In June of 2020, along a ridge high in the Galwan Valley in the Himalayas, Indian and Chinese troops fought desperately in a life-or-death night struggle using sticks, nail-studded iron bars, and even rocks. The incident left twenty Indian army soldiers and four Chinese troops dead as each side blamed the other for violating the non-discrete border. China is often the instigator of such incidents. India’s struggle to stop these Chinese incursions is only a small piece of China’s larger expansionist policy across the region, creating a security and stability concern for the rest of the world.
Ongoing disputes between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and India over their shared Himalayan border provide the perfect opportunity for a strong military power to firmly reject Chinese expansionism. Tough military responses to all incursions along with a robust public relations campaign based on video footage from incidents are the key to India “holding the line.”
Chinese expansion has been a threat to its territorial neighbors since Mao Zedong declared the establishment of the PRC in 1949.
In 1951, the PRC “liberated” Tibet and has occupied it ever since. It fought a brief war with India in 1962 in part to solidify and maintain that occupation. In 1969 China attempted to take possession of various disputed border areas with the Soviet Union, and a battle on Zhenbao Island nearly led to a full-scale war. The PRC invaded Vietnam a decade later, although they retreated a month into the campaign and declared victory despite accomplishing their stated goals. Expansionism continues today through ongoing efforts to fold Taiwan into the PRC and exert control over the South China Sea.
PRC and Indian troops have clashed in several places along their border in the past few years. In 2017, hundreds of Indian troops stopped Chinese attempts to build a road across the border at Doklam near the tri-border with Bhutan. Importantly no shots were fired, and the PRC retreated. The 2020 skirmish in Galwan was also concluded without gunfire. These low-level clashes continue today, with the most recent brawl taking place in December of last year. These incidents frighten much of the world because they make it seem that two nuclear powers are poised for a broader conflict that could breach the nuclear threshold.
Territorial Integrity Through Cameras
Delhi must take the strongest position possible to maintain its territorial integrity. India must do this for their own security, but also for the security of other nations under the PRC shadow. The best way to achieve this is through a firm military response to every incursion, along with compiling video footage to help “win” the public relations battle on the international stage. Video evidence holds strong sway over public opinion, and can provide an objective view of events that corroborates accusations of Chinese aggression.
Some steps have been taken in this direction; Indian army troops were outfitted with a bevy of new technology in the last year including cameras to enhance situational awareness. But the Indian Armed Forces should go further and equip its troops with body-worn cameras, similar to those used by police in the United States. This would augment video recordings from cell phones, such as those taken from a September 2021 border dispute in Arunachal Pradesh, along with any stationary cameras that can help support the Indian narrative. Studies from U.S. policing suggest that the mere presence of body cameras may reduce “use of force” complaints, suggesting that in a border crisis the relevant parties would opt to avoid violence if it is known any action is likely to be recorded.
The Nuclear Threat
The main opposition from the international community to a tougher response from India comes from the fear surrounding any dispute between nuclear powers. Such concerns are logical, but in the case of India and China, a deeper analysis suggests that border conflicts will not escalate to the level of nuclear war, as neither country has anything to gain from such an exchange. A recent report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace details how India has the conventional military capacity to handle any border conflict, and China has no incentive to resort to nuclear weapons. Furthermore, both countries have declared “no-first-use policies” that make the usage of nuclear weapons a highly unlikely outcome—even from a full-scale border war. India in particular sees its nuclear arsenal as a second-strike weapon, meant to retaliate against nuclear strikes on their soil.
Moreover, India has proven its ability to conduct combat operations at a level that dissuades escalation. During the 1999 Kargil War, for example, Indian decisionmakers overruled military advice to attack targets within Pakistan, and even took the extreme position of denying the Indian Air Force permission to cross the border to conduct more effective strikes against Pakistani forces in Indian territory. They accepted higher casualties and less effective operations to ensure that they were not perceived as the aggressors. In the Sino-Indian case, China appears to be the aggressor in recent disputes. Though perhaps a bit morbid, India can use the same policy and discipline they used during the Kargil War to maintain the moral high ground and again come across as the offended party in the court of international opinion.
Stopping Chinese Regional Expansionism
There is another reason India needs to take a stronger stance against China: the latter continues to press its claims across the region without any real pushback. Although states are disputing Chinese claims to its “Nine Dash Line” in the South China Sea, and the United States has conducted freedom of navigation exercises, there has been no effort to physically stop PRC island building, illegal fishing, or other operations. No state wants to risk the loss of civilian vessels or lives, and a military confrontation between superpowers involves serious risks. But in the Sino-Indian border context, risks are largely contained, as border conflicts are typically between military members of each side and are unlikely to involve civilians. Additionally, although India and the United States are strengthening ties, there are no formal treaties that could threaten a broader war. The Himalayan border is the perfect place for India, and perhaps to a broader extent, the world, to take a firm stand and keep the event within a military context.
A strong showing against Chinese incursions is also just what Indian prime minister Narendra Modi needs in his efforts to counter Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean region. Though some critics have accused Modi of failing in his efforts to stand up to China, implementing the above suggestions is the perfect way to refute those critics and strengthen India’s case even as they try to de-escalate tensions in the wake of each incident. His efforts should also be lauded by Western leaders with the broader goal of stopping Chinese expansionism. They must also relay and amplify evidence of future incursions to the world to win the court of international opinion for India and the West.
China’s expansionism can and must be challenged. India is the perfect place to firmly check PRC designs by aggressively defending their border. The risks of escalation to a nuclear level are slim, and the Chinese stand to lose more economically and in terms of world opinion from a wider conventional conflict than India. As long as India can maintain the position of the offended party as they have done in the past, it can serve as the world’s best place to hold strong against Chinese expansionism.
Ian Bertram is a lieutenant colonel in the United States Air Force pursuing an MA in International Security with the Joseph Korbel School at the University of Denver, with a focus on Indian Ocean Area affairs. He has an MA in Military History from Norwich University, and has published articles with The Strategy Bridge, Air and Space Power Journal blog, Small Wars Journal, and others. He is an instructor pilot and Advanced Air Advisor, and has led multiple missions to the Indian Ocean region to build partner capability and capacity.
Image: Sajad Hameed/Shutterstock.