Indians tend to grossly overestimate their country's power with respect to China, and they are about to receive both a nasty surprise and a costly lesson.
[Update 13/09/2020: In the week since this post went up, I have received a number of negative comments, all from Indians as expected. However, I'm more convinced than ever that this scenario is going to be played out in November. An article in the Financial Times makes a similar prediction about timing.]
I have a scenario to share, based on a synthesis of several disparate factoids from history and current affairs, generously garnished with my own perceptions and opinions. Some of these opinions are politically incorrect, and will no doubt offend many readers, but I am putting them out there for the simple reason that the scenario I am presenting is an important one, and it requires this unvarnished perspective. [Thanks to Rock Dawar for reviewing a draft and providing useful comments.]
1. From what I have understood of the Chinese (and at the great risk of generalising across 1.4 billion Chinese people, the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese government and the People's Liberation Army), it is their commonly held belief that their country and civilisation have been historically humiliated by colonial powers (the "Century of Humiliation"), and that their time has finally come. They see themselves as one of the greatest civilisations on earth, if not the greatest, and yearn to be recognised as such by the rest of the world. They would like to see China regain its rightful place in the world as one of its great powers, with no threats or challenges in the Asia-Pacific region.
The US is of course China's main rival in today's world. The hawks in the Chinese establishment, especially in the increasingly influential PLA, view the US as the main impediment to China's rise, and hence as Enemy Number One. The hawks in the US would return the favour. It is a classic replay of the Thucydides Trap, in which an established power (Sparta then, the US now) is threatened by the rise of a new one (Athens then, China now). According to analysts, the Thucydides Trap has been responsible for war in 12 of the 16 cases when shifts of power occurred in world history.
Japan is a historical enemy but not a hugely credible one today, except in alliance with the US. Other Western countries are viewed with suspicion as continuing to harbour colonial ambitions, and as threats to the degree they are aligned with the US. Indeed, the West may have been responsible for the current state of strained relations, having prodded China into opening its market in the 1970s. China has now beaten them at the capitalist game, and grown rich and powerful on the back of that achievement. It is unlikely that the West can ever put that genie back into its bottle, but other non-Western nations may serve as useful proxies to delay China's rise, even if they are sacrificed in the process. That brings us to India.
India has so far not been high on the Chinese radar, but the recent friction along the India-China border may have raised India's profile within China as a hostile nation, and one in a loose alliance with the West to boot.
2. Regardless of their opinion of the Indic civilisation based on some shared history (i.e., the Buddhist influence), the Chinese probably don't think much of India as a modern-day power, especially not in comparison with themselves. They have left India far behind. The two countries were at rough parity in the 1950s, but China's economy today is about five times bigger than India's and far healthier, which provides a robust underpinning for its corresponding military and geopolitical superiority.
While Indians still tend to think of the two countries as peers, with China only slightly ahead, this opinion is not shared by the Chinese (nor is it reflective of reality!) The Chinese probably feel indignant that a wretchedly poor and inferior country even dares to pose a challenge to their great civilisation. The likely reaction of the Chinese establishment (which may also have the approval of the Chinese people) would be a desire to show an uppity India its place in no uncertain terms, so that India stays down and doesn't dare challenge their country ever again. Indeed, it is possible that inflated Indian opinion about their country's power relative to China may increase the risk of a conflict, just as in 1962, when Jawaharlal Nehru's government unwisely provoked China into hostilities even as India was completely unprepared for the repercussions.
From one perspective, India and China have no real quarrel, and in the words of one analyst, "may as well be on different planets". But there have been border disputes between them for decades. It is my view that there were many historical junctures in the last seven decades since Indian independence for these disputes to have been settled relatively amicably, but India let them slip, believing it could get a better deal. Unfortunately, India's negotiating position has only worsened with time, and any settlement today will be on much more unfavourable terms. India has locked itself into a set of expectations that are increasingly at odds with reality, and something has to give. With the lessons of 1962 apparently still not learned in New Delhi, another reality check is overdue. China today is unlikely to be as generous towards India as it may have been in the 1950s, and the West is only too willing to exploit this schism between these two non-Western powers, egging India on into a confrontation it will lose disastrously.
