In early May, Chinese and Indian troops confronted each other along their remote, disputed border in the Himalayas. For 40 days, the two sides engaged in a tense standoff, but a fragile peace held. On June 15, all that changed. Fighting with rocks and wooden clubs wrapped in barbed wire, dozens of soldiers were killed in hand-to-hand combat along desolate ridges high above river gorges. Some soldiers reportedly fell hundreds of feet to their deaths.
China and India — the two most populous countries in the world, and both nuclear-armed — are now engaged in the most dangerous border crisis since they fought a war in 1962. For now, hopes that cooler heads would prevail in Beijing and New Delhi appear misplaced.
At issue is the western sector of the disputed border, between Indian-controlled Ladakh and Chinese-controlled Aksai Chin. The escalating troop deployment, tension, and death toll have pushed tensions to their highest levels in over 50 years. While both China and India have shown a clear interest in de-escalation and dialogue — demonstrated by their relatively calm and non-escalatory statements after the deadly skirmish on June 16 — the latest developments mark a new low in bilateral ties. Restoring a fraught peace now will be easier said than done.
The timing and nature of the confrontation in the Himalayas raise critical questions about China’s strategic calculations and tactical objectives. Tactically, China wants to put an end to the infrastructure arms race along the border, but strategically is in no hurry to resolve the disputes as it bogs India down as a continental power. China is pushing for the territory occupied in the 1962 war as a reaction to perceived Indian exploitation of China’s vulnerability due to COVID-19 and deteriorating relations with the United States.
Some outside observers might see antagonizing India as strategically unwise — it may seem imprudent, after all, for Beijing to confront a large, important neighbor over a barren stretch of mountainous terrain — but China believes it needs to stand up to India whatever the cost. How Beijing weighs the pros and cons of its policies toward the disputed border will have significant implications for regional stability and the geopolitical ties among the China, India, and the United States.
China and India currently have three sectors in their border disputes: the eastern (90,000 square kilometers in Arunachal), the middle (near Nepal), and the western (33,000 square kilometers in Aksai Chin/Ladakh). Longstanding disagreements over the border have plagued bilateral ties since the founding of the Republic of India in 1947 and the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Such differences have resulted in at least one war — the China-India war of 1962 on both the eastern and western sectors — and numerous confrontations and standoffs since then.
The situation with the eastern and western sectors is particularly dire for China. The eastern sector — the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh (which the Chinese ambassador to India claimed to be Chinese territory in 2006 ) — includes the Tawang district, the birth place of the 6th Dalai Lama. Any acknowledgement of Indian sovereignty over it will undermine China’s sovereignty over Tibet, as this would imply the Dalai Lama is Indian. The western sector — Aksai Chin — offers the only direct road connection (National Highway G219) between China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and the Tibet Autonomous Region. In the event of major unrest in either area, which is home to millions of ethnic minorities, China will have to rely on G219 for access. Losing Aksai Chin, in other words, would jeopardize the stability of China’s entire western frontier.
Since 2016, China has significantly built up infrastructure on its side of the border. This was done for strategic and tactical reasons. The strategic factor was China’s 13th Five Year Plan (2016 to 2020) and new stipulations on transportation infrastructure development in the border regions announced in 2016. Unlike the previous plans, which focused on the development of intra-regional roads within border regions, the 13th Five Year Plan prioritizes an inter-regional transportation network through the “civil-military fusion strategy.” This mandate requires troops and local governments in the border region to jointly boost road construction outward for transnational networks.
Building infrastructure along the border dovetails with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, President Xi Jinping’s flagship foreign policy initiative involving the use of global infrastructure development to expand Chinese influence. Road construction toward India is listed as one of the five priority areas (others being North Korea, Myanmar, Russia, and Mongolia) stipulated in the 13th Five Year Plan in line with this campaign. However, given the border disputes, road construction in India’s direction has inevitably run into problems. The infrastructure development that led to the 2017 Doklam standoff also originated from the same mandate.
Local and tactical considerations have also animated Chinese decision-making. Traditionally, both China and India have been keen on a solid presence and control in the eastern sector of the border, which can be traced back as early as India’s Assam Rifles and China’s People’s Liberation Army border patrol in the 1950s. The persistent presence has created much less ambiguity in both sides’ actual control in the disputed territory, as well as their mutual understanding of them — as a result, each side has less room for advancement. However, in the western sector, due to the high altitude and harsh weather conditions, neither side is able to permanently station troops in certain areas, leaving ample room for minor changes in force posture and control of territories in the disputed regions. This is why tensions tend to flare up in the western sector much more frequently than in the eastern sector in recent years — there is more room for imagination, advancement, and alterations.
