India’s China Challenge

India’s China Challenge

Decoding China’s intentions in its border dispute with India remains an intractable puzzle for New Delhi’s strategists.  

On April 10, 2024, amid the high-pitch and polarising campaign for the upcoming national elections, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi gave a crucial interview with Newsweek. Generally, BJP election campaigns put a high premium on hyper-nationalistic rhetoric on security issues. However, this time, Modi took an unexpected stance and softened his previously tough posture on India-China ties. In his Newsweek interview, he said, “Through positive and constructive bilateral engagement at diplomatic and military levels, the two countries will be able to restore and sustain peace and tranquillity at the borders.” While emphasizing that the relationship with China is “important” and “significant,” he stated, “It is my belief that we need to urgently address the prolonged situation on our borders so that the abnormality in our bilateral interactions can be put behind us. Stable and peaceful relations between India and China are important for not just our two countries but the entire region and world.” Reacting positively to Modi’s statements, China also assured that “sound and stable” relations are in both nations’ interests.

In the diplomatic quarters, Modi’s statements have signaled a breakthrough toward achieving a thaw in the stiff and estranged bilateral ties between India and China. However, the question arises whether it is possible to achieve a lasting peace in the Himalayan borders, given the fact that twenty-one rounds of core commander-level meetings and twenty-nine meetings of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) on India-China border affairs have failed to achieve any breakthrough. 

After the Galwan crisis in June 2020, which resulted in causalities on both sides, the bilateral ties worsened. Following the Galwan standoff, both sides amassed 50,000 troops in a mirror deployment pattern in the Ladakh sector. After four rounds of disengagement in Galwan Valley, Pangong Tso, Gogra (PP-17 A), and Hot Springs (PP-15), and continuing tensions in Depsang and Demchok, the deployments remain in a standoff on both sides of the border. Today, bilateral relations are at a nadir not seen since the 1962 war.

Nevertheless, focused as it is on the goal of a $5 trillion economy, India cannot afford to bait China into a major conflict and has no intention of doing so. On the other hand, amid rumors of China occupying further Indian territory and India forfeiting patrolling rights in some parts of Ladakh, the Chinese threat to Indian territorial integrity cannot be ignored. Further, the specter of a united China-Pakistan front will be a strategic nightmare for New Delhi. Bearing all of this in mind, how should India address the China question?

Understanding India’s Mind and its Dilemmas 

The greatest puzzle torturing Indian security czars is how to decode China’s intentions. In my interaction with several eminent Indian geostrategic experts, both practitioner diplomats and academic scholars, I found that there is hardly any agreement on what China wants. Does Beijing want to amicably settle the boundary issues and make further progress in trade and cultural ties, or simply grab India’s territory? 

Notably, in the perceptions of the Indian strategic community, the boundary issue constitutes a bottleneck preventing the improvement of bilateral relations. As many told me, India-China ties will take an upward trajectory once there is a breakthrough on the boundary front. However, regarding China’s intent, many Indian scholars and diplomats believe India can do business with China and resolve the boundary issues through bilateral diplomatic initiatives. They argue that from 1988 to 2020, both countries signed bilateral agreements in 1993, 1996, and 2005, ratifying the 1962 ceasefire line as the Line of Actual Control (LAC) to maintain peace and tranquillity on the border and focus more on building robust trade relationships. As a result, no significant differences existed on the LAC, even if the exact demarcation remained unsettled. Further, they argue that over the last three decades before 2020, India and China had discovered a successful modus vivendi to live together peacefully as neighbors, enhance commercial ties, and de-hyphenate the long-standing boundary issues from the commercial and business arena. 

The opponents of the abovementioned line of thought ask if China wanted peace, why did it unleash the Galwan conflict without provocation, spoiling the trust-building measures of the last three decades? Even before Galwan, China’s intent was never transparent and fair. In 2009, China constructed a road from Sumdo to Patrol Point 13 in the Depsang plains. The PLA’s 2011 and 2013 incursions into the Depsang plains led to a face-off with the Indian army. In 2014, PLA made incursions in Chumar (Eastern Ladakh), followed by a long-drawn standoff between the two armies in Doklam on the India-Bhutan-China trijunction in 2017. Except for the 2011 incursion, which the military leadership resolved, the remaining ones required negotiations with the civilian leadership. 

