India's Pangong pickle: New Delhi's options after its clash with China

India's Pangong pickle: New Delhi's options after its clash with China

India was surprised by the scale of China’s incursions and was initially caught unprepared. It now faces the difficult challenge of trying to restore the status quo. Christopher Clary and Vipin Narang explain in a recent essay published here in War on the Rocks.

July 2, 2020 | War on the Rocks | Christopher Clary and Vipin Narang
Mountain range between India and China
Christopher Clary and Vipin Narang
July 2, 2020
War on the Rocks

In early May, “fist fights and stone-pelting” broke out between Chinese and Indian troops at two separate sites along their disputed border. India and China are no strangers to border incidents ­— even prolonged standoffs — so the skirmishes were newsworthy but not especially noteworthy.

By the end of the month, Indian and Chinese media had focused attention on several points along the Indian territory of Ladakh in the western sector of the disputed border, known as the Line of Actual Control. In this sector, that official name for the boundary is a misnomer: There is no agreement on where any “line” is, nor is there a clear mutual delineation of the territory under “actual control” of either party. By the end of the month, this episode involved a level of military activity that was at least comparable to a multi-month standoff at Doklam near the Bhutan-India-China trijunction in 2017. Despite the regularity of Sino-Indian border standoffs, there had not been a fatality or shot fired on the border since 1975. This was in part because India and China agreed to confidence-building measures in 1993, 1996, and 2013 in an effort to prevent the use of force — especially deadly force — in the border dispute.

That record of nonfatal confrontation collapsed on June 15 when simmering tensions boiled over and Indian and Chinese forces engaged in a brutal brawl in the Galwan Valley. Involving stones and nail-studded clubs but no firearms, this clash claimed the lives of at least 20 Indian soldiers — including a commanding officer — and an unknown number of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces. It was the bloodiest confrontation on the Sino-Indian frontier in over half a century.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi now faces a daunting strategic predicament. Having already seized several tactically important positions, China is not going to just pack up and go home. Yet India’s military options to compel a Chinese retreat are poor, forcing Modi to weigh the dangers of escalation against the certainty of strategic humiliation if India does nothing to restore the status quo. Options between full-scale war and capitulation — such as limited attacks to expel Chinese forces or indirect military, diplomatic, and economic efforts to coerce withdrawal — carry their own substantial risks, including the very real possibility that they will not work. These already-difficult calculations take place in the context of a COVID-19 outbreak in India that is slowly churning through some of the country’s largest cities while devastating its economy. Modi’s position is unenviable as he considers his responses. His options range from bad, to worse, to truly ugly.

China’s moves on the border

India’s efforts at “quiet diplomacy,” its standard playbook during border standoffs with China, have thus far failed. While local military commanders reportedly reached a preliminary agreement to disengage on June 6, there was apparently still disagreement over whether China would have to abandon a position near what India calls Patrol Point 14, at a bend in the Galwan River from which China can observe Indian military movements.

While Indian troops were trying to remove the newly established Chinese position, tempers finally exploded on June 15, and forces that had been arrayed against each other for weeks at high altitude and under harsh conditions finally clashed. Although military disengagement talks continue, they appear stalled, with China apparently slow-rolling by continuing to blame India for the clash and using talks to schedule further talks, all the while gaining time to consolidate its defenses at a few tactically important positions.

Why is China risking a conflict with its nuclear-armed neighbor amidst a global pandemic? China has been remarkably opaque, so there are more hypotheses than answers. As Yun Sun and M. Taylor Fravel have observed, the pandemic may have heightened Chinese concerns about domestic political legitimacy and therefore sovereignty — not just with respect to India but elsewhere as well, such as Hong Kong. These concerns may have magnified Chinese leaders’ preexisting desire to arrest Indian road- and bridge-building on the frontier that might weaken China’s ability to defend disputed terrain. Beijing may additionally fear that New Delhi’s August 2019 decision to change the constitutional status of Kashmir and Ladakh was a precursor to additional Indian moves along the border, notably over the disputed region of Aksai Chin, that need to be deterred. China’s limited messaging — and its habit of lying — makes it hard to distinguish between whether China is motivated by fear of future Indian nibbling at Aksai Chin, a key plateau linking Tibet to the rest of China, or by opportunism, seeing a chance to gain territory on the cheap from an India distracted by economic and public health challenges. Or, perhaps, Beijing is simply trying to teach New Delhi a lesson that in Asia’s pecking order, China is number one.

