Rethinking the Dynamics of Sino-Indian Rivalry
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 30 Sep , 2023

The two most powerful warriors are patience and time. – Leo Tolstoy


There is a sense of déjà vu about the Sino-Indian standoff in Ladakh. After three years and 19 rounds of talks between ground force commanders, besides meetings between the Foreign Ministers of the two countries and even the Special Representatives of the respective Governments. The endgame of this charade is nowhere in sight. Both sides have more than 50,000 troops in an eye-ball-to-eye-ball confrontation in the most inhospitable terrain in the world, supported by armour, artillery and airpower. It seems to be an endless journey down the old  weather-beaten path, strewn with potholes.  This standoff is one more in the long line of such encroachments, albeit a major one.  These Chinese checkers will continue unless India manages to forcefully convince China otherwise. Where and how will this cat-and-mouse game end? Is it possible to alter the contours of the ongoing game?

The current standoff was triggered when PLA in April 2020 mobilized forces under the garb of its annual exercise in the Tibetan and Sinkiang regions. The first skirmish occurred on 5 May 2020, when Indian patrols were stopped from going beyond Finger 4 on the northern bank of Pangong Tso. Subsequently, more encroachments occurred on the northern banks of Pangong Tso. The intrusions on this occasion were unusual in terms of numbers, depth, complexity and employment of supporting armour and artillery. The construction of bunkers, fortifications and roads signalled long-term occupation.  It did not seem that the faceoff would be resolved as on earlier occasions. It also became apparent that the onus of escalation would devolve onto the Indian military if force was used to return to the status quo ante.

Even as talks were ongoing, an unforeseen deadly clash occurred at Galwan Valley in which 20 Indian and a similar number of PLA soldiers were killed in hand-to-hand combat. PLA soldiers appeared to have come prepared with unusually crafted handheld clubs and weapons with sharp pointed spikes and barbed wire. This clash marked a major escalation since there had been no loss of lives since 1975 (at Tulung La, in East Kameng sector of Arunachal Pradesh) and doubts arose about Chinese intentions. 

The Indian response was to match the Chinese build-up, displaying its ability to mobilize forces employing its robust airlift capabilities.  Once the Indian forces were in position and the Army had achieved a balanced posture, India pre-empted and occupied some dominating features on the Kailash Range overlooking Chinese garrisons and the Southern areas around Pangong Tso. Indian army also occupied some dominating positions on the heights above Finger 4. These positions dominated Chinese deployment and thus provided leverage during the talks that followed. Negotiations continue and disengagement has been finalized at some friction points. Full resolution awaits further talks and de-escalation at a couple of encroachments, which pre-date the current standoff.

The current standoff revealed some unusual responses by India. The first was an all-of-government response and an aggressive build-up to match the Chinese, indicating that Indian redlines were breached. The quid pro quo to capture dominating features in disputed areas was a calibrated horizontal escalation. However, Chinese one-upmanship continued as the PLA attempted to intrude into the Yangtse area in faraway Tawang. This attempt was beaten back by the Indian troops in hand-to-hand unarmed combat!!Another change was that talks were between the two militaries, instead of reverting to the diplomatic track; a change from the earlier occasions. Even as India changed its approach, it would be obvious that Chinese encroachments at the LAC are unique and worth looking at in detail.

China’s Grey Zone Warfare

China’s provocations at the LAC are somewhat unusual. The incursions are minor and do not arouse sudden alarm. The actions appear routine such as stopping Indian patrols from entering certain areas. The incursions are shallow and follow the ‘two steps forward and one back’, as talks linger on, the Chinese troops pull back a little, retaining a part of the occupied area.  In disputed regions, the rule is; ‘occupation is 70% ownership’. It is slow forward movement, in what analysts refer to as ‘salami slicing’. These encroachments are in disputed territories where both sides have differing perceptions of the alignment of the LAC. The move thus cannot be branded as a violation of India’s territorial integrity. Care is taken to ensure that firearms are not employed as per earlier agreements. Handheld primitive weapons such as clubs were employed for the first time though pushing and shoving has been the norm to stop forward movement. The agreement to prohibit the use of firearms by troops at the LAC was a masterstroke by the Chinese. This ruled out the possibility of escalation. One of the reasons why the Galwan Valley fiasco, though alarming, did not result in an escalation was because firearms were not used.

