India-China relations have gone through cycles of conflict and cooperation over nearly 75 years. The most serious recent episodes of conflict were in Galwan Valley in Ladakh in 2020 and in Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh in 2022. Observers on both sides of the border—the Line of Actual Control (LAC)—agree that the number of serious military confrontations has increased since 2013. What is driving the militarisation of the conflicts?
In my 2020 book written just after the Galwan clash, India Versus China: Why They Are Not Friends, I suggested that one way of thinking about the long-term conflict between the two sides is in terms of four Ps: perceptions of each other; quarrels over their perimeters, that is, the borderlands and Tibet; partnerships, each other’s main enemies; and a growing power-gap.
Over the past century or so, Chinese perceptions of India have become increasingly negative. India is seen as an ungovernable, divided, and backward country with a deeply flawed democracy and a “slave” mentality. Indian perceptions of China also are negative. China is viewed as an authoritarian, soulless, and aggressive country with a superiority complex and little respect for individualism. Social media on both sides feature racial stereotypes and denigration.
Despite negotiations over their perimeters almost without stop since 1981, India and China have not been able delineate the LAC and come to a final settlement. As things stand, they have only agreed that a final settlement will be sector-by-sector, and nothing will be agreed until everything is agreed. At least 14 strips of territory are crucial and remain flashpoints. The border between them is really the border between Tibet and India. This is why conditions in Tibet are so important to the bilateral relationship. Unrest there means suspicion and anger on both sides and could lead to border confrontations, especially when the current Dalai Lama passes from the stage because his passing will raise the issue of succession which will affect both China and India.
The India-China relationship is also bedevilled by the fact that the two nations have never been strategic partners. They have both partnered the Soviet Union/Russia and the United States, but they have never worked together against either of those powers in strategic matters (although they have partnered against the US on issues such as trade and climate change). They are the only two countries in the quartet of China, India, Russia, and the US that have never been military and diplomatic partners. As a result, they have no history of cooperation and little understanding at the highest political and military level.
Finally, and vitally, the power-gap between them has steadily increased since the early 1980s. China’s GDP today is five times India’s, and the nominal GDP gap is about $14 trillion. Given China’s bigger GDP base, it will continue to enlarge the gap even at a lower growth rate than India. In 15 years, the gap could be $20 trillion. There is a military asymmetry as well, but the Himalaya and the Indian Ocean help India.
It is hard for China to project power in the high Himalaya for any length of time. It is also hard for China to do so in the Indian Ocean given the long sailing distances for the Chinese navy. Overall, from a position of strength, China does see the need to accommodate Indian interests. And, from a position of weakness, India does not see how it can be accommodative without appearing to surrender.
As against these daunting conditions working against cooperation and stability, since 1988 India and China have tried to manage the relationship through four mechanisms: regular summitry at the highest levels; almost uninterrupted border negotiations; confidence-building measures (CBMs) to contain military disputes at the LAC; and trade and other economic ties. After Galwan, only trade has really survived the fracas, although the CBMs are not altogether dead.
If the relationship has gone through cycles, it is because the four mechanisms of summitry, border negotiations, CBMs, and growing economic interactions have allowed the two countries to transcend the difficulties arising from the four Ps and enjoy a cold peace. However, as negative perceptions have sharpened, as the border has become destabilised and China has faced troubles in Tibet, as India’s relations with the US have warmed, and as the power-gap has enlarged, the four management mechanisms have been unable to consistently contain differences between the two sides. Hence, the cycles of ups and downs in the relationship.
The four Ps are interrelated, and so the clashes at the LAC since 2013 can be traced to several causes. But the main source of trouble is the infrastructure build-up. China began the infrastructure race in the 1990s by investing massively in rail, road, and air facilities in Tibet right up to the LAC. India eventually responded. Before the infrastructure surge, the military patrols to the furthermost points were intermittent and relatively brief. Both armies left signs of their presence but tried to avoid being in the same place at the same time. However, with better roads and better equipment as well, they can now get patrols to the outermost posts quicker and have them stay longer.