3. Students of history will remember that China attacked Vietnam in early 1979 to "teach Vietnam a lesson" for deposing the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge in Cambodia the previous year. A possible takeaway from this incident is that in addition to an understandable sensitivity to security threats, China is also not a particularly forgiving country where threats to national pride are involved. (There is of course the opposite view among some analysts that 1979 was an exception in China's otherwise exemplary record as a peaceful player in international relations, and among others that the war was related more to a decade-long period of tension with the Soviet Union, of which Vietnam was a client state.)
4. Students of history will also remember that in the India-China war of 1962, China attacked India (after months of Indian provocation, admittedly) on an extremely well chosen date - 20 October 1962. This was at the height of the Cuban missile crisis between the US and the USSR (16-28 October 1962), when the attention of both superpowers was exclusively on each other, and neither had the bandwidth to look at any issue anywhere else in the world. If China wanted to teach India a lesson today, it would probably look to find another such gripping event when world attention is irrevocably drawn elsewhere.
5. From what I'm reading, the issue of mail-in ballots is crucial to the coming US election in Nov 2020. Voters supporting the Democrats seem to prefer mail-in ballots to a disproportionate extent. So the scenario that is being considered is that Trump is going to seem to win big on the night of Nov 3 (the so-called "red mirage"), but as the mail-in ballots continue to come in and get counted, state after state will flip to the Democrats. Since the delegate count in each state goes completely to one side or the other based on the parties' relative vote share, the balance of delegates will start to shift dramatically after a few days of counting. A few days after Nov 3, the mid-point may be reached, and thereafter the election will start to look like Biden's.
6. The political divide in the US has never been sharper or nastier. Both sides are uncompromising in their revulsion for each other. And Trump is a person who will not hesitate to use any means to stay in power. He and his Republican supporters will not allow the election to be taken from them in this way. But neither will the Democrats take it lying down if Trump tries to steal the election that they see themselves winning. I think there will be huge chaos in the US in the days following the election. Both sides will mount legal challenges in the courts of course, but I would not rule out widespread violence in the streets as well. We could even see a mini civil war.
7. Allowing a week for events in the US to escalate, that may be the time when China chooses to strike at India (around 10 Nov). The US will have no bandwidth to spare, being completely focused on its internal crisis. Russia today is a mere shadow of the USSR in terms of power, and cannot credibly intervene against China. In any case, Putin's Russia is more or less allied with China today and does not have any particular affinity for India. China will face no serious international opposition to such an adventure, and India will have to face this attack entirely alone.
8. India's own internal situation in early to mid-November is likely to be dire. The Covid death toll could be in the region of 200,000 (up from about 70,000 today). The Indian economy, already in recession, will be in far worse shape in a couple of months, with both inflation and unemployment up significantly. Parts of the country could be experiencing starvation. India will be at its weakest at that point, hit by the twin blows of a pandemic and unprecedented economic crisis.
9. What exactly will China do? I don't think the impact of China's actions will be as inconsequential as in 1962, when China invaded, but quickly withdrew to the old border after making a point. This time, I expect China's objectives to be more ambitious, so there will be some significant and permanent changes. I imagine that altering India's perceptions about the relative power of the two countries would be as important an objective to China as territorial gains. China will want to "fix" India for good, so they won't have to worry about their southern border again.
10. As the first of three territorial issues, China is very concerned about the security of the CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor). This is the economic lifeline to Western China, providing access to the Pakistani port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea, but it passes too close to the border with India for China's comfort. In the event of future hostilities, India has the potential to disrupt this corridor. However, if the Kashmir Valley can be annexed and made part of Pakistani territory, then that creates an additional buffer to secure the CPEC from external attack.
11. The second territory of interest is Ladakh to the east of Jammu and Kashmir. Ladakh is arid and largely uninhabited, but it is militarily strategic. Annexing all or a large part of Ladakh can secure China's Tibetan border against India much more effectively.
12. The third piece of territory is Arunachal Pradesh in India's far east, which China has long claimed as "South Tibet". India's northeastern states are connected to the mainland through a narrow corridor in Siliguri (the "chicken's neck"). It may be relatively easy for China to cut off the entire northeast by seizing this narrow corridor, and later bargaining to give back Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya in exchange for Arunachal, and possibly negotiating an independent status for Sikkim, Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram.
