The year 2020 marks the 70th
anniversary of diplomatic normalization between China and India, a year that should have been celebrated to commemorate the historical ties between two great nations. However, as the standoff and military posturing in the western sector of their disputed border intensify since May, confrontation and hostility have consequently become the overwhelming theme between China and India this year. Whether the downward spiral will continue depends on several factors, especially the resolve, calculations, and expectations by both sides. China’s position this time is noticeably different from previous incidents. China may still prefer to avoid a conflict if it could. However, its tolerance for risks on the India front has increased significantly. It may not yet be risk-neutral, but it’s no longer completely risk-averse.
The strategic context
China’s dilemma with India originates from asymmetry between China and India in their security priorities. India sees China as its primary threat, while China sees India as a secondary challenge as its national security priorities unequivocally lie in the western Pacific. Because India is not China’s primary threat and South Asia is not China’s primary theater, China would prefer to save on costs and minimize military and strategic resources on India. If a conflict is unavoidable, China could mobilize to an overwhelming capacity to achieve a decisive victory on the battlefield. But that victory would not help to alleviate China’s key security challenges in the Pacific. The desire to avoid a two-front war in the West Pacific and South Asia has long anchored China’s preference in its border disputes with India.
From Beijing’s perspective, however, the pattern of border interactions with India in recent years reflects India’s desire to capitalize on this asymmetry and imbalance in their priorities and resolve. Since the beginning of the standoff in the Galwan Valley, many Indian strategists have questioned the wisdom of China’s action given China’s culpability in the Covid-19 pandemic and the freefall of relations with U.S. For the Chinese, this suggests an Indian conviction of its position of strength, and consequently an expectation for Chinese concessions. These perceptions may very possibly be misperceptions, but these deeply entrenched views will most likely influence their interactions down the road.
Since the beginning of the standoff in the Galwan Valley, many Indian strategists have questioned the wisdom of China’s action given China’s culpability in the Covid-19 pandemic and the freefall of relations with U.S. For the Chinese, this suggests an Indian conviction of its position of strength, and consequently an expectation for Chinese concessions
China’s reactive assertiveness
Unlike the Doklam standoff in 2017, Beijing has chosen not to concede this time. In fact, China pushed its position forward in multiple locations in the western sector. While Delhi demands the return to a pre-May status quo ante
, Beijing is holding onto the new status quo as a fait accompli
While Delhi demands the return to a pre-May status quo ante, Beijing is holding onto the new status quo as a fait accompli.
China has claimed that it was reacting to India’s first moves (road construction) in the Galwan Valley in the spring, and it was compelled to respond to a perceived act of Indian aggression. However, this position should imply the restoration of the status quo ante
instead of a new fait accompli
. Strategically, this raised the suspicion that China is aiming for the Line of Actual Control by the end of the 1962 war, although no official Chinese sources have confirmed that position. (And China is unlikely to acknowledge it even if it is indeed China’s position.) Tactically, the rejection of the status quo ante
is best understood through the lens of a pattern of China’s reactive assertiveness under President Xi Jinping- that China’s reaction to perceived transgression must be punitive in nature hence the punishment must exceed the original offense to increase the cost of future similar transgressions. There is a pattern of such behaviors in China’s recent record, especially in regards to the changing of status quo in the waters surrounding the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands by regularizing the dispatch of Chinese government vessels as a reaction to Tokyo’s nationalization of the islands in 2012.
The ball is then in India’s court. As the winter progresses, both sides appear adamant in holding their positions. India does not have an easy option to force China to concede. Its effort to reinforce deployment and show of resolve may not lead to its desired endgame even in the short term.
China’s changing threat perception and risk tolerance
The Ladakh crisis has augmented both the Chinese and Indian threat perceptions of each other. One might argue that no love is lost given the longstanding issues between the two and the deeply embedded distrust of each other’s strategic intentions. However, distrust and problems are fundamentally different from hostility and confrontation, as the latter would suggest active policies to undermine the other side.
China’s assessment of India as the secondary threat and South Asia as its secondary theater has not changed and is unlikely to change in the future. However, the events this year have forced China to come face-to-face with a long list of factors in a real scenario of a war with India. These include the heightened and sustained escalation of tension, the growing possibility of a real conflict with India and the military planning/mobilization/preparation necessitated by it, as well as the Indian willingness to let the border issue spill over to the bilateral economic and trade relations. More importantly, the two-front war scenario has forced China to face the reality that any of its action on Taiwan could trigger India “adventurism” along the disputed border, just like China believes that India’s border movement capitalized on China’s weaknesses and distraction due to the Covid-19.
