Why India and China are digging in for another tense winter standoff

·5 min read

The thirteenth round of Corps Commander talks ended on Sunday, 10 October, at Moldo in eastern Ladakh but failed to reach an agreement on disengagement of troops at Patrolling Point 15 in the Hot Springs area. While the two sides have agreed to additional rounds of talks, the sharp statements issued separately by them after the talks ended, reflected a continuing impasse.

The Chinese side is continuing to block Indian security personnel from accessing the areas where they had regularly mounted patrols. There have been fresh incursions in the Demchok area in the south where Indian troops are reportedly unable to carry out patrolling across the Charding Nallah. Chinese troops have entered the Barahoti Plains in the central sector and Tawang Tracts in the eastern sector but have gone back after being intercepted by Indian troops. There have been continuing deployment of Chinese troops in significant numbers all along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), supported by rapid and substantial build-up of permanent or semi-permanent infrastructure.

Unconfirmed reports say that anti-aircraft systems like the Russian built S-400 have been located in Aksai China. This may be aimed at neutralising Indian air assets that have been deployed in larger numbers at air bases both in the western and eastern sectors. The situation along the border has been summed up by the Indian Army chief when he remarked: "So it means that they (China) are here to stay. We are keeping a close watch on all these developments but if they are there to stay, we are there to stay."

There will be a second severe winter which will see thousands of troops confronting each other along the LAC.

Clearly, India faces a new situation on its border with China and this must be analysed in the changed context of India-China relations. An assessment of where things stand in India-China relations may be found in a recent discussion paper, "India's Path to Power: Strategy in a World Adrift," launched on 2 October. Briefly, it ascribes China's more aggressive posture to its reading of the changed balance of power both vis-Ã -vis India as well as in relation to the United States, its main geopolitical rival.

China's current GDP is five-times that of India and the asymmetry is expanding. With the United States, it is shrinking the gap in capabilities, more in terms of economic power, less in terms of military and technological prowess. China thinks of power in hierarchical terms and expects deference from those perceived to be lower in the pecking order. When that is not forthcoming, its reaction is overbearing and dismissive.

In my view, the happenings at the border are not driven by territoriality but by the intent to demonstrate to India that its strategic partnership with the US and its participation in the Quad cannot provide it with an effective deterrent against a resurgent China. Equally, the message to the US is that it can undertake hostile action against US partners and allies at will and there is nothing that the US is able to do about it. To the extent that the US has pitched its strategy of constraining China in the maritime space of the Indo-Pacific, China is trying to pin down India on its land borders to neutralise its advantage in the maritime space.

What should be India's China strategy in the altered regional and global geopolitics?

India's Path to Power has a border strategy and a national strategy to deal with the China challenge.

On the military side, the paper acknowledges that the Indian armed forces have demonstrated their capacity to prevent further significant ingress across the LAC by Chinese troops, but the firepower needed to dislodge the latter from points already occupied is lacking.

Furthermore, the nature of the border is such that permanent deployments all along the LAC is simply not possible, though surveillance and monitoring can be significantly improved. India should restructure its armed forces so that it has several mobile strike teams that can swiftly move across the border to secure territory in case of Chinese ingress. This would give the Indian side bargaining leverage and this was demonstrated by what happened in south Pangong Tso in eastern Ladakh. The objective should be to convince the adversary that such incursions can prove to be costly and risky.

In the larger geopolitical context, there is no alternative to India strengthening its security partnerships with other major powers and through fora such as the Quad. An India which denies itself such partnerships in deference to China will find itself under even greater pressure from China. The paper also recommends that India reorient its foreign policy towards greater focus on the large constituency of developing countries with which the country shares both major concerns and interests. India can emerge as a natural leader of this constituency and this will expand India's diplomatic space.

The paper concludes that the only effective and enduring answer to the China challenge lies in India getting back on a high growth trajectory, reducing the power gap with China, and leveraging India's unmatched assets as a vibrant plural democracy. Despite the turmoil and uncertainty that has enveloped the world, spaces have opened up for emerging countries like India. This is a window of opportunity that should not be missed like many others unfortunately have in the past.

Shyam Saran, former Foreign Secretary, is one of the authors of 'India's Path to Power'. The other authors are Yamini Aiyar, Ajit Ranade, Sunil Khilnani, Srinath Raghavan, Shivshankar Menon, General Prakash Menon and Nitin Pai. The views expressed are personal.

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