Peace between rising powers is always fragile, and India and China are no exceptions. On June 15, 2020, troops on the Sino-Indian border engaged in their most violent confrontation in decades, endangering the precariously maintained peace between the two Asian giants. The scuffle took place in the Galwan Valley on the western sector of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that delineates the de facto border between the nuclear-armed neighbors. Strategically located between the Indian Union Territory of Ladakh on the West and Aksai Chin (the Chinese-controlled Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region) on the East, this section of territory sits 14,000 feet above sea level in the high Himalayas, making it one of the most formidable and inaccessible battlefields.
In line with long-standing practices and confidence-building measures, including agreements of 1996 and 2005, border troops on both sides are under orders to avoid the use of firearms and encourage restraint upon any encounters along the contested LAC. As a result, the clash along the steep gorges of Galwan was hand-to-hand combat involving barbed-wire fence posts, nail-studded iron batons, jagged rocks, and fists left 20 soldiers dead on the Indian side with “unspecified casualties” on the Chinese front.
Since May this year, tension has been mounting on the LAC, but there were hopes of returning to the status quo ante through disengagement talks that began on June 06. However, with death in Galwan, Xi’s China and Modi’s India, the two great power aspirants with nationalist leaders at the helm, have only inched closer to the point of no return. This insight analyses the destabilizing power nexus in South Asia, presenting consequences to be looked out for as this multifaceted conflict spills beyond Asia.
The LAC has historically been a cause of strained relations between India and China. Each side accuses the other of surprise maneuvers, infrastructural activities, and incursions to unilaterally alter the 3,488-kilometer-long undemarcated border. China’s ingresses into Chumar, Depsang plains, Daulat Beg Oldi, and other sensitive frontiers have resulted in multiple deadlocks with India in the last decade, including a 73-day stand-off over Chinese construction on the disputed Doklam plateau, at the critical India-China-Bhutan tri-junction. At the apogee of an ersatz relationship between the Tiger and the Dragon, the latest developments along the LAC have heightened the India-China security dilemma.
Figure 1: Developments along the contested LAC 
Source: Maxar Technologies via Reuters
As it stands, recent satellite imagery by Maxar has revealed an amassing of Chinese forces, armored convoys, heavy construction machinery, and structural expansion with possible fortification close to new configurations potentially resembling defensive barricades on the Indian side. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has made a further approach to the banks of Pangong Tso, a flashpoint for the two countries since the first Sino-Indian war of 1962.
New Delhi has found itself a new dilemma in China’s abrasive and confrontational tactics, announcing its intent in a declaration of unambiguous sovereignty over Galwan. India’s protest in denying Beijing’s claims as “exaggerated and untenable” is backed by its offensive preparedness, signaling worry for conflict watchers.
India has deployed its T-90 Bhishma tanks and C-17 Globemaster, C-130 Super Hercules, and CH-47 Chinook aircraft near the LAC. It also test-bedded the offensive capabilities of its sophisticated XVII Corps and Integrated Battle Groups along the Eastern Front of the LAC last October. The world’s fastest supersonic cruise missile, BrahMos, an India-Russia venture, also received combat-clearance amid the India-China row. Guided by Prime Minister Modi’s “clarion call for Atmanirbhar Bharat” (self-reliant India), the Ministry of Defence approved the upgrade of 59 MIG-29s and the procurement of 21 MiG-29s and 12 Su-30MKIs, an investment exceeding $5.2 billion to bolster its combat squadrons.
However, it should also be noted that India’s active development of its military capabilities in recent years has been outstripped by China. According to estimates by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China has increased its military expenditure by 85 percent in the last decade, ranking as the second-highest spender in the world in 2019, with India following closely in third place.
