Are China and India on the Brink of War?
The Sino-Indian standoff in the Doklam (Donglang in Chinese) region of the Himalayas where the borders of China, India and Bhutan converge is now nearly two months old. The dispute arose in mid-June when China attempted to build a road in an area it believed to be under its sovereign control, provoking Indian authorities to block the construction by crossing the Sino-Indian border with troops and bulldozers.
As yet there’s little sign of an end to the standoff. On the contrary, talk of war is now heard from both sides, and Chinese voices, both official and unofficial, are particularly strident in accusing India of ‘invading’ Chinese territory.
How likely is it that the current standoff will escalate into a border war? I’ll first assess the probability from the Chinese side.
That China should want to fight a war with India at this moment seems a highly unlikely prospect. Beijing is about to hold the BRICS summit in Fujian province. That gathering is one of the two major ‘home-field’ foreign policy events of this year, the other being the Belt and Road Initiative summit held in May. A war with India would upset proceedings.
Second, the Chinese Communist Party under the leadership of President Xi Jinping is in the final stage of organising the 19th Party Congress. The once-every-five-years party congress is the most important event in Chinese politics, and President Xi is expected to consolidate his power for a second five-year term. With stability a top priority for Chinese leaders, a war with India would create undesirable complications.
Third, Chinese policymakers can’t fail to notice that China is facing a number of security contingencies along its vast periphery. It’s unclear whether the standoff with India is the most significant. From North Korea to the South China Sea, those scenarios are constantly occupying the minds of Chinese planners.
How important is the standoff with India in China’s overall strategic context? I suggest that, depending on different conceptions of strategic interests and ways to achieve them, the above arguments against war with India can be turned on their head.
First, although the diplomatic success of the BRICS summit is desirable, territorial sovereignty now ranks as one of China’s highest national priorities. The summit will offer a precious chance for President Xi and Indian Prime Minister Modi to find a diplomatic solution. But if no agreement is reached the probability of a military showdown will increase significantly.
Second, an orderly party congress is desirable to further anoint Xi’s power and authority. But a successful limited war fought on Chinese terms won’t necessarily damage that prospect. On the contrary, such a war would rally Chinese elites and the public around Xi, who would be acclaimed the new strategic mastermind.
Third, Chinese moderates will oppose a war with India on the grounds that the national interests involved are nowhere as vital to generate such a forceful response. However, the hardliners, armed with a different set of strategic assumptions, will argue that such a punitive war promises unique strategic benefits. Aside from bending India to China’s will it would send a ripple effect throughout Asia about the new strategic reality of Chinese power and resolve. Moreover, with a weakened US, isn’t this an opportune moment for some strategic surprise? India and the US may have moved closer in recent years, but they aren’t treaty allies. In a war with China, India would fight alone.
In fact, China has been sending highly unusual signals in recent days. On 2 August, the foreign ministry published a 12-page position paper demonstrating India’s ‘invasion of Chinese territory’. From 3 August, within a 24-hour period, six organisations—the People’s Liberation Army Daily, the Xinhua News Agency, the foreign ministry (a second time), the defence ministry, the Chinese embassy in New Delhi, and the People’s Daily—delivered a barrage of warnings to India about the dire consequences of underestimating Chinese resolve.
In a speech marking the 80th anniversary of the founding of the PLA on 1 August, Xi sternly affirmed:
We will never permit anybody, any organisation, any political party to split off any piece of Chinese territory from China at any time or in any form. Nobody should nurse any hope that we will swallow the bitter fruit of harm to our national sovereignty, security and development interests.
If China is mobilising domestic support for a possible showdown, that will make any future compromise hard and costly and, consequently, a punitive war more attractive and acceptable. By now key Chinese elites and the public are convinced that India has ‘invaded’ Chinese territory and that a short, sharp war to expel Indian ‘invaders’ would be just and appropriate.
None of the above is to suggest that war is about to break out next week or next month. Chinese leaders will have to weigh the cost–benefit calculus before making the final call. One hopes that deft diplomacy will prevail—as has been the case since the last border war of 1962. But one shouldn’t rule out the possibility of conflict. Neither China nor India should be complacent about the current situation or underestimate the consequences if war does break out.