by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.
As has now been well-documented, the Chinese military’s attempts to construct a road through the Doklam Plateau, an area disputed between China and Bhutan and located near the tri-border region with India, led to a standoff between Chinese and Indian forces between June and August 2017. Although no fire was exchanged between the two sides, a melee apparently ensued on August 15, when Indian authorities allege some Chinese troops strayed across the border with India amid bad weather conditions, and several soldiers on both sides were injured. Talks between India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and China’s President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the September 2017 BRICS summit in Xiamen, China seem to have reduced tensions.However, both Indian and Chinese troops reportedly continue to patrol the area, leaving significant potential for renewed hostilities in the future. Such a scenario has made military planners in New Delhi keenly aware of how ill-prepared the Indian Army is for mountain warfare against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Following successful trials in June 2017, China has begun manufacturing as many as 300 units of the Xinqingtan (literally “New Light Tank”) or ZTQ-105. Armed with 105-millimetre gun, this tank is also expected to be equipped with a 35-millimeter grenade launcher and a 12.7-millimeter machine gun. Specifically designed for reconnaissance and infantry support operations in mountainous terrain, the Xinqingtan contrasts with the Indian Army’s own current armour capabilities: cumbersome Russian-designed T-72 and T-90 tanks, as well as the domestic Arjun tank.
In short, the Indian Army has developed its armoured capabilities on the assumption that any future conflict would be with Pakistan and thus on relatively level terrain, on which the T-72, T-90, and Arjun tanks would excel. Recognizing that any escalation in the Doklam Plateau, or anywhere else on its largely mountainous border with China, would leave Indian ground troops at a substantial disadvantage, India’s Ministry of Defence is developing its requirements for a new light tank. This would apparently entail a tank weighing approximately 22 tonnes, capable of operating at altitudes of more than 3,000 metres and in hilly terrain, while also having the capacity to penetrate heavily armoured targets at distances of more than two kilometres. Importantly, the Indian requirements also include the capacity to fire guided missiles, which is a capability some have speculated that the Xinqingtan also enjoys.There are few tank models currently produced which match India’s requirements. Beyond the Xinqingtan, Textron Marine & Land Systems has produced several variants of its Stingray light tank since 1989. Still employed extensively by the Royal Thai Army (according to the Military Balance 2017 66 of this light tanks are still in service), the Stingray would bring the needed firepower and maneuverability to support Indian infantry but would also require some modification to suit the terrain conditions in which India expects this light tank to operate. Meanwhile, attempting to modify some of the Indian Army’s current inventory of infantry fighting vehicles or armoured personnel carriers would be a non-starter: the BMP-2 Sarath does not have sufficient firepower and has too heavy a chassis to match the maneuverability of the Xinqingtan. More likely, it will be left to the Indian defence industry to develop an entirely new model of light tank.
This suggests that the capability gap in the Doklam Plateau will persist for at least the next several years. The design of a new light tank meeting the Indian Army’s requirements will take some time, and it is unclear whether the Heavy Vehicles Factory in Chennai will be able to accommodate any major new orders while manufacture of the remaining Arjun tanks is underway. With President Xi’s remarks at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China heralding an even more assertive foreign policy, it is entirely possible that the PLA will press its advantage in the tri-border region with India and Bhutan, continuing the work on the road that triggered the original months-long standoff.For India, the coming years will need to be devoted toward shoring up “soft power” overseas and enhancing any regional mechanisms for conflict prevention. Quite promising in this regard, the 10th round of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC) was held in last November in Beijing and allowed for some discussion between the two sides about confidence-building measures (CBMs). This could encompass reciprocal site visits and inspections, in order to demonstrate that neither side seeks to build up their military presence in the border region, and advance notice of any military drills near the Doklam Plateau. Whether China can commit to such measures, however, remains to be seen; India itself has hampered negotiations in the past by linking any agreement on CBMs to a clarification of the “Line of Actual Control” (LAC). This is the demarcation line that separates Indian-controlled territory from Chinese-controlled territory in Jammu and Kashmir but also serves, in a broader sense, as the de facto land border between China and India.
Given the severity of India’s strategic position in Doklam and other mountainous areas on the border with China, it may be advisable for Indian policymakers to revise their negotiating position. Namely, establishing and implementing CBMs – effectively achievements at the level of “low politics” – would give momentum toward an agreement at the level of “high politics” on the LAC. Continuing to pursue the current negotiating strategy will only allow China to equivocate and delay until it is in a position to “change the reality on the ground”, so to speak, by completing construction on the road through Doklam.