China has thus kept India under pressure at the LAC without worrying about escalation.  With the threat of escalation ruled out, India’s deterrence posture lacks credibility. China’s ambiguous aggression falls somewhere between conventional conflict and peace: the grey zone.  The methods employed are ambiguous and opaque, providing a veil of deniability.

Countering or deterring grey zone warfare is a different kettle of fish from conventional and nuclear deterrence. This is because classical deterrence requires an identifiable redline, which when crossed automatically triggers retaliation. In grey zone warfare, identifiable redlines are missing and no discernible event that can trigger retaliation. Unless one decides to escalate the confrontation to an open war, an opponent’s moves must remain non-escalatory.  Countering or deterring grey zone warfare requires understanding the adversary’s intentions, aspirations, motivations and behaviour. In China’s case the interests are varied and complex and understanding them is essential to discuss its aggressive opportunism at the LAC.

Sino-Indian Relationship

China has not been shy of announcing its aspirations of dominating Asia and achieving global primacy.  In line with Sun Tzu’s thinking, China wants to achieve its aspirations without getting enmeshed in kinetic wars; by exploiting the grey zone between traditional war and peace.

India with a rapidly growing economy and improving military capabilities is slowly emerging as a strategic rival and opposing China’s attempts at dominating India’s neighbourhood. India opposed China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative and contests China’s influence in South Asia. It also overlooks the activities of Tibetan immigrants, which provokes China. Tibet remains China’s soft underbelly. 

The large Tibetan immigrant community in India, with its government in exile, supported by the spiritual head, the Dalai Lama makes China anxious. The issue of the successor to the aging Dalai Lama is on the anvil and China wants to be in the driver’s seat but is unsure of Indian intentions. China thus suspects Indian interference in Tibetan affairs. 

The India-China relationship has slowly morphed into great-power politics of rivalry and long-term strategic competition.  Chinese strategy aims to dominate the interaction and stymie India’s rise. It has adopted all possible means such as exerting pressure on India at the LAC, trying to show up India as a weak rival, building bases to encircle India and enticing or pressurizing other countries to toe its line.  

As part of its competitive strategy, China seeks to impose costs to delay or stymie India’s emergence as an economic power. India compelled to augment resources towards defence to counter the large Chinese deployments along the LAC and to keep up with China’s rapid upgradation of infrastructure and setting up of villages along the LAC. This additional allocation of resources towards defence has attendant opportunity costs which may affect India’s economic growth. India will, therefore, have to play this game intelligently and skilfully to avoid the Chinese trap

The confrontations and tensions along the LAC would thus continue because China has no intentions of settling the border dispute. It has managed to retain the confrontation in the grey zone avoiding escalation into an open war. The Sino-Indian rivalry is a long-term phenomenon. The focus has to remain on the long game, without getting diverted by short-term one-upmanship. Patience and awaiting the appropriate time are two attributes needed to tackle the problem.  How then can one deter China from attempting to pressure India through encroachments on the LAC? 

Deterrence in the Sino-Indian Context

A country engaged in a strategic interaction with an adversary or rival has many options. Strategic deterrence is one of the means employed to meet certain political ends. Such a deterrence in India’s case stems from the desire to maintain peace and focus on economic development. Deterrence is essentially a political objective and is a phase in the interaction preferred by the side desiring the status quo. It is not a casual strategic option or a course of last resort but is a well-thought-out strategy. The military achieves this political objective by ensuring effective defensive measures, supplemented by offensive action if so required. Some other features of deterrence in the India-China interaction are discussed below.

