In Mid-June, 2020, World War 3 started trendingon Twitter. Again. This time, it was because a border disputein the Himalayas between Chinese and Indian forces turned deadly, killing upwards of twentypeople. This is the first time since 1975 that thetwo countries have had a fatal conflict, and the most serious skirmish since 1967. Naturally, as the two nations are populous,militarily powerful, and have nuclear capabilities, the world is biting its nails to see whathappens next. But assuming the whole thing doesn’t endin diplomacy or a world-consuming mushroom cloud, which country has what it takes tobring home a final victory? Using a mix of historical precedents of theprior conflicts between the two countries and our knowledge of their current militarycapabilities, we intend to find out exactly whether China or India would win if the twonations went to war today. After all, we’re not just talking aboutdusty hypotheticals here. Relations between India and China have beenextremely strained since the Sino-Indian War of 1962, which occurred over the same stretchof Himalayan Border that’s causing conflicts today. India had granted the Dalai Lama asylum withintheir borders after the fallout of the 1959 Tibetan Uprising, already putting them inChina’s bad books, and with China’s military encroaching on the Line of Actual Control– the demarcation line that separates Indian and Chinese territory in the Himalayas – amilitary skirmish was practically inevitable. The resulting conflict was short lived, lastingonly one month and one day between October and November of 1962. The People’s Liberation Army of China hada vast numerical superiority over India’s military forces, and India suffered significantlygreater losses,
with nearly double China’s deaths, many wounded, and over 3,000 captured. This loss is partly chalked up to the factthat it’s believed, according to some leaked CIA documents, that India underestimated bothChina’s military capabilities and their willingness to escalate the conflict. While India requested military assistancefrom the US in the form of 12 squadrons of fighter jets, their pleas were rejected, andIndia instead turned to Moscow for assistance. Ultimately, none of it did all that much good,as China claimed the Eastern Theatre up to the Line of Actual Control before declaringa unilateral ceasefire. India was left to lick its wounds, and tensionsbetween the two counties have been high ever since, with conflicts still breaking out wellinto the 1970s. Both nations have ramped up militarisationaround the Line of Actual Control as a show of strength, and this has left both with verylittle room to manoeuvre. In a sense, the Himalayan Border is a militarypowder keg, and lately, we’ve been seeing the sparks. While a past record of military supremacydefinitely works in China’s favour, the Sino-Indian War was also 58 years ago, andfailure is an excellent teacher. India has been engaged in frequent conflictssince the Sino-Indian War, giving their combatants invaluable battlefield experience. India is widely believed to have won everyconflict they engaged in post Sino-Indian War, with the exception of the Indo-PakistaniWar of 1965, which ended in a ceasefire. China, comparatively, fought its last considerableconflict against Vietnamese forces in 1979. Once again, experience won out here, as theVietnamese – who’d recently honed their skills in battle against the forces of theUnited States – are largely considered to have handed China’s asses to them. This is why the value of actual experiencein war can never be overstated. But, let’s take a step back and look atwhat these two militaries have to offer in terms of manpower, technology, training, andresources.