Additionally, on various occasions, China irked India by handing stapled visas to the citizens of Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh and blocking the designation of Pakistan-sponsored and based terrorist commanders as global terrorists in the UN. Further, China’s rigid and intransigent attitude on the boundary issues after twenty-one rounds of core commander-level talks following the Galwan deadlock, coupled with its heavy investment in the dual-use infrastructure in the border regions, raises serious suspicions about China’s long-term intent.

Another line of thought argues that the boundary issue in itself is irrelevant to China. A few remote tracks of land pale in significance to Beijing’s larger bid for regional and global power. As such, Beijing seeks to use the issue to subordinate India into acceptance of its status as an inferior power vis-à-vis the mighty “middle kingdom.” The 1962 war was, in part, intended to downsize India’s prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, under whose leadership India was emerging as a leader of the non-aligned countries. In China’s grand strategy, a strong, confident India cannot exist as an equal civilizational state in its own backyard and challenge its status as a world power.

Furthermore, the border issue serves to counter India’s naval presence in the Indian Ocean, which could threaten China’s shipping routes in the Malacca Strait. Beijing aims to keep India boxed in on land either by propping up the Kashmir issue with its all-weather friend Pakistan and its array of proxy terrorist groups or by salami-slicing incursions on the India-China border. Also, China may want to keep the borders vague at this stage, create confusion and ambivalence through occasional incursions, and finally settle the border under more favorable geopolitical conditions. These scenarios could include China’s attainment of decisive military and technological superiority over India, Indian isolation in global politics, or the erosion and weakening of Western capabilities and intent to support India against China.

This uncertainty and unease hovering around China’s long-term designs in the Himalayas is helped by the scarcity of information. Chinese political and military institutions are famously opaque, unlike those of democratic countries. Additionally, Indian intelligence agencies have devoted most of their attention and resources to Pakistan and its proxy terrorist networks in the last several decades. Consequently, they do not have robust intelligence capabilities and reliable assets within Chinese decision-making institutions. In fact, India relies on U.S. satellite imagery for intelligence about China’s troops’ deployment, infrastructure build-up, and other developments in the border areas. Academic scholars mostly rely on official documents from the Chinese government that are available in the public domain and articles published in prominent Chinese newspapers and media portals.

Mapping Escalation Scenarios

In 1962, when the Indian and Chinese armies were locked in a standoff in Himalayan borders over the boundary question, Chairman Mao, drawing his lessons from the classical Chinese tradition, told his commanders that China and India had fought “one and a half wars” throughout history, furnishing Beijing with valuable lessons. He narrated two instances of Chinese military intervention in India to his generals. The first war happened 1300 years earlier during the rule of the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), when China sent its military to support a legitimate Indian king fighting against an usurper. After the first war, India and China enjoyed a long period of peace and vibrant cultural, economic, and religious exchange. The “half-war,” according to Mao, occurred when Timur the Lame, a Mongol king, plundered and raided Delhi in 1398, killing at least 100,000 people.

In Mao’s understanding, the critical lesson from the two abovementioned historical incidents was that India and China were, in Kissinger’s words, “not doomed to perpetual enmity,” and they could enjoy sustained periods of peace and prosperity again. However, for this to take place, Beijing had to “knock” India forcefully to bring it to the diplomatic negotiations.

Weeks later, China invaded India and inflicted a devasting defeat, almost occupying the entire state of modern-day Arunachal Pradesh before retreating to the previous line of control and even returning the captured heavy weaponry. The defeat of 1962 is still a major humiliation for the Indian collective psyche.

The incident mentioned above reveals the deep historical roots in China’s strategic subconscious. Hence, if history is the best way to understand China’s underlying philosophy and forecast its future actions, then there is a strong likelihood of a 1962-style swift invasion in some sectors and major skirmishes in the other sectors. One recent report from the Royal United Services Institute predicts a Second India-China war between 2025 and 2030. In such a scenario, India cannot rule out the possibility of a quick surge of Chinese troops seven to eight kilometers inside the Indian territory.