The People’s Liberation Army’s frequent military exercises and incursions close to Taiwan, including crossing the median line after the United States Representative Nancy Pelosi’s 2022 visit to Taipei, have increased the risk of escalation in the Taiwan Strait. There is a growing consensus within the US policy establishment and a section of the academic community that under President Xi Jinping, China is developing military capabilities in a bid to engage in a forceful cross-strait reunification campaign before 2027, which also happens to be the PLA’s centenary year.
To achieve reunification by force, Chinese authoritative texts such as The Science of Military Strategy, Science of Joint Operations, Science of Campaigns, Science of Second Artillery Campaigns and Lectures on Joint Campaign Command and Joint Operations Headquarters Work suggest that Beijing could launch a number of campaigns in isolation or combination. These may include the joint firepower strike campaign (JFSC), the joint blockade campaign (JBC), and the joint-island landing campaign (JILC). The JFSC is an offensive operation that includes long-range precision strikes to intimidate an adversary’s leadership and population. The JBC is a protracted campaign to worsen the enemy’s economic conditions and induce submission, and the JILC is a large-scale joint offensive landing campaign to enable favourable conditions for follow-on military operations.
Like every other country, India will be impacted irrespective of whichever campaign(s) Beijing pursues to reunite Taiwan with mainland China. India’s trade through the South China Sea (SCS) — which stands at nearly 55 per cent of its total trade with the Indo-Pacific region — will be disrupted. Furthermore, India’s trade with Taiwan (which has been on the rise for the past few years), China (its second-largest trading partner), East Asia, and some Southeast Asian countries is also likely to be severely impacted. Such an event should serve as casus belli — a war-provoking situation — for India.
Beyond trade, the strategic implications of a serious cross-strait conflict would be extremely serious, with New Delhi being a member of the Quad and thereby required to give a serious response. Since the stakes for India are high, such a scenario merits an intense discussion on the country’s military, diplomatic, and economic response — something that has been missing from Indian policy discourse.
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India’s likely responses
On a practical level, it is likely that India’s military response would be limited to assisting partner countries, including the US, which might intervene to help Taiwan during the cross-strait conflict. India is the only country that has dealt with the PLA Ground Force (PLAGF) recently — at the Tawang sector in Arunachal Pradesh in December 2022. The PLAGF will play a major role in landing operations alongside the PLA Navy (PLAN) if China chooses to go ahead with a JILC. Although the operational theatre commands and the combination of armed services involved in dealing with India and Taiwan differ, the Indian experience and intelligence in tackling the PLA’s “integrated joint operations” would benefit the partner countries.
In the event of a China-US war over Taiwan, India could offer its mainland to the US for refuelling aircraft — just like it did in the 1991 Gulf War. Unlike the US bases in the Philippines and western Pacific Ocean, which are likely to be directly involved in the conflict, refuelling in India is a much safer option. Furthermore, by granting the US access to its Andaman and Nicobar Island bases, India can block China’s energy supplies passing through the Malacca Strait. However, these are escalatory steps, which would entail a serious reassessment of traditional Indian thinking on such matters. There will always be a danger that it could lead to an eventual Chinese response on the Himalayas at a time and place of Beijing’s choosing.
There is no guarantee, though, that being cautious would actually deter the PLA from changing the status quo further along the Himalayas in the future as is evident from the ongoing military stand-off since the 2020 Galwan clash. India cannot stay completely out of any military fray over Taiwan even if it means escalation by the Chinese along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
Like India, China also faces the challenge of a two-front war. The 2009 edition of Science of Joint Operations highlights that “China’s enemies will exploit [its] difficulty…to service their own ends”. Similarly, the 2012 document by the Academy of Military Sciences warns about a “chain reaction” (liansuo fanying), where another aggressor “in the PRC’s high altitude plateau border area” could exploit its vulnerability to launch an offensive against Chinese interests. However, proactively taking advantage of China’s involvement in the Taiwan Strait to change the existing status quo on the Himalayan border or fight China in multiple theatres is a possibility that Indian military planners should start thinking about.
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Sanctions isn’t the answer
Besides limited military steps that involve indirectly assisting partner countries, India could also engage in selective diplomatic and economic activities. For instance, India could be a part of a United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution condemning Chinese aggression and demanding an immediate end to the Chinese offensive across the Taiwan Strait. In the past, India has refrained from criticising Beijing’s actions. During Pelosi’s visit to Taipei, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) “urged both sides to exercise restraint, avoidance of unilateral actions to change the status quo, de-escalation of tensions and efforts to maintain peace and stability in the region”. While hoping that such a cautious approach may change Chinese behaviour, it has not really resulted in any positive movement on the China-Indian front.
On the economic front, expecting India to be a part of the coalition willing to impose targeted sanctions on China remains unrealistic. The reason being that sanctions with the current negative trade balance between China and India would hurt the latter much more. Furthermore, despite the ongoing military stand-off, India hasn’timposed any concrete trade sanctions against Beijing. Notwithstanding the opportunity to use border hostilities as a reason to invoke the national security clause in the World Trade Organization(WTO) rules for sanctioning China. As India desisted from levying major trade sanctions during China’s Himalayan military aggression, it is unrealistic for New Delhi to do so should any conflict unfold or break out over Taiwan.
Though India would face serious challenges in shaping the battlefield in the event of a cross-strait conflict, New Delhi could play a proactive role in augmenting Taiwan’s capabilities before the start of the clash itself. This may range from information sharing to secretly training Taiwanese armed forces personnel in specific operations and setting up consultative mechanisms with Taipei, Tokyo, and Washington on how New Delhi could contribute to deterring a Chinese attack. India also needs to step up its efforts in helping Taiwan diversify away from China in trade and economic matters. India is the only country that can provide Taiwan the scale it needs to move away from its overdependence on Beijing.
None of the above measures will be cost-free but doing nothing carries its own set of costs. The earlier New Delhi starts planning for the inevitable, the better it will be able to handle the fallout from a crisis in the Indo-Pacific that is waiting to happen.
Harsh V Pant is Vice President for Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi. Suyash Desai is a research scholar based in Taiwan researching on China’s defence and foreign policies. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)