First: Soldiers, the bread and butter of anymilitary. Much like in the Sino-Indian War, China hasnumerical superiority – though in India’s defence, seeing as China is ranked as havingthe highest number of active military personnel in the world at 2,035,000, China’s militaryhas numerical superiority over literally everyone. With over 500,000 reserve personnel who couldbe easily called into action in a wartime scenario, China is a force to be reckonedwith. India, however, isn’t all that far behind– with 1,237,117 active personnel and an impressive 960,000 reserve personnel, puttingthe differences between their totals in the mere 100,000s. But, here’s the big twist: The numbers hereonly pertain to the Indian Army, which is the ground force branch of Indian Armed Forces,whose total number of active personnel are 1,444,500, second only to the PLA’s totalactive personnel. However, the overall numbers of reserve personnelfor the Indian Armed Forces now dwarves China’s – at an astonishing 2,100,000. The Indian Navy boasts 67,252 active personneland 55,000 reserves. The Indian Air Force has 139,576 active personneland 140,000 reserves. In contrast to India’s three-pronged system,the PLA consists of five branches: The Ground Force, Navy, Air Force, Rocket Force, andthe Strategic Assault Force. The Ground Force is the Chinese infantry andland-based operations, with 975,000 active personnel. The PLA Navy has 240,000 active personnel. The Air Force has an even higher 398,000 activepersonnel. The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force– also known by the pretty funny acronym PLARF – is the branch of the military incharge of land-based ballistic and nuclear armaments. They have only 100,000 active personnel. And finally, the Strategic Assault Force:This is the newest branch of the PLA, established officially in 2015, dealing with extremelymodern forms of warfare like space and cyber operations. This division is so new that we don’t evenhave an exact number of active personnel, but due to the specialisation of the job andthe fact that the group is only five years old, it’s safe to assume that it’s likelythe smallest branch of the PLA. However, we also have a far wider trend toconsider here: The fact that China and India are two of the most populous nations on earth,with populations of 1.393 billion and 1.353 billion, respectively, as of 2018. In a situation of all-out war over their sharedborder, if both nations introduced conscription,
the numerical differences between their armieswould ultimately be nebulous. So, if neither army would have an extremenumerical edge in the case of another conflict, let’s zoom in and take a look at the averagemilitary service member in each infantry. Specifically, their training, equipment, andweaponry. Thankfully for India, they’ve grown to investin more intensive military training over the years, including joint-operations trainingwith the British, US, Japanese, French, and Australian militaries as their involvementin the UN deepened. The Indian Military has also consistentlyinvested in modernised primary assault rifle systems for their troops, currently workingwith a mix of American SiG Sauer 716 assault rifles and Indo-Russian AK-47 203, a modernisationof the famously reliable and hardy AK-47. As of 2018, Indian infantry troops are fittedwith SMPP ballistic armour even capable of withstanding blasts from the steel-core roundsfired out of an AK-47. All these factors add up to one formidableindividual soldier. China’s infantry troops don’t have quitethe same thing going for them. Modern Chinese military training has beencriticised for years for its lack of useful applications in real-life combat scenarios,meaning the average military skills of a Chinese infantryman may leave something to be desiredcompared to their Indian counterparts. They’re formidable in the rifle departmentwith the QBZ-95-1, a reliable Bullpup rifle which performs best at long range. However, despite China being one of the world’smost prolific exporters of body armour, it hasn’t historically fitted its troops withthat same standard of protection. The PLA is notorious for its light loadout,often leaving soldiers ill-prepared for taking fire, and giving the Indian infantry troopsa huge comparative advantage. However, this may change in the not-too-distantfuture. According to a report from Global Times, Chinais investing heavily in updating and modernising its training system, as well as planning onprocuring 1.4 million units of high-quality body armour for the PLA. While this isn’t currently a certainty,if these plans do go through, any advantages the Indian army may have had on an individualsoldier level would essentially evaporate, leaving them dead even once again. But these days war is far more complex thana large group of armed men running at each other and fighting down to the last one standing. In modern warfare,
technology can give militariesthe crucial edge they need to secure a victory over the enemy. Since 2008, China and India have ranked secondand third, respectively, in global military spending, but the gap between them is stillpretty immense. Last year, China spent an astonishing $261billion on military development, compared to India’s far smaller $71.1 billion. This disparity becomes a little more naturalwhen you realise that China’s economy is five times the size of India’s. Let’s take a look at how these numbers actuallytranslate into vehicles for their armies, navies, and air forces. While China is generally packing more hardwarethan India, one exception is in the world of tanks, where India’s over 4,200 standsat over a thousand units greater than China’s 3,200 plus tanks. However, this doesn’t paint the whole pictureof China’s ground capabilities. If we’re looking at the number of armouredground vehicles overall, China’s 33,000 dwarves India’s 8,600, giving them considerableground superiority, bolstered by the fact that they have ten times more rocket projectorsthan their Indian counterparts. China also holds dominance over the skies– with 3,210 aircraft compared to India’s 2,123. It also has approximately double the Fighterand Interceptor jets, and 507 workable airports compared to India’s 346. Once again, sadly for India, this trend continuesinto the country’s navies. In terms of total naval assets, China outnumbersIndia by 777 to 285. More specifically, it has 74 submarines toIndia’s 16, and 36 Destroyers to India’s 11. If wars were decided on equipment alone, it’sunquestionable that China would take the win here. Of course, while nobody on earth wants theconflict to escalate to this point for the sake of all human life, we’d be remiss notto return to the fact that China and India are both nuclear nations. If the war ever did become an exchange ofnuclear force, who would come out on top? Well, for a number of reasons, China has aclear edge here. Not only did they develop their nuclear capabilitiesjust over a decade earlier than India in 1964 – New Delhi wouldn’t have its first nukeuntil 1975 – but their nuclear arsenal is also over double the size of India’s, witha far quicker growth rate.