Infrastructure was supposed to produce deterrence and military stability, at the very least. In fact, it has led to what international relations specialists call the “security dilemma”. In a security dilemma, two rivals are unable to distinguish between offensive and defensive intent and capabilities. As a result, military relations go into a spiral that could tempt one side or both to go to war. Each side regards its military moves as defensive-minded and worries that the other side is offensive-minded. Eventually, one or both might decide to fight. The skirmishes so far have been minor, but they could become far more serious. It is hard to know exactly why the Chinese went on an infrastructure binge–was it to facilitate aggressive actions or was it to strengthen their defences? So also, the Chinese are asking the question in reverse: what is India up to?
The infrastructure race led to confrontations in 2013 (Depsang), 2014 (Chumar), 2015 (Burtse), 2017 (Doklam), 2020 (Galwan), and 2022 (Tawang). Perhaps the only reason that 2018 and 2019 were quiet was because of the informal summits between Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping in those two years (Wuhan and Mamallapuram). And if 2021 was free of serious confrontations, it was probably due to COVID and some remission of the security dilemma after the shock of Galwan.
But the security dilemma is not the entire story. The location of the various confrontations between 2013 and 2022 tell us something about what is at stake. It is clear that while China does not want to go to war (at least for the next several years), it is prepared to risk some dangerous, aggressive signalling (as in the South China Sea, East China Sea, and the Taiwan Strait). Leaving aside the Burtse confrontation, which might have been caused by Indian actions, the other confrontations were due to Chinese military moves. These moves are signals. They are intended to remind India about the areas that China considers are strategically vital.
Beijing is in effect telling New Delhi that control of the Depsang, Chumar, Galwan, and Tawang areas are core interests in any future settlement. Doklam in Bhutan, which is at the trijunction of the Chumbi Valley in China, the Ha District of Bhutan, and Sikkim in India, too, is core. The middle sector of the LAC has been relatively stable, but even here China intruded into Barahoti in Uttarakhand in August 2021 (the first very public and open disputes in the early 1950s were in Barahoti). We can, therefore, expect continued pressures at all these points including Barahoti.
Just because a lot of the action has been in the western sector in Ladakh, we should not assume that China is relatively satisfied in the eastern sector (as Tawang 2022 has reminded us). Since the early 1980s, China has insisted that it lays claim to all of Arunachal Pradesh and especially Tawang (the Buddhist monastery there is a key Tibetan religious and cultural site). It is worth noting that China’s main military command centres in Tibet and in neighbouring Sichuan province are much closer to the front and are bigger than those in Xinjiang that service the western and middle sector. Chinese forces are therefore much better placed to prosecute a large-scale, more extended conflict in the eastern sector.
What then can India do in the short to medium term? Mutual perceptions are slow to change, especially as Chinese and Indian attitudes have quite deep historical roots. In China’s case they go back to the 19th century when British Indian troops and policemen served in China, Indian businessmen associated with the opium trade made fortunes there, and Chinese intellectuals encountered colonial India. Social media and other media in the current era have not helped. Public opinion surveys in both countries also reveal rather invidious views of each other’s society.
As for the border quarrel, it is unlikely to be resolved any time soon: China will not stop signalling its claims in Ladakh, the central sector, Arunachal Pradesh, and Bhutan. The infrastructure race looks set to continue. India feels it still has a long way to go to catch up on infrastructure, and China has still not stopped building in Tibet. In addition, the perimeter or border problem could intensify over the succession of a new Dalai Lama.
India’s partnership with the US and its allies seems to be fairly entrenched now, partly because American power is a corrective to the huge India-China imbalance. While India has downplayed its membership in the Indo-Pacific grouping and in the Quad, it has little option but to suggest to Beijing that undue Chinese pressures will cause New Delhi to move closer to the US, Australia, and Japan. These partnerships will continue to irk China.
Reducing the power gap between the two countries will take decades even if Chinese growth rates slow. India’s lagging productivity and R&D, population growth, poor education and health levels (35 per cent of Indians are stunted), low levels of energy access and use, declining water availability (about half of China’s), and the burdens of what the economist Lant Pritchett called “the flailing [Indian] state”, all these suggest that nearly seismic changes will be necessary if India is to reduce the gap with its northern neighbour.