The Trigger: What Line of Actual Control?
The current standoff began on May 5 with physical confrontations near Pangong Lake in Ladakh between 250 Chinese and Indian soldiers. Tussles between another 150 soldiers along the Sikkim-Tibet border followed four days later. Several rounds of meetings have taken place seeking to resolve the standoff, including military officers’ meetings on May 18, 20, 22, and 23; diplomatic consultations in late May and early June; and a senior corps commander-level meeting in Moldo on June 6. Despite the “important consensus” reached at the June 6 meeting, nine days later, the deadly clashes broke out.
The Chinese have attributed the incursions and standoff to Indian construction of roads and air strips in the Galwan Valley, while in reality, China has also been building roads in the nearby region. Such construction not only boosts sovereignty claims, but also strengthens strategic positions and tactical advantages. India has insisted that China’s construction has taken place on Indian territory, or at least on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), or de facto border. But that’s precisely the problem — there is no consensus between the two over a mutually accepted LAC.
Historically, the Chinese consistently stick to the LAC of Nov. 7, 1959 and the Indians stick to the LAC of Sept. 8, 1962. China argues the territory between the two LACs was “unjustly occupied by India” during those three years and was precisely the cause of the 1962 Sino-India War. To date, both sides insist they have been operating within their side of the LAC per these competing definitions.
China’s Three Nos: No Indian Posts, No Clarification of the Line of Actual Control, and No Hurry
Privately, the Chinese see Indian infrastructure development in the area from which China withdrew after the 1962 war as a consistent and repeated effort by Delhi that “needs to be corrected every few years.” According to Chinese government analysts that I’ve spoken with, the precondition for China not to enter the 20-kilometer zone from the 1959 LAC (from which it withdrew in 1962) is that India would refrain from entering as well. However, that Chinese position does not appear to be based on Indian agreement. For the Chinese, the infrastructure arms race in the border region has enabled the repeated incursions and changes to the status quo, and therefore needs to be stopped. Otherwise, all the things China fought for in the 1962 war would have been in vain.
The 2013 Daulat Beg Oldi incident is a good example of such an infrastructure arms race. During that incident, China set up camps in the region, leading to India retaliating with its own encampment. The 20-day standoff ended with the Chinese dismantling bunkers near Depsang, the Indians dismantling bunkers in Chumar, and both sides withdrawing.
Chinese officials do not want to engage in legal and political battles on the clarification of the LAC, which had been a priority with India before 2003 (the year when New Delhi formally recognized Tibet as a part of China). Despite the historical prominence and importance of the LAC, since 2008, clarification of the LAC has been removed from official bilateral documents.
The Chinese see the clarification of the LAC as an impossible, lost cause because the two sides simply do not share the same historical records or perspectives. Attempts to clarify the LAC will not bring clarity, but chaos and complications. Following this logic, the Chinese argue that resolving the border can only come from a political package deal with India, not a technical one. Historically, Premier Zhou Enlai had hoped to trade Indian sovereignty of the eastern section for Chinese sovereignty of the western section, which was rejected by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. From 1960 to 1980 — from Zhou to Deng Xiaoping — Beijing had consistently stuck to that proposal. However, India rejected it until China began to adjust its position in the mid-1980s and treat Tawang district as an uncompromisable issue. That deal is no longer on the table.
A border settlement between China and India is unlikely in the foreseeable future, and Beijing believes it has little incentive to push for a quick resolution. China’s priority remains crisis management and escalation prevention, until India is willing to embrace a package deal which basically follows the earlier trade between the eastern section and the western section, with the exception of Tawang. While the Chinese understand the Indian sense of urgency to resolve issues between the two countries, Beijing sees the unsettled border as leverage to bog down India in the region and undermine its global potential. For China, the Chinese and Indian demands are different and asymmetrical by design. Key concessions India demands from China on the border settlement are hard commitments that cannot be reversed. By contrast, what China seeks from India, such as its neutrality in the U.S.-Chinese strategic competition, is ephemeral and easily adjustable. While New Delhi sees addressing the border issue as a prerequisite for India to trust China, Beijing doesn’t believe that relinquishing its leverage will in any way stop India from conducting hostile actions down the road, such as aligning with America to undermine Chinese interests in the Indian Ocean region.
