Why a War Between China and India Is Not Unthinkable (And Would Be a Total Horror Show)
The war at sea would be the decisive front in a conflict between the two countries. Sitting astride the Indian Ocean, India lies on China’s jugular vein. The Indian Navy, with its force of submarines, aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya and surface ships could easily curtail the the flow of trade between China and Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. It would take the Chinese Navy weeks to assemble and sail a fleet capable of contesting the blockade. Even then, the blockade would be hard to break up, conducted over the thousands of square miles of the Indian Ocean.
Meanwhile, shipping to and from China would be forced to divert through the western Pacific Ocean, where such diversions would be vulnerable to Australian, Japanese, or American naval action. 87 percent of the country’s petroleum needs are imported from abroad, particularly the Middle East and Africa. China’s strategic petroleum reserves, once completed sometime in the 2020s, could stave off a nationwide fuel shortage for up to seventy-seven days—but after that Beijing would have to seek an end to the war however possible.
The second-order effects of the war at sea would be India’s greatest weapon. War jitters, the shock to the global economy, and punitive economic action by India’s allies—including Japan and the United States—could see demands for exports fall, with the potential to throw millions of Chinese laborers out of work. Domestic unrest fueled by economic troubles could become a major problem for the Chinese Communist Party and its hold on the nation. China has no similar lever over India, except in the form of a rain of ballistic missiles with high-explosive warheads on New Delhi and other major cities.
A war between India and China would be nasty, brutal and short, with far-reaching consequences for the global economy. The balance of power and geographic constraints means a war would almost certainly fail to prove decisive. Both sides have almost certainly concluded this, which is why there hasn’t been a war for more than fifty years. We can only hope it stays that way.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.
This first appeared back in 2016.