At the same time, the four-part stabilisation mechanism of summits, border negotiations, CBMs, and trade has been badly damaged: summitry has stopped as have the negotiations on a final border settlement. The CBMs are routinely ignored or flouted. And economic relations, except trade and some investments, are on hold. In this situation, India’s policy options are limited. The following are a few modest things New Delhi can do, diplomatically and militarily.
Diplomatically, India should first of all stick to the post-Galwan message that the military impasse must be reversed for normalisation to resume. It is important to foghorn this message because the Chinese are sensitive to international public opinion. Above all, New Delhi must avoid contradictory statements on the nature of the Chinese presence on India’s side of the LAC. Second, it is time to explore informal, back-channel communications with China. Third, India needs to cultivate a Global South coalition, as Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar has repeatedly said before and after Galwan, in order to dramatise China’s bullying of weaker neighbours. Fourth, India should continue cooperating with China when it can on multilateral issues—on the Ukraine war, climate change, global trade, the pandemic, and international institutional reform, among others.
Militarily, India must remain alert to more border incursions—these will almost certainly occur. If so, several capabilities need enhancing. These include better intelligence gathering but also the emplacement of sensors at the LAC; improving military communications and increasing the mobility of forces; equipping the army for prolonged mountain stays and fighting (60 years after the border war, India still does not have the appropriate high-altitude clothing, which it had to buy from the US during the Galwan crisis); and strengthening infrastructure at the border (even at the risk of deepening the security dilemma).
The morale of officers and troops also needs attention. There is no substitute for the fighting spirit of the armed forces in border encounters in remote and challenging high-altitude environments. In all armies, leadership and resilience at the small-unit level is the key to military effectiveness. In 1962, with some exceptions, the army was found wanting. India cannot assume that the fact of defending our borders will make officers and jawans into efficient fighters. The competence, courage, and integrity of their commanding officer and the respect of one’s peers—as well as proper training—are what produce a strong fighting force.
Finally, the Army needs to conduct a thorough internal review of its war preparedness. Future confrontations could escalate to the point of war. China’s infrastructure, supply chains, locational, and military high-technology advantages will put a huge strain on Indian forces. In 1962, India did little to take the fight to China on the ground by counterattacking. Nor did it use its air force. Is this sustainable in a second round? If it is not, then how exactly will India counter, including using its air power? And, taking a cue from Ukraine’s resistance to Russia, are there asymmetric strategies that India can deploy?
To conclude on a more foundational note. China has always insisted that a border settlement will involve a much larger strategic bargain. A view gaining ground in Chinese thinking is: in return for a border settlement, what can India give China that it cannot later take back? In the end, there is nothing one country can give another that it cannot try to recoup, but this line of thinking suggests that it will be very difficult to reach a final settlement on the border. Legal-moral arguments and minor territorial adjustments are not going to be enough.
What can India give China that is (more or less) irrevocable in return for a reasonable, lasting resolution? The answer from Beijing’s perspective will include the following: admission by India that it was wrong on the border; key territorial concessions to China in the western and eastern sector; and India’s future attitude on Tibetan affairs.
China extracted a mea culpa from Nixon and Kissinger in 1972 on the US’ China policy, and it forced the Russians to admit they were wrong on the territorial dispute in the early 2000s. Beijing insists on public and symbolic shows of contrition by rivals, and it will likely push for an equivalent from India. As for territory and Tibet, for Beijing these are at the heart of the quarrel. We in India have got to think hard about how far we are willing to go with China.
Kanti Bajpai is Wilmar Professor of Asian Studies, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.
- India-China relations have gone through cycles of conflict and cooperation over nearly 75 years.
- The most serious recent episodes of conflict were in Galwan Valley in Ladakh in 2020 and in Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh in 2022.
- One way of thinking about the long-term conflict between the two sides is in terms of four Ps: perceptions of each other; quarrels over their perimeters, that is, the borderlands and Tibet; partnerships, each other’s main enemies; and a growing power-gap.
- Since 1988 India and China have tried to manage the relationship through four mechanisms: regular summitry at the highest levels; almost uninterrupted border negotiations; confidence-building measures (CBMs) to contain military disputes at the LAC; and trade and other economic ties.
- The Army needs to conduct a thorough internal review of its war preparedness. Future confrontations could escalate to the point of war.