China World

The Strategic Postures of China and India

Fueled by aggressive rhetoric from both capitals, Indian and Chinese ground forces engaged in a standoff between June and August 2017. The Doklam crisis, as it became known, stimulated introspection among officials and experts in both states about the future of their relationship. Politically, both strategic communities largely concluded that the peaceful resolution of border disputes is now less likely, forecasting more rivalry than cooperation. Militarily, Indian discussions on the strength of its military position against China in their disputed ground frontier areas have converged on the view that China holds the conventional and nuclear edge over India in this domain.1

Based on our analysis of data on the location and capabilities of Indian and Chinese strategic forces and related military units, we conclude that this assessment of the balance of forces may be mistaken and a poor guide for Indian security and procurement policies. We recommend that instead of investing in new nuclear weapons platforms that our analysis suggests are not likely to be required to deter China, New Delhi should improve the survivability of its existing forces and fill the gap in global arms control leadership with an initiative on restraint and transparency.

China and India’s deliberately opaque strategic postures make objective assessments difficult. To overcome that problem, this brief introduces a new data compilation, consisting of a variety of published intelligence documents, private documents sourced from regional states, and interviews with experts based in China, India, and the United States. This data is combined with open-source force estimates to provide the most comprehensive public assessment of the location and capabilities of Chinese and Indian strategic forces. The appendix provides a link to an interactive map of Chinese and Indian nuclear and conventional air and ground forces, including descriptions of some simplifications and estimates necessary to display the forces on a map. Our analysis focuses on strategic military strike concentrations as they are postured against one other, excluding border patrol forces, as of January 2018. This makes it possible to examine the strengths and weaknesses of each side’s forces.

What does this data tell us? We assess that India has key under-appreciated conventional advantages that reduce its vulnerability to Chinese threats and attacks. India appears to have cause for greater confidence in its military position against China than is typically acknowledged in Indian debates, providing the country an opportunity for leadership in international efforts toward nuclear transparency and restraint.      

Read more at the Harvard Kennedy School – Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

About the author

Frank O'Donnell and Alexander K. Bollfrass

Alexander K. Bollfrass is a former Stanton Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow, International Security Program/Project on Managing the Atom, 2017–2018 Frank O'Donnell is a former Associate, International Security Program/Project on Managing the Atom, August–December 2018. Former Stanton Nuclear Security Junior Faculty Fellow, International Security Program/Project on Managing the Atom, 2017–2018

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