India and China: The Evolving Strategic Game


India's Strategic Choices: China and the Balance of Power in Asia -  Carnegie India - Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

by Rajesh Kumar Sinha    13 September 2022

The stalemate on the Indo-China border continues for the past 28-months. The latest development, of both militaries agreeing to get back to previous positions on the much contested Gogra-Hot Springs area, signals some sort of sanity coming back into the bilateral relationship.

In course of long tense eyeball-to-eyeball face-off while the Chinese side seem content to pass it off without talking too much about it, the Indian side has been vocal demanding complete Chinese pull-out from non-patrolling areas. The repeated reiterations by Indian side of full disengagement, the continued threat from the Chinese, the enhanced level of preparedness of Indian military and the willingness to be ready for a long haul on the borders, all have made it clear to Beijing that the current Indian military and political establishment will not be the first to blink and the story of 1962 and thereafter be better confined to history. The continued discussions through military and diplomatic channels aimed at working out a “mutually acceptable resolution” is something that Chinese ultimately have to accede to.

Interestingly, just before the long-delayed military delegation-level talks there seemed a further hardening of the position from the Chinese side. While the China land law coming into effect on 1st January this year, talks of “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China are sacred and inviolable,” seem aimed at using it as a diplomatic coercion against India in near future, rather than of any real military or strategic significance. The posting of PLA soldiers unfurling the Chinese flag in the Galwan region in the media, looked part of their continued psy-ops/information warfare against an equally determined and probably superior-prepared Indian military.

The renaming of 15-places in Arunachal Pradesh and occasional aggressive posturing close to Sikkim borders, seem aimed at a strategic messaging that the area continues to be on their radar and should India try to do something against the oft-declared Chinese core interests, i.e. Tibet and Taiwan, then they might try applying strategic or military coercion in the region.

An important reason for the Chinese indifference for the purported disengagement that India seems very keen on, for both strategic and political reasons, is that subsequent to the withdrawal of Indian forces from Kailash range the strategic and military vulnerability of Chinese have been reduced substantially. That emerged as an important reason for their refusal to withdraw from the PP-15 in the Hot Springs-Gogra-Kongka La area along with Demchock and Depsang.

Further, the bilateral trade for the April-December, 2021 period has increased 49.3% to US$ 90.37Billion with trade imbalance tilted heavily in favour of China. All such factors point towards a Chinese comfort in the maintenance of status quo and hence their reluctance to move forward on the issue of disengagement.

However, the Chinese too have their compulsions. While Indian political circles and media have been agog with coverage on Chinese building a bridge on Pnagong Tso and related military infrastructure, it is evident that they have been compelled to work ferociously due to the tremendous pressure exerted by the unexpected swift Indian military movements against the Chinese PLA. In last one year, the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) has built over 100 strategic roads and bridges as part of the India-China Border Roads (ICBR) project. In December 2021, 27 new projects got inaugurated, including the world’s highest motor able road project Umling La at 19,300 feet.

Hence, the Chinese desperation to build a pre-fabricated structure bridge at Kurnak, deep inside their part of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) where Pangong Tso is at its narrowest, is more to ward off any future military surprises a la Kailash in August, 2020 than of any real dominating military advantages.

At the same time, China seem more under pressure for both military and political reasons. Militarily on Taiwan, it has bitten more than it could chew and in trying to project its dominance, it ended up showing own vulnerability with visits of Pelosi and other US Congressmen, brought the country’s sovereignty in global limelight.

While both India and China continue to build military infrastructures at a feverish pace, some consequences are quite discernible. One, as each strategist knows that a “war or conflict is always an instrument of last resort”, neither wants a full-fledged war. Second, the continuously expanding trade and economic relations will continue to act as a big leverage in containing a border skirmish from turning into a greater conflict. Third, Chinese strategy is to try to contain India’s politico-strategic rise while compelling it to accept its own rise on a global platform vis-à-vis the US and to ensure that it plans to use the border disputes as a bargaining chip. The border settlement between the two countries are not going to happen anytime in near future.

From Indian perspective, it needs time and finances to reach to a certain level of left-over military parity with China. And till that happens, it requires borders to be quite, even though tense while politico-economic competition with China all across the globe, could continue. The May, 2020 violent border clashes however, could well be seen as a positive wake-up call for Indian military and strategic planners when the country has been forced to prepare itself for a big military conflict at a short notice and brace for a two-pronged war in a pragmatic sense.