    • Deterrence is based on fear: fear of retaliation, defeat, humiliation or hurt. In China’s case, it may well be fear of impairing its façade of power and invincibility and ‘loss of Face’. It is the display of invincibility which enables China to coerce its weaker neighbours without resorting to armed force. Dominating India or showing it to be weak is one way of reinforcing its reputation of power and invincibility. If instead, India calls its bluff, China may lose its ability to coerce its neighbours. This is the fear that may need to be exploited.
    • Military strength or overall force levels matter when nations are embroiled in an open war: a possibility in case deterrence fails. However, for deterrence in the Sino-Indian context, it is not overall force levels but forces deployed on the LAC that assure denial. The ongoing standoff is a case in point. The initial intrusions were uncontested due to a lack of forces at that time and place. In contrast, the December 2022 faceoff at Yangtse, near Tawang, saw the PLA encroachment being repulsed since Indian soldiers were in position. In the Indian context deployed forces are critical for ‘deterrence by denial’.
    • A fallout of deterrence is that escalation may occur. The side that can control escalation thus has the upper hand. China believes that it has an upper hand in terms of resources, weapons and technology and can therefore control escalation. Its acknowledged expertise in cyber and space warfare enhances its confidence in being able to ensure cross-domain domination and escalation control. India needs to look at options which unsettle China without escalation such as a quid pro quo.
    • While the concept of deterrence has a long history, formal theories emerged post World War II, when nuclear weapons entered the equation. Deterrence became central to strategy due to the unacceptable level of destruction caused by a single nuclear warhead, let alone the megaton capacity weapons developed subsequently. Given the large-scale destruction caused by nuclear weapons, just possessing them became adequate to deter i.e. threat was existential. In contrast, conventional deterrence suffers from a fundamental conceptual weakness relating to the limitations of the weapons used. Catastrophic consequences cannot be visualized and most failures of deterrence occur when the challenger attempts to manipulate the deterrer’s retaliation. Conventional deterrence is, therefore, not an easy concept to implement and China exploits this weakness.
    • Chinese Views on Deterrence. China’s aggressive moves are in line with its thinking on Strategic Deterrence, a term which has little in common with the understanding of deterrence in India and the West. Strategic deterrence or “Weishe”, in Chinese thinking comprises coercion aimed at undermining the opponent’s will to resist thereby enabling China to further its interests without resorting to wars. China attempts to anticipate future threats and takes proactive action to deter them. It entered the Korean War to avoid US troops being stationed on its borders[1]. It similarly resorted to an ambush which resulted in the Ussuri River conflict with the USSR of 1969 and then invaded Vietnam to teach it a lesson. Being a revisionist state, it has built up a reputation for being proactive in its defence. Even in the Asia-Pacific, it pressurizes rivals such as Japan and other littoral states by challenging their territorial/oceanic sovereignty. This aspect must be kept in mind when dealing with China.

Essential Features of Sino-Indian Rivalry

The above discussions reveal certain important aspects of the Sino-Indian rivalry which may point toward the road ahead. These are:

    • China and India are enmeshed in power politics of rivalry and long-term strategic competition. It is a relationship which China aims to dominate and pressurize India to avoid hindering China’s march towards worldwide primacy.
    • As of now, China is not in a position to overwhelm India militarily. India’s ability to hold its own will damage China’s façade of invincibility. Any miscalculation in this regard would ruin China’s reputation.
    • Both China and India take care to avoid escalation to an open war. There is little likelihood of a localized or extended war.
    • The current rivalry does not extend to the nuclear spectrum. Since both countries have a stated “No First Use” policy it is likely that the proclaimed policy will hold.
    • Against India, China has opted for pressurizing it on the LAC and through other provocative measures.
    • As part of its competitive strategy, China is attempting to force India to match its deployment and infrastructure and overspend on defence with a consequential adverse impact on economic growth.
    • With escalation could have been ruled out on agreements, but Chinese blatant disregard of all “Peace and Tranquillity on the LAC” Agrements mutually agreed to and signed at the highest level thrown to the waste bin India’s approach to deterrence by denial is likely to prove the lynch pin.
    • After the recent standoff in East Ladakh, India has raised the stakes in a quid pro quo occupation of dominating features in disputed areas creating leverage for negotiations.
    • China feels that can control escalation and possesses cross-domain control in cyber and space activities.
    • If China is ruling the roost in “grey-zone warfare” newer counters in the grey zone are required to be imagined for holistically deterring China.

