Key Point: The war at sea would be more devastating than the war on land.
A hypothetical war between India and China would be one of the largest and most destructive conflicts in Asia. A war between the two powers would rock the Indo-Pacific region, cause thousands of casualties on both sides and take a significant toll on the global economy. Geography and demographics would play a unique role, limiting the war’s scope and ultimately the conditions of victory.
India and China border one another in two locations, northern India/western China and eastern India/southern China, with territorial disputes in both areas. China attacked both theaters in October 1962, starting a monthlong war that resulted in minor Chinese gains on the ground.
Both countries’ “No First Use” policies regarding nuclear weapons make the outbreak of nuclear war very unlikely. Both countries have such large populations, each over 1.3 billion, that they are essentially unconquerable. Like all modern wars, a war between India and China would be fought over land, sea, and air; geography would limit the scope of the land conflict, while it would be the air conflict, fought with both aircraft and missiles, that would do the most damage to both countries. The trump card, however, may be India’s unique position to dominate a sea conflict, with dire consequences for the Chinese economy.
A war between the two countries would, unlike the 1962 war, involve major air action on both sides. Both countries maintain large tactical air forces capable of flying missions over the area. People’s Liberation Army Air Force units in the Lanzhou Military Region would fly against Punjab, Himchal Pradesh and Uttarakhand and from the expansive Chengdu Military region against India’s Arunachal Pradesh. The Lanzhou district is home to J-11 and J-11B fighters, two regiments of H-6 strategic bombers, and grab bag of J-7 and J-8 fighters. A lack of forward bases in Xinjiang means the Lanzhou Military Region could probably only support a limited air campaign against northern India. The Chengdu Military Region is home to advanced J-11A and J-10 fighters but there are relatively few military airfields in Tibet anywhere near India.