Canberra – Albert Einstein said while he didn’t know the weapons to be used in World War III in the nuclear age, the war after “will be fought with sticks and stones.” In an already surreal 2020, we’ve witnessed two nuclear-armed neighbors fighting with fists, rocks and nail-studded clubs at an altitude of 4,250 meters. On June 15, 20 Indian soldiers were killed and 66 injured; Indian estimates put Chinese deaths at around 40.
China and India contest the world’s longest (3,488 km) undemarcated border. Constructions boost sovereignty claims and also upgrade military-grade infrastructure in strategic areas but can provoke incidents. The Line of Actual Control (LAC) is misleading: There is no line and only limited control by either side. China’s Highway 219 that links Buddhist-majority Tibet and Muslim-majority Xinjiang — China’s two ultra-sensitive “ethnic frontiers” — passes through India-claimed territory along the LAC. Indian troops at the Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) airfield — at 5,065 meters, the world’s highest — overlooks the Karakoram Highway linking China and Pakistan.
China’s approach to the border dispute is described as “Three Nos: no Indian posts, no demarcation and no hurry.” This keeps India tied down locally in the subcontinent. China follows a familiar salami-slicing playbook in territorial disputes: change ground positions stealthily, move forward assertively, express outrage when discovered, denounce provocations and intrusions by the other party, threaten exemplary retaliation, step back in “good faith,” propose fresh border management procedures, ensure its territorial creep becomes a de facto reality, and repeat as required.
Previous skirmishes were localized incidents. The confrontation this time took place at multiple points and involved sizable numbers of troops, suggesting they were directed from Beijing and are designed to test India’s military preparedness and political resolve. They also send a message to India’s neighbors and global partners that bombastic Prime Minister Narendra Modi is just a paper tiger.
Tensions had been escalating since April. India’s foreign ministry said China “took premeditated and planned action that was directly responsible for the resulting violence and casualties.” Chinese soldiers built a tent on the Indian side, dammed a river, moved heavy equipment, ambushed an Indian patrol and unblocked the dammed river. The rushing water destabilized Indian soldiers who were then attacked with stones and batons studded with nails and wrapped in barbed wire. Over 600 soldiers fought hand-to-hand combat in the dark and icy conditions for four to seven hours.
India’s “internal” rearrangements of the constitutional status of Kashmir last August and assumption of direct responsibility for Ladakh are a threat to China’s strategic interests in Aksai Chin. The transport connectivity to DBO shrinks China’s logistical superiority and the proximity to the Karakoram Pass opens up a vulnerability for the strategic highway linking Xinjiang with Pakistan. Conversely, at the tri-nation confluence in Ladakh, China and Pakistan can launch pincer movements to dislodge India from the Siachen Glacier.
On the larger geopolitical canvas, the growing convergence of strategic outlooks of India with the United States, Japan and Australia in the Quad is slowly putting in place structures and arrangements to check China’s power projection capability across the congested and contested Indo-Pacific to deny it regional unipolar dominance. India’s early and forceful opposition to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s flagship "Belt and Road" initiative has been irksome to Beijing, as was India’s support for an independent international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
China’s actions in Ladakh fit into a pattern of diplomatic, military, trade and “wolf warrior” aggressive postures in East Asia, the South China Sea, the Indo-Pacific and globally against European and U.S. criticisms and decoupling measures. China’s leadership may have concluded that the United States is in terminal decline and the time is right to act decisively to create new facts on the ground and water while the West is reeling from the pandemic.
This is Modi’s watershed moment. China’s state media have given the clash relatively low-key coverage, suggesting that Beijing wishes to avoid being trapped by inflamed public opinion. By contrast the affray has dominated news coverage in India and piled pressure on Modi to push back harder against Beijing. Weaker than China economically and militarily, India cannot reverse China’s territorial advances by resorting to war, but quietly acquiescing to Chinese expansion would embolden Beijing to nibble at yet more Indian territory and diminish India as a pushover.
June 15 could mark the date on which China “lost India” strategically. India’s external policy choices will henceforth have a sharper anti-China edge. Modi will likely downgrade the cooperative elements of the China relationship and strengthen the competitive elements. He must make some hard decisions about switching focus back from aggressive Hindu nationalism to sustained high economic growth, accelerating military modernization and construction of facilities in Andaman and Nicobar as a potent tri-service base, and consolidating security arrangements and dialogues with Indo-Pacific friends and the U.S., starting with reinvigorated commitment to the “Quad Plus” that includes Indonesia, Vietnam, South Korea and Singapore. India must clear away the intellectual-cum-sentimental cobwebs, shed strategic lassitude and the hesitations of history, and commit to modernizing its military as an assertive instrument of foreign policy.
Caught between an increasingly aggressive and bellicose China, and a U.S. that grows more unpredictable and less reliable by the month, Australia, India, Japan and others are having to “thread the needle” of a fraught future for the Indo-Pacific amid the collapsing pillars of the liberal international order. The Quad countries could also discuss with European friends a coordinated establishment of diplomatic relations with Taiwan. As I argued here on Sept. 15, 2007, the shunning of Taiwan is craven kowtowing to bullying by Beijing and one of the biggest global scandals of our time. India should also abandon appeasement of China on Tibet.
Like China and the U.S., India too must learn to weaponize economic and trade policy. The U.S. and many others have begun decoupling from China owing to geopolitical tensions and the desire to diversify supply chains. India is the obvious and best-placed to replace China as the world’s low-cost supplier. The Indian market is the largest that China could have hoped for to offset setbacks in Europe and North America. Chinese companies are unlikely to get many Indian public or private sector contracts and Huawei’s prospects of capturing India’s 5G market have shrunk.
China, India and the world should settle in for a long and hot summer of action and diplomacy with many more edgy moments on the icy heights of the majestic Himalayas.
Ramesh Thakur is an emeritus professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.