Figure 2: China’s nuclear strike range (left) in comparison with India’s nuclear strike range
(right) – estimations of capabilities and positions based on research at the Belfer Center
Map Legend: China
Map Legend: India
|Missile Type||Rocket Force Base and Location||Color
|Approx. Missile Range (miles)||Nuclear Delivery Vehicle Type||Location||Color
Approx. Range (miles)
|Base 56: Beidao/ Tawanli, Gansu Province||Yellow||6,830||Agni-III||
|DF-21, DF-31||Base 56: Xining, Qinghai Province||Bright Green||1,335 (DF-21) 4,350 (DF-31)||
|DF-21, DF-31||Base 56: Delingha, Qinghai Province||Red||1,335 (DF-21) 4,350 (DF-31)||
Mirage 2000H fighters, with nuclear gravity bombs
|Gwalior AFS, Madhya Pradesh State||Green||
|DF-21||Base 56: Liuqingkou, Qinghai Province||Black||1,335||
Jaguar IS fighters, with nuclear gravity bombs
|Ambala AFS, Haryana State||Pink||
|DF-21||Base 56: Korla, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region||White||1,335||
Jaguar IS fighters, with nuclear gravity bombs
|Gorakhpur AFS, Uttar Pradesh State||
|DF-21||Base 53: Jianshui, Yunnan Province||Blue||1,335||
|Base 53: Chuxiong, Yunnan Province||Dark Green||
Source: The Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University. 
If the offense-defense mismatch and the relative posturing of India and China bode ill for Asia, speculations of a further complication in the form of troop deployments by Pakistan on its disputed border with India should make this potential conflict a serious concern.
The power imbalance in Asia
A fragile balance of competition and cooperation has maintained India and China’s great power aspirations. The Naresh Chandra Committee, a high-level task force assembled to assess India’s national security environment in 2011, presciently warned of China’s “containment of India,” the modernization of the PLA and its “growing assertiveness on the border”, and recommended a shift of India’s national security strategy from Islamabad to Beijing. China’s unchecked maritime advance, especially its stronghold of critical Sea Lines of Communication or “string of pearls” that encircle India, has been a long-standing concern for India’s security elite.
Listed under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s development of ports from Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Pakistan to Kenya threatens India’s peninsular advantage in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). This advantage includes its ability to control China’s energy chokepoint, the Strait of Malacca, a hindrance to China’s power projection. In the past, India has exploited what former President Hu Jintao designated as China’s “Malacca dilemma,” by threatening to close off access in case of Beijing’s interference in the critical Indo-Pakistan wars of 1971 and 1999. Positioning itself as a worthy competitor and challenger, India has increased naval surveillance in the IOR in the last week. It has also conducted a joint exercise with Japan, one of the four security allies of “the quad”, the security dialogue between India, Japan, Australia, and the United States (US).
Another reason Beijing’s ambitions cannot fit well within a cooperative model with India is that they cut right through India’s nationalism, the soul of which lies in Kashmir. A large part of India’s boundaries of Jammu and Kashmir, along with Ladakh, constitute areas occupied by China or ceded to it by Pakistan in a bilateral boundary agreement reached in 1963, much to India’s dismay. When BRI’s flagship project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), laid plans to pass through Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, India became acutely aware of the threat that this evolving partnership would pose to its strategic positioning in Asia.
There is a cautious optimism behind India’s doctrine of “strategic autonomy”. It is designed to maintain the power asymmetry in the South Asian neighborhood but wielded to seek “equivalence” with the great powers — China, Russia, US — in a multipolar world. On the domestic front, the Modi government has prospered through a vociferous policy of strong and secure borders and a muscular international approach, which was more readily evident in the rhetoric with Pakistan than with China. In view of Modi’s party and support the base’s nationalist ideology, there is tremendous pressure on India to respond with a heavy hand. Citing the national intelligence law, India has banned nearly 60 Chinese apps, including TikTok, in a move analysts deem “techno-nationalism”. However, the potential of economic retaliation and decoupling seems thin, given India’s dependence on China for its manufacturing, consumer electronics, automotive, and pharmaceutical industries.
While India’s military capabilities have undoubtedly advanced in the years building up to the latest LAC clashes, there remains a considerable imbalance between the two Asian powers. Despite their close rankings, China’s expenditure on firepower is from $177 to $261 billion, overshadowing India’s $71 billion.
