Foreign Policy Watch: India-China

Evaluate the Ladakh crisis

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much

Mains level : Paper 2- Managing the strategic competition with China

The article highlights the need for a critical assessment of the stand-off with China last year and offers key lessons in managing the strategic competition with China.

Year after stand-off

  • After over a year, the stand-off between Indian and Chinese troops in eastern Ladakh shows no signs of resolution.
  • More broadly, the India-China bilateral relationship has ruptured.
  • Reversing a long-held policy, India will no longer overlook the problematic border dispute for the sake of a potentially lucrative wider relationship.
  • Even if disengagement continues, the relationship will remain vulnerable to destabilising disruptions.
  • Therefore, the Ladakh crisis offers India three key lessons in managing the intensifying strategic competition with China.

Three key lessons

1) Military strategy based on denial are more useful

  •  Military strategies based on denial are more useful than strategies based on punishment.
  •  The Indian military’s standing doctrine calls for deterring adversaries with the threat of massive punitive retaliation for any aggression, capturing enemy territory as bargaining leverage in post-war talks.
  • But this did not deter China from launching unprecedented incursions in May 2020.
  • In contrast, the Indian military’s high-water mark in the crisis was an act of denial — its occupation of the heights on the Kailash Range on its side of the LAC in late August.
  • This action served to deny that key terrain to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and gave the Indian Army a stronger defensive position.
  • A doctrinal focus on denial will give the Indian military greater capacity to thwart future land grabs across the LAC.
  • Over time, improved denial capabilities may allow India to reduce the resource drain of the increased militarisation of the LAC.

2) Political cost matters more

  • China is more likely to be deterred or coerced with the threat of political costs, rather than material costs.
  • The material burden of the crisis would not disrupt its existing priorities.
  • In contrast, India successfully raised the risks of the crisis for China through its threat of a political rupture, not military punishment.
  • A permanently hostile India or an accidental escalation to conflict were risks that China, having achieved its tactical goals in the crisis, assessed were an unnecessary additional burden.
  • The corollary lesson is that individual powers, even large powers such as India, will probably struggle to shift Beijing’s calculus alone.
  • Against the rising behemoth, only coordinated or collective action is likely to be effective.

3) India should accept more risk on LAC

  • India should consider accepting more risk on the LAC in exchange for long-term leverage and influence in the Indian Ocean Region.
  • From the perspective of long-term strategic competition, the future of the Indian Ocean Region is more consequential and more uncertain than the Himalayan frontier.
  • At the land border, the difficult terrain and more even balance of military force means that each side could only eke out minor, strategically modest gains at best.
  • In contrast, India has traditionally been the dominant power in the Indian Ocean Region and stands to cede significant political influence and security if it fails to answer the rapid expansion of Chinese military power.

Conclusion

As these three lessons show, the future of the strategic competition is not yet written. If India’s leaders honestly and critically evaluate the crisis, it may yet help to actually brace India’s long-term position against China.

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