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.