When India, currently fighting a devastating second COVID wave, was similarly distracted a year ago with enforcing the world’s strictest coronavirus lockdown, China took advantage to stealthily infiltrate key border areas in India’s high-altitude Ladakh region.
As thawing ice reopened access routes after the brutal Himalayan winter, a shocked India discovered that the People’s Liberation Army had occupied hundreds of sq. kilometers of the borderlands, fortified by heavily armed bases. The discovery triggered the first deadly clashes in the region since 1975.
The intruding PLA forces remain well dug in, with Beijing in no mood to roll back its encroachments or accept further buffer zones of the kind established in two other confrontation areas to avert further armed clashes.
With tens of thousands of Chinese and Indian troops facing each other in multiple areas, the standoffs constitute the longest period of military confrontation since China imposed itself as India’s neighbor in the early 1950s by occupying then-autonomous Tibet. Even China’s 1962 military attack on India — the only foreign war that communist-ruled China has won — only lasted 32 days.
Now, with India battling a sudden COVID explosion, there are fears China will spring further military surprises. This thought recently prompted India’s army chief to visit the front lines in Ladakh to review operational preparedness.
Meanwhile, China’s aggression has cast an unflattering light on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who failed to foresee the aggression coming largely because he was focused on befriending China. Meeting President Xi Jinping 18 times over the previous five years, Modi was blinded to the various warning signs, including China’s combat exercises and new military installations along the Himalayan frontier.
Since China’s land grabs, the otherwise voluble Modi has been quiet, neither mentioning China by name in any of his public remarks nor acknowledging the loss of territories. Worse still, no army commander has been held accountable for the costly security lapses that resulted in India being caught napping. Nor did the defense minister accept moral responsibility and resign.
India’s efforts to obfuscate the truth in order to save face, including its euphemism for seeking China’s withdrawal from the borderlands — “full restoration of peace and tranquility in the border areas” — have become grist for the Chinese propaganda mill. Indian media coverage is rife with officially coined euphemisms, with areas seized by the PLA routinely reported as “friction points.”
All of which is emboldening China’s intransigence. In seeking to advance its “10 miles forward, five miles back” strategy, Beijing recently suggested the two countries should meet each other “halfway.” Meeting halfway would be a “win-win” for China; it would literally win twice.
Not only would China retain its core land grabs, it would force India to legitimize their Chinese capture. This approach illustrates Beijing’s definition of “give and take” — the other side gives and China takes.
To Modi’s credit, India has refused to buckle. India has more than matched China’s Himalayan military deployments, and has made clear that bilateral ties cannot return to normal as long as there is, to quote Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, “friction, coercion, intimidation and bloodshed on the border.”
This month India excluded Chinese manufacturers from its fifth-generation, or 5G, wireless network trials. And, unlike the 15 tons of medical supplies it rushed to Wuhan at the height of the pandemic there, India has declined to reciprocally take any such Chinese official assistance during its current COVID surge.
The long-term implications, however, are ominous. Consider, for example, China’s frenzied construction of new military infrastructure along the inhospitable border. This big buildup either signals that Beijing sees war as likely, or that it intends to ramp up sustained pressure on India over the long-term.
More fundamentally, China’s actions, including the forward deployment of artillery, missiles and bombers, threaten to turn what was once a lightly patrolled frontier into a perennially hot border. The Tibetan Plateau has become a vast military base for China, which also enjoys the advantage of a relatively flat terrain against India.
For India, a hot border means the diversion of even greater resources for frontier defense, including raising additional mountain-warfare forces. Such a scenario will not only make it more difficult for India to focus on its broader strategic competition with China, but will also further strengthen China’s Pakistan alliance.
Tying India down along the long Himalayan frontier could even help China secure a greater foothold in the Indian Ocean. Opening a maritime front against India would mean that country’s strategic encirclement.
It is possible, however, that — like with the 1962 war — China’s actions could prove singularly counterproductive. That war shattered Indian illusions about China and set in motion India’s shift away from pacifism. In 1967, while still recovering from the 1962 war and another war with Pakistan in 1965, India gave China a bloody nose in military clashes along the Tibet-Sikkim border.
In terms of territory gained, China’s Ladakh aggression may have been a success. But politically, it has proved self-damaging, driving India closer to Washington and making a major Indian military buildup inevitable. Relations between Beijing and New Delhi are at a nadir.
This seems a replay of 1962, when China set out, in the words of then-Premier Zhou Enlai, to “teach India a lesson.” China won the war but lost the peace. The difference now is China is making a permanent enemy of its largest neighbor.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”