The region of Asia that lies between India and China is known as Indo-China for good reason, and reflects the historical interaction between the two ancient civilisations. The cultures of this region have both Indic and Sinic elements. While China may lack the appetite to actively annex regions with Indo-Chinese cultures, it would definitely prefer them to exist as independent buffer states rather than have them in the opposite camp.
Although the narrow "chicken's neck" corridor in Siliguri is buffered by Nepal and Bhutan, a determined China could hammer through at this point and cut off India's access to its entire northeast.
13. Expert opinion even within India has concluded that India's ability to fight a two-front war, never high to begin with, has weakened significantly. I believe this is how such a war will unfold. China will strike first at multiple points along the 4000 km long border, then after a few days, when India has shifted military resources away from its Western border with Pakistan to deal with this threat, the Pakistani army will strike to take the Kashmir valley in coordination with the PLA. They will likely get the full support of the local Kashmiri population. There could be an exodus of Hindus from Jammu into India. The entire state (comprising Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh) could be lost to India in days.
14. Together, China and Pakistan may be able to take many Indian POWs, just like India did to Pakistan in 1971, simply by cutting off access to territory and forcing the surrender of isolated troops. This would be an additional bargaining point for later. The Indian military could suffer massive casualties, especially in Kashmir, because the local people may ally with the Pakistanis and take their revenge for years of real or perceived oppression.
15. In about two weeks, by end-November, the war could essentially be over, leaving India with no options whatsoever. India will not be able to exercise its nuclear option against China because retribution would be immediate and incalculable.
16. Indian PM Narendra Modi and Pakistani PM Imran Khan may be summoned to Beijing (or a more neutral venue like Moscow) to sign a tripartite agreement between China, India and Pakistan, "settling" the border issue once and for all. India will essentially give up Kashmir to Pakistan, and Ladakh/Arunachal to China. Some of the northeastern states that are culturally Indic, like Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura, could be "generously" returned to India, and the others (Sikkim, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram) may be wrested from India and turned into "independent" countries. No prizes for guessing which way they will align thereafter.
17. As part of the agreement, India will have to accept China's suzerainty over Asia and agree not to oppose any Chinese initiative in future. India will also have to agree to limits on its own military power, especially its naval power.
18. Modi will return to India in disgrace after signing such an agreement, and I suspect he will not last long in power thereafter. After all, a humiliated nation needs scapegoats, and the Indian army also needs a "stabbed in the back" theory to avoid being blamed. There will be anti-Muslim pogroms throughout India, of course.
19. There could be a couple of silver linings to this debacle from the Indian perspective. First, there will probably be no further border conflicts, because a Pax Sinica will prevail thereafter. China wants a peaceful environment in which to do business, and it will probably prevail upon Pakistan to be satisfied with the acquisition of Kashmir and not create any further trouble in the region. Jihadist terror from across the Pakistani border is therefore likely to cease under Chinese pressure. Hence, in spite of smarting from a humiliating military defeat, Indians may paradoxically enjoy a prolonged period of peace and stability in the region. Second, as a result of this enforced peace, India will probably make great economic progress, like Japan or Germany after WW II. Indians will have no choice but to focus on the only thing that they can control without being perceived as a threat - the country's development, for which Chinese funding may also be available! In about a generation, India could achieve middle-income status and ensure a better life for its own people.
20. The million dollar question is - Is China likely to mount such an audacious attack on India in the first place? The risks of adventurism are high. After all, the invasion of Vietnam in 1979 is not considered an unqualified success by analysts. However, if events unfold as detailed in this post, the rewards to China are high too. The main development from China's perspective is that India will be forced to exit its incipient alliance with the US (as part of The Quad), and will pose no further threat to Chinese power for the foreseeable future. China will be free to engage with its primary rival, the United States, from a position of greater strength and leverage.
The one big factor that could negate this extreme scenario is China's traditional restraint, and patience to play an even longer game. In other words, the above events may yet play out, but over a couple of decades rather than in November 2020.