Table 1: An assessment of India and China’s relative military capabilities.
Despite their close rankings, China’s expenditure on firepower is anywhere in the region of $177 to $261 billion, overshadowing India’s $71 billion. Commensurate to China’s 3,500 tanks, 33,000 armored vehicles, 1,232 fighter jets, 52 naval frigates, and 220 patrol vessels, the Indian arsenal holds 4,292 tanks, 8,686 armored vehicles, 538 fighter jets, 13 frigates, and 139 patrol vessels.
Since the 1990s, both powers have demonstrated greater urgency in competing one-another in border infrastructural capabilities, and as the roads close in nearer to the LAC, the prospects for cooperation have been further reduced. The modus vivendi maintained between India and China for over half a century has come to a crescendo in Galwan accompanied by the end of a “peaceful rise” of China, as argued by Dr. Shashi Tharoor, former Indian Minister of State for External Affairs.
At the vertex of a power imbalance in South Asia, India can neither afford an all-out war with China nor indulge its salami-slicing tactics (frequent, limited actions) along the world’s longest unmarked border. As it weighs its choices, India has to be careful not to act in acquiescence. While relative economic and military imbalances may limit India’s options, proactive and strategic foreign policy positioning could help maintain its regional position.
Taking inspiration from Richard N. Haass, American diplomat and president of the Council on Foreign Relations, India must consider that robust foreign policy is built on a solid domestic foundation. Beyond a duel of rivals, the South Asian conflict exemplifies a contest between an unchecked, undeterred Communist Party of China and the democracy that India has strived to maintain. India’s strongest advantage over China still lies in its democracy, if it chooses to leverage it. There has never been a greater need for India to reach an all-party consensus and project a united front based on historical wisdom and future aspirations. Internally made concessions to bridge political divides across party lines will always be cheaper than concessions made to an actor beyond borderlines.
The Asian Nexus: Why neighbors matter in South Asia
Security analysts are divided on India’s preparedness in responding to what cannot be considered a black swan moment on the LAC. However, in debating its riposte, India is at risk of neglecting its neighbors. While there are laudable achievements under India’s “Neighborhood First” policy, including the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) framework, and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), ineffective implementation, and unsustained momentum have impeded New Delhi’s ability to realize the full potential of these initiatives. At the same time, China has made inroads into South Asian affairs, securing economic, diplomatic, and security ties in the neighborhood. As Derek Grossman contends, China has greatly leveraged the BRI to its geostrategic advantage, taking over Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port on a 99-year lease, signing off Nepal’s stance on Tibet through 20 BRI agreements, parading the “China-Maldives Friendship Bridge” as an incentive of Chinese partnership and, ultimately, by giving Pakistan an unconditional alliance that would keep India on guard.
Bandwagoning and balancing within the region have been critical to the maintenance of the Indo-China nexus in South Asia, but it has become increasingly evident that the pursuit of the “Asian Century” may only be fulfilled through an Asian monopoly led by China. India’s geographical vulnerability lies in the Siliguri corridor, the 22-kilometer-wide “chicken’s neck” connecting its North-Eastern states with the mainland. Had the 2017 confrontation wherein China sought to claim a section of Doklam disputed with Bhutan tilted in China’s favor, it would have secured a critical advantage over this corridor. Owing to New Delhi’s strong ties with Bhutan, the stand-off was mitigated to India’s advantage.
The same support cannot be asked of its other regional ”partners” with interdependent geographies. Bangladesh’s deafening silence on the border crisis owes much to its discomposure with India over the latter’s Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) that looks to award citizenship only to persecuted non-Muslim immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Though a neighbor that India has shared deep structural, institutional, and historical ties with, Bangladesh is instead focusing on the tariff exemption offered to it by China on 97 percent of its exports. Dhaka is further rebuking Indian media for its deprecatory coverage of the growing links with Beijing. In May, India inaugurated an 80-kilometer road stretching up to the Lipulekh Pass on China’s border, at their Nepal tri-junction. A claimant to the territory, Nepal chose strong retaliation over precedents of past dialogues, moving to amend its constitution and national emblem to incorporate the disputed territories of Lipulekh, Kalapani, Limpiyadhura.
