Main Image Credit Indian soldiers next to a highway leading to Ladakh, the area of recent Sino-Indian conflict, June 2020. Courtesy of Idrees Abbas / Alamy / SIPA US
A menacing China is steering the situation perilously towards a flashpoint as it bears down on India along the 3,488-km Line of Actual Control (LAC), the Himalayan frontier that divides the two nuclear-armed Asian powers.
As 50,000 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops continue to occupy swathes of land in the eastern part of India’s Union Territory of Ladakh at the northwestern end of the LAC since their violent clash with Indian soldiers in the Pangong Tso area on 5 May 2020, China is opening up additional fronts along the border with India’s states of Uttarakhand, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim.
Indian Army Chief General M M Naravane expressed concern at ‘the largescale build-up’ in eastern Ladakh that ‘continues to be in place’, even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi proclaimed that India’s armed forces will emerge as ‘one of the most powerful militaries in the world’.
Tensions between the two neighbours escalated again after the 13th round of Corps Commander-level talks held on 10 October collapsed, failing to resolve the pending issues in eastern Ladakh.
‘If India starts a war, it will definitely lose’, proclaimed a typically hawkish editorial in the Communist Party of China mouthpiece, the Global Times, while blaming New Delhi for the failure of the talks.
Addressing a conclave a day before the talks, General Naravane had remarked: ‘...so, it means that they [PLA] are there to stay. We are keeping a close watch on all these developments, but if they are there to stay, we are there to stay too’.
The stand-off simmers, with troops on either side ranged against each other in the desolate but geo-strategic cold desert of the Great Himalayas.
Even as the PLA continues to occupy Patrolling Point (PP) 15 in Hot Springs and PP17A near Gogra post, China has amassed additional troops across the border, armed with artillery, air defences, combat drones and heavy vehicles. Some of them reportedly crossed the LAC in July to reoccupy certain positions on the Kailash Range that they had vacated following a February demilitarisation agreement, and others moved to points near the Galwan river and Pangong Tso.
China seems intent on drawing India out by upping the ante at various friction points along the LAC. India appears to be left with little option but to tread cautiously, lest this feud escalates into a war it can ill-afford.
China lays claim to the 83,743-km2 Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh that abuts the eastern fringe of the LAC across from the Tibet Autonomous Region. A large part of its southern border has been shared with India ever since it annexed Tibet in 1950, and it deems Arunachal ‘southern Tibet’ and hence its dominion.
In the latest transgression, some 200 PLA soldiers crossed the LAC in the Tawang area of Arunachal at the beginning of October to target Indian defences. However, they turned back without any scuffle or damage to Indian property. Tawang is particularly contentious for the Chinese, for it was in this town that the 14th Dalai Lama found initial refuge in India after having dodged the Chinese army on his flight from Tibet’s provincial capital of Lhasa in 1959. China has always resented India’s providing sanctuary to the Dalai Lama, whom it does not recognise as the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. It also took issue with New Delhi on the Dalai Lama’s April visit to Tawang, saying it opposed any official invitations to him.
Four Indian and 20 Chinese soldiers were wounded in a clash in January after Indian troops confronted a PLA patrol at Naku La in the northern Indian state of Sikkim, which is separated from Arunachal by Bhutan, the world’s only Buddhist kingdom.
Beijing also disputes most demarcations with India, despite at least three border agreements in the past. In 2016, it had a 73-day faceoff with India in the tri-border Doklam plateau, which is split between India, China and Bhutan. And the one full-fledged war between the two countries lasted for a month in 1962, in which China seized the 37,244-km2 high-altitude desert of Aksai Chin that India still claims as part of Ladakh. Following the skirmish in Doklam, the PLA has constructed military infrastructure and permanently deployed troops there.
Chinese President Xi Jinping made an unannounced three-day visit to Tibet in July, to Nyingchi, close to the Arunachal border. This marked the first such official visit by a Chinese leader in 30 years. Nyingchi was connected to Lhasa, 435 km away, by the launch in June of a high-speed train service, which, according to the Global Times, has been converted into a military transport mission. Quoting a PLA website, the report said the Fuxing bullet train carried PLA soldiers from the Xizang (the Chinese name for Tibet) Military Command to an exercise field at an elevation of 4,500 m. This rail connection facilitates the transit of troops and enhances China’s border infrastructure, which already boasts commendable road and air links.
