Did India Just Win at the Line of Actual Control?
Beijing and New Delhi may be disengaging in the Pangong Tso lake region, but their divisions are more fraught than ever.
On Feb. 10, after nine rounds of high-level military talks, India and China began partially disengaging from what was the bloodiest (if not the longest) crisis on the Sino-Indian border in the last 50 years. Although Indian and Chinese troops continue to lock horns at multiple sites in eastern Ladakh, a disengagement process in the Pangong Tso lake region has witnessed the return of troops and armor to their permanent bases. The two sides have also declared the contested territory as a buffer zone between the two armies.
India must be pleased. This outcome means that it was able to force Chinese troops out of what New Delhi believes is its side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that divides the two countries. India, in short, has repeated the military success it achieved during the Doklam crisis in 2017, when the two faced off over China’s attempt to build a road and both sides eventually withdrew their troops.
The latest showdown originated in May 2020, when the Chinese army prevented Indian soldiers from patrolling up to their claim lines and established permanent structures on its own side. Both in terms of geography and numbers, China’s intrusion was neither local nor limited. The country had used the fog of the coronavirus pandemic to amass around 60,000 troops, according to some estimates, close to the border in direct contravention of the rules of engagement along the LAC. Beyond endangering the status quo, the apparent incursion and the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers in the Galwan Valley in June was also embarrassing for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had sought to initiate a high-level dialogue with Chinese President Xi Jinping after the Doklam crisis.
If China had aimed to coerce India into accepting its territorial claims along the LAC, the massacre at Galwan Valley emboldened New Delhi’s resolve to fight back. What followed was a concerted effort to use all of the economic, diplomatic, and military power at India’s disposal to push China to return to the status quo—what it called a “strategy of hurt.” This strategy communicated a simple dictum to Beijing: China should remove its soldiers and its bases, or India would inflict economic, diplomatic, and military costs.
India’s opening gambit was economic sanctions against Chinese firms operating in the country. India may be dependent on trade with China for the import of raw materials and finished goods, but China also has large stakes in Indian markets—especially when it comes to technology. So it made sense that, as the border crisis with China escalated, India moved to ban Chinese apps and disallowed Chinese state-owned companies from investing in infrastructure projects. The threat of economic decoupling, including a prospective ban on Huawei from India’s 5G infrastructure, followed.
Diplomatically, too, India embraced the West more firmly, signing an agreement that furthers military cooperation between the United States and India and inviting Australia to participate in joint naval exercises. It also sent an Indian destroyer to the South China Sea to signal its decision to side with the West on disputes there.
Militarily, India built up a local preponderance of forces and materiel to deter any further Chinese activities. The effort marked the biggest mobilization of the Indian Armed Forces in recent decades. The army positioned almost three divisions, including an armored one, in eastern Ladakh. The air force also shifted its foremost assets to the area, including MiG-29s, Sukhoi-30s, and Mirage 2000s. The navy’s P-8I Poseidon aircrafts also conducted reconnaissance and surveillance missions over the high Himalayas.
Military deterrence and economic and diplomatic maneuvering could not have altered China’s cost-benefit calculus on their own. After all, even with its show of strength, India’s military is still leagues behind China’s in terms of size and equipment, and China’s vastly larger economy could absorb any economic costs from India’s disengagement. In its diplomatic maneuvering, meanwhile, India was cashing in an outdated check. China’s actions in eastern Ladakh suggested that Beijing had already decided that New Delhi had abandoned strategic autonomy and furthered its slow but sure embrace of the West.
So why did Beijing ultimately agree to a reinstatement of the status quo? To alter Beijing’s cost-benefit matrix, India needed not military deterrence but to change the tactical military reality on the border. Its increased military presence provided options for employing limited but innovative force to buy leverage at the negotiating table. In the mountains, that meant occupying the higher ground. For example, in a late August preemptive move, the Indian Army captured the dominant features of the Kailash mountain range overseeing China’s positions in both the north and the south bank of the Pangong Tso lake. Indian forces also captured the dominant heights on the north bank of the lake. This tactical maneuver surprised the Chinese troops that remained ensconced on the lower ridges. India’s military actions had increased the costs for China to hold on to the territory it had grabbed. That gave India the tactical advantage so long as the conflict remained limited to the LAC.
Within 10 days, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and his Chinese counterparts met on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting in Moscow. India had finally delivered on its strategy of hurt. In the next four rounds of high-level military talks, India cashed in at the bargaining table.
The limited disengagement in the Pangong Tso lake region should not, however, distract from the systemic obstacles in Sino-Indian relations. China’s growing power and its constant use of the border dispute to coerce India will remain New Delhi’s primary strategic challenge. India is now facing a hostile great power that not only eyes its territory but also detests its rise in the global order. And that fact, symbolized in the recent Sino-Indian border crisis, has led to three important changes in India’s strategic posture against China.
The first concerns India’s military reorientation toward its northern borders. After almost half a century of a Pakistan-centric military posture, the Indian military—on land, air, and sea—will now be oriented toward China. Major reconfiguration in force positioning of the Indian Army, Air Force, and Navy is already underway.
Second, the process of India’s economic decoupling with China—which started with New Delhi’s decision to stay out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a free trade agreement that includes China—will continue apace. India may relent on a few matters, but the larger trajectory of Sino-Indian economic relations is now set. Members of the Quad—Australia, India, Japan, and the United States—are increasingly realizing that Chinese power depends on the country’s economic interdependence with the liberal economies. Constraining China militarily will necessitate its economic isolation. India and the other Quad countries will feel the hurt in the near to midterm, but in the long term, marginalizing China will hurt Beijing more.
Finally, New Delhi will not stray from its increasing alignment with the West. If earlier India was bandwagoning with the United States for material and status gain, today its requirement now is more existential: It needs the United States and the Quad members to provide the country with technology, money, and arms to internally balance China.
Disengagement from Pangong Tso is just the beginning of the Sino-Indian military de-escalation. However, it will not resolve the fundamental problems of their bilateral relations. China’s military rise and its penchant for territorial aggrandizement will continue to push Sino-Indian relations through cycles of violence. Only a truly effective and general military deterrent will help India stand up to China’s bullying, and New Delhi today seems more determined than ever to move in that direction. This is likely to be a new phase in not only Sino-Indian ties but also the geopolitics of the larger Indo-Pacific.
Harsh V. Pant is the director of research at Observer Research Foundation.