India will have to make changes at the strategic level in its posture and relationship with the PRC if China persists in holding on to its territorial gains
With the conclusion of the 20th Party Congress last month which consolidated President Xi Jinping’s continued reign for an unprecedented third term, there are daunting and potentially ominous times ahead for its two immediate neighbours–Taiwan and India. Let us begin with the latter, the Chinese have shown considerable truculence in their negotiations with India. As reported recently, an Indian intelligence report indicates that the Chinese are in no mood to vacate territory claimed by India in the Depsang plains of Ladakh. The territory on which Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) units are perched is 18 kilometres inside India’s claim lines, and the PLA has significantly enhanced its development of infrastructure along the Western sector. The Modi government would be well advised to be cautious and disabused of any temptation to concede the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) land grab, notwithstanding the Modi-Xi handshake at the G-20 Summit in Bali. This is reinforced by the Indian Army Chief General Manoj Pande’s recent statement that while the contested border is “…stable…
Beyond the consequences of what might follow a potential Indian acceptance of China’s fait accompli is that Beijing might not be willing to budge in relinquishing its gains in Ladakh simply because it has the military strength to hold on to them.
In evaluating the current denouement facing India against the PRC in Ladakh, the past cannot provide any guidance for a resolution of the current stand-off between China and India over the Depsang Plains and Demchok, the other “friction point” between the two countries. Why is this the case? Experts have averred that the last time the PRC occupied territory claimed by India at Somdurong Cha at the Thagla Ridge in 1986, it took seven years to resolve that crisis which involved a Chinese withdrawal. This Chinese occupation was followed by the Indian government’s change in the legal status of the state of Arunachal Pradesh. The latter was upgraded from a Union Territory (UT) to a state. As one expert averred: “There is a historical parallel for this kind of behavior on the part of the Chinese… if you may recall back in the 1980s when India had changed the status of Arunachal Pradesh and at that time was upgraded from Union Territory (UT) to a State.” It took seven years to resolve that stand-off following “..long drawn-out negotiations..”, the same could apply in the present crisis. The historical parallel might not work in the current Chinese occupation of India-claimed territory, especially in the Depsang, simply because context has shifted significantly from the 1990s–the structural reality of Chinese military power. Beijing is better positioned to hold on to its tactical territorial gains the PLA made in Depsang in 2020, which is being reinforced with an intensive infrastructure build-up. Evicting the Chinese military occupation of Depsang will be militarily onerous today for the Indian Army and Air Force. India must proceed on the assumption that the Chinese will hold on to Depsang and possibly Demchok and will collude with the Pakistanis–a scenario that, at a minimum, will subject India to considerable pressure, and at a maximum, result in a joint attack against India. The latter may come across as a worst-case outcome for New Delhi, but worst-case scenarios are very much possible and plausible.
Push comes to shove the PRC’s capabilities vis-à-vis India and Taiwan have caught up with its intentions.
More recently in an off-the-record engagement, one Indian expert claimed that China is likely to restrict itself to skirmishes on the Line of Actual Control (LaC) and prioritise the latter as opposed to military action against Taiwan. This possibility is still conditional as far as the PRC confining itself to skirmishes along the LaC is concerned, Beijing might escalate with “massive” force if it chooses. Indeed, there is a historical parallel with the continued possibility of the Chinese not limiting themselves to skirmishes as was assumed to be the case even in the run-up to the 1962 war. Beijing, instead resorted to a massive attack, which the Nehru-led leaders never expected. On the other hand, it may be true in the near term the PRC is likely to exercise restraint in the case of Taiwan as the expert argued, however, this too may turn erroneous and should be treated as irrelevant because the Chinese have already acted with considerable coercion against Taiwan. Following the United States House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit in August 2022, the Chinese military carried out unprecedented military drills in the straits and around the main island of Taiwan. Further, the PRC is sitting pretty today vis-à-vis Taiwan for the simple reason that Chinese forces have already breached the median or centre line in the Taiwan Straits, which hitherto Beijing had avoided violating and tacitly recognised. In all likelihood, they will hold on to those gains, which would certainly enhance their capacity to mount an invasion with greater ease or at least the breach of the centre line by Chinese forces, positions Beijing to do so. Push comes to shove the PRC’s capabilities vis-à-vis India and Taiwan have caught up with its intentions.
India will have to consider making changes at the strategic level in its posture and relationship with the PRC if Beijing persists in holding on to its territorial gains.
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Kartik Bommakanti is a Senior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme. Kartik specialises in space military issues and his research is primarily centred on the ...Read More +