Illustration: Craig Stephens
by C. Uday Bhaskar
by C. Uday Bhaskar

After border clash with India, has China made a strategic miscalculation?

  • China seems to have decided it can bear the cost of its territorial assertion at the disputed border and has warned India against strategic miscalculation
  • However, the current gain might cloud the big picture for Beijing in the long term
India and China have begun a cautious process of disengagement at certain locations in eastern Ladakh, against the backdrop of 20 Indian soldiers, including a colonel, having been killed by the People’s Liberation Army in violent scuffles on June 15. Beijing, while acknowledging PLA casualties in the incident, has not released official figures.

India accused China of “premeditated” transgressions at multiple locations along the contested Line of Actual Control and strongly condemned the manner in which the Indian soldiers were ambushed.

In the following fortnight, both nations enhanced their troop levels and a tense stand-off ensued along the disputed border, with each side blaming the other for the loss of life. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a surprise visit to Ladakh on July 3 and asserted that “the era of expansionism is over” without referring to China explicitly. In an unusually sharp formulation, China’s foreign ministry warned India not to make a “strategic miscalculation”.
While negotiations between local military commanders did not lead to a satisfactory outcome, high-level political intervention, in the form of talks on July 5 between Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, enabled a lowering of military tensions.

Although both sides reiterated their commitment “to not allow differences to become disputes”, the road ahead is fraught with uncertainty over the sincerity with which the Doval-Wang agreement will be implemented.


India and China attempt to de-escalate border tension after deaths

India and China attempt to de-escalate border tension after deaths

Between them, India and China have amassed tens of thousands of troops with inventory that includes tanks and artillery along the 1,600km frontier in the contested western sector while air assets have also been placed on a round-the-clock operational pattern. Winding down will be an extended process.

At the tactical level, India was unable to anticipate and pre-empt the PLA incursions at multiple locations along the LAC that had traditionally deemed to be peaceful areas, such as the Galwan Valley. For the first time since the 1993 Jiang Zemin-Narasimha Rao agreement, lives have been lost because of what is seen in India as Chinese perfidy.

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The larger strategic impact of this conflict is India’s loss of trust in China as a credible interlocutor. New Delhi is grappling with the challenge of identifying a new framework for the bilateral relationship even as the Covid-19 pandemic poses an immediate health challenge.

The Modi government announced the banning of several Chinese apps. Beijing would not want a trade war with India, even though India is not a major trading partner, unlike the United States and Japan.


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Many explanations are being advanced to explain why China has acted as it did, effectively jettisoning of the spirit of the 1993 agreement.

These range from India improving its infrastructure and road connectivity in eastern Ladakh, a task that China accomplished far more robustly years ago, to Delhi altering the status of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, and an improvement in India-US ties.

Whatever the trigger for this latest flare-up, Beijing has decided to embark on this military intimidation of India in a manner reminiscent of what Mao ordered in October 1962, when, according to the Chinese side, the PLA “taught India a lesson”.

Chinese President Xi Jinping appears to have arrived at a strategic calculation that China can bear the cost of this attempt to alter the status quo on the LAC and that India does not have any viable option but to accept its neighbour’s territorial assertion. Concurrently, China has sought to place the onus of “strategic miscalculation” on India. This formulation merits scrutiny for its shrewdness.

China’s actions in October 1962, when it overwhelmed India’s militarily in the brief border war even as the US and the former Soviet Union were locked in the Cuban missile crisis, had an unintended consequence. It served as a wake-up call for India, which had ignored the tenets of realpolitik and the imperative of acquiring credible military power. It also brought the two superpowers of the time – the US and USSR – into the strategic grid.

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In the following years, India forged a close relationship with both Moscow and Washington and, more importantly, it assisted in the birth of Bangladesh in the face of Chinese and US opposition – a military feat that was remarkable for its time.

The considered assessment in New Delhi is that China has “lost” India due to its impulsive actions in the Galwan Valley and that the short-term tactical gains along the LAC will adversely affect the big picture for the People’s Republic in the run-up to its centenary in 2049.

A Chinese soldier gestures as he stands near an Indian soldier on the Chinese side of the ancient Nathu La border crossing between India and China in July 2008. The pass was opened in 2006 to boost trade. Photo: AFP
With a seemingly intractable confrontation on the horizon with the US, it would have been prudent for China to ensure that relations with India remained unruffled, even as issues like Hong Kong, Taiwan and the South China Sea dispute were being pursued.
Chinese belligerence at the LAC has resulted in a backlash from other nations – big and small. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has brought the rule of law back into focus in the South China Sea dispute, the US is considering banning Chinese apps and Japan’s ruling party is asking for Xi Jinping’s visit to be called off following the passage of the national security law in Hong Kong.

It is possible that Beijing could hunker down and deal with this resistance and diplomatic opprobrium in the short term, but it will erode the goal of China emerging as a responsible global power that elicits respect and admiration for its many accomplishments.

What will emerge is the prospect of a lonely and sullen bully seeking to impose Chinese hegemony on an Asia that will resist such expansionism. Can strategic miscalculation be replaced by strategic prudence? The ball is in China’s court.

Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar is director of the Society for Policy Studies (SPS), an independent think tank based in New Delhi