Chinese Roulette: Which way will the Wind Blow?
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Issue Vol. 37.1, Jan-Mar 2022 | Date : 01 Apr , 2022

The 2022 campaigning season along the Sino-Indian Line of Actual Control (LAC) opens up in just a matter of months. By all reckoning, the situation is likely to continue remaining extremely volatile, uncertain and tense. While some believe that it may have been this Government’s abrogation of Article 370 and the Home Minister’s statement in Parliament that invited a strong response from the Chinese, the truth is that we are yet to fully comprehend the Chinese leadership’s motivation for damaging, if not jettisoning, over three decades of Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) and growing economic ties, though the latter seems not to have been impacted in the short term, by resorting to unprovoked aggressive action in Eastern Ladakh and elsewhere.

In addition, we continue to see a steady build-up of forces and infrastructure as well as cartographic aggression in the form of renaming of villages in Arunachal Pradesh and the passage of the Land Border Law, effective from January 01, 2022. All of this strongly suggests that the situation will get much worse before it gets better and we are more likely to see increased Chinese assertiveness and determination to settle territorial disputes on her own terms. Moreover, by her actions in Eastern Ladakh, China has already occupied territory up to the Claim Line of 1959. This begs the question, obviously difficult to answer with any degree of certainty, as to whether there is a likelihood of further Chinese escalation leading to a limited conflict?

Clearly, the Government is also seized of the problem, as is obvious from the Defence Minister’s statement while inaugurating border infrastructure, “We faced our adversary in the Northern sector recently with grit and determination. It could not have been done without proper infrastructural development. In today’s uncertain environment, the possibility of any kind of conflict cannot be ruled out.”1 It must be emphasised that conflict is not something that we either desire or is in our interest, especially given the Omicron tsunami that appears to be gathering momentum and the adverse impact that the pandemic has already had on our economy.

It is, therefore, quite apparent from the actions by Prime Minister Modi’s Government that it has been extremely circumspect and cautious in its response following China’s occupation of our territory, by some estimates extending over 1,600 sq. km. Clearly, our government has no intention of either attempting to push back the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) from the intrusion sites or for that matter, occupy territory elsewhere, as a quid pro quo and bargaining chip for later on. However, there is a view that occupying Indian-claimed territory in Aksai Chin as a quid pro quo is not a bargain, but an acknowledgement that Aksai Chin is alien territory. Therefore, this government has attempted to engage China in talks, both at the diplomatic and military levels, though with little success to show for its efforts. Given the mismatch in force levels, this level of military and diplomatic engagement is understandable, though Prime Minister Modi’s unwillingness to personally call out the Chinese for their provocative behaviour may well give them, and the world at large, an impression of an eagerness to crawl, when just asked to bend.

However, a deeper examination of events does suggest that the government has not taken Chinese bullying lightly and has in fact, responded in an extremely measured manner, militarily. Following the Galwan incident, it has mirrored Chinese troop accretions by deploying additional forces in Eastern Ladakh along with armour and other supporting elements. Its pro-active occupation of the Kailash Heights, though these troops were subsequently withdrawn as a part of reciprocal action by the PLA in the Pangong Tso Sector, hinted at the possibility of similar, but more offensive actions, being replicated elsewhere. The reorientation of the Indian Army with the earmarking of a second Mountain Strike Corps for offensive operations has substantially added to the Army’s capabilities and would adversely impact the PLA’s force ratio dynamics. Most importantly, upgrade of communication infrastructure, not just in Ladakh but elsewhere along the LAC as well, has been greatly speeded up and is coming to fruition, thereby significantly enhancing our defensive capabilities.

To help us understand whether China is likely to resort to force in the ongoing stand-off, an examination of historical precedents may offer some vital clues. As Prof. M Taylor Pravel of MIT notes, two characteristics have defined China’s use of force. Firstly, “along its continental border, China has employed force in frontier disputes where it has faced militarily powerful opponents (i.e., states that could possibly challenge its otherwise strong claims). Although the local military balance is difficult to measure with precision, China has on an average been vastly stronger in the overall military balance….India in 1962, the Soviet Union in 1969, and Vietnam in the early 1980s. At the same time, China has refrained from employing force against its weaker continental neighbours. Second, China has used force in disputes where the strength of its claims has been weak, especially when it has occupied little or none of the contested territory. In these disputes, China has been sensitive to any further decline in its bargaining power.”2

