The world has paid little attention to the military confrontation between nuclear-armed titans China and India along their long and disputed Himalayan frontier. But their intensifying military standoffs at multiple sites – now in the 15th month, with both sides deploying tens of thousands of additional troops – carry the seeds of the world’s next big conflict.
Under President Xi Jinping, China has shown an increasing appetite for taking risks, as illustrated by its redrawing of the geopolitical map of the South China Sea and its coercive actions to bring Hong Kong into political lockstep with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
According to a recent, publicly released U.S. intelligence report, “China seeks to use coordinated, whole-of-government tools to demonstrate its growing strength and compel regional neighbors to acquiesce to Beijing’s preferences, including its claims over disputed territory and assertions of sovereignty over Taiwan.”
Xi’s muscular revisionism is apparently driven by his belief that China has a strategic window of opportunity that it must seize before it closes. This may explain Xi’s fiery speech during the CCP’s recent centenary celebrations, when he warned foreign forces that China would “crack their heads and spill blood” if they tried to prevent China’s rise.
Nowhere is the damage from China’s flexing of military muscle more apparent than in its relations with India, which today are at a nadir. The rival induction of new weapons and additional forces along the inhospitable Himalayan frontier has raised the risk of local skirmishes triggering a war.
The protracted military standoffs constitute the longest period of military confrontation since China imposed itself as India’s neighbor in the early 1950s by occupying then-autonomous Tibet, which historically had served as a vast buffer. Even the 1962 China-India war lasted only 32 days.
Also, the rival buildup of military forces is the largest ever deployment of military strength in the Himalayan borderlands in history. The massive buildups have been accompanied by frenzied construction, especially by China, of new military infrastructure in the borderlands, including warfighting facilities. The once-lightly patrolled frontier is set to turn into an enduringly hot border.
The military confrontations began in May 2020, when a shocked India discovered that China had taken advantage of its preoccupation with enforcing the world’s strictest COVID-19 lockdown to stealthily intrude upon and occupy several key border areas in the northernmost Indian territory of Ladakh, where the mighty Himalayas meet the Karakoram Range. The discovery, which resulted from thawing ice reopening access routes at the end of the brutal Himalayan winter, led to the first deadly India-China military clashes since 1975 and the still-continuing standoffs.
Those clashes last summer, in which China suffered its first combat deaths in more than four decades, compelled Xi’s regime to agree to the creation of buffer zones in two confrontation areas to avert further skirmishes. But in the other encroached areas, Chinese forces remain well dug in, with Beijing in no mood to roll back its intrusions or accept similar buffer zones.
More fundamentally, Xi’s aggression was designed not only to grab territory; it was also a form of colonial-style gunboat diplomacy aimed at cutting India down to size and demonstrating China’s Asian supremacy. Xi believed that if China used deception and surprise to catch India off-guard and create new fait accompli, it would make smaller Asian states fall in line.
But such was Xi’s strategic miscalculation that he failed to anticipate that India would mount a vigorous military response, more than matching China’s deployments and shifting its border strategy from defense to potential offense. In fact, the clashes with the battle-hardened Indian forces made China realize that its army, with little combat experience since its disastrous 1979 invasion of Vietnam, must avoid further close combat.
This has led to China’s deployment of weapons like self-propelled mortars for hit-and-run firing positions and its forward positioning of artillery, missiles and bombers. It has also led to a strange paradox: At a time when Xi’s regime is working to stamp out Tibetan culture and identity, it has been raising new border militias against India made up of local Tibetan youths.
However, far from succeeding in putting India down, China today finds itself locked in a tense military stalemate with its largest neighbor. If Xi attempts to break the stalemate with a war, he is unlikely to secure a decisive win. The war itself is more likely to end in a bloody stalemate, with heavy losses on both sides.
But Xi’s aggression, by breaching bilateral border-peace agreements, has already made the rise of a more antagonistic and militarily stronger India certain. India now appears more determined than ever to counter Chinese power and work with likeminded powers such as the U.S., Japan and Australia to limit China’s international influence.
A recent article in the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post chided China for alienating India, saying, “If Beijing is serious about not pushing New Delhi further away or even turning India into a permanent enemy, it should begin by setting aside grievances on the border issue and ending the standoff.”
Xi, however, has painted himself into a corner: He can neither back down nor wage an open war. By provoking India, he has clearly bitten off more than he can chew.
Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research, an independent think tank in New Delhi, and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).