There are several global developments jostling for the world’s attention right now—the upcoming inauguration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, Britain’s exit from the European Union, a worrying hack of U.S. government systems, and the race to administer coronavirus vaccines across the planet. Amid these major news stories, the 8-month-old military standoff in the Himalayas between Asia’s two biggest countries, China and India, has fallen off the radar of global concern. While pundits agree that Asia is the site of an ongoing shift in the global power balance, what gets little attention is how New Delhi’s reworking of military priorities—forced by events on the disputed Sino-Indian border—will have far-reaching geopolitical consequences for the world.
The past year’s skirmishes between India and China are often described by commentators as a stalemate. While this may be literally true, two factors should alter that perception. First, China has far deeper pockets, especially after a year in which it has bounced back from the coronavirus pandemic while India has fallen into a recession. And second, Beijing has forced New Delhi to focus on securing its land borders at the cost of its strategic military transformation, handing China a clear long-term advantage.
The current crisis began last May when China diverted its soldiers from a training exercise into Ladakh, catching the Indian Army off guard amid the pandemic. The gravity of the situation became clear in mid-June when 20 Indian and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers were killed in a violent clash, where not a single bullet was fired. The front-line soldiers of two nuclear-armed neighbors used batons, clubs, and stones to inflict injuries and cause deaths.
Since then, there have been multiple attempts at disengagement and de-escalation on the disputed border, but the political and military talks—the last one was held on Nov. 6—have been futile. The Chinese have refused to restore the pre-May status quo in Ladakh, where they now control an additional 600 square miles of territory.
Indian and Chinese battle tanks are positioned only a few yards apart at standoff sites, while more than 100,000 soldiers of both armies remain deployed at altitudes ranging from 10,000 to 15,000 feet, where temperatures can dip to minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit.
Recognizing that Beijing has an immense military advantage, New Delhi has chosen a path of levying economic punishments, such as the banning of Chinese-origin apps and restricting Chinese participation in government procurement. But India’s limited economic leverage over China has rendered these measures relatively ineffective. Even though New Delhi made certain bold military moves on its side of the so-called Line of Actual Control—the de facto border—in late August, it has been careful to avoid any serious military escalation or initiate a limited war with Beijing. As South Asia’s worst performing economy in 2020, India is not in a position to bear the cost of a military conflict. A war with China would also force India to discard its long-standing policy of strategic autonomy, as New Delhi would have to make the politically unpalatable choice of openly allying with Washington.
Having ruled out a quick resolution through conflict, India’s only viable option has been to go for a long and drawn-out border standoff against the Chinese. New Delhi’s heavy military deployments in Ladakh are aimed at containing its losses and preventing any further Chinese encroachment into Indian territory. These deployments can neither punish the Chinese for their incursions nor force them to relinquish control of their newly acquired territorial gains. The massive deployments by both sides, with a strong emphasis on territorial control, mean that neither side can walk away in the short term. The two armies are locked into the prospect of a long watch in the high mountains; the harsh Himalayan winter will determine the relative costs to both sides for maintaining their current deployments.
It can be said that India has an advantage because its army has operated for decades in extremely adverse conditions, such as the uninhabited Siachen glacier, where India has long fought Pakistan. Those experiences may hold India in good stead but only to an extent—because such deployments take a heavy toll on soldiers, equipment, and supply chains. Moreover, the infrastructure and logistics support needed to ease soldiers through such a deployment takes years to build and stabilize, as Indian military planners know from their experience in Kargil and Dras following the 1999 war with Pakistan. Even in Ladakh, although both sides are deployed at demanding positions, the Indians are in areas that are tougher for the human body due to harsher terrain, higher altitudes, and weaker infrastructure and logistics support. However, China hasn’t operated in such a harsh environment since the Korean War seven decades ago, and deployment in Ladakh will test the reality of its much-vaunted military transformation of the last decade.
In off-the-record conversations, Indian officials accept that a diplomatic solution of the Ladakh crisis is unlikely because of how the two countries have different understandings of the status quo. These officials consider the army’s performance and its sustenance through this winter as the critical factor for their plans to deal with Chinese aggression in Ladakh. They contend that if the Indian soldiers manage to get through the next few months relatively unscathed, New Delhi will have found an answer to its troubles with Beijing.
Indian officials say their military will bolster its conventional defenses on the northern border with China even as it continues to maintain its massive formations for the western border with Pakistan. Nearly 60 percent of India’s defense budget goes into maintaining its 1.35 million-strong army. If India has to defend every single parcel of disputed territory on its border with China, the army would end up consuming an even greater share of the defense budget because India’s weak economy rules out a major hike in military spending.
Meanwhile, a reduced budget for the Indian Navy, with the army taking away a larger slice of the pie, would jeopardize plans for modernization: New Delhi is already considering a 175-ship navy instead of a 200-ship one, and its plans for a third aircraft carrier may be abandoned to save money. Such moves may alarm India’s partners in the so-called Quad group of countries—which includes Australia, Japan, and the United States—as they seek maritime cooperation to check the Chinese navy.
To fulfill its role as a security provider in the region, in a way that renders it attractive to countries worried about China’s rise, India needs a formidable navy to project power. But in a post-Ladakh scenario, with priority being accorded to the army’s more pressing demands, New Delhi’s naval ambitions will be checked.
In contrast, China is already constructing its third aircraft carrier, as part of the Chinese navy’s plans for six carriers by 2035. Beijing’s defense budget is nearly four times that of India and its economy six times bigger—a gap that has widened during the pandemic. China’s army is the largest standing ground force in the world, with 1.5 times more active military personnel than India in its ranks. As the U.S. Defense Department acknowledges, China has marshaled the resources, technology, and political will over the past two decades to strengthen and modernize its military in nearly every respect. Unlike India, the Chinese economy, military, and political leadership have the capacity to bear the burden of the prolonged deployment and maintenance of large bodies of troops in the extremely inhospitable conditions of Ladakh.
It would not have been difficult for Beijing to predict New Delhi’s current predicament. For years, the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been obsessed with hyping minor operations against Pakistan to reap electoral benefits, putting on the back burner the military transformation required to deal with a rising China. With India’s economy now having entered a recession, such a major reform has become an impossibility. There are no easy answers to India’s China problem. Unless there is a dramatic shift in New Delhi’s thinking, its cure of the Ladakh border crisis may end up being worse than the disease—and that’s exactly what Beijing wants.