This commentary was first published in The Hindu.
India and China appear to be mending fences, gingerly. Relations have been icy since China launched multiple incursions across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh in mid-2020. After years of inconclusive military talks and halting “disengagement” from sites of confrontation, the rivals made inching progress last week. They completed disengagement in an area known as Patrolling Point 15 (PP15), pulling troops back to create a demilitarized buffer zone, and their leaders met in person at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Samarkand.
The tentative conciliatory steps between two nuclear-armed rivals are important; but they also carry risks, especially for India.
Despite the latest round of disengagement, the LAC remains deeply unsettled. Observers have pointed out that the buffer zones produced by the crisis inhibit India’s ability to patrol its own territory. And India and China have tacitly agreed to postpone settlement at two other confrontation sites, including a particularly tactically valuable area known as Depsang. The buffer zones and Depsang’s status both suit China’s objectives because they limit India’s military activities near the LAC, which analysts judge had partly motivated China’s initial incursions in 2020.
Similarly, the military threat on the border is not only undiminished, but has actually grown over the course of the crisis. The reinforcements that each side deployed since 2020 have not returned to garrison. Even if future rounds of talks continue “disengagement and de-escalation,” and reduce those forces, returning to the status quo ante is now impossible. Both sides have raced to build permanent military infrastructure near the border, to help them surge forces to the border. Unsurprisingly, China seems to have outpaced India in building these roads, helipads, and communications nodes.
China still claims Arunachal Pradesh as its own, and just as it has pressed its maritime claims once its growing capabilities permit, its military build-up may portend increasing pressure in coming years. Even without a deliberate attack, the increasing capabilities and mobility on both sides of the border means that a crisis can more quickly escalate to a large military stand-off anywhere on the LAC, and possibly even trigger a conflict.
As vexatious as the tactical picture may be on the border, the strategic implications are more dire. For over two years, the land border has become the overwhelming priority in India’s military competition with China. India has reassigned one of three originally Pakistan-facing Strike Corps to the China front. It has deployed its newest artillery, fighter jets, and drones to the China border.
At the same time, India has not significantly improved its capabilities or posture in the Indian Ocean region. Granted, a suite of impressive new capabilities — from cruise missile-equipped fighters and U.S.-origin naval helicopters to a brand-new indigenously-built aircraft carrier — are inching towards fruition. But these programmes were all initiated before the border crisis, when the Indian military was incrementally modernising its capabilities for the Indian Ocean.
Whether or not by design, this must delight Beijing. As India and China jostle for security and influence in Asia, the contest in the Indian Ocean will inevitably intensify. Their respective capabilities to project military force across the Ocean, to coerce or defend smaller regional States, and to establish an enduring strategic presence there, will determine the Asian balance of power. With the border crisis, China seems to have successfully fixed India’s gaze to the land border, at the expense of that more consequential competition over the Indian Ocean.
Disengagement at PP15, and especially continued “disengagement and de-escalation,” has the potential to ameliorate this strategic trap. A progressively less urgent threat will tempt New Delhi to de-emphasise military readiness on the border. This could be a golden opportunity for Indian planners to work towards long-term military modernisation and political influence across the Indian Ocean region. But a likelier and riskier outcome is that decision makers will prioritise other, more politically salient issues, like gaining quick wins in the campaign for Atmanirbharta in defence industry — which may come at the expense of modernisation.
Paradoxically, then, a cooling crisis on the border may teach India the wrong lesson: that the short-term expedient of greater readiness is enough to see off the Chinese threat. In fact, and especially for the strategic prize of the Indian Ocean region, the challenge posed by China cannot be met without long-term growth in Indian national capacity. That, in turn, requires coherent strategic assessments and the political will to balance readiness with modernisation.