The following is an excerpt from the book Understanding the India-China Border: The enduring threat of war in the high Himalaya, released by C Hurst in London on June 23, 2022 and by Harper Collins in New Delhi on September 15, 2022.
As of the end of 2021, both India and China have handled the situation on the Line of Actual Control with a great deal of discretion. To start with, China’s 2020 operation was carefully crafted: it either targeted unheld areas on the LAC, or resorted to blockades to prevent India patrolling the border up to its claimed line. Strong Chinese forces were deployed to back up this operation, but not strong enough to undertake a broad attack on Indian positions.
The Indian response was equally carefully calibrated to keep the temperature down. It mirrored Chinese deployments and did not for its part indicate at any time that it could involve a cross-LAC military operation. The one it did launch, to occupy the strategic heights of the Kailash range overlooking the Spanggur Tso, was restricted to positions that were clearly within the Indian side of the LAC. New Delhi has taken recourse to negotiation and dialogue to persuade China to restore the situation as it existed in April of 2020. In the words of its Army Chief General M.M. Naravane in May 2021, after the pull back in Pangong Tso and Galwan, negotiations were taking place “for resolution of other friction points in a firm but non-escalatory manner.” He added that as of that date the Chinese continued to deploy its mechanized forces and troops in the “depth areas” behind the LAC.
Both sides have been presented with situations where they were being pushed to escalate the situation—India at the outset and China when India moved onto the Kailash range—but they forbore. Both have powerful armies and a major war between them would be devastating, and we are not even talking about the total destruction that could accompany a nuclear escalation. Both are sharply aware that war, even a conventional one, would set them back by decades.
Through 2021, even as the Ladakh sector saw some disengagement, the two sides remained frozen in their existing positions. There was some contention in the central and eastern sectors, but they played largely by the ground rules established earlier. Face-offs and near clashes were reported, but were quickly dealt with by existing mechanisms, which seem to be functioning in the other parts of the LAC other than eastern Ladakh.
At the same time, both sides have stepped up their infrastructure construction and the enhancement of the quality of their military deployments on either side of the LAC. The Chinese have upgraded the equipment of their ground forces and have been focusing on the perceived weakness, especially in relation to the Indian Air Force, while the Indian side continues to push the building of roads and tunnels to access the LAC.
There has been a qualitative change in the patterns of deployment of both armies. The Chinese, who normally kept the PLA well away from the LAC, are now building facilities to have them closer in certain areas. The Indian side has, probably permanently, shifted some forces from their orientation towards Pakistan to the northern border. More important, with the creation of two key strike formations, the Indian side has indicated that any future border war will feature offensive action on the part its army in Tibet.
Now, in Ladakh at least, the two sides no longer have the web of confidence-building measures and protocols that prevented face-offs from degenerating into skirmishes that could escalate into war. Indeed, after Galwan, India authorized its forces to use their guns should the need for them arise in any contingency. There are two reasons for this. First, the wounds of Galwan are still raw. And second, the Indian grievance over the continued blockade of certain parts of the LAC in Depsang, the Kugrang river valley and the Charding-Ninglung Nala has yet to be addressed.
So, the enduring threat of war remains high in the Himalaya. Since both India and China are expanding their war-making capacity, it does enhance the risk of conflict. Both sides seem to be caught in a classic security dilemma where the actions of A to increase its security appear to diminish the security of B. But as B reacts to increase its security, it diminishes the security of A.
Given its resources and technological proficiency, China may hope to come out ahead in this contest. But even if India reconciles itself to being the weaker party, it is unlikely to accept Chinese primacy in the South Asia—Indian Ocean Region. It has with it the lesson of Pakistan which has successfully used asymmetrical strategies to contest India’s claim to South Asian primacy. India has more options than Pakistan since the Chinese ineptitude has alienated many countries, especially the United States.
Yet, relations between the two countries have reached a certain level of stability. Trade has grown sharply, despite the clash of 2020 and the COVID pandemic. In 2021, India’s trade with China grew a substantial 43 per cent, which was in keeping with the increase of Chinese trade with its other major trading partners—the ASEAN, EU and the US. But the Indian increase was the highest. This indicates a level of mutual benefit in the relations between the two countries. Though India has introduced schemes to lessen its dependence on China, it is not clear as to whether they will succeed. Further, the two sides continue to talk to each other, at the ministerial, if not the summit level. At various forums like the SCO, BRICS and the Russia— India—China meetings, India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has engaged his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in discussions over their vexed border issue. Other mechanisms such as the military-to-military meetings at the Chushul-Moldo point and elsewhere have continued, as does the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Cooperation (WMCC): and the hotlines in Chushul and DBO continue to buzz.
So, as Shivshankar Menon puts it: “more likely we will see continued efforts to negotiate side by side with jostling for local advantage along the LAC and a continued build-up of infrastructure and capabilities by both sides.” In essence what the two Asian giants will see is “antagonistic cooperation in a fragmented world.”
Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.