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 Report prepared by Gaurav Kumar, Editorial Assistant, Naireen Khan, Research Assistant and Aastha Gupta, Research Intern, USI of India.

The on-going tension on the India-China border is reminiscent of similar incidents in the past. However, the intensity and the extent of friction appear to be higher this time. In recent weeks, China’s aggressive posturing from Taiwan to the Line of Actual Control (LAC), its growing nexus with Nepal, geo-economic coercion of other nations, and “wolf diplomacy” indicates that Beijing views the current pandemic as an opportunity to dominate the Indo-Pacific region. To counter this, India should calibrate its military and diplomatic responses in the short, medium and in the long term. The Centre for Strategic Studies and Simulation (CS3), USI organized a webinar on “China’s Strategic Behaviour: Implications & India’s Response”, where the panellists extensively discussed the nature of the Chinese aggression, geopolitical posturing and implications to India. This discussion was chaired by Maj Gen Rajiv Narayanan, AVSM, VSM (Retd), Head CS3, USI and the main speakers were:

  • Maj Gen B.K Sharma, AVSM, SM and Bar (Retd), Director USI;
  • Lt Gen Ranbir Singh, PVSM, AVSM & Bar, YSM, SM (Retd), Former Northern Army Commander, Indian Army; and
  • Amb Gautam Bambawale, IFS (Retd) Former Indian Ambassador to China.

Discussion highlights are recapitulated below:

Geo-Political and Strategic Assessment

To assess the current geopolitical and strategic environment, three salient trends in the international order are:

  • The changing nature of the geopolitical rivalry has diffused and dispersed the balance of power, unlike during the Cold War. It has led to Pax Americana losing its grip over its Pan Europe and East Asia alliance.
  • China’s credibility is at its nadir and hence its current offensive posture is an attempt to salvage its image as a global power.
  • The concept and the ability of Middle Power to sufficiently shape international events, individually, has lost its sheen and creates major challenges for India to navigate the quagmire of Cold War 2.0.


Against this background, following are the key implications for India-China relations:

  • Strategically, India sees China as an adversary and at best combative competitor. China-Pak nexus and the recent Nepal factor are an important denominator of the relation.
  • China sees India through its grand encirclement design.
  • Bilaterally, Tibet remains a bone of contention, and impetus to border modernization has irritated China.
  • Regionally, China has become a de facto third party in J&K. China is trying to overplay India’s internal decision to rearrange the boundary.
  • China fears that India has the potential to change the status quo in the border areas, and therefore there is a push back and assertion against India.
  • The overall politico-military strategy and aim of China is to humiliate and embarrass India.
  • In the near future, there is little probability that the combative and adversarial relation with China will be thawing.
  • India needs to have a government led, cohesive and comprehensive strategy against China.
  • There should be credible deterrence through integrated and synchronized approach to deal with China.
  • India’s offensive-defence posture and joint operational command needs to be improved.
  • There should be a comprehensive discussion on anti-access anti-denial strategy, with soft and hard external balancing, including perpetuating China’s Western Pacific dilemma.

Recent events elucidate China’s increasingly aggressive posturing. Hence it is important to analyse the broader implications for India, with the aim to recalibrate India’s military and diplomatic responses to counter China’s attempts to become a hegemonic power in the region.

Strategic Significance of the Ladakh Standoff

The contemporary history of India-China relations begins post the 1986-87 crises in Arunachal Pradesh followed by the visit of then PM Rajiv Gandhi. This resulted in the signing of the Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement. Since then, various efforts such as appointing of representatives and Border Defence Cooperation Agreement, 2013 (BDCA) programme have been established to discuss the boundary issue. However, no major headway has been made in resolving it. In the absence of a defined LAC, various issues have cropped up. The current standoff in Ladakh is one such example.

While the activities being carried out in the region are at military level, the agenda is strategic. India’s development projects have been operational in Ladakh for a long time. For example, the 255-km long Darbuk-Shyokh-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) initiative began construction in early 2000s and was supposed to finish by 2012. India is currently in the last phases of completion. The timing of Chinese objection and deployment of calculated military personnel suggests the aim is not to gain territory, but rather strategic signalling. Chinese strategic posturing in Ladakh is therefore a function of the following factors:

  • China views the Indo-Chinese relations through the prism of Indo-US and Pak-Chinese relations. Hence, the LAC issue is intertwined with various strategic relationships.
  • Chinese concerns over the abolishing of Article 370 and India’s subsequent ability to handle the Chinese criticism at the international level acted as a wake-up call for Beijing. India’s proximity to USA became somewhat clear.
  • India’s status of Tibetans has long been a concern for China, and China has objected to India giving refuge to the Dalai Lama.
  • India’s stand on the Belt and Road Initiative has also been a concern for China.
  • Recently, India’s attempt along with other countries to open an enquiry on China and WHO has not gone down well for China.

Implications of the LAC Issue

The implications of the LAC issue are multifold:

  • China aims to show that it has the military and political backing to put pressure on India whenever required. Hence, LAC will become an important pressure point that they can exploit whenever they desire.
  • China is signalling to the rest of the world, specifically the small countries in the neighbouring area. By pressurising a large county like India, China is giving an indication to the small countries to not to revolt.
  • China intents to show USA that it not only has the ability to take pressure on multiple fronts but also exert it on the close allies of USA when required.

