Crystal Gazing: India-China Boundary Dispute

History is replete with examples where despite best efforts to predict or crystal gaze the conflicts of the future, most countries and the armed forces have gone wrong. One of the primary reasons for ‘not getting it correct’ is our inability to carry out a comprehensive analysis of different variables that contribute to the initiation of conflicts and their outcomes. Despite considering the rapid changes in the geopolitical and geostrategic environment; competition cum confrontation on economic issues, the revolution in technology, and differential military capabilities, one may still fail to predict the future. Besides, conflicts are driven by the changes in the leadership attributed to their perception of the world order, and also due to sectarian cum ethnic politics based on their belief systems.

One of the glaring examples of viewing geopolitical cum strategic situation through a blinkered prism was a wishful statement made by Lt Gen Tariq Khan in his article on “India-China Standoff”, where he posits “…a link up with Pakistani troops and the Chinese at Kargil a real possibility for all times to come[1]– published in the immediate aftermath of the Galwan incident of 15 June 2020. Such a statement elucidates the limited knowledge of the General of the ground realities, in terms of the geography, terrain, distances, military preparedness, popular support, development initiatives, and the strengths of India and its armed forces. To which, one can argue as precisely the reason why Pakistan has always miscalculated and made strategic blunders in the India-Pakistan conflicts of 1947-48, 1965, 1971, and in Kargil in 1999. While he briefly highlights the immediate and deeper causes of the military standoff between India and China (military build-up and infrastructure development in Eastern Ladakh, along with changing of the status of Jammu and Kashmir by the abrogation of Article 370 and creation of the Union Territory of Ladakh)- looking primarily from a Pakistan perspective. However, he failed to realise the strength and resilience of the Indian Armed Forces in occupying the dominating strategic heights, both in the Chushul Sub-sector (South of the Pangong Tso) and in North of Pangong Tso- thus, strengthening India’s position to negotiate and diffuse the prevailing tension at the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

To cite another example of ‘predictability error’ such as: In February 2011, Robert Gates, the then U.S. Secretary of Defense in his address to the US Military Academy in West Point stated, “When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never gotten it right, from the Mayagüez (Puerto Rico) to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq, and more— we had no idea a year before any of those missions that we would be so engaged”.[2] Here too, it appears that Gates missed taking into account the ongoing major conflict in Afghanistan.

While the armed forces must crystal gaze to prepare themselves for future conflicts or the resolution of conflicts, the analysis must be reviewed periodically to carry out mid-course corrections, where required. We, in India, were surprised on a few occasions in the past, such as: When Pakistan led local tribal (Pashtuns) militias and irregular Pakistani forces attacked Jammu and Kashmir in October 1947 to annex it; attack by Pakistan in 1965; occupation of Kargil Heights predominantly by Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry in 1999, and China’s PLA premeditating and transgressing the LAC in Eastern Ladakh in May 2020, and the resultant physical scuffles and casualties.

China’s Grand Strategy

According to one of RAND’s 2020 reports, it has suggested that the foundational prerequisites for successful implementation of China’s grand strategy being deft routine management of the political system and effective maintenance of social stability. To state, China’s grand strategy is best labeled “national rejuvenation […]”.[3] Such a grand strategy helps to provide political legitimacy to the one-party rule. In this perspective, the paper crystal gazes and analyses four different scenarios over the next three decades ranging from a triumphant China to an imploding China. However, it remains extremely difficult to predict the most probable scenario.

China had land borders with 14 countries, of which it has settled with all, except for India and Bhutan. However, what is significant is that historically, while settling those boundary cum territorial disputes, China has not compromised on its strategic and economic interests. [4]

Since geopolitics is one of the main factors that lead to conflicts, it is vital to understand this phenomenon in Asia and Indo-Pacific Region (IOR). The most important feature of the 21st century has been the rise of China, as a global power due to its sustained economic growth; strong military muscle; technology and innovation; focus on cyber, space, and information warfare. Therefore, in the future, China aims to progressively dominate the Western Pacific region, and expand into IOR, and continue to increasingly influence the geopolitics from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean, and from Arabian Peninsula to the Central Asian Republics (CAR). It has already embarked to pursue its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with a view to achieving advantages in political, economic, and strategic domains, and increasing its reach to raw materials and markets in different continents. While looking ahead, it appears that all these activities are likely to increase in the future. It would progressively increase its offensive activities across the Taiwan Strait, and other disputed areas in the Western Pacific region. Recently, as part of its global role, China has offered to mediate among the warring factions in Afghanistan to bring peace and stability in the region, considering the US and coalition troops pulling out of Afghanistan in September 2021. Therefore, it is certain that it will start playing a much larger role in the regional and global geopolitical arena.

India’s Perception of Chinese Intentions

Given the unsettled boundary dispute with China and periodic military standoffs on the LAC, a question that arises is: How do the Indians perceive the Chinese intentions?

