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Issue 18

On the Fence: The Sino-Indian Standoff Continues

Shauryavardhan Sharma

After several rounds of violent clashes, official talks, and reformed policy measures, where is the future of Sino-Indian relations headed?

On 12th  January 2022 , commanders of the Indian Army and People’s Liberation Army of China met for the 14th round of Corps Commander Level talks with the aim being “resolution of the relevant issues along the LAC in the Western Sector.” The first round of talks between the respective division level commanders of both armies was held on 18th June 2020, following violent clashes between Indian and Chinese troops in the Galwan valley. This clash represented the most deadly outbreak of violence between the two nations in nearly 50 years,  resulting in 20 casualties on the Indian side, and an indeterminate number of casualties on the Chinese side. Since this flare up of violence, both sides have ramped up military presence across the entire length of the Sino-Indian border, and the question of how to de-escalate and chart a response going forward has been on the minds of multiple stakeholders. 

After 14 rounds of official talks at the military, diplomatic and political levels, the question of the future of Sino-Indian relations still remains standing. The heart of the issue goes back to the boundary shared between the nation. The boundary question is however, very complex.  “The alignment of the LAC has never been agreed upon, nor has it been delineated or demarcated. Remote and uninhabitable, the contested territory has no significant natural resources or population centers. The terrain varies from dry and desolate in the Western sector to hilly and dense in the Eastern sector.” Notions of history, culture, and civilization differences present their own set of problems that have to be considered. This is not to say that concentrated efforts to resolve the crisis haven’t been made, or de-escalation hasn’t happened before. The 2005 agreement signed between the two governments, marked a step forward by recognising that “the boundary settlement must be final, covering all sectors of the India-China boundary.”

At the same time, this ongoing crisis represents a new turn. Simply put, the repeated talks have failed because while either side does not want further violence, each side also differs in how exactly they see de-escalation and the terms of resolving the larger border issues. A key demand for the Indian side as a precursor to the normalization of the relationship between the two nations has been the “complete withdrawal from all the friction points and status-quo until restored as it existed before May 2020.”

This stated aim has not been achieved so far and seems unlikely to be reached for the simple reason that it is not in China’s interest to withdraw and let the issue quietly die down.  China’s new strategy at the border is a mix of strategies that have been successfully used in other flashpoints. It is a mixture of not only salami-slicing tactics, but also gray zone warfare, both working to China’s benefit.

Gray zone warfare often relies on deniability, remaining below an adversary’s response threshold, and achieving a cumulative effect through seemingly minor actions.” One can see instances of this approach all across the current crisis. One major area is the effort to solve each hotspot, or area of tension on its own, as a piecemeal approach with the aim of de-linking certain hotspots from a larger political settlement of the issues. The history of the various talks is littered with such examples. Of the various flashpoints, it was during the 9th round of talks that troops were disengaged from the Pangong Tso lake area, from the Gogra region during the 12th round of talks, and the focus of the failed 14th round of talks was the Hot Springs area in Eastern Ladakh.  Experts and news media have pointed out that certain areas are no longer on the table for even the base process of ‘disengagement’. For example, the ongoing standoff in the Depsang and Demchok in Eastern Ladakh. While the Indian side has pushed for resolution here, the issues at play, i.e., denial of patrolling routes of the Indian army by the Chinese have been delinked and cast as ‘legacy issues’. Such an approach, however, masks the fact that the Chinese side has successfully used the 2020 crisis to block access of the Indian side to areas it historically used to patrol in. Further, for the Indian side to recast ongoing flashpoints as ‘legacy issues’ that cannot be talked about even for ‘disengagement,’ shows that the onus of escalation firmly lies on the Indian side, and secondly, gray zone warfare is indeed in effect.

China has also sought to recast the border issue in terms of sovereignty. Statements such as those made in regard to Arunachal Pradesh, seem to confirm that the aim of the Chinese side is indeed to split up the boundary question into sector-wise chunks, and not deal with it as a political whole, going back from what was previously agreed upon, such as the 2005 agreement. As Shivshankar Menon, former National Security Advisor points out “unlike past confrontations and face-offs, the framing of the crisis by China as a sovereignty dispute — rather than as a border dispute which would be solved by give and take — makes it harder to settle.”

The other Chinese strategy that dovetails perfectly with the advent of gray zone warfare is that of putting the onus of escalation on the Indian side. Chinese efforts such as occupying territory, building infrastructure, aggressive patrolling, disputing agreed-upon boundaries, or denying patrolling routes portray tightly controlled moves designed to put the serious onus of escalation on the other side while quietly accruing the benefits of this carefully scripted brinkmanship. The question for the Indian side is whether it can bear the costs of a steady level of escalation by the Chinese without resorting to any new levels of violence. 

The costs of managing and operating the armed forces in brutal and inhospitable conditions, against a hostile neighbor, are happening during a time when the Indian Military is considering reforming its force structure to a Joint Theater Command System. This move, while argued by many as necessary, especially in light of China’s own military reforms, has its own set of myriad challenges and delays for policy-makers. Another area of concern is the issue of budgetary allocation for the Armed Forces. While the 2022-23 allocation of Rs 5.25 Lakh Crore represents “a 9.8% higher [increase] over the Budget estimates of last year” it “masks the challenge of the availability of resources … this increase is barely keeping up with the inflation and the demands of the three services”. More importantly, as pointed out by General Naravane, the ultimate solution to the problem lies at the political level. However, considering the increasingly strained personal relationship between Modi and Xi, one is unsure of the political vision of Indian policy makers. It is important to point out that while the Indian side as a response to Chinese aggression has “initiated a build-up of troops and weaponry along the border”, the more important question is till what point  such an aggressive posture is sustainable. 

In conclusion, one definitely hopes for the introduction of new confidence building measures, based on an approach that recognizes changed political and ground realities, while working together to solve long standing border issues between these two Asian giants in the spirit of mutual cooperation. What is more likely, and is disturbingly seen on the ground, is the fact that the relationship going forward between the two countries will depend on whichever of the two sides blinks first.

Shauryavardhan Sharma is a Graduate Student at Ashoka University. He graduated with a degree in History and International Relations, and is currently pursuing a Research Thesis on India’s Nuclear Programme. His interests lie in the field of Security Studies, and the analysis of India’s foreign policy.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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