A Stare and a Wink: How India Achieved a Chinese Rollback in the Himalayas

Thursday, March 11, 2021

After several rounds of talks, China and India agreed to disengage their forces in the border areas where last year the bloodiest clashes in nearly 60 years took place. Yogesh Joshi of the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore analyzes the Indian “strategy of hurt” to explain how New Delhi managed to achieve what appears to be a strategic, diplomatic and economic success.

A Stare and a Wink: How India Achieved a Chinese Rollback in the Himalayas

Facing off in calmer times: Indian and Chinese soldiers at a celebration of the Lunar New Year in January 2019 at Bumla along the border (Credit: PTI)

In May and June 2020, India and China confronted each other in the Eastern Himalayas over territory along the Himalayan lake of Pangong Tso and other adjoining areas which both countries claim to be their own. The series of brawls which culminated in a clash in the Galwan Valley on June 15, 2020, was the bloodiest and most intense, if not the longest, confrontation in the last five decades along the world’s longest unsettled border or the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The crisis spanning over 10 months entailed the mobilization of more than 100,000 troops on each side, the loss of 20 Indians and four Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers, and nine rounds of high-level military talks before it could be resolved in February 2021, with an agreement for mutual disengagement.

Beijing released video of the June 15, 2020, Galwan Valley clash, in which 20 Indian and four Chinese solders were killed (Credit: CCTV video presented on SCMP Clips on YouTube)

New Delhi views the disengagement process as a victory insofar it has forced China to accept the status quo ante on the border. India’s singular achievement in the way the crisis was defused, as Chief of Indian Army Gen MM Naravane argued recently, was “to show that this (Chinese) strategy (of nibbling territory) will not work with us. And every time will be met resolutely.”

India’s optimistic reading of the disengagement process is not without substance. It was the PLA that occupied the contested territory and then accepted a return to the previous arrangements in the Pangong Tso region, meeting New Delhi’s principal demand. The PLA’s reversal is clear and unambiguous.

How did India manage to coerce the PLA to revert to the pre-April 2020 border position?

First, the origins of India’s resolute defense of the status quo lay in the nature of China’s demands signaled through the PLA’s unilateral usurpation of the contested territory in April and May 2020. The undemarcated nature of the Himalayan border between India and China leaves it prone to crises as soldiers from both sides aim to enforce their respective claims. The 2020 border crisis arose out of a tactical move by the PLA to occupy permanently territories which both sides had been patrolling. Either the Chinese intention was a plain and simple land-grab, or it was to signal its displeasure for India’s development of border infrastructure and the decision by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to revoke the autonomy of the state of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019.

Given that the PLA agreed to destroy all its permanent facilities built over the contested territory, move back to its pre-April 2020 position, and maintain a buffer zone between the two armies, territorial land grab does not appear to have been the principal motivation. Rather, China intended to utilize the new ground reality either to negotiate a halt to infrastructure development along the border or exact some political commitment on the future of Jammu and Kashmir.

For Modi, China’s demands were a direct assault on his domestic political agenda and therefore, on his political reputation. China’s attempt to coerce Modi on domestic politics was simply unacceptable; no head of government, especially in a democracy, could be publicly coerced to do alter a key policy at home by a foreign power. The reasons for India’s resistance to the Chinese actions on the border, therefore, lay in what the moves signaled rather than the actual value of the territory occupied by the PLA.

Second, if the nature of Chinese demands were extensive, how the crisis unfolded left India with very few choices. Between May 2020 and the fateful night of the June 15, 2020, melee with the PLA that resulted in 20 Indian fatalities, New Delhi had been dealing with the crisis in a routine manner. In the last decade alone, the two sides have been involved in at least four major crises stemming from their overlapping perceptions of the LAC, the last being the 2017 Doklam crisis on the trijunction of India, China and Bhutan. To maintain peace and tranquility along the LAC, the two sides signed several Confidence Building Measures (CBMs). These treaties played a critical role in the peaceful resolution of the periodic border crises.

