Last week, the India-China border standoff came the closest it has yet to war. As Taylor Fravel explained, the long-standing border dispute dates from the 1962 Sino-Indian War. The dispute came to a boil in May when a large force of Chinese soldiers crossed the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the disputed border between the two countries since 1962. A deadly skirmish in June temporarily raised tensions, but it was the result of tragic happenstance rather than large and risky military maneuvers.
Tensions have escalated more seriously since late August because both sides have jostled for tactical advantage, creating incentives for each side to outflank or even fight the other.
Here’s where things stand in this crisis.
Aggressive tactical maneuvers led to rising tensions
A new phase of the four-month-long border crisis opened when Indian special forces quietly occupied several peaks in the mountainous Chushul sector of Ladakh during the night of Aug. 29-30. These peaks sit on India’s side of the LAC, just south of a divided lake — Pangong Tso — but had been left unoccupied in accordance with confidence-building agreements. They were the site of tenacious fighting in the 1962 border war and hold particular tactical significance because they overlook an important pathway through the mountains between India and China.
Occupying the high ground in Chushul was designed to prevent Chinese forces from establishing an even stronger position. India also may have calculated that it could negotiate a withdrawal from those tactically valuable peaks in return for a Chinese withdrawal from areas seized after May.
Tensions rose. Indian and Chinese troops also scrambled to secure high ground overlooking new Chinese fortifications on the north bank of Pangong Tso. They reinforced their positions with additional aircraft and armor and accused each other of firing the first gunshots on the LAC since 1975. Some Indian analysts warned that China might risk war to reverse India’s occupation of the Chushul peaks.
A diplomatic reprieve?
In the nick of time, foreign ministers S. Jaishankar of India and Wang Yi of China emerged from a marathon meeting in Moscow on Sept. 10 with a five-point plan to ease tensions and eventually resolve the crisis.
Just as analysts had been lamenting that the confidence-building agreements were now in tatters, the foreign ministers declared the agreements alive and well. In fact, they pledged to work on even more confidence-building measures.
So far, the soldiers may be heeding the diplomats’ direction, and both sides reportedly have suspended the race to reposition their forces.
In coming weeks, however, the apparent reprieve may clash with reality. The old agreements prescribed that India and China hold their forces back from sustained contact along the LAC and observe strict weapons-handling rules. But with some 50,000 troops reportedly lined up on each side of the LAC in Ladakh, implementation and compliance will become more difficult. Even with some slow disengagement, the LAC will likely remain permanently more militarized than it was before the crisis.
Have India and China pulled back from the brink?
International relations theory offers two opposing ideas on whether this kind of heavy militarization increases or decreases the risk of war. In the “deterrence model,” peace comes through strength, so additional reinforcements should dissuade the enemy from aggression. In this view, India’s best option may be to fortify the LAC so that it begins to look more like the Line of Control in Kashmir.
Another view, the “spiral model of war,” argues that the other side is likely to misinterpret military preparations as a threat, unleashing a tit-for-tat cycle of escalation that leads to war. For India and China, this “security dilemma” is sharpened because the crisis has extinguished whatever trust each side may have previously had. India struggles to understand China’s objectives, and China has grown more suspicious of India’s intentions.
In either model, analysts point out that the increasingly toxic environment may lead to war by miscalculation. In this view — heavily influenced by a contested view of the outbreak of World War I — war is often a tragic accident that neither side wants.
But in the India-China case, at least, war would also be partly the result of both sides deliberately raising the risk of conflict. In recent years, China and India have each shown an appetite for generating risk to deter their adversaries. Indeed, it was India’s seizure of the Chushul peaks that escalated tensions, and using hitherto-secret ethnic Tibetan special forces and pro-Tibetan symbols added salt to China’s perceived wounds.
India faces a tough road ahead
Whether or not the crisis leads to war, India faces a daunting long-term challenge.
The conventional military balance favors China, although the outcomes of conflict will be heavily scenario-dependent. The Indian army may hope that any conflict is limited to close combat over mountain ridgelines and passes. That would play to India’s strengths — its infantry is trained and acclimatized to operate in high alpine terrain — and not engage China’s comparative strengths in missiles, cyber warfare and battlefield networks. That is precisely why in a potential war, China would have incentives to introduce those elements, striking Indian targets far beyond the LAC to blind and paralyze the Indian military.
Any war’s outcome will also depend critically on nonmilitary factors. Both countries’ leaders have invested significant national and personal credibility in projecting toughness and not compromising on territorial sovereignty. Regardless of how much ground either side may gain or lose on the battlefield, the strategic outcome of the war will come down to how each side controls the narrative and marshals international support. Recognizing this, the Indian defense minister declared before Parliament that China had violated sacrosanct bilateral agreements, and that India preferred diplomacy but was prepared for war.
For India, relations with China are unlikely to return to business as usual, even if tensions de-escalate. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to feel forced to accelerate its military investments. The long-term risk to India is that a costly expansion of personnel and infrastructure on the LAC itself could leave an already vintage Indian military even less able to modernize and project force.
Arzan Tarapore is the South Asia research scholar at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University and a senior nonresident fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research.