China has a stockpile of 320 nuclear warheads,having grown by 40 in the past year. Compare this to India with only 150 nuclearwarheads, which grew by a mere ten in the past year. Both nations can deploy these warheads viathe nuclear triad of missiles, submarines, and bombers, and thankfully for the humanrace, both have a “no first strike” policy. This means the warheads can only be used inretaliation to another nuclear attack, making it less likely that either country would wantto strike first. Of course, if either did, all of us wouldultimately lose from the resulting radioactive firefight. But, on sheer numbers, China takes the clearwin with regard to nuclear capabilities. One final factor worth considering is onethat’s rarely mentioned in a lot of abstract military planning: Allies. While it’s easy to think of war purely interms of enemies, your diplomatic and military friends can also be a make-or-break factorin determining the outcome of a conflict. While China would largely be working soloin a war against India with the exception of perhaps Pakistan, a country with fraughtrelationships with India to say the least, India itself has been building diplomaticrelationships with a number of extremely valuable allies. These include the United States – a countrywith the highest military spending in the world – who, under President Trump, havegone cold on relations with China, while referring to India as a “major defence partner.” India has also developed strong diplomaticties to Japan, France and Australia through performing a number of joint military drillswith all of them. Having these various world powers behind themgives India a serious combat edge over China, providing these allies came to India’s sidein their time of need. While the US could be India’s greatest allyin this speculative war, foreign policy under President Trump has been known to be capriciousand unreliable to other allies such as the Kurdish forces in Syria in 2019, so there’sreally no way of telling for sure. So, back to our big question: Who would winin a modern conflict between India and China? Turns out, it’s a lot more complex thanyou may have thought. While a layman might assume that China’sapparent numerical and monetary advantages hand it an easy win, these advantages canbe neutralised by India’s stronger troops – who are better equipped, better trained,and more experienced – and its greater network of powerful allies. Then there’s the strategic picture, as whilethe Indian Navy is smaller than the Chinese Navy, India is itself situated on the jugularof Chinese trade- so to speak. Chinese trade ships must pass through theIndian ocean to reach their destinations, and while China may have a larger fleet, itis not very well equipped to conduct operations far from its own shores. With only two aircraft carriers with a capacityof about 24 aircraft between them- and one not even being operational yet- any Chineseincursion into the Indian ocean to protect its trade fleets would be disastrous, as theChinese task force would be brutally pounded by Indian air and naval power. With China receiving the bulk of its oil frommaritime trade routes, a protracted war between the two nations would inevitably cripple theChinese military and industry both. India would simply have to fight defensively,as the terrain separating India and China is extremely difficult and well suited todefensive warfare. While the Chinese could crush any Indian incursioninto China itself- and there’d be few strategic targets to take close to the Indian borderanyways- a war between the two nations would inevitably see India the winner, as it slowlystrangles Chinese trade to death. Check out “American (USA) Vs Chinese Soldier– How Do They Compare | Military/Army Comparison” and “Russia Vs United States (USA) – WhoWould Win – Military Comparison 2019” for more compelling military analysis.