Prime Minister Modi visits soldiers injured in the Galwan Valley clash: Beijing discounted how domestic politics, especially in a democracy, could make its adversary more resolutely defiant (Credit: Prasar Bharti News Service/Twitter)

Prime Minister Modi visits soldiers injured in the Galwan Valley clash: Beijing discounted how domestic politics, especially in a democracy, could make its adversary more resolutely defiant (Credit: Prasar Bharti News Service/Twitter)

However, what happened on June 15 shocked the entire country. The PLA’s medieval-style massacre of Indian forces tied the hands of the India’s leadership. Prime Minister Modi warned China of a “befitting reply”. From that point, any negotiations which did not achieve the objective of the status quo ante would be deemed a sellout. A Doklam-style face-saving resolution, where an initial withdrawal by the PLA from building border infrastructure would later be met with benign neglect by the Indian forces, was simply impossible. During Doklam, the hands of the Indian decision makers had remained unstained by the blood of Indian soldiers.

Given the Chinese political culture, Beijing was incapable of understanding why the Indian leadership could not ride out the wave of hurt and anti-China sentiment in India in the aftermath of the massacre. Beijing once again discounted how domestic politics in a democracy could make its adversaries more resolute in defying its dictums. By rendering any graceful exit impossible, the PLA’s actions pushed India into an inescapable commitment to escalating the conflict.

Third, what followed was an Indian strategy of counter-coercion. If a crisis is a negotiation of power and resolve between adversaries, India had to communicate it could create a favorable balance of military power in the Eastern Ladakh and that it possesses the resolve to withstand any pressure on the border. India mobilized some three divisions, including one armored group, into the battle theatre. As India’s northern army commander argued later, the PLA was undone by India’s capacity to place tanks at 17,000 feet in the Rezang La sector. The Indian Air Force conducted one of its biggest strategic mobilizations with the help of its US-supplied military transport aircraft and stationed some of its most potent fighter aircraft in Eastern Ladakh. The Navy, on the other hand, launched massive forward deployment exercises both on the Western and the Eastern Indian Ocean.

Such military mobilization helped in creating a military deterrent against any further encroachments by the PLA. It also provided Indian decision makers options to make the Chinese occupation of Indian territory unsustainable in the long run. One such option was exercised on the night of August 29 in an operation codenamed Snow Leopard. The Indian Army’s battle-hardened mountain-warfare specialists occupied prominent features on the Kailash range overlooking the Chinese deployments in the Pangong Tso region and the Moldo garrison. As a result, India gained crucial leverage to negotiate China’s withdrawal from occupied territories.

India’s strategy of hurt also involved diplomatic and economic instruments of statecraft. If military actions on the border communicated to the PLA that it would not be able to sustain its hold on the benefits of its salami-slicing operations, India’s economic and diplomatic activities attempted to increase the costs of Chinese actions. New Delhi banned Chinese apps and sanctioned Chinese-state-owned enterprises from doing business in the country. IT group Huawei's future in India suddenly looked precarious. Diplomatically, India embraced the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue group known as the Quad (which besides India includes Australia, Japan and the US), invited Australia for the Malabar series of naval exercises, welcomed the US Seventh Fleet in the Indian Ocean, and for the first time, sent an Indian Navy warship into the South China Sea during a border crisis.

In and of themselves, such military actions, economic sanctions, and diplomatic moves were insufficient to alter China’s cost-benefit metric. But in taking the heights in the Kailash range, India occupied territory on its side of the LAC. It had not captured any Chinese territory which could be bartered for mutual withdrawal. Similarly, given China’s vastly superior economic capacity, India’s economic sanctions could hardly make a dent. Lastly, India’s diplomatic moves may have been too late as the Quad and external balancing could not have possibly helped India achieve a favorable outcome for the ongoing crisis.

How then should we make sense of India’s strategy of hurt – and its success? India’s actions satisfied two major requirements in coercive diplomacy.

First, coercing an adversary to accept the status quo ante does not depend upon the amount of actual hurt inflicted but the promise of greater hurt in the face of its continued non-compliance. Military, economic and diplomatic actions taken by India during the crisis were more useful to communicate its intention of continuing its strategy of hurt than the actual costs it may have inflicted upon China. Occupation of the Kailash range allowed the Indian military to target Chinese assets at will. It also sent a message that the military dynamics unfurled by the PLA’s actions could have led both states to the brink of war. India was simply manipulating the risk of war to its advantage.