This suggests that even with neighbours that de facto accept Chinese interpretations of its territorial claims, China is still extremely wary of actions that they may undertake to change the existing relative balance of power along its disturbed periphery and prefers to use force against them to delay/stop their progress. For example, there is evidence to suggest that Prime Minister Nehru’s Forward Policy and the refuge given to the Dalai Lama were a serious cause of concern to the Chinese leadership. This is borne out by declassified United States documents pertaining to the capture of Longju in August 1959, which reveal that “the late August clashes point of a mode of thought which has remained an ingredient in the Chinese leaders’ calculations on the border dispute: ‘When the Indians show a temperament to advance on the ground, we must alter their frame of mind by letting military action take over political caution. Besides, military risk itself is negligible, because we are the stronger side’.”3 A perception within the Chinese leadership that appears to have remained unchanged in the intervening years and is especially pertinent at the present time, given President Xi Jinping’s penchant for following in the footsteps of late Chairman Mao Zedong.

In addition, there are some other factors that have a bearing on this issue of force escalation. For one, it is fairly common for autocratic governments to attempt to conjure up external threats to unify the people against a common enemy and divert their attention from serious domestic challenges that may lead to unrest or hurt their own leadership position. In this context, as Kalpit Mankikar, a Fellow with the Observer Research Foundation who focuses on China points out, that prior to the 1962 Conflict, Chairman Mao faced serious internal dissension against his leadership and it had more to do with intra-CCP power struggle. Mao’s Great Leap Forward (GLP) had been criticised and for the first time he had to demit office as State President, and was forced to hand over to his heir apparent Liu Shaoqi, which came as a huge jolt to him.

President Xi now finds himself in rather similar circumstances as the economy stutters in no small measure due to his government’s crackdown on multiple Chinese sectors and companies that have been mascots of growth over the years. His emphasis has been on the idea of “common prosperity” or “reasonable adjustment of excessive incomes and encouraging high income groups and businesses to return more to society”4, a blatantly populist measure, that was initially very well received by the common Chinese citizen. However, the enforcement of new regulations in this regard, the so-called “Three Red Lines”, has had a devastating impact on real estate companies such as Evergrande, that hold approximately 75 percent of all retail investments, bringing them to the verge of bankruptcy and creating internal turmoil, uncertainty and dissent as the average citizen sees his savings completely wiped out. The likelihood of a domino effect on other facets of the economy cannot be wished away and is bound to adversely impact President Xi’s efforts to stay in power after end 2022, when his term officially ends.

In these circumstances, creating and tackling an external threat along its borders, as the prevailing situation along the LAC is made out to be, will certainly divert attention and may very well pay great dividends. For example, while President Xi would have preferred to undertake actions to integrate Taiwan, he is hampered by the very real likelihood of the United States and its allies coming to the aid of Taiwan. Taking on India at the LAC is a relatively easier option, as interference by the United States and its allies is likely to be restricted to providing moral and material support at best.

Furthermore, it could be viewed as a dress-rehearsal that would allow the PLA to gain vital operational experience, something it has been bereft of since the Sino- Vietnam Conflict of 1979, apart from ensuring a protected flank. Moreover, a successful termination of such a campaign would set back Indian aspirations by decades and severely dent Prime Minister Modi’s reputation and popularity, much as 1962 did in the case of Pandit Nehru. Not only would such an action have a sobering impact on Taiwan’s dealings with China, but also in the manner other South East and Central Asian neighbours respond to Chinese hegemonistic designs as well.

It is in this context that the new Land Border Law, now in effect, is likely to be extremely problematic for two reasons and may well act as the trigger for any future conflict. Firstly, it attempts to give China’s acts of cartographic aggression, such as differing perceptions on the exact alignment of the LAC, renaming of towns and villages in Arunachal Pradesh and its acts of ‘salami-slicing’ over the years, a veneer of legality. Secondly, there is a clause in the Law that can be interpreted to suggest that it prohibits the construction of permanent facilities in the vicinity of the LAC without sanction from Chinese authorities, which would obviously be unacceptable to any sovereign state, especially given the manner in which it is rapidly developing communication infrastructure and settlements bordering the LAC.