As influence within the regional nexus slips away from India, it must act substantively and closely with its “like-minded partners” in South Asia to provide them with support and thereby counter-balance Chinese incursions into the region. Alliances forged both internally and regionally will be key to India’s diplomatic counter-offensive.
The skirmishes that took place at the LAC has undeniably transgressed into the realpolitik of great power competition, altering the South Asian status quo with limited possibilities of return.
This insight ultimately concludes with three assertions:
- First, on the question of war – for India, in its balance between epidemiology to meet the current pandemic and military escalations, the cost of war is high. Rajesh Rajagopalan, however, argues that the cost of inaction will be higher in the long-term as it will signal India’s irresolution and embolden China, wherein the latter will only accept an unambiguous victory. However, the facts of China’s assertion of power over Hong Kong, pushback on the mishandling of the Covid-19 situation, trade disputes with Australia, unflinching position vis-à-vis the US, brazen ascent in South Asia with its debt-trap maneuvers, “wolf-warrior diplomacy”, and, finally, its forward advance on the LAC, only go to show that China has everything to gain and India much to lose.
- Second, on opportunities for India – the conflict comes when India is offering itself as an assertive yet reliable ally in the multipolar world. Its “NORMS — New Orientation for a Reformed Multilateral System” approach won it 184 of 192 votes for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, an important step in India’s quest to secure a permanent seat on the body. The Indo-China conflict thus can be an opportunity for India to concretize its strategic autonomy, defining it normatively as a foreign policy player promoting respect for international law, diplomatic dialogue, and a transparent rise as a leading regional actor. In this crucial game, India can decide what type of power it chooses to emerge as, and this could be an opportunity to project itself as a legitimate and putative great power that China could not be. While demonstrating its power on the LAC, India should simultaneously act regionally to balance disagreements by employing diplomatic tact – an approach in which it has historically maintained an edge over China – to (re)manifest its soft power and put its economic weight behind narratives of shared civilizational legacies in the IOR. An example of the latter is the development of Project SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region).
- Third, on consequences beyond South Asia – India’s soft balancing should be matched by an impetus from its allies for external balancing. A unipolar South Asia built on an unrelenting China will not augur well for the West. While the Indo-Pakistan conflict has played to the advantage of the US and Europe, especially during the Cold War, the same expectation cannot be held from the Indo-China dispute. Against the background of US-China tensions, the latter’s unchecked rise in South Asia will be detrimental to the influence that the former has previously enjoyed. With a weakened India, expanded economic influence in South Asia, and Pakistan committed to its Chinese “iron brother”, Beijing will seek to negate Western ideological and economic influence in the region. Those concerned about China’s increasingly assertive policies would expect the West, in particular Washington, to protect their interests through measures such as mobilization of the Quad and other regional networks, notably the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
By assessing the larger complications for South Asia emerging from developments on India’s disputed border with China, this insight has also discussed how consequential the dispute might be for the rest of the world if the undertones of the changing competition are not structurally tackled. In the Art of War, Sun Tzu posits, “a victorious army first wins and then seeks battle; a defeated army first battles and then seeks victory.” In their international positioning, whether it will be India or China’s thinking and preparedness that is victorious, only the real geopolitical battle will tell — one that far exceeds the LAC battlegrounds.
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 The tiger and the dragon are symbolic figures for India and China, respectively, and are emblematic of their simultaneous rise in Asia. Taking a turn toward competitive engagement, these figures are found in common parlance compared to the elephant and the panda, which are representative of cooperative ties between the two powers. For more: (https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/fandd/2012/09/syed.htm).
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 The spurs of the mountains along the banks of the Pangong Tso in military speak are referred to as ‘Fingers.’ India has its presence along Fingers 1-4 but claims that the LAC is coterminous to the easternmost Finger 8. China has border posts at Finger 8, moving inwards towards Finger 4 and claim the area all through to Finger 2.
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