What we do know is that the scope and swath of China’s recent incursions seems different this time. The Chinese military pressed not at one point as in the past, but at several tactically important pressure points with thousands of forces across hundreds of kilometers: at Pangong Lake, Hot Springs, Galwan Valley, and Depsang Plains. There are concerning reports that China may be opening, or preparing to open, fronts in Arunachal Pradesh in the eastern sector of the disputed border. The buildup seems orchestrated by senior PLA leaders, rather than the product of local commander freelancing, and in several places Indian officials believe China has pushed forces beyond points it previously claimed. Whether this is into “Indian territory” or not is hotly debated, but there is no doubt China is attempting to change the status quo through a series of faits accomplis. Shallow incursions in the Galwan Valley and on the Depsang Plains give China significant vantage points over — and the potential to cut off — India’s recently constructed all-weather motorway, the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulet Beg Oldi Road, along the Line of Actual Control, as well as critical feeder roads to the line itself. Elsewhere, China may be less concerned about interdicting Indian roads, and more interested in securing a buffer to protect National Highway 219, the key artery connecting Tibet with the rest of China. If China is worried about India unilaterally fortifying or settling the boundary, or paranoid about Indian Home Minister Amit Shah’s recent statements about reclaiming Aksai Chin, taking these points may help prevent that. Regardless, it is clear that the Chinese military came to play, and does not intend to go away quickly or easily.

India’s options going forward: From bad to worse to ugly

India was surprised by the scale of China’s incursions and was initially caught unprepared. It now faces the difficult challenge of trying to restore the status quo. Unfortunately, the best time to resist a fait accompli is before it is fully completed. As research by Dan Altman shows, if a fait accompli is not quickly resisted or reversed, it becomes more difficult to do so over time as the aggressor consolidates and fortifies its position, establishing a new normal. Of 59 land grabs around the world where the aggressor held territory at the end of a militarized international dispute, Altman finds 47 where the aggressor held that territory uninterrupted for the next 10 years. Those are enviable odds for China’s ability to retain its new real estate in the Himalayas.

With the PLA firmly ensconced at points further along Pangong Lake, Galwan Valley, and Depsang, and with time on China’s side, what are India’s options? First, it needs to stop the bleeding. The Indian Army has to deter Chinese forces from acquiring more territory, both at the current incursion points and at other potential points of vulnerability. This means adopting a robust defensive posture that denies any deeper incursions at the existing friction points. New Delhi should also identify any additional vulnerable points along its frontier with China, focus intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets on detecting potential Chinese threats to those points, and deploy forces to deny the PLA additional gains elsewhere. Simply put, India cannot afford additional fronts or any deeper penetration where it has already suffered losses.

This will be easier said than done. China has not seized positions willy nilly: In many locations it holds positions precisely because they are valuable and easier to defend than alternative claim lines. For India, stopping additional transgressions thus risks advertent escalation if it must meet Chinese penetrations head-on. There is also the growing risk of inadvertent escalation if tempers flare again — altitude and harsh conditions stress the short fuse forces may have in this area — or if there is an accident, for example involving helicopters operating in bad weather and difficult terrain, or between the speedboats that both countries deploy on Pangong Lake. Aidan Milliff correctly points out that the mountainous, high-altitude terrain in eastern Ladakh may inhibit fears of a large-scale war, but that same terrain creates “multiple windows of opportunity at the tactical level” that might provoke clashes, many of which could prove deadly. Although India’s military mobilization is now substantial, with both ground and air forces shifted to the theater and postured to deter further Chinese penetration, China has also amassed substantial forces in depth along with artillery and air power. 

Moreover, India has eliminated previous restrictions on the use of firearms at the border and granted “complete freedom of action” to military commanders to respond to “extraordinary situations” after the June 15 clash, and it should be assumed that China has done the same. All the ingredients for further loss of life persist, then, even if India’s sole goal is to stop further Chinese incursions.

If India is successful in preventing additional losses, in the medium to long term how can it attempt to restore the pre-May status quo? The problem with faits accomplis is that the defender’s options to reverse them once completed range from bad to worse to downright ugly. There are really only three options, all of which are difficult to achieve in practice.

The first option is to try to expel Chinese forces directly. This means amassing enough military power to successfully execute limited offensives at the points China now occupies and drive PLA forces back, in order to reestablish control of the lost territory or at least deny Chinese control thereof. This is a substantial amount of terrain stretching approximately 200 kilometers, from the Depsang Plains in the north past the Galwan Valley incursion, and beyond the Hot Springs transgression to Pangong Lake further south, where China has apparently seized several additional kilometers of lakefront property.

There are two problems with the direct expulsion option. First, time is on China’s side. The PLA is consolidating its new positions, making it more difficult for India to undertake limited coordinated offensives at any one point, let alone all of them. Second, the mountainous terrain likely benefits the defender — in this case Chinese troops who now occupy large portions of the disputed territory — because amassing enough forces and firepower to dislodge a fortified position with limited offensives may be nearly impossible now without significant escalation. India might have to open up a new front to put pressure on Chinese lines at more tactically vulnerable points or use artillery or airpower — or both — on or behind the Line of Actual Control for the first time in decades, inviting unpredictable responses from China.

The second option available to India is to indirectly expel Chinese forces by generating leverage at other points or in other domains, and trade for withdrawal. New Delhi could symmetrically seize equivalent, relatively undefended, territory on the “Chinese side” of the border and trade it in a negotiation, or punish China elsewhere through other means. Such asymmetric punishment might include actions in another theater (e.g., the South China Sea), economic pressure, or diplomatic moves that signal India’s increasing willingness to align with a broader coalition to contain an aggressive China.

