On Geopolitics

A Border Clash Portends a New Indian Strategy of Less Talk, More Action Against China

Rodger Baker
Senior VP of Strategic Analysis, Stratfor
7 MINS READJun 24, 2020 | 19:11 GMT
An Indian fighter jet flies over a mountain range near the disputed territory of Ladakh on June 23, 2020.

An Indian fighter jet flies over a mountain range near the disputed territory of Ladakh on June 23, 2020.

(TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP via Getty Images)
Highlights

Following Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's strong condemnation of Chinese actions at the Line of Actual (LAC) control, India is poised for a significant strategy shift in how it manages its contested border with China. The June 15 clash in the long-disputed territory of Ladakh, which marked the first time Indian troops have died at the hands of Chinese forces since 1975, has highlighted India's failure to dissuade China from attempting to permanently alter the balance of power along the border via diplomatic and confidence-building measures. This has left New Delhi more likely to pursue more confrontational options, which will undoubtedly have its risks, though India's battle-tested military may find such an escalation to its short-term advantage. ...

Following Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's strong condemnation of Chinese actions at the Line of Actual (LAC) control, India is poised for a significant strategy shift in how it manages its contested border with China. The June 15 clash in the long-disputed territory of Ladakh, which marked the first time Indian troops have died at the hands of Chinese forces since 1975, has highlighted India's failure to dissuade China from attempting to permanently alter the balance of power along the border via diplomatic and confidence-building measures. This has left New Delhi more likely to pursue more confrontational options, which will undoubtedly have its risks, though India's battle-tested military may find such an escalation to its short-term advantage. 

Modi Sets the Tone

On June 17, Prime Minister Modi broke his silence on the recent clash with one of the most strongly-worded statements on the Indo-China border dispute in recent years. In a televised speech, he ensured that the sacrifice of the 20 Indian soldiers who died in clash would "not be in vain," and that "nobody" could stop India from defending its "sovereignty and integrity." Modi's language was reminiscent of the rhetoric normally reserved for Pakistan, demonstrating a renewed resolve to reinforce Indian claims of territorial sovereignty, and signaling a willingness to use force if pressed. This would mark a dramatic change for India's management of its border tensions with China after nearly 30 years of relying on dialogue and deconfliction. 

This shift in tone suggests New Delhi is not only willing to accelerate its own infrastructure development in the region to secure its territorial claims, but multiple bilateral agreements that have helped manage Indo-Chinese border relations may now be at risk. The military option may not be India's first choice in dealing with China, but New Delhi is now openly signaling that it will not remain restrained should China fail to adhere to their five key bilateral agreements concerning the LAC. Clearly, New Delhi needs a way to increase the cost of Chinese actions in order to dissuade further changes to the border region. But at the same time, India remains reticent to allow foreign intervention or the internationalization of its border dispute with China. 

Indeed, one of India's biggest challenges in countering China has been its own policy of avoiding alliances aimed at third parties, and its constant efforts to remain non-aligned. This is, in part, driven by India's strong, post-colonial desire to do things on its own, and to avoid being the weak partner in alliances or getting involved in other countries' battles. But while this may allow India to work simultaneously with the United States, Russia and China, it also leaves India vulnerable when the bilateral balance is simply too large for New Delhi to manage alone. 

Ways to Counter China

In India, the debate on ways to counter China now centers on three key areas: economic, diplomatic, and military; Each of these may require India to make a break of its post-independence policies, and each comes with inherent risks. On the economic front, it will be more difficult for New Delhi to overcome its massive trade imbalance with China. While there will be local boycotts and a reinvigorated attempt at Modi's "Make in India" campaign, New Delhi will need to look abroad for more strategic counters. Beijing currently outspends New Delhi in many of India's regional relationships, from Myanmar to Sri Lanka. To offset the infrastructure spending shaped within China's Belt and Road initiative, New Delhi will find itself needing to partner with other countries, such as the United States as well as second-tier powers Japan and Australia

On the diplomatic front, India will also need to rely on third countries to ease Chinese pressure along the LAC. In addition to Australia and Japan, New Delhi will also likely look to strengthen its ties with Vietnam, Indonesia and Taiwan, as well as even places like Fiji, which have a large Indian population and sit in an area of expanding Chinese influence in the Pacific. Expanding these relationships will strain India's foreign policy principles of avoiding alliances. It may also threaten New Delhi's defense ties with Russia, should that become a requirement of greater cooperation with certain partners — particularly with the United States.

Modi has signaled a willingness to use force to manage border tensions with Beijing, which would mark a dramatic shift from India’s decadeslong strategy of dialogue and deconfliction.

India may use its position in the United Nations to press more openly against Chinese activities in Hong Kong, as well as in Tibet and Xinjiang. India continues to host the exiled Dalai Lama, and could step up more direct interaction with the Tibetan government in exile, though such actions would engender a fairly sharp diplomatic and economic response from Beijing. All of this, however, would come at the risk of jeopardizing New Delhi's decadeslong quest for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, which is ultimately beholden to China's approval. 

Less Talk, More Military Action

It is in the military sphere where India is likely to make the most dramatic moves, though it is also where New Delhi could face the greatest consequences. In addition to expanding cooperation with its fellow Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) members in the maritime space, which includes the United States, Japan and Australia, India will likely maintain a larger, year-round troop presence near the LAC (rather than its usual seasonal reductions in forces), and accelerate its existing infrastructure development plans in the region. India may also begin to move artillery and armor closer to the LAC, with the threat to move even closer if China continues to violate existing bilateral agreements. If the parallel of language to the Pakistan situation plays out, we could see India deploy large numbers of troops to remove Chinese structures in dispute (such as tents, outposts and roadblocks) in dispute, rather than relying on small groups. In addition, India will likely respond to any major clashes on the border with firearms, rather than sticks, thus marking a significant escalation in its decadeslong territorial dispute with China. 

Such actions would not be without risk, and India, as well as China, both want to step back from increased military confrontation along the LAC, at least for now. But India's military has been involved in a steady stream of battles since the country gained its independence in 1947; its a "bloodied" force. China's People's Liberation Army, by contrast, has fought little since the 1970s, and remains untested in battle. India's threat to use force, despite the risks, is thus more believable. The Indian public has an understanding of the risk and cost of military action. China hasn't yet fully reshaped domestic acceptance of the use of force abroad, and for now, the Chinese government does not appear ready to make that transition. Beijing has very actively suppressed information about the recent deadly clash with India to avoid further stirring up nationalist tensions at home. China's military leadership also likely recognizes that any significant confrontation with Indian forces along the LAC will not be entirely one-sided in Beijing's favor.

While military action is unlikely in the near term, India will still feel compelled to make a strong physical response to the latest clash in Ladakh due to the deaths of Indian soldiers. Indeed, as evidenced by Modi's strongly-worded response, it appears the idea of reconciling and cooperating with China to reduce border tensions is off the table for the time being. This will, in turn, compel India to seriously address its core foreign policy principles — including New Delhi's historically staunch defense of its claimed neutrality in international disputes, and its reluctance to join partnerships or alliances with third countries.

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