Armed forces of India and China have been facing one another eyeball- to- eyeball in a standoff in Eastern Ladakh since May. Both are increasing their troops-strength with sophisticated weapons, even though their generals have talked interchangeably in both sides of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and their defence as well as foreign ministers have even met on the issue. There is a huge trust-deficit between India and China; none of the two is prepared at the moment to “verify” and be “satisfied” with what the other is saying. This has led to natural apprehensions in many global circles whether the two will fight a full-fledged “War” and if such a “War” does take place, what will be the result.
However, in my considered view, such a war is highly improbable. No responsible sources and officials in either China or India have indicated the possibility of a full-fledged war. By and large, the mainstream media in both the countries have not encouraged the building up of a public opinion or nationalistic sentiments for a war. In India, it is true that the opposition Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has given many irresponsible statements on the issue, but then Indian people, by and large, do not take him seriously when he talks against China. Given the Corona-hit economy that India is confronted with, no Indian leader will opt for starting a war from Indian side, though defending if attacked is a different thing altogether.
One of the basics in international affairs is that a country’s foreign policy or military behaviour is usually influenced by systemic conditions, domestic environment and its leaders. Systemic conditions here imply a country’s profile and power-projection in international system. Despite its commanding economic heights, the way China handled the questions about it being the originator of the Covid-19 virus has led to a significant erosion of its credibility of being a responsible rising power in major parts of the world, evident from the latest 14-country Pew Research Center survey.
Even otherwise, Chinese transgression of the LAC in Ladakh should not be seen in isolation. China is now fighting many countries in many ways at many levels. The intensity may not be the same in all these fights, but unmistakably there are fights. China has challenged the United States in South China Sea and East China Sea by interfering with its surveillance activities. It is aggravating territorial disputes by displaying muscular behaviour in East China sea with Japan and in South China Sea with Vietnam and the Philippines. It has intruded into Taiwan’s air space many a time in the recent past. It is on the course of a violent takeover the governance of Honk Kong by abandoning its earlier commitment to the principle of “one country, two systems”. It has threatened Australia by cutting back imports from that country just because it raised questions on China’s handling of the Covid-19 virus. It is highly implausible therefore that China will further raise global eyebrows by precipitating a hot a war with India on the border issue at a time when India seems to be enjoying more global support in general and that of the United States in particular than during any time in recent years.
Domestic environments in both India and China do not seem to be conducive for a war in the absence of two standard factors – upsurge of nationalism and elites-rivalry. As has been pointed out, there has been no manipulation of the mass media by either Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India or Chinese President Xi Jinping for the nationalist fervour. Similarly, with national elections still four years away, Modi has no rival to his leadership in India. In China, as the Communist Party head in 2012 and President of China the next year, Xi is the supreme leader of the country, particularly after he abolished the term-limits for top posts, allowing him and others chosen by him to continue beyond the accepted retirement age. He does not need a war to keep his position.
And yet, if a war eventually does take place, will China win it, as in 1962? Highly unlikely. It is true that Beijing’s defence budget in 2019 was more than five times that of Delhi’s, and that China has a growing quantitative edge over India’s armed forces. But wars are won and lost over the quality of fighting and weapons, not numbers. The comparison is further misleading as China cannot divert all its arms and manpower to the Himalayas to fight India by abandoning their positions for protecting the border with Russia or for countering rebellion in Xinjiang and Tibet, or for that matter guarding its interests in South China Sea. Secondly, India is widely perceived to be the best in fighting in mountains, given its experience in Kargil-conflict and the newly acquired capacity of the Indian Air Force. Indian Navy is in a much better position to cripple China’s vital strategic supplies to the mainland through the Indian Ocean. China does not have any notable military experience or achievement over the last 50 years and all their claims of fighting-capabilities are yet to be proven. Finally, like China, India too is a nuclear and missile power. It is instructive to note here that over the last two months, India has tested more than 10 missiles whose ranges vary from 300 km to 800 km. This being the case, can China be sure of a victory over India? No rational mind will hazard a guess.
If war is not an option or goal, then how does one explain the present standoff? What precisely has happened is that China’s “salami slicing” border strategy seems to have outlived its utility against India. The strategy envisages a series of small encroachments, often performed by clandestine means, so that as an accumulated whole it produces a much larger result even if some ‘slices” are returned subsequently as a matter of compromise. Under the avowed position that the LAC is not clearly outlined, China has periodically encroached territories that India thinks to be under its possession and when protests are made, it withdraws from some areas but retain the rest. Biggest success of this strategy in Ladakh was in 2013 when China took under its control 640 square Km of what India claimed to be its territory. The Modi govt has decided to resist this strategy. It has strengthened its border infrastructure and is prepared to keep its troops long enough on the LAC to prevent any more Chinese salami-slicing. Modi is realistic enough not to fight a war to reclaim what China has already taken, but confident enough to deny China any more encroachment.