Geopolitics & World-affairs

China 'Cursing ahead' As The World's Fearsome and most Formidable air force; Then What Are The Factors Behind PLAAF's Avoidance Of Aerial Confrontation With India In The Himalayas?

The relationship between China and India has always been tumultuous due to border conflict, which essentially began with the formation of Communist China under Mao Zedong's leadership. 

China has long been interested in Indian border states, particularly Jammu and Kashmir's Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. Due to the strategic importance of these states, China attacked India in 1962 and occupied 37,185 sq. km of land called Aksai Chin. They also had an eye on Arunachal Pradesh which they claim to be part of South Tibet, but they failed to capture it due to the west's unassigned unilateral support to India. 

However, the border dispute between these two countries has not been resolved since that clash and India's defeat in 1962. The conflict is still ongoing, and India is still fighting over its border issues with China.

Following 1962, India fought Chinese aggression in the 1975 Nathu-La, the 1986-87 Sumdorong Chu stand-off, the 2014 Dokalm stand-off, and the 2020 Galwan clash. Galwan was the bloodiest clash between China and India since the 1975 Nathu-La clash and the 1996 non-aggression pact. In Galwan, India lost 20 brave soldiers, while China lost more than double that number, but China never revealed the number of casualties due to internal opposition to the government.

After the Galwan clash, the Chinese side takes some reasonable steps to avoid further escalation, but the Chinese are still trying to win the environment by funding narrative makers of the world, such as global media and editorial houses in India and elsewhere.

One question arises from this narrative: if the Chinese air force and military are so powerful, why are they not attempting to use those forces against the Indian army and air force? Therefore, the Chinese army and airforce, particularly the airforce, face some limitations in their use. Then, what are those limitations? 

Limitations of the Chinese air force:  

China is an east-heavy country, which means that the majority of the Chinese population lives on the eastern side of the country, and the majority of the country's military installations are on the eastern side to counter US forces in the Pacific, where the US navy and air force have a strong presence, and the US has allies in the Pacific: Japan and South Korea. 

Furthermore, due to difficult geographical conditions, China's west is porous and inaccessible. The Tibetan plateaus, Himalayan mountains, and cold deserts dominate China's west. As a result of the high mountains and low oxygen levels, the air force finds it difficult to operate in the area. And China doesn't have enough airfields in this region. 

The People's Liberation Army Air Force(PLAAF) has attempted to construct nearly a dozen airfields in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Due to the elevation of airfields in Tibet, which is at least 3.5 kilometers or more, the People's Liberation Army Air Force(PLAAF) capability from these airfields will remain extremely limited. 

The Chinese air force is building and still attempting to build some of the airfields after the Galwan clash, but all of them have proven ineffective due to extreme weather conditions.

Extreme Himalayan Weather:  

The weather in the Pamir and Himalayan mountains is extreme, making navigation extremely difficult for anyone or any ultra-advanced weapon system. For eight months of the year, the area is frozen and covered in ice, and the weather is volatile. 

Due to these weather conditions, PLAAF planes become invalid during the fight, and planes become less efficient with less fuel and payload. 

Sometimes, Extensive fog affects a few airfields, particularly in Chengdu Fenghuangshan. The extreme foggy conditions make the base virtually impossible for day-night operation. 

Despite the difficulties of operating the airforce from that height, the Chinese Tibet Autonomous Region became extremely important from a Chinese strategic standpoint, which is why China captured this region in 1950 after Communist Mao Zedong was installed on the throne.

Tibet's Strategic Significance and PLAAF's Capability:  

Tibet is not a matter of Chinese identity or culture. It is primarily a strategic and security concern. Tibet, located on China's western border, has historically been a vulnerable periphery.

It is a strategic periphery not only because of the 1962 India-China war but also because it is a minority area in the southwestern periphery that occupies one-fourth of China's landmass.

China's Tibet policy is primarily motivated by strategic concerns and periphery security. 

They began building strategic bases, nuclear bunkers, and silos in Tibet after it became a part of China. China has 14 airfields and 8 missile bases, which are part of China's strong 30 nuclear arsenals of long-range, medium-range, and short-range missiles, which cover seven sister states and all northern Indian cities. 

China has stationed some of its best fighters in those 14 bases, including Su-27/30s, JF-17s, and the yet-to-be-operationally-tested J-20. Due to a variety of challenges, these airfields are insufficient for large-scale operations. One of the challenges is that flights from these airports cannot operate at night due to weather volatility. Because of the terrain, Tactical Battle Areas can only be approached from a few different directions. 

The closest airfields to these Chinese bases are Bareilly, Gorakhpur, Bagdogra, Hashimara, Jorhat, Guwahati, Tezpur, Chabua, Mohanbari, and nearly a dozen Advance Landing Grounds, which are approximately 4-500 kilometers away in most cases. The Indian Air Force can operate fighters at full capacity from these airfields, but China cannot due to terrain challenges. 

PLAAF's capability in Tibet is severely limited and will remain so, regardless of whether they acquire and employ more modern aircraft, which may be in their inventory by 2030. PLAAF elements based on the Chinese mainland will have no distinguishable impact on overall PLAAF performance in Tibet Autonomous Region.

As a result, the Chinese airforce from the Tibet region is no or lesser threat to the IAF, and India does not need to worry about Chinese capability in the Himalayan region because India does not need to do anything else because the Himalayan weather will do everything for the IAF. 

India needs to strengthen its navy and expand its capabilities to counter Chinese expansion in the Indian Ocean region. India does not need to engage in violent conflict with China in the Pacific, but it does need to protect its business interests in the Indo-Pacific, for which India has to maintain its relevancy in QUAD. 

Chinese View On This Matter:  

Following the Galwan clash, China recognized India's strength in the Himalayas and realized that they could not win a conventional war against India and could not change the status quo in the border area unilaterally. 

Therefore, they engaged India diplomatically in order to reclaim the face they had lost during the Galwan Valley debacle. And they adopted other means to wage war against India using nongovernmental organizations and their business in the country, but they also lost on that front after India's crackdown against those non-state actors. 

China also attempted to intimidate India through India's western neighbor, Pakistan, but Pakistan was unable to do so due to an economic crisis. 

China is a very cunning and intelligent adversary because its economy is massive and it will continue to do so until its economy collapses, which is nearly impossible at the moment. As a result, India must take calculated steps to counter Chinese interference in India and its neighbor. 

Meanwhile, India is collaborating with the US to counter Chinese aggression in the Himalayan region and the Indo-Pacific region, which is a positive step for India and will be continued through QUAD.

Therefore, China recognizes that it cannot win a conventional war with India due to the PLAAF's inability to support PLA operations by neutralizing the IAF, and nuclear exchange will have no winner.