Mitigating the Risk of a China–India Conflict
The Ladakh crisis between China and India seems to have settled into a stalemate, marked by somewhat reduced tactical tensions and continuing fruitless talks on disengagement—but its trajectory could again turn suddenly, even flaring into a limited conventional war. Despite a limited disengagement, both sides continue to make military preparations near the Line of Actual Control (LAC) to increase their readiness for potential conflict. While China proved its revisionist intent with its 2020 incursions, its specific goals and plans remain opaque. The broader political context is marked by distrust and hostility, and bilateral relations are at their lowest ebb in decades. War remains unlikely—both sides can ill-afford the distraction from higher national priorities and have demonstrated a recent keenness to step back from the brink. But, with growing capabilities and unclear intent, and with military operations no longer impaired by winter, the Ladakh crisis may still escalate to conflict.
The crisis has been full of surprises. Despite observing major military maneuvers in China, India didn’t anticipate the multiple incursions across the LAC in May 2020. For weeks thereafter, the Indian Army leadership insisted the incursions were nothing out of the ordinary. After both sides agreed to an early disengagement plan, the crisis took a shocking turn with a deadly skirmish in June — the first loss of life on the LAC in 45 years. India also mustered its own surprises, deploying troops to occupy tactically valuable heights in late August, to gain some bargaining leverage. And the crisis also abated with a surprise, with the sudden announcement of disengagement from heavily militarised stand-off sites around Pangong Tso Lake in February 2021.
Future surprises may yet occur. This paper argues that the risk of China–India conflict is significant because, even if its likelihood is low, its consequences may be considerable. A limited conventional war would be likely to impose significant costs on India, but, depending on the reactions of its partners, it may also reinforce latent Indian suspicions over the utility and reliability of its strategic partnerships. In that way, even a localized limited war on the LAC may have far-reaching implications, if it incidentally drives a wedge between India and its partners in the Quad. Mitigating that risk will require sound policy settings and astute diplomatic and public messaging from Canberra, Washington, Tokyo, and other like-minded capitals.
The remainder of this paper is in three parts: first, why a border war is plausible; second, what costs it would impose on India and how it might stir distrust of India’s Quad partners; and, finally, a framework to mitigate those risks.