Skip to main content

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research

The international focus on the war in Ukraine has helped obscure the China-India military confrontation, which has led to rival force build-ups and intermittent clashes. For more than three years, the two Asian giants have been locked in a tense military standoff along their disputed Himalayan frontier.

The risk of this confrontation escalating to intense bloody clashes or even a limited border war can no longer be discounted, given the large-scale forward military deployments by both sides.

An opposite scenario is also conceivable. If Chinese President Xi Jinping were to visit New Delhi for the Group of Twenty (G20) summit in September, the trip could catalyze efforts to defuse the dangerous confrontation, which was triggered by China’s stealth territorial encroachments into the northernmost Indian territory of Ladakh in April-May 2020.

India failed to foresee the Chinese aggression largely because Prime Minister Narendra Modi had been focused on appeasing Beijing in order to chip away at the China-Pakistan axis. Mr. Xi, though, seriously miscalculated that China would be able to impose the changed territorial status quo on India as a fait accompli, without inviting a robust military response.

India has locked horns with China by more than matching Chinese force deployments. Even at the risk of sparking a full-scale war, India is openly challenging Chinese power and capability in a way that no other country has done in this century.

Discomfited by the strong Indian military challenge, Mr. Xi’s regime has sought to exert greater pressure on India by deploying more Chinese forces in offensive positions, constructing new warfare infrastructure along the frontier, and mounting infowar and psychological operations.

All this, however, risks making a permanent enemy of India, including driving it closer to the United States. Such a scenario is antithetical to China’s long-term interests. U.S. President Joe Biden’s courtship of India, and the pomp and attention he recently lavished on Mr. Modi during a state visit to the U.S., have increased Beijing’s suspicion that New Delhi is drawing closer to Washington to help blunt China.

After China’s border aggression began, New Delhi concluded the last of four foundational defence-related agreements that Washington regularly puts in place with military allies. India has also more closely integrated into the Quad arrangement with Washington, Tokyo and Canberra. And the India-initiated