The Way Ahead

From the above deductions, it becomes obvious that India requires to reimagine its approach towards China, particularly on the LAC and other facets of grey zone warfare.

India got its independence peacefully over two years before China proclaimed itselfa nation after having fought a bitter civil war for over three years. Then India was at the verge of declaring itself a Republic. India had a head start over China. Then it became complacent. After the debilitating Cultural Revolution China embarked on a radical path to modernisation. Today the story of China is different. However, one aspect that needs to be kept in mind is that while China is far ahead of India in terms of GDP, defence spending, resources and technology, India is narrowing the gap due to differential growth rates. While it may not equal or surpass China in the near term, it can devise means to thwart Chinese designs of domination. Time is thus on India’s side and the longer the rivalry continues, the relatively stronger India will become. India thus needs to play this long game with patience ensuring that in the short term, it does not permit China to capture disputed territory or put India on the backfoot. Some options are discussed below.

On the LAC

    • India must deploy its forces at the LAC to block Chinese encroachments to avoid Chinese occupation of the disputed territory– slicing into Indian territoryinnocuously. (If paramilitary forces are deployed at the LAC to avoid direct contact between the two armies, appropriate liaison/coordination mechanisms must be in place to preclude occupation.)
    • The deployment requires to be supplemented by a sectoral riposteor an intra-theatre quid pro quo or horizontal escalation to occupy features close to the encroachment or at a suitable location in disputed areas. The possible locations may be identified in advance and initial plans drawn up.

Psychological Warfare

Till now China had a free run as far as cartographic aggression or psychological warfare goes. India needs to exert pressure by putting out contrary views on aspects that China is sensitive about Tibet, India’s neighbours and Taiwan. These initiatives must be through non-governmental agencies such as Think Tanks or defence analysts. The government must retain ambiguity and claim deniability. 


    • Evidence of the Dalai Lama retaining the prerogative to identify a successor even during periods when China exercised control of Tibet. This should buttress the stand that Dalai Lama is the ultimate authority to name his successor.
    • Encourage more Tibetan activism across the world through seminars and conferences.

Indian-Tibet Boundary. The boundary between India and Tibet has been redrawn on numerous occasions, particularly in Ladakh, Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh. Publish and discuss evidence that contradicts Chinese claims and publish maps that challenge Chinese claims.

Bases around India. Another aspect that requires pushback is the Chinese threat of acquiring military bases/ports around India. To counter this, it must be highlighted that such bases if used by China during hostilities would qualify as enemy territory, inviting retaliation by Indian forces. Such claims and discussions would lead to controversies and make neighbours more hesitant in accommodating China or other militaries.


India-China power politics of rivalry and strategic competition are of a long-term nature. The cat-and-mouse game would continue with the side gaining the upper hand changing frequently. Both are ancient civilizations aware of the virtues of patience and using time as a tool. India needs to play this game looking at the longer term, disregarding minor setbacks or tactical maneuvering by China. Its focus must remain on the future as it bridges the capability gap with China.  Till then, the focus must remain on pushing back against Chinese adventurism on the LAC and its psychological warfare. India needs to play the long game patiently and await an appropriate time to even the odds.


[1]Dean Cheng, An Overview of Chinese Thinking About Deterrence,

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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

Gp Capt PK Mulay

is a Test Pilot and has Commanded an Attack Helicopter Squadron.  He is a PhD in Defence Studies.

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