China’s assessment of India as the secondary threat and South Asia as its secondary theater has not changed and is unlikely to change in the future. However, the events this year have forced China to come face-to-face with a long list of factors in a real scenario of a war with India
Although India remains a secondary threat in China’s playbook, the needle of China’s policy toward India has moved. If anything, China’s tolerance for a bad relationship with India, including a conflict if imposed, has increased. This is categorically different from the previous conviction that China is and will always be risk-averse, and therefore would avoid a conflict with India at all costs. It doesn’t mean that China will actively seek a war with India, but it does suggest that China is prepared to defend its military positions even if a conflict is inevitable. Bluffs are and will be called, and China will not be the “paper tiger” some Indians have inferred from the outcome of the Doklam crisis.
There might be a temporary fix if the top leaders of the two countries decide to step in and press the reset button, like they did after the Doklam standoff. However, the abrupt and short-lived nature of the post-Doklam rapprochement from 2018 to 2019 illustrates how fragile and unsustainable such quick fixes will be. The hard, realistic conflicts between China and India, over their history, territory, trade, regional status, and historical destiny are too deep to remove easily. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to manage them without getting into a disastrous war.
China’s three options?
Despite the jointly stated commitment to deescalate by the two foreign ministers in Moscow on September 10, including an agreement that “the border troops of both sides should continue their dialogue, quickly disengage, maintain proper distance and ease tensions
”, disengagement of the two militaries on the ground has not been achieved two weeks later. There are at least three options being discussed in China for its next steps.
Option 1. A war that ends wars
As the hawks in China would like to see, Beijing should finally strengthen its resolve and take the initiative to deter India with a war that ends wars, just like it did in 1962. For them, India’s growing domestic Hindu nationalism and the inflated sense of empowerment by the favorable external environment from factors including the Indo-Pacific strategy have enabled a significantly more ambitious and provocative policy towards China. And this trend is only likely to continue as the Indian leaders might desire a foreign crisis to diverts the domestic attention away from their failures on Covid-19 and India’s 23.9% economic contraction
in the second quarter this year. To these Chinese, if China were to back off, it will only confirm to India China’s reluctance and/or inability to counter India, hence inviting more aggressive behaviors from India down the road.
This proposal is closely linked to the development in the West Pacific, especially on Taiwan. China has been fraught over the deepening ties between U.S. and Taiwan. During this freefall period of U.S.-China relations, the major arms sales package and senior U.S. government officials’ visits of Taiwan have put rising strains on China’s needed reaction. As it prepares for its options, especially the military option that enjoys vast popular support in China, the possibility and danger of a potential two-front war in the east and west at the same time is becoming increasingly real. For China to plan on a Taiwan contingency, the need to “tie up the loose end” in its western theater becomes even more pressing than before.
Option 2. Second mover assertiveness
Despite the popularity of the first proposal among nationalists and some corners of the policy apparatus, the more realistic option remains anchored on China’s reactive assertiveness. As the second mover, China makes full preparation for a potential conflict with India but instead of initiating a war, China will only react, but forcefully and resolutely to an Indian act of provocation. Being the second mover rather than the provocateur is expected to confer China some sense of moral high ground, especially given the diplomatic efforts that have been exhausted by that time.
The essence of a second mover strategy lies in China’s confidence that it has the financial resources, military capacity and domestic political consensus to sustain and prevail in a protracted standoff (or war) of attrition vis-à-vis India. It reflects China’s preference for peace, but also its resolve to fight a war if need be. China’s 1962 war with India and the 1979 war with Vietnam both demonstrates the central position and essence of “self-defense war” concept in China’s playbook. If the border standoff continues or escalates, this will be the most likely scenario.
Option 3. Winning without fighting
In a long-term and strategic perspective, China’s most desired option to settle the disputes and relations with India is winning without fighting. This conviction is reflected in China’s consistent effort to resort back to diplomacy to manage the border disputes with India in the past decades. The logic of this option lies in the belief that the power gap between China and India will only grow with China’s rise, and there will be a day that the power imbalance becomes so large that India will recognize the impracticality and impossibility of its desired endgame. Following this vein, then and only then will the Indian willingness to negotiate a pragmatic solution to the border disputes emerge.
This diplomacy-based approach put a Band-Aid on the most dividing and disturbing issue between two great powers in the region. And its utility and effectiveness have come under more and more questioning as both sides try to defend their military positions on the frontline. More importantly, the most fundamental problem with this approach is that if China has to concede control of territory today, it removes the premise and need of its desired future outcome anyway. Considering China’s economic slowdown and India’s improving international status, such a future victory nowhere guaranteed. Therefore, while this policy had in the past been prominent in Beijing’s decision-making vis-à-vis Delhi on the border issue, the development after Doklam has increasingly undermined its premise.
Many have questioned the value of the military posts in the remote, unhabitable Himalayan mountains. While their strategic values might be questionable, or at the minimum- debatable, emotional, political, legal, historical and military considerations on both sides that have hindered a practical solution. Confrontations, standoffs and incidents will likely become more regular as the two sides consolidate their Line of Actual Control in the western sector till there is no more ambiguity or room for imagination regarding their actual positions, and that future Line of Actual Control will serve as the foundation and the beginning of a real border negotiation between China and India. If there is any silver lining from all the tension to come, that might be it.
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