Undoubtedly, there is a huge trust deficit in China, due to periodic major standoffs on the LAC. Over the last two decades, with economic differential continuing to increase between India and China, it may become more aggressive and expansionist on both continental and maritime domains. It would want to settle the boundary dispute with India on its terms, by coercion and intimidation. Given the fact that the Indian Armed Forces have huge experience in operations in high-altitude warfare, Indians understand that ‘GDP or economy differential alone’ does not necessarily dictate the outcomes of conflicts. This aspect of the GDP differential was being propagated by China’s state-sponsored ‘Global Times’ during the standoff in the middle of 2020.

What is noteworthy is that given India’s unique advantageous geostrategic location in the IOR and Asia, China does not want India to grow as a regional and/or global power. Simultaneously, China has established nexus with its ‘all-weather friend’ Pakistan and has developed relationships with other strategic neighbors of India.  Further, it has also developed infrastructure like seaports and surface connectivity to achieve strategic encirclement of India. Besides, China also does not appreciate India’s close relations with the US, and it is being a prominent part of the QUAD.

Boundary cum Territorial Dispute

The LAC, 3488 km long, is neither delineated on the map nor demarcated on the ground. It lies in one of the most inhospitable high-altitude terrains and icy cold climatic conditions.  China knows it well that India too is a nuclear-powered state, and with its potential growth trajectory and strength, it has the capability and the resolve to take suitable actions against an aggressor. Therefore, it would not be possible for China to capture and occupy any territory across the LAC, without suffering prohibitive costs to men and war-waging machinery, as well as a dent in its image of global power. Despite the signing of several agreements and protocols between 1993 and 2013, as also meetings at various levels, it appears that China is not keen to resolve the boundary dispute in the near future. The reasons are: One, to use the dispute as leverage to ensure that India supports China on important issues at various global forums; Two, to tie down India on border disputes with Pakistan and China in the west and the north, and thwart it from realizing its ambition to be a regional cum global power; and three, to keep India’s focus away from China’s weakness in the IOR.

Crystal Gazing: China’s Actions and Aims

Meanwhile, China would continue to change the demographic profile by shifting the Han population to areas close to the LAC to ensure better political control of the area,[5] further improve its infrastructure, and even plan to move the new settlements across the LAC. Also, China intends to divert the water from TAR to the mainland to meet its major challenge of ‘scarcity of water in the future’. China has an incredible capability to develop infrastructure in such terrains. India needs to take note of it.

With Military-Civil Fusion (MCF) and tight government control in place, China will continue to exploit technology to develop direct energy weapons, hypersonics, robotics, electronic warfare, drones, UAVs, precision bombs, and Manoeuvrable Re-entry Vehicles (MARVs). It would further strengthen the Western Theatre Command (WTC), and Tibetan Military Command (TMC) to remain prepared for any contingency(s).  China has already taken measures to develop habitat for its troops, and infrastructure for weapon systems to remain stationed closer to the LAC even during winters. As reported by satellite imageries astride G219 and towards the LAC, there has been a change in their habitat, and infrastructure for an improved operational posture, unlike the earlier times.

China’s PLA Navy  (PLAN), supported by its Air Force, the PLAAF, will expand its capabilities and increase its presence and activities in the IOR, to protect its economic cum strategic interests by securing the sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) and getting access to markets and raw materials. Therefore, in the next decade, one can expect China to convert a few of its port facilities in India’s neighborhood into military bases. Again, uncontrolled activities could lead to maritime standoffs closer to the Indian EEZ. In view of this, India needs to develop its naval bases and its navy, along with complimentary supporting assets from the army and the air force, to protect its interests in the IOR.

With all these developments, the overall aim of China against India could be four-fold: First, to secure its strategically important areas including special economic zones and mineral-rich resources, and lines of communications in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Gilgit-Baltistan region. Second, by initiating limited offensive actions in areas with lesser resistance, or threatening the political cum strategically important areas, it would endeavor to keep India engaged at the border and prevent it from focussing on the IOR and the South Asia region. Third, by such actions, China seeks to divert attention and ward off its own economic, domestic, and international pressures. And fourth, China aims to prove its superpower status by causing political embarrassment to India.

As China continues to grow in strength, it would certainly be assertive in its claims to territories and its status as a superpower. However, if ‘it (rising power) suffers a downturn in its economy, it may be repressive at home and aggressive abroad’.[6] China would do all it can to achieve a sustained economic growth rate. Its attitude would also depend upon the internal security conditions, its leadership, and policies being pursued by them. Given its interests in protecting the strategic assets in the Gilgit-Baltistan region, as part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), it may also involve Pakistan to support its military actions- thus, opening two fronts against India simultaneously.

Awakening Call

China’s aggressive actions in Eastern Ladakh in May 2020 have been an awakening call to review our operational preparedness and postures. It would be prudent for the Indian Armed Forces to carry out an analysis of the entire stretch of the LAC, with special reference to the envisaged threat in the next 10 to15 years. This should entail a detailed assessment of the status of infrastructure on both sides of the border, the strengths and weaknesses of the postures, and various options available in the foreseen contingencies. This may also require reviewing the development of infrastructure to provide last-mile connectivity in certain areas.

