Currently, there are several global developments that are drawing the world’s attention – the impending inauguration of US President-elect Joe Biden, the UK’s exit from the European Union, a worrying hack into US systems of government, and the coronavirus administration race – Vaccines around the world. Amid this important news, the 8 month old Himalayan military stalemate between Asia’s two largest countries, China and India, has fallen off the radar of global concern. While experts believe Asia is the site of an ongoing shift in the global balance of power, little attention is paid to how New Delhi’s overhaul of military priorities – forced by events on the controversial Sino-Indian border – will have far-reaching geopolitical ramifications for the world.
The skirmishes between India and China last year are often referred to by commentators as a stalemate. While this may literally be true, two factors should change this perception. First, China has far deeper pockets, especially after a year of recovering from the coronavirus pandemic while India has slipped into recession. Second, Beijing has forced New Delhi to focus on securing its land borders at the expense of its strategic military transformation, giving China a clear long-term advantage.
The current crisis began last May when China distracted its soldiers from a training exercise in Ladakh and caught the Indian army unprepared amid the pandemic. The gravity of the situation became clear in mid-June when 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers were killed in a violent clash in which not a single bullet was fired. Front-line soldiers of two neighbors armed with nuclear weapons used batons, clubs and stones to inflict injuries and deaths.
Since then, there have been several attempts to break up and de-escalate at the disputed border, but political and military talks – the last one took place on November 6 – were unsuccessful. The Chinese refused to restore the pre-May status quo in Ladakh, where they now control another 600 square miles of territory.
Indian and Chinese main battle tanks are positioned just a few feet apart in remote locations, while more than 100,000 soldiers from both armies remain stationed at altitudes of 10,000 to 15,000 feet, where temperatures can drop to minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit.
Realizing that Beijing has an immense military advantage, New Delhi has chosen a route to impose economic penalties, such as banning apps of Chinese origin and restricting Chinese participation in government procurement. However, India’s limited economic leverage against China has made these measures relatively ineffective. Although New Delhi took some courageous military steps on its side of the so-called line of effective control – the de facto border – in late August, care was taken to avoid serious military escalation or to initiate a limited war with Beijing. As the worst performing South Asian economy in 2020, India will not be able to bear the costs of a military conflict. A war with China would also force India to abandon its longstanding policy of strategic autonomy, as New Delhi would have to make the politically uncomfortable decision to openly ally itself with Washington.
After India ruled out quick resolution through conflict, India’s only viable option was to wage a long and drawn-out border dispute against the Chinese. New Delhi’s heavy military operations in Ladakh aim to contain its casualties and prevent further Chinese interference in Indian territory. These bets can neither punish the Chinese for their incursions nor force them to give up control of their newly acquired territorial gains. The massive stakes on both sides, with a heavy emphasis on territorial control, mean neither side can leave in the short term. The two armies have the prospect of a long watch in the high mountains; The severe Himalayan winter will determine the relative costs for both sides of maintaining their current operations.
It can be said that India has an advantage because its army has been operating in extremely adverse conditions for decades, such as the uninhabited Siachen Glacier, where India long fought against Pakistan. India may benefit from these experiences, but only to a certain extent – such missions take a heavy toll on soldiers, equipment and supply chains. In addition, it takes years to build and stabilize the infrastructure and logistical support required to relieve soldiers through such an operation, as Indian military planners know from their experience in Kargil and Dras after the war with Pakistan in 1999. Even in Ladakh, although both sides are deployed in demanding positions, the Indians are in areas that are more difficult for the human body due to the rougher terrain, higher elevations and weaker infrastructure and logistical support. However, China has not operated in such a harsh environment since the Korean War seven decades ago, and the Ladakh operation will test the reality of its much touted military transformation of the past decade.
In confidential talks, Indian officials accept that a diplomatic solution to the Ladakh crisis is unlikely as the two countries understand the status quo differently. These officials see the army’s performance and livelihood this winter as the determining factor in their plans to deal with Chinese aggression in Ladakh. They claim that if the Indian soldiers survived the next few months relatively unscathed, New Delhi would have found an answer to its problems with Beijing.
Indian officials say their military will strengthen its conventional defenses on the northern border with China, even if it continues to maintain its massive formations for the western border with Pakistan. Almost 60 percent of the Indian defense budget goes into maintaining the 1.35 million strong army. If India had to defend every disputed area on its border with China, the army would end up consuming an even larger chunk of the defense budget as India’s weak economy precludes a significant increase in military spending.
Meanwhile, a reduced budget for the Indian Navy, with the army taking a bigger piece of the pie, would jeopardize modernization plans: New Delhi is already considering a 175-ship Navy instead of a 200-ship Navy and their plans for a third aircraft carrier can be abandoned to save money. Such moves could alert India’s partners in the so-called Quad group of countries – which include Australia, Japan and the United States – if they seek maritime cooperation to control the Chinese Navy.
To fulfill its role as a security provider in the region in a way that makes it attractive to countries worried about China’s rise, India needs a formidable navy to project power. In a post-Ladakh scenario in which the army’s more pressing demands are prioritized, the Navy’s ambitions will be reviewed in New Delhi.
In contrast, China is already building its third aircraft carrier under the Chinese Navy’s plans for six carriers by 2035. Beijing’s defense budget is almost four times that of India and its economy is six times bigger – a void that has widened during the pandemic. China’s army is the largest standing ground force in the world with 1.5 times more active military personnel than India in its ranks. As the US Department of Defense recognizes, over the past two decades China has amassed the resources, technology, and political will to strengthen and modernize its military in almost every way. In contrast to India, the Chinese economy, the military and the political leadership can bear the burden of prolonged deployment and maintenance of large numbers of troops in the extremely inhospitable conditions of Ladakh.
It would not have been difficult for Beijing to predict the current situation in New Delhi. For years, the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been obsessed with hyping minor operations against Pakistan for electoral advantage and neglecting the military transformation required to cope with an emerging China. Now that India’s economy has entered recession, such comprehensive reform has become an impossibility. There are no easy answers to India’s China problem. Unless New Delhi’s thinking changes dramatically, the healing of the Ladakh border crisis could be worse than the disease – and that is exactly what Beijing wants.