Here, India’s options are again limited and unattractive. There are certainly places along the disputed border where India possesses local advantages, such as it showed in Chumar in 2014, and could theoretically seize land to trade away to restore the status quo ante. Unfortunately, India’s prospects for doing so now without the element of surprise are limited, as China will have likely anticipated such retaliation and improved its defenses in those areas, neutralizing many of India’s advantages. In the maritime domain, India’s navy certainly matches well with the PLA Navy in the Indian Ocean region, but its punitive options beyond that (e.g., in the South China Sea or western Pacific) are extremely limited. Furthermore, the track record of naval pressure achieving results on land is not inspiring and at best, as Julian Corbett observed long ago, “its effects must always be slow.”

India’s non-military options are also realistically limited. Economically, the two countries’ trade balance favors China, and India is dependent on China for key inputs in major sectors — such as active ingredients in pharmaceuticals or microchips in electronics — that are not easy to replace quickly. Even before the border crisis, India was seeking to curtail Chinese direct investment, which is fairly modest in scale though arguably disproportionately influential in certain areas such as India’s startup sector. India can also ban specific Chinese consumer goods and services, as it did on June 29 when it blocked nearly 60 mobile applications including TikTok, denying Chinese companies access to Indian users and data. However, in many areas these moves will prove more irksome or symbolic — and unenforceable — than coercive. Although India may attempt to reduce economic activity with China in the long term, its ability to do so in a timeframe that compels withdrawal from the heights of eastern Ladakh is limited. China is likely betting that any economic punishment will hurt India more than it hurts China, the world’s second-largest economy and one on which India depends for much of its vertical supply chain.

Diplomatically, India may seek to strengthen its alignment with the United States and/or the other members of the “Quad” of democratic powers in Asia, Australia and Japan. But, such moves were already afoot before the latest crisis, and any further alignment with the West faces speedbumps — such as India’s heavy dependence on Russian frontline military equipment — that will not suddenly disappear overnight. Most diplomatic moves are not likely to be painful enough to China to incentivize relinquishing valuable territory it now holds, and may merely reinforce Chinese hawks’ belief that India was always anti-China and merited preventive action as a result.

The third option is perhaps the ugliest, strategically and politically: India may have no choice but to accept China’s faits accomplis and anesthetize the domestic fallout by exploiting the ambiguity around the definition and non-delineation of the Line of Actual Control, claiming that it is not Indian territory, which of course depends on the definitions of “Indian,” “territory,” and frankly, “is.” There are hints that the Indian government is preparing itself and the domestic public to do just this, as Modi himself stated that no Chinese forces were on “Indian territory” after an all-party meeting on June 19.

Subsequent clarifications only served to generate confusion. But faced with few military, diplomatic, or economic options to reverse Beijing’s faits accomplis, New Delhi may have no choice but to quietly accept them. The risk, of course, is that this approach may only further embolden China to be more aggressive toward India or seize additional territory. Even if ceding these particular points to China does not amount to a tactical loss for India on the ground, the broader impact of doing so could be quite costly.

In order to prevent future land grabs, India might have to mobilize a much larger force along the 2,000-plus mile border. Already, retired senior officers are talking of the need to turn the Line of Actual Control into something akin to the heavily militarized and fenced Line of Control that divides Indian- from Pakistani-administered Kashmir. Attempting something this ambitious would be challenging during good times, and virtually impossible in the midst of a pandemic forecast to cause a 4.5 percent contraction in the Indian economy this year — the worst economic crisis India has faced in a generation. A New Delhi distracted by border disputes with China cannot focus on the broader strategic competition with Beijing, gives Pakistan some breathing room, and weakens itself by diverting precious resources to defending inhospitable terrain in the hinterland. Quiet acceptance of the accumulated Chinese revisions of the territorial status quo could amount to one of India’s greatest geopolitical and strategic setbacks in decades.

Looking ahead

India finds itself in a very difficult position vis-à-vis China on their disputed border. At some point, India will have to determine how it could have allowed China to surprise it and execute faits accomplis in multiple places, and what the strategic and operational warning signs were that it missed or failed to act upon. But, at the moment, its immediate challenge is to stop the bleeding, which in and of itself has all the ingredients for a tense and potentially long and escalatory standoff between Asia’s two nuclear-armed giants. Even if it can halt additional gains by the Chinese military, New Delhi may find it difficult to restore the status quo, since its options range from bad to worse to ugly. This is precisely why faits accomplis are so attractive to states, and why they are so important to reverse quickly, before they are completed and consolidated. In international politics, possession is not just nine-tenths of the law, it is the law.

Christopher Clary is an assistant professor of political science at the University at Albany, State University of New York and a nonresident fellow with the Stimson Center’s South Asia Program. Vipin Narang is an associate professor of political science and member of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a nonresident scholar in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.