War Clouds Over the Indian Horizon?

Storm brewing: the mountainous border region of Eastern Ladakh, where India and China have previously come to blows. Image: Sriman / Adobe Stock

While wars elsewhere hold the world’s attention, a new conflict may be on the cards along the Line of Actual Control between India and China in Eastern Ladakh.

India is in China’s crosshairs. As the Russia–Ukraine War in Eastern Europe and the Israel–Gaza War in West Asia enter their respective endgames, the inevitable question that arises is: ‘Where will the next war be?’ If Taiwan comes to mind, think again. The second China–India War will most likely be fought in Eastern Ladakh in India’s far northwest region sometime between 2025 and 2030.

Eastern Ladakh refers to the area of the Indian union territory of Ladakh currently under the administrative control of the Government of India that lies east of the Indus River and west of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that separates it from the Aksai Chin area of Ladakh, held by Beijing since the first China-India War of 1962. Eastern Ladakh is of critical geostrategic importance for China and India from the perspective of each country’s vital national interests. The driver for China is energy security, while for India it is territorial integrity. The 20252030 timeframe represents the optimum window of opportunity for China and the maximum period of vulnerability for India, reflecting the significant asymmetric balance of power in favour of China. Absent a modus vivendi between these two nuclear-armed adversaries, conventional war (and the spectre of nuclear war) will be impossible to avoid.

Through Chinese Spectacles

Beijing views Eastern Ladakh through the lens of energy security. China’s political, economic and military power is inextricably intertwined with its energy security, given its heavy dependence on oil and gas imports. Eastern Ladakh is the only pathway from which a hostile power can launch an attack to invade and occupy Kashgar, China’s crucial energy entrepot in the far Western province of Xinjiang. A vital pillar of China’s energy security is the planned land-based pipeline connecting Iran’s oil and gas fields to Kashgar, transiting through Pakistan via the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). As the US Department of Defense (DoD) notes in its 2023 annual report on China, ‘through … projects associated with pipelines and port construction in Pakistan, it [China] seeks to become less reliant on transporting energy resources through strategic choke points, such as the Strait of Malacca’. The planned route of CPEC runs from the port city of Gwadar near the Pakistan–Iran border through the key city of Gilgit in Pakistan-administered Kashmir (also claimed by India) to the Khunjerab Pass, which is the sole transit point connecting Pakistan with China’s Kashgar terminus. It is likely to take at least a decade to complete the energy pipeline, by which time the DoD’s report suggests that China will no longer be dependent on maritime routes for its energy imports.

The harsh reality India faces is that for the foreseeable future, there will continue to be an asymmetric balance of power in favour of China

If China’s energy security is to rely on land-based oil and gas pipelines connecting friendly energy producers to China, the pipelines must be outside the effective military reach of hostile powers. According to the DoD’s China report, the critical first phase of Beijing’s three-phase military modernisation programme is expected to be completed by 2027. From a military perspective, the most logical land route to seize Kashgar would be to march an expeditionary force along the road which runs from Kargil, on the Line of Control with Pakistan near the west bank of the Indus River in the Indian union territory of Ladakh, and cross into Pakistan-held Kashmir, proceeding via Skardu to Gilgit and then following the road connecting Gilgit to the Khunjerab Pass. Essentially, the invasion route would run through Pakistan-administered Kashmir, over which India claims sovereignty as the area was part of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir when it acceded to India in October 1947. The only way China can prevent such a possible attack would be to pre-emptively wrest control of a strategically significant portion of Eastern Ladakh from India and to annex the seized territory and incorporate it into Aksai Chin. China’s success in encroaching on Indian-held positions along the LAC in Eastern Ladakh in May–June 2020, which incrementally nudged the LAC westward, is a preview of Beijing’s intentions.

Through an Indian Veil

India’s perspective with respect to Eastern Ladakh is difficult to discern because it is shrouded in a veil weaved with strands of rhetorical posturing and cautious action. The official map of the union territory of Ladakh depicts the geographic scope of the claims asserted by India. The map is imaginary because it fails to reflect the actual facts on the ground that limit the area under India’s control. Moreover, the LAC exists purely in the eyes of the beholder, as it is not demarcated. The Indian government has not publicly published its perception of the LAC. India has made no attempt to recover Aksai Chin since the area was lost to China in 1962. Likewise, India has made no attempt to evict Chinese forces from the incremental encroachments in 2020 that were designed to shift the LAC westwards.

The harsh reality India faces is that for the foreseeable future, there will continue to be an asymmetric balance of power in favour of China. India is dependent on Russia for a majority of its imports of military equipment – a position that has prevailed for over half a century. In a war with China, India will not be able to rely on a military equipment lifeline from Moscow, given Russia’s growing dependence on China for its economic security. Moreover, reflecting the heavy burden of providing a continuous flow of military equipment and supplies to support Ukraine and Israel in their respective wars against Russia and Gaza, the US is unlikely to have the capacity to meet urgent Indian military requirements in the case of a war with China. The embryonic India–US strategic partnership is not expected to develop into a bilateral military security pact within the 2025–2030 timeframe. Crafting a pathway from mutually assured destruction to mutually assured survival is the ultimate challenge confronting New Delhi and Beijing.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Samir Tata

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