Increasing troop concentrations, especially in terms of armour and ballistic/air-defence missiles in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) along with the external and internal difficulties confronting President Xi, suggests a high possibility of a conflict breaking out within the year. There are analysts, including some in this country, who believe that the PLA will be able to achieve a decisive victory given the over-all force disparity, especially in cyber, space and missile capabilities, as was the case in the 1962 conflict. However, they have tended to disregard the adverse impact of climate and altitude, both on personnel and equipment, that gives a distinct advantage to a military fighting internal lines.

The PLA can hardly afford to ignore its extended and extremely vulnerable lines of communication, however well developed and the uncertain internal security environment within the TAR and Xingjian. Most importantly, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) will be operating with greatly reduced capabilities from bases within the TAR because of the altitudes involved, while being adversely impacted while operating from bases outside the Region given the extended ranges involved. Finally, the Indian Military does have a sizeable force, reasonably well-equipped with two Mountain Strike Corps and a Division plus of Special Operations Forces in place for offensive operations that will act as a deterrent to Chinese misadventure.

It understands that however contrarian its public pronouncements may be, that the Indian Armed Forces are a very different force from what they encountered in 1962. Not only is the Indian Army far more experienced and battle hardened in high altitude and mountain warfare than the PLA, but it will be the Indian Air Force, not utilised in 1962, that will be the battle-winning factor in any conflict. In addition, the employment of the Tibetan manned Special Frontier Force (SFF) in the Kailash Ranges, that received worldwide accolades, would have certainly caused immense disquiet within the Chinese leadership. The SFFs actions and rise of the Taliban have surely given an immense boost to the Independence Movements in both TAR and Xinjiang. Most importantly President Xi and his acolytes must be fully aware that anything other than a decisive victory, will for all intents and purposes, be perceived as a defeat and be the final nail in his coffin.

Will all of this be sufficient to deter the Chinese from escalating the stand-off? The truth is that, while we are inherently placed in an advantageous position primarily due to location and circumstance neither deterrence nor success is guaranteed. The fact of the matter is that over the past two decades, the military has not just been neglected, but has also been deliberately discriminated against by the political and bureaucratic establishment. The damage that has been done, both to its organisational culture, morale and capabilities, will need focus, effort and time to reverse. Most importantly, threats of this nature are best tackled by a nation that is united and willing to place its complete trust in its political leadership. Does the Indian political establishment have the maturity, foresight, integrity and vision to provide the leadership the nation deserves and needs? To quote the poet, philosopher and singer, Bob Dylan, “the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind”…


  1. The Times of India, New Delhi 29 December 2021, p. 19.
  2. M Taylor Fravel, Power Shifts and Escalation: Explaining China’s Use of Force in Territorial Disputes, International Security, Winter 2007/2008, Vol 32 No 3, p 56
  3. The Sino-Indian Dispute, Section 1:1950-59, DD/I Staff Study, CIA/RSS March 02, 1963, Approved for Release May 2007, p. 33.
  4. Bloomberg News, China Eyes Wealth Redistribution in Push for ‘Common Prosperity’, 18 August 2021
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Brig Deepak Sinha

is a Military Veteran and was formerly with the ORF, and now is member of The Peninsula Foundation, a Chennai based Think-Tank.

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2 thoughts on “Chinese Roulette: Which way will the Wind Blow?

  1. Some times they have too much arrogance which makes everything worse than it should be. For example, there is a site that promotes far too much rhetoric which is highly inflammatory. ….

    Their curses, name calling, and violent remarks are not ‘ civilized’ as befitting their peaceful culture. For these good reasons, their commentators could be “voted-down “on all their articles. Promoting reckless violence, military, and wars lead to real fighting and wars.

  2. Naïve to expect China to stop nibbling on Indian territory, just becoz it has achieved its 1959 claim line in 2020-21. On the contrary, we can expect a new edition of the new claim line very soon. The author referred to CBM initiated and various agreements signed over the last 30 yrs. It only lulled us into illusory peace and ignore our defense preparedness. All measures and agreements signed were in thin air, self-delusion -based on imaginary LAC as per each country’s perception; non-existent / not delineated on the ground. We were happy to maintain peace with ostrich-like approach, and tolerated all intrusions and encroachments without any remonstration.

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