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Will India and China go to war?

The first Asian conflict of the Asian century

India and China are separated by the longest un-demarcated border in the world. They fought a war in 1962, which India squarely lost, and engaged in a fierce clash in 1967, in which India decisively prevailed. Since then, a tense peace has been maintained in the high and strategic Himalayan passes. The Line of Actual Control (LAC) that divides the two Asian rivals was sustained by a strict adherence to elaborate protocols agreed at the topmost levels by both sides. There have been numerous skirmishes and fistfights between Indian and Chinese soldiers over the years, but with the exception of an ambush by the Chinese in 1975 in which four Indian soldiers were killed, lives were never lost.

That achievement unraveled this week when soldiers from two of the world’s most powerful armies — still abjuring the use of guns — engaged in direct physical combat in the Galwan Valley in the Ladakh region of India. New Delhi had done its utmost to de-escalate the situation before things worsened — only to discover that old rules had suddenly become obsolete.

Galwan is one of the areas that began being overrun towards the end of April by People’s Liberation Army troops. The PLA set up fortifications, brought artillery and dump trucks, ignored verbal warnings to vacate, and refused to talk. India, distracted by the social and economic devastation precipitated by the coronavirus pandemic, realized belatedly that it was not dealing with patrolling parties that had strayed too far. It was confronting an invading army. It attempted to play down the peril at the border to avoid a nationalist backlash, while scrambling simultaneously to supply reinforcements and persuade the Chinese to talk. China managed, meanwhile, to annex some 60 square kilometers of Indian territory without firing a shot. On June 6, military representatives of China and India held discussions, and the Chinese agreed to retreat from one of their positions.

On Monday, a party of some 55 Indian soldiers strode to that position to ask the Chinese to dismantle their tent. In accordance with the agreement, they went unarmed. Lying in wait for them were 300 Chinese troops armed with batons wrapped in barbed wire. The Indians fought back with bare hands. When hostilities ended, Beijing acknowledged casualties on its side, but refused to disclose the number of dead or injured.

Secrecy, however, is not an option available to democratic India. After weeks of attempting to save face by denying the true extent of Chinese incursions into its territory, the Indian government admitted on Tuesday that 20 soldiers of the Indian Army, including a commanding officer, had been killed in the battle with the PLA the previous night.

Eager to avert a nationalist backlash and preserve the strongman reputation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Indian government pretended throughout the crisis that all was well on its northern front. Now, as gruesome details emerge of the bloodbath on the border, there is a growing clamor for retaliation, revenge, and return of Indian territory.

Modi addressed Indians on Wednesday and paid rich tribute to the men who laid down their lives defending the country. But, militarily, India finds itself in an impossible position. Attempting to restore status quo ante by resorting to a shooting war with China — which is measurably more powerful overall, though India holds some distinct advantages in the high-altitude terrain — could prove too costly for India. At the same time, failing to react forcefully to the brazen seizure of Indian land could embolden the Chinese to nibble at yet more Indian territory. It is a measure of India’s predicament that its foreign minister, after speaking to his counterpart in Beijing on Wednesday, pledged to uphold the ‘bilateral agreements’ that China had just violated.

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But India hasn’t exactly lost to China. If anything, it is perhaps in a better position today than before to withstand and repulse China. New Delhi has belatedly upgraded the decaying infrastructure in Ladakh, including laying down a network of roads and raising a concrete bridge to enable the swift movement of troops near the LAC. It has also deepened its security and diplomatic partnership with Australia, Japan and the United States — fellow democracies wary of authoritarian China. The experience of Ladakh may speed up rather than slow down India’s pro-American tilt, and boost rather than halt its military build up on its troubled northern border.

The Indian government’s decision in mid-April to subject Chinese investments to additional layers of vetting may now pave the way for the formal erection of barriers to commerce between the two countries. The already formidable civilian movement to boycott Chinese products will likely be augmented by a political outcry against the trade surplus China currently enjoys with India: at nearly $60 billion, it is roughly equal to India’s defense budget.

The 21st century was supposed to be the Asian century. What has happened in Ladakh is a clarifier: it has invalidated the myth of China’s ‘peaceful rise’ and removed appeasement from the options before India. Concessions to China, it is now abundantly clear, do not result in the recession of Chinese belligerence. A full-blown war has perhaps been deferred, but peace and cordiality between Asia’s chief powers is now inconceivable in the near or distant future. The uneasy truce that has governed the relationship between China and India since 1967 is effectively dead. This, if it can prompt India to distinguish itself from China by actually living up to and defending its democratic values, may not be such a bad thing.

Kapil Komireddi is the author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India (Hurst).

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