At strategic level, Indian military has three types of relations with China – cooperation, competition, confrontation. The two countries should not let the current situation to escalate further, and hence should engage in dialogue, without letting China have an upper hand militarily.

India’s Military Response

Moving forward, India’s military strategy should be determined by the following factors:

  • The military strategy flows out of national strategy. The umbrella capacity of the Indian Army is to develop credible deterrence in terms of military, infrastructure, doctrine, and training.
  • The basic requirement of a military strategy would be for it to be simple and holistic. It is essential that the strategy can withstand such shocks such as the LAC standoff. The policy now formulated should be probabilistic and not deterministic as the future after COVID is uncertain. Other factors that play an important role are technology improvement, shrinking of budget and Chinese behaviour, to name a few.
  • Military power should be used as a form of deterrence and for conflict resolution.
  • To ensure so, in short run, India should involve in a strategic engagement and operational containment and firmness. Sufficient space should be provided to the diplomats to ensure China follows the Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) while at the military level, status quo before the standoff is maintained. It is important to understand infrastructure building on India’s side of LAC is essential for the locals and for capability building of the armed forces.
  • In medium-term India should consider building stronger relationship with China’s neighbours, similar to China’s string of pearls policy. Indian presence in Indo-Pacific region should be increased. For this purpose, the navy needs to develop its capability. Credible deterrence not only in terms of combat ratios should be developed with the help of cyber and space warfare. Both war waging and war avoiding strategies should be developed.
  • The long-term solution for the problem can only be reached with both the sides coming together and establishing a mutual understanding at a strategic level. Various elements of national power need to come into play to portray a positive narrative.

China’s Strategic Behaviour at the Global Level

China’s global strategic posturing can be contextualized by the following goals:

  • China aims to be the predominant power in the world; the China dream is to establish a Pax Sinica. To reach this goal, China knows that it must overtake the U.S. not only economically but also militarily. Therefore, in the coming years the U.S.-China strategic competition will increase, further deteriorating the already fragile relationship between the two countries.
  • China also realizes that its Comprehensive National Power (CNP) far surpasses that of India. Defined in terms of GDP (a simple measure of CNP), China’s CNP is four times that of India. However, China also realizes that India due its sizeable area, population, human capital and science and technology acumen has the potential to challenge China. Particularly, India’s democracy and its democratic institutions could challenge the Chinese model or the ‘Beijing Consensus.’ Therefore, China looks at India as a potential spoiler.

Current Scenario

In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, China has adopted an increasingly aggressive posture as a show of its strength. This has been guided by the need to assuage domestic misgivings as well as signal power to the countries who want to see China penalised for its role in the spread of the virus. Against this background the following characteristics of the current global scenario are instructive:

  • China believes that it has the power and space to open up several fronts of confrontation all at one time and therefore while China is involved in a trade and technological war with the United States; it has also moved in reducing Hong Kong and replacing the ‘one country, two systems’ model. China has also adopted offensive posturing in the South China Sea and making its presence felt in the Taiwan Strait and creating tensions on the India-China border.
  • While Chinese hard power has come out of the COVID-19 crisis relatively unscathed, its soft power is badly tarnished. Most of the world’s population today views China negatively and in fact even finds China culpable in the spread of the virus. There are several questions in this regard that China will have to answer and will need to address. China’s wolf warrior diplomacy has proved futile in improving its image.
  • There can be little doubt that the schism between the United States and China will grow over time and their battle for supremacy will take on a much harder edge.
  • Most Western liberal democracies will close ranks against China. This can be gauged from the fact that the United Kingdom which had earlier permitted the Chinese company Huawei to participate in its 5G trials has now withdrawn it and is in fact inviting ten democracies, including India, to come together to develop a 5G strategy. Even nations like Australia are willing to take economic pain but have been putting their own ideals and convictions first.

India’s Diplomatic Response

In a post COVID world, India’s diplomatic policies with regards to China should be informed by the following considerations:

  • India’s values are diametrically opposite to that of China and therefore, a global order defined by a Pax Sinica would not be amenable to India’s interests. Hence, India should increase its partnerships with nations with similar values. India need not necessarily be an ally, but it create strong partnerships with democracies; not just the United States and Western Europe but also Japan, South Korea, Australia and Indonesia.
  • India must focus on the economics of the current pandemic situation and ensure that at least some of the supply chains move to India. Therefore, policies should be oriented towards and aimed at increasing the ease of doing business both for foreign companies and domestic commercial enterprises.
  • India need not be very coy in leveraging China’s vulnerabilities whether in Tibet or in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang.
  • In the medium term, India needs to ensure that its economy recovers from the spill overs of the COVID-19 pandemic and the GDP is maintained at 6-7 percent per annum.
  • Furthermore, India needs to ensure adequate finances for its military preparedness and marinating a robust military posture. The impetus given to manufacturing weapon systems domestically is a welcome step in this direction.
  • Lastly, India should not lose sight of the fact that a Pax Americana would be more favourably disposed towards India’s interests than a Pax Sinica. This is the basic premise that should inform India’s strategic and tactical reactions in the post COVID world.


Report prepared by Gaurav Kumar, Editorial Assistant, Naireen Khan, Research Assistant and Aastha Gupta, Research Intern, USI of India.
Article uploaded on 19-06-2020

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