Economic sanctions on Chinese apps and companies took away the prospect of a lucrative market especially when Beijing faced an unpredictable US and an unstable international trade environment. It also threatened the complete economic decoupling of Asia’s two largest economies. Lastly, insofar as India is the only country among the Quad that does not have an explicit security treaty with the US, its embrace of this strategic grouping that Washington had recently revived as a vehicle to counter China sent a message to Beijing that the latter’s assertiveness would determine how strongly New Delhi might align its security policy with the US.

Second, coercion also requires the credibility of commitments. For India to succeed in coercing China, it was equally important to communicate the seriousness of India’s purpose. The credibility of India’s actions emanated from the fact that they levied significant costs on the Indian government. Rapid military mobilization was not only economically draining, especially when New Delhi was struggling with the global pandemic, but it also increased the chances of accidental and inadvertent escalation which India might not have been able to control. Diplomatically, New Delhi compromised its ability to maintain its strategic autonomy. Having committed to the Quad during the crisis, it would have been difficult for India to retract that shift later. Lastly, even the economic sanctions involved significant costs to the Indian exchequer especially when India is so heavily dependent on China for both goods and financial investments. That India had tied its hands in these ways signaled its commitment to a strategy of hurt.

Diplomatic dance towards disengagement: Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar and Chinese counterpart Wang Yi confer in Moscow, September 2020 (Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China)

Diplomatic dance towards disengagement: Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar and Chinese counterpart Wang Yi confer in Moscow, September 2020 (Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China)

The success of India’s coercion, however, would not have been possible without some Chinese cooperation. Without so much as a wink from Beijing, the Indian Army and the PLA might still be staring at each other in an eyeball-to-eyeball deployment in the icy heights of Eastern Ladakh. Coercion, in the end, also requires the adversary’s permission or compliance, which can only be obtained by providing the opponent with both a face-saving solution and some quid pro quo.

The final arrangement on the border which has pushed the two armies to their pre-April 2020 positions and led to the creation of a buffer zone in the contested region has met India’s principal demand of returning to the two countries’ previous stances. However, India has also disengaged from the heights it had occupied in the Kailash Range, which are technically within the Indian side of the LAC.

More than the border, the real quid pro quo may be on the economic side. Soon after the disengagement process, India cleared the roadblocks for a major Chinese mobile company – Vivo – to become the principal sponsor of India’s biggest sporting event, the Indian Premier League of professional cricket. Chinese proposals to invest in India’s markets are slowly being cleared, with the government poised to allow 45 Chinese investments. This, it appears, was the quid pro quo of the disengagement agreement.

The border crisis of 2020 provides important lessons for both India and China. Beijing must appreciate the fact that compelling nationalistic leaders to change their domestic politics would be far more difficult than influencing their foreign policies. No sovereign government would tolerate domestic political costs. Moreover, Beijing should also appreciate that the heavy-handedness of its troops could make its adversary far more resolute. Scare tactics may not work against democracies; manipulation may be much easier. In their current dispute over the origin of the pandemic, Australia’s robust reaction to China’s tough measures is no different.

The crisis also revealed that India’s economic interdependence with Beijing did play a positive role in circumscribing the conflict. India could use the threat of market access to its advantage even when it has constantly complained of China’s overwhelming share in bilateral trade. Providing China with greater market access is, therefore, not such a bad idea.

As for military engagement, India’s very resolute stand against the PLA, however, cannot fill the gap in military capability vis-à-vis Beijing. There is no guarantee that India’s successful manipulation of risk in the recent past could be replicated with equally resounding results in the event of a future crisis. Managing risk, especially on the battlefield, is a tricky business and depends equally on the adversary’s will and whims. Leaving something to chance may go horribly wrong for both sides. India and China must resolve their disputes, especially the boundary problem before it is too late.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute


Yogesh Joshi

Yogesh Joshi

Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore (NUS)

Yogesh Joshi is a research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) of National University of Singapore (NUS) and a non-resident global policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington DC.

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