According to Indian intelligence, the PLA has been recruiting young Tibetans and giving them military training with heavy machine guns, mortar bombs and rocket launchers. Every Tibetan family is mandated to send at least one young member for recruitment. Chinese official media also reported that during his landmark visit to Nyingchi, Xi – who heads China’s Central Military Commission (CMC), the supreme military policymaking body – lauded the border guard battalions in Tibet for doing a ‘great job’ in the past five years.
In another recent act of aggression, over 100 PLA soldiers and 55 horses intruded over 5 km into Indian territory on 30 August and demolished infrastructure, including a bridge, at Barahoti in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, which has not been a major border flashpoint in years. They returned to base before they could be confronted.
Eastern Army Command chief, Lt Gen Manoj Pande, told reporters in October that apart from keeping troop formations mobilised along the LAC, China has also been constructing ‘dual-use’ border villages and troop bases. It has moreover been upgrading its dual-use airports all along the India–Tibet border, and has been converting villages developed for settling civilians to military enclaves.
India seems to lack a coherent strategy against Chinese belligerence, which has been aggravated by the sponsorship of cross-border terrorism by China’s long-standing ally, Pakistan. Facing a challenge on two fronts, India realises that it has to fight its adversaries on its own, but denies it has any military asymmetry with China. Nevertheless, alarmed by the developments on its frontiers, New Delhi last year ordered $3.4-billion worth of arms from the US, up from $6.2 million in 2019, and has sought faster deliveries of crucial weaponry that it has on order from countries such as the US, Russia and Israel. However, it cannot expect these measures to resolve the prolonged stand-off with China, as these armaments would need to be integrated methodically, and Indian forces would need to be trained in their operation.
It is not that India’s borders are currently undefended. The Indian Army has bolstered its presence there with artillery, reserves, and fixed and rotor wing aircraft. It has deployed the K9-Vajra self-propelled howitzer regiment, BAE Systems’ 155mm M777 Ultra-Light Howitzers, ex-Swedish Indian-built upgraded 40mm L70 anti-aircraft guns, and vintage Bofors guns. The Indian Air Force has deployed Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopters to provide tactical support to ground forces, Boeing CH-47 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters for moving men and material, and Dassault Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft, alongside the Indian Navy’s Boeing P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft for conducting land surveillance.
Beijing has nonetheless been emboldened by the fact that after the PLA killed 20 Indian soldiers in eastern Ladakh on 15 June 2020 – the first deadly skirmish since the 1962 Sino-Indian War – Prime Minister Modi announced four days later that ‘no intruder is present inside India’s borders, nor is any post under anyone’s custody’. He curiously claimed that ‘those who cast an evil eye on Indian soil’ had received a fitting reply.
Modi has not only avoided identifying China as the aggressor, but has also refrained from discussing the issue by telephone with Xi, which many Indians believe would have helped to defuse the tensions. Beijing questions the need for military negotiations when it has not trespassed on Indian territory. Retaliation from the Modi government came last year through a ban on 267 apps originating from China, inciting a trending refrain on Indian social media: ‘They changed our map, we banned their app’.
Oddly, even though India decided to reduce or ban certain imports from China as a countermeasure, bilateral trade surged 29.7% during 2019, with China’s General Administration of Customs noting in October that two-way trade over nine months had reached $90.37 billion, up 49.3% year-on-year, with India’s imports from China totalling $68.4 billion, up 51.7% year-on-year. India’s trade with China is set to cross the $100 billion mark for the first time in 2021. ‘At this rate, we are likely to attain the highest ever bilateral trade between two countries’, said India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla, who added that India’s trade deficit with China is ‘the largest trade deficit we have with any country’.
While China or Pakistan would assist each other in times of hostility with India, India stands alone. It considers the US a close partner, but Washington has pursued a largely transactional relationship with New Delhi and is unlikely to intercede if war breaks out between India and China.
In June 2020, then US President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House, ‘They’ve [India and China] come to blows, and we’ll see what happens. We’ll try and help them out’. Terming China’s aggression along the LAC a manifestation of its ‘expansionary territorial ambitions’, US Indo-Pacific Command chief Admiral Philip S Davidson told lawmakers at a congressional hearing in March that the US had helped India over its border conflict ‘by providing information, cold-weather clothing and other equipment’.
China’s military offensive against India is not merely tactical, but has a strategic intent aimed at realising specific long-term objectives. The PLA’s moves are, after all, being directed by China’s senior leadership, namely, the CMC chaired by President Xi.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Have an idea for a Commentary you’d like to write for us? Send a short pitch to email@example.com and we’ll get back to you if it fits into our research interests. Full guidelines for contributors can be found here.