China’s Strategic Calculations
China’s obstinance and assertiveness in the current standoff came as a surprise to some. In the view of foreign observers, China is pushing India too harshly at a time when China needs to retain India’s friendship, given Beijing’s deteriorating ties with Washington and the reputational damage China has suffered due to its culpability in the global pandemic. This logic holds some truth, but fails to appreciate China’s concern that India is exploiting its vulnerability, particularly at a time when Beijing is grappling with COVID-19. When Chinese officials concluded that India was leveraging China’s weaknesses to make territorial gains in the disputed region, Beijing felt it could not indulge New Delhi, even if it promotes a backlash in Indian amongst a new generation of officials and foreign policy strategists.
Chinese analysts believe that India is taking advantage of Beijing by trying to make tactical gains along the border. While China is trying to ease the seemingly bottomless deterioration of relations with the United States due to the COVID-19 crisis, India’s road-building is seen as “an attempt to stab it [China] in the back while China was trying to deal with” the United States. From the perspective of China, not only is India trying to capitalize on China’s moment of distraction, vulnerability, and overextension in its foreign policy, it also puts China in a dilemma between responding to India’s road construction and being labeled “aggressive and provocative” — or acquiescing to it and losing territory in a time of weakness.
China sees India as being emboldened by its strategic alignment with the United States — articulated by Washington in its Indo-Pacific Strategy. Such emboldening is believed to have directly led to the revocation of Article 370 of India’s constitution in 2019, which removed Ladakh’s limited autonomy and changed it into a Union Territory directly under the central government’s control. The Ladakh Union Territory included Aksai Chin (currently under Chinese authority), and is vital to Chinese control of its “ethnic frontiers” in Tibet and Xinjiang, causing vehement protest by the Chinese Foreign Ministry at the time of its creation. America’s position in the standoff exacerbated Beijing’s suspicion. Then-Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells criticized China’s “aggression” as “provocative and disturbing” on May 21 and reacted similarly to President Donald Trump’s offer to mediate between China and India several days later. Both China and India rejected Trump’s offer. However, for the Chinese, Modi quickly smoothed over the rejection by having a direct phone conversation with Trump three days later, and accepting Trump’s invitation to the G-7 Summit, a sign of strategic ambiguity and obscurity.
Because of COVID-19 and the sustained criticism China has suffered due to its role in the delayed response globally, officials in Beijing feel particularly vulnerable to perceived attacks on China, both in narratives and in reality. It has been more prone to escalatory and assertive responses, which put the “Wolf Warriors” image on steroids in both diplomacy and military/paramilitary actions. Chinese diplomats and official media have been fully mobilized to defend China’s reputation and attack any critics around the globe. At the same time, China went after the Vietnamese in the South China Sea due to the perception of a Vietnamese exploitation of China’s lockdown in February and March. At this time, Beijing longs for foreign policy victories and has no appetite for any perceived defeat or transgression, for fear of domestic discontent, which was already high due to the COVID-19 crisis.
That gets into another important question: Was the Ladakh standoff pre-meditated? In other words, did China stage the standoff in order to divert domestic attention away from the government’s poor handling of the pandemic in its early stage?
At least three pieces of empirical evidence side against this theory. First, since the beginning of the standoff, the Chinese government has resorted to a low-key approach toward the tensions instead of stoking domestic nationalism with sensational media headlines and organized internet news, which would be indispensable components of a premediated and coordinated campaign. Second, since COVID-19, China has been stirring up tensions to boost internal solidarity, but this has been focused primarily on Taiwan, Hong Kong, the South China Sea, and the United States. One could argue that China has opened too many “fronts” diplomatically, but militarily, China has always been careful to avoid a two-front confrontation with America in the east and India in the west. Given Beijing’s plan to initiate the Hong Kong security law during the parliamentary sessions in May, and the rising uncertainty across the Taiwan strait in light of President Tsai Ing-wen’s second inauguration on May 20, it is unlikely that Beijing intentionally planned for the Ladakh standoff to happen at this time. Third, China’s top South Asia experts were not consulted until roughly ten days after the beginning of the standoff. The late involvement of the policy community suggests that the standoff was not based on advanced planning.
The current crisis was the result of China reacting to the perception that India was stabbing it in the back by its move into territories China sees as off-limits to India. The unique timing of COVID-19, the context of the U.S.-Chinese strategic rivalry and China’s self-perceived vulnerability all contributed to a sense of insecurity amongst officials in Beijing. All of these factors have aggravated China’s response to what would otherwise have been a relatively common interaction in the disputed border.