There is also a need to expedite the development of infrastructure, improve on India’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, border management along the disputed borders, review organisational changes, rebalancing of forces based on the envisaged threats and impetus to the modernisation drive and development of technology-enabled weapon systems. In doing so, a critical requirement is that India should develop its indigenous capabilities in AI, telecom, and other high-tech systems rather than relying on imported solutions with the embedded technologies. Hence, it requires an additional budget for R&D. And this can only be achieved by expediting reforms in bureaucracy and procurement. 

Way Ahead

The way ahead lies primarily in two principal approaches: First, to protect the territorial integrity by military efforts, with support of all elements of national power;[7] and second and more importantly, resolve the conflict, bring peace and harmony by political will, the statesmanship of leaders and popular support.

  • While dialogue and negotiations could continue to take place at various levels, the Indian Armed Forces must respond pro-actively and decisively to the military situations arising on the borders – disputed ones in particular – that impact the sovereignty of India.
  • To build confidence between the militaries of the two countries, especially after the Galwan Valley incident, both India and China must remain transparent in their operational cum training activities close to the LAC. The current system of organising a buffer zone of some distance on either side of the perceived LAC or declaring ‘no patrolling zones’ along the friction stretches along the LAC are temporary measures. These must be replaced with certain concrete measures to prevent a conflict due to misunderstanding or lack of communication. Therefore, as a first step to send the correct message, the disengagement and de-escalation process must be pursued on the remainder friction points in Eastern Ladakh by both countries to pre-April 2020 situation. The commanders on the ground must continue to monitor the situation closely and remain in communication on the hotline to prevent an incident triggering a serious conflict. Simultaneously, in addition, ISR capabilities must be developed to monitor the adherence to accepted protocols and guidelines.
  • There are ample examples where hardened positions on the alignment of borders between rival countries, e.g., Germany and France, have given way to peace and stability, primarily because of the political will and support of the population. India and China must continue to engage at different levels, on equal terms, to look at various options to resolve the conflict.
  • To minimise the areas of dispute, it may be appropriate to delineate and demarcate those areas which are not disputed or have minimal differences in perception. It would reduce the border tensions and standoffs along a major portion of the LAC. Thereafter, contentious issues can be analysed sector by sector, after analysing each legal, historical, or revenue collection related claims, the spread of habitation on the ground, geographical features with well-defined limits like the watershed, ridgelines or the alignments of rivers. There is a need to find a mutually acceptable solution. India needs to develop a core of experts on legal and historical issues of the India – China boundary dispute, to counter the claims being projected by the Chinese experts.
  • Out of the five agreements and protocols signed between the two countries, the agreement of 2005 on ‘Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question’ has been most significant. In this, Article III mentions “…meaningful and mutually acceptable adjustments to their respective positions on the boundary question…. Boundary settlement must be final, covering all sectors of India-China Boundary”. Again, Articles VII and VIII mention “…. safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas.” Both countries must work towards resolution of the dispute in the spirit of the Agreement of 2005, which has not been pursued to its logical conclusion.

To face the challenges posed by China, India must aim to progressively strengthen its comprehensive national power. It must involve all elements of national power, and work towards becoming strong economically, militarily, technologically, and with a stable internal security environment.  Therefore, to address its security concerns, India needs to periodically review its China policy that involves political, economic, trade & investment, military and information, public perception related issues. Militarily, in consonance with India’s strategy of credible deterrence, there is a need to provide the necessary budget to build the Indian Armed Forces’ capacity and capability at multiple levels – to demonstrate its political and military resolve and communicate to the opponents of its likely actions on crossing the red lines. On balance, both countries must work together to build trust and confidence in each other and resolve the boundary dispute early to each other’s mutual satisfaction.

Endnotes:

[1] Lt Gen Tariq Khan (2020), “India China Stand- Off”, June 18, 2020, https://defence.pk/pdf/threads/china-india-dispute-analysis-by-lt-general-r-tariq-khan.671889/

[2]  Micah Zenko (2012), “100% Right 0% of the Time”, Foreign Policy, October 12, 2012, https://foreignpolicy.com/2012/10/16/100-right-0-of-the-time/

[3]  Andrew Scobell et al. (2020), China’s Grand Strategy Trends, Trajectories, and Long-Term Competition, Santa Monica: RAND.

[4]  Akshat Upadhyay (2013), “China’s Border Wars”, USI, Jan 2013-Mar2013.

[5] Brigadier V Mahalingam (2019), “What are the Chinese up to on the Other Side of the Indian Borders in Tibet and the Implications”, VIF Paper, August 2019. To note, since 2016 China has invested over 100 million Yuan ($15million) to develop infrastructure in border villages …[..] 628 villages along the border are being developed similarly with a view to lift these villages out of poverty.

[6]  Michael Beckley (2019), “US must fears faltering China”, Foreign Affairs, October 27, 2019.

[7]  Prime Minister Modi stated in his address on 17 June 2020,  “India’s “sovereignty is supreme”.