has huge swathes of land with restive minorities in Tibet and the far west. India has restive minorities too, including in the northeast near China's border and in Kashmir.
In the short run, based on the air power balance, China has the edge. Should it come to war, China should emphasize an aerial offensive in a limited objective war. And attempt to seize and hold border land to potentially return in bargaining or just keep.
In the medium term based on India's control of the Indian Ocean and ability to direct land power at China's ally Burma, India has the edge. Should it come to war, India should stop China's Indian Ocean shipping to pressure China into suing for peace. And prepare to invade Burma.
And in the long run, given China's greater vulnerability to (and consequences from) ethnic unrest, India has the edge. If not an edge in actually fomenting unrest, then in the effects of unrest.
Oh, and India has the edge in potential allies.
It is interesting to ponder how two powerful and large countries might fight each other with the Himalayas stopping any decisive land operations directed against each other.
UPDATE: I kind of went into stream of consciousness on this, originally intending just to comment on the air-centric nature of the early stages of potential conflict and the lack of avenues for decisive land operations.
I should mention that friendship or alliance with Singapore is obviously of importance to India in either blocking Chinese naval movement west or facilitating Indian movement east.
And even though Russia is a shadow of its former self and no longer the prime Indian ally, their nukes alone and Pacific Fleet would be a useful distraction for China to contemplate. It makes sense for India to cultivate a Russia that should be worried more about China than Georgia.
The bottom line on geographic position and allies is that China is potentially surrounded by enemies on land and sea, while India has the Himalayas minimizing land threats to their front and the Indian Ocean as its rear area adequately protected by their own navy with the US Navy as the ultimate guarantor of their lines of supply if needed.