China’s Tactical Objectives
Some argue it was strategically unwise for China to clash with India in Ladakh. Doing so will inevitably damage China’s reputation among the Indian military, diplomatic corps, and population at large. The move could also drive New Delhi into a closer partnership with Washington. But for Beijing, standing up for its interests and territorial claims is worth the cost. India is believed to be strategically unreliable to begin with and China has no interest in acquiescing to India’s attempt to advance its position on territorial disputes to trade for concessions. That is almost an established rule in China’s India playbook: Having dealt with India in the past, such acquiescence will not be seen as China’s good will, but a concession extracted due to India’s strength. This will only lead to even more aggressive Indian behavior down the road.
If a strategic friendship with India is untenable, it frees up room for tactical gains. In the near term, China’s tactical objective seems clear —to advance its position roughly to the occupation line by the end of the 1962 war, according to pro-Beijing media outlets. This will push the Chinese presence to the intersection of the Galwan river and the Shyok river, making the Galwan Valley off limits to India. The Chinese construction of posts in this location clearly points to this direction. Indeed, the statement from China’s Western Command after the deadline clash on June 16 confirms this position. It claims that sovereignty over the Galwan valley has always belonged to China. Whether this position is sustainable remains unclear, as the Chinese may not be able to station troops at this location during the winter months. However, China sees these actions as military retaliations to India’s persistent infrastructure development in the region, including roads and airstrips, especially the completion of the Darbuk-Shayok-DBO Road in April 2019. They are also retaliations against the creation of the Ladakh Union Territory in August 2019, which included “the Chinese territory in the western sector of the China-India boundary into its administrative jurisdiction” in India’s reissued map.
The good news, if any, is that the turbulence is necessary (but not sufficient) to consolidate a LAC that neither side will like but which both could likely accept in the future. After all, China is not inclined to accept the “clarification of LAC” based on historical evidence, so the LAC can only be “consolidated” on the ground. The eventual solution of the border disputes will have to be based on diplomatic negotiations. Having a mutually accepted LAC will be the beginning of that process.
The bad news is that the process will be long, destabilizing, and could include more casualties. Neither side will easily abandon their tactical objectives. In that sense, the current standoff is unlikely to see a quick resolution. The 2013 Daulat Beg Oldi incident saw a 20-day standoff before the Indians agreed to dismantle bunkers in the Chumar sector and the Chinese withdrew. The 2017 Doklam standoff lasted for much longer — 72 days — and ended with the withdrawal of troops by both sides. If these precedents serve as indicators, China and India will eventually negotiate disengagement and mutual withdrawal. However, it is even more likely that both sides will sneak to return in the next year to encroach in what they both believe to be their rightful territory. The heart of the matter is that India believes the construction it is conducting is on its undisputed territory. But since there is no boundary, the Chinese see the Indian construction as changing the status quo. These two perspectives will be hard to reconcile.
At the minimum, a mutual withdrawal will de-escalate the current tension. Understanding that both sides will return to change the status quo and improve their position, Beijing is stringing New Delhi along, bogging it down, and forcing it to eventually “accept reality,” and make compromises on the border demarcation. The trick for Beijing is to maintain the struggle on the ground without triggering a war, of course. It’s a long process of friction and attrition. The tactical objective of returning to the occupation line by the end of the 1962 war could be one move to inflate China’s negotiation position and force India to accept the fait accompli.
The Ladakh clash should not have been a surprise. Similar events have been happening along the disputed border between China and India for years, but only the few most heated ones make the news. Beijing believes India is exploiting a temporary period of Chinese weakness and is responding forcefully as a result. Strategically, it may not help China’s desired goal to keep India neutral. But since Beijing sees a neutral India as untenable to begin with, tactical gains that can bog India down along the disputed border, frustrate New Delhi’s regional and global ambitions, and remind India of the eventual need for compromise may not be the worst case in China’s cost-benefit analysis. Tactically, China appears to be aiming for what it achieved in the 1962 war. Despite what the outsiders might see as China’s mistake, China is unlikely to change its current strategic assessment. China and India will eventually find a face-saving mutual compromise to end the Ladakh standoff, as neither wants a war. However, the unsettled border will continue to destabilize, fester, and brew more clashes down the road.
Yun Sun is the Director of the China Program at the Stimson Center.