In May 2020, China launched several near-simultaneous incursions across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, into territory hitherto controlled by India. Both sides reinforced their positions with tens of thousands of troops, engaged in a deadly skirmish, and reportedly came close to war. An agreement to disengage troops was announced in February 2021, but implementation has been halting. Regardless of how disengagement progresses, the crisis poses significant challenges for India’s long-term strategic competition with China.
As a result of the Ladakh crisis, India faces a new strategic reality in which China is a clear and abiding adversary. For India, the political relationship is now defined by hostility and distrust, and the LAC will remain more heavily militarised and violence-prone. Given this new reality, India is likely to further defer military modernisation and maritime expansion into the Indian Ocean. In the face of unremitting Chinese naval expansion, India risks losing significant political and military leverage in the Indian Ocean. At the same time, China appears to have escaped significant harm. Its better-resourced military could better absorb the material costs of the mobilisation. It may have been more concerned by the prospect of an increasingly hostile India, but the disengagement agreement has limited even those modest political costs.
The central policy challenge for India is balancing the heightened Chinese military threat on the northern border with the rapidly growing Chinese military presence in the Indian Ocean. It can manage this challenge by focusing on military strategies of denial rather than punishment, focusing on imposing political rather than material costs on China, and accepting more risk at the LAC in exchange for long-term leverage in the Indian Ocean region. How India responds will shape not only its strategic competition with China, but also the interests of likeminded partners including Australia, which depend on an increasingly capable and active India.