It would be a huge strategic blunder for China to get into a military conflict with India—less initiate one—for two big reasons.
One, nuclear deterrence imposes limits on how much a conventional military conflict can escalate. A 1962-like invasion is highly unlikely in 2009—even if the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) were to incorrectly assess the conventional military balance prevailing across the border, the Chinese leadership is highly unlikely to want to gamble on whether India’s steadfast doctrinal commitment to non-first use of nuclear weapons is rhetorical or real.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Two, a direct military conflict—whether or not initiated by China—would have the inevitable consequence of pushing India unequivocally into an alliance with the US. This would not only consolidate two of China’s biggest strategic adversaries, but also completely blow the myth of a “peaceful rise” that is behind the success of Chinese diplomacy in East and Central Asia. Why would China want to risk that?
So a war is extremely unlikely, but it is in China’s interests to keep the border dispute alive at the present time. The dispute is an instrument to contain India geopolitically at a time when the two Asian giants are emerging as regional and global powers.
Also, the corollary to the existence of a dispute is the hope of a settlement. As long as Beijing manages to keep the border-related tensions within a certain bound, it can hold out the promise of an eventual settlement to prevent India from leaning too far away from China. The use of military force to settle the boundary question would immediately propel India into an anti-China alliance.
The broad contours of the border dispute are clear: it involves accepting the status quo. In other words, with some adjustments, India keeps Arunachal Pradesh, China keeps Aksai Chin and the two countries renounce their claim to the parts they do not control. While it was India that refused to even consider such a deal in April 1960—when Zhou Enlai offered it to Jawaharlal Nehru and Govind Ballabh Pant—it is China now that is unwilling to move forward.
Chinese scholars have suggested that this is due to Beijing’s assessment that no Indian political leader will be able to sell the compromise to the public. While this might be true, it certainly is self-serving. If the leadership in Beijing were merely waiting for Indian public opinion to hit the Goldilocks moment for a territorial compromise, they would hardly be backtracking on their own prior commitments, not least by amplifying China’s claims to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh.
While the risk of even a limited military conflict is overstated, it is true that there is indeed a state of armed coexistence—to use Mao Zedong’s phrase—along the line of actual control (LAC). “You wave a gun,” Mao said, referring to Nehru, “and I’ll wave a gun. We’ll stand face to face and can each practise our courage.”
The Great Helmsman was speaking metaphorically. In reality, this means that each side must expect incursions from the other. At the same time each side must ensure that these don’t get out of hand. This is one lesson from October 1962 and there are signs that it is a lesson that has been learnt. Note that much of the recent furore over red-painted boulders and helicopter-dropped canned food in Ladakh was mainly due to a hyperventilating media—the official reaction from both the Indian foreign ministry and the Armed Forces played down the incidents.
While eschewing paranoia, alarmism and irresponsible rhetoric, a state of armed coexistence requires astute management. First, Indian and Chinese officials—civilian and military—must communicate across all levels. The establishment of a hotline between the heads of government must be followed up with communication links and better contacts between military commanders at operational levels. Despite appearances, the Chinese government is not monolithic and India must develop independent links to its various power centres.
Second, India must continue to invest in conventional defences to ensure that the military balance across the Himalayan frontier remains stable in the face of the PLA’s rapid modernization. This calls for careful planning as to the type of military assets used and the areas where they are deployed, to minimize the risk of miscalculation by either side. Also, as Admiral Sureesh Mehta said in an important speech a few days before he stepped down as navy chief, “On the military front, our strategy to deal with China must include reducing the military gap and countering the growing Chinese footprint in the Indian Ocean Region. The traditional or ‘attritionist’ approach of matching ‘Division for Division’ must give way to harnessing modern technology for developing high situational awareness and creating a reliable stand-off deterrent.”
Third, India must avoid creating needless suspicions in Beijing over its Tibet policy. John Garver, a noted scholar of India-China relations, determines that Mao’s profound misreading of Nehru’s strategic intentions over Tibet was one of the main drivers of China’s decision to go to war with India in 1962. New Delhi must not allow the Tibetans’ struggle to unduly determine how it is perceived by the Chinese leadership.
Finally, not everything about the India-China border issue lies in the domain of foreign policy. It’s not only about the “development” of Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Ladakh. It is about making them part of the political, economic and social mainstream.
Nitin Pai and Sushant K. Singh are editors of Pragati—The Indian National Interest Review, a publication on strategic affairs, public policy and governance. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org