Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks to troops during his visit to Nimu in the territory of Ladakh. Photo: AFP / Indian Press Information Bureau

The Indian press reported that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fell back 1.5 kilometers at the Sino-Indian border in the Galwan Valley in Ladakh on Monday. This followed a two-hour video chat between Chinese Foreign Minister Yi Wang and Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval on Sunday.

The jingoist Indian media portrayed the incident as a win-lose outcome; India is a winner, and China is the loser. The opposite is true, as the agreement gave the Chinese side what it wanted. However, China did want to depict the incident as a zero-sum-game.

China didn’t want to hold political-level talks with Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, the pro-US Indian external affairs minister. It preferred to talk with Doval instead, bypassing Jaishankar in the same way as it had avoided Sushma Swaraj, who was external affairs minister during the Doklam standoff in 2017.

Many Indian strategic analysts have misconceptions that China continues to perceive India as a significant hurdle to Beijing’s ambition for global prominence. Chinese strategists don’t see India as their strategic rival in the short to medium term. However, they consider it a future competitor, say 50-60 years down the road. As a result, Chinese strategists have focused more on dealing with the US over the trade war and, more recently, on the Covid-19 pandemic.

Modi’s popularity ploy

A positive correlation existed between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity and the number of troops or paratroopers killed at the border. For instance, if the Pulwama terror attack had not happened on February 14, 2019, ahead of last year’s general election, Modi would not have been re-elected for a second term. Forty Indian paratroopers were killed in the incident.

But international relations or geopolitics is not a popularity contest like Indian domestic politics. In international relations, what matters is the right strategic judgment and decision-making at the right time. However, Modi seems incapable of differentiating his domestic popularity and India’s strategic decision-making.

Reclaiming Pakistan-administered Kashmir and Aksai Chin, China-administered Ladakh, as India’s lost territories is the raison d’être of the BJP’s territorial nationalism. Modi secured a second term by adopting this territorial-nationalist ideology. Subsequently, he revoked Article 370 of the constitution on the status of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. He delineated these territories as under direct rule by the central government.

After India’s recent road construction in disputed territory, Chinese strategists took note of Indian territorial ambitions, and China responded to the Indian moves in Ladakh.

Whatever claims the Indian government and its mouthpieces in the media have been making, India lost its sovereignty and territorial integrity in Ladakh after May 15 this year. H S Panag, a retired Indian Army lieutenant-general, wrote about this in The Print under the title “India’s fingers have come under Chinese boots. Denial won’t help us.”

Modi has limited options

As projected by Indian media, Modi’s strongman image is the pivot of his popularity by which he secured electoral victory in 2019. Therefore, because of pressure to maintain his image, Modi has minimal options to deal with China.

The first option is diplomacy to ease the tension and demarcate the border. Although both sides have been reiterating their faith in diplomacy, they have also been resorting to military action. However, significant progress is possible only when a happy accident happens. Diplomacy naturally is facing a dead end.

The second option is a “Wuhan-style” breakthrough like what happened during the 2017 Doklam standoff. This option is far from happening. Jaishankar can’t directly face his Chinese counterpart, Wang. Similarly, Modi cannot face Chinese President Xi Jinping directly. The Chinese leadership perceived that Modi and Jaishankar betrayed them by violating the consensus and agreement made during the informal summits between Modi and Xi in Wuhan, China, and Mahabalipuram, India.

Chinese strategists consider that when they were trying to improve the gravely deteriorating bilateral ties with the US triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, the road construction by India near disputed territory in Ladakh was seen as an attempt to stab China in the back while it was busy tackling the US.

Many Indian foreign-affairs journalists and opinion writers posted on Twitter calling on Modi to call Xi directly to de-escalate the tension after the violent June 15 clash. But they aren’t mindful that the Modi-Xi friendship is at a record low after Modi adopted a pro-US strategy amid of Covid-19 pandemic.

The third option is to maintain the status quo at the border before May 8 with the use of force. However, if Modi chooses war, India cannot afford it because of the sharp disparity in the comprehensive national power between China and India.

The military and economic costs of war are higher for India than for China. The political setback is far more significant for Modi than Xi. By taking this option Modi will be shooting himself in the foot politically, economically, and militarily.

Chinese strategy

The comparison between the Chinese and Indian media coverage after the Galwan Valley PLA-Indian Army clash gives a new and surprising clue to understanding the discrepancy in the two countries’ perceptions on the incident.

That is a clear indication that India has been using the incident for domestic political consumption. In contrast, China wants to send a message that the Chinese have no problem with India, but they have a problem with Modi’s China strategy. Besides, it is unsurprising that China wants to create war psychology among the Indians but not wage a full-scale war.

Because of the regime’s nature, opaque policymaking, surprising strategic moves, and lack of publicly available Chinese strategy on India per se, it is hard to predict the future course of Chinese policy. However, the Chinese want to apply long-run strategic and short-run tactical moves on India.

The Ladakh standoff was the product of Chinese strategists reckoning that India was exploiting their country’s vulnerability, particularly when it is grappling with Covid-19. The Chinese strategists consider that India wants to take advantage of China’s temporary weaknesses due to the pandemic to gain territory along the border in the short term. The Chinese short-term tactical move is to remain low-key in maintaining the border as defined after the 1962 war.

In the medium-term strategy, China wants to wait until India’s next general election is held four years from now in hopes for the current pro-US Indian leadership to be replaced.

In Chinese reading, Modi has failed on all domestic fronts, such as combating the Covid-19 pandemic and working toward his ambition of a US$5 trillion economy by 2025. Modi has limited himself to the agenda of territorial nationalism to attract voters in the next election. China wants to make territorial nationalism unusable as an electoral agenda for Modi by changing the status quo along the Sino-Indian border right before the 2024 general election.

According to Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think-tank, China is in no hurry to settle the border dispute with India, as it sees the situation as hanging an albatross on India’s neck.

Chinese strategists consider that they can fulfill their strategic objective to contain India as long as the dispute drags on. India’s political and military leadership will be occupied by the crisis and waste resources, energy, time, and effort to deal with border issues. As a result, India will make it a priority, divert resources to protect its territory, derail its economic development, and shrink its economic and political leadership at the global stage for the long term.

The Doklam standoff in 2017 and the current Ladakh standoff have shown that a PLA major-general of the Western Theater Command and about 8,000 troops can play a crucial role as a millstone around the neck of the Indian political and military leadership.

The Chinese are applying the strategy suggested by their military thinker Sun Tzu about 2,500 years ago. He said, “To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” China wants to contain India by using Indian territorial nationalism as its crucial weakness.

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Bhim Bhurtel

Bhim Bhurtel is visiting faculty for a master’s in international relations and diplomacy, Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, and faculty for a master’s program of Development Economics, Nepal Open University. He was the executive director of the Nepal South Asia Center (2009-14), a Kathmandu-based South Asian development think-tank. Bhurtel can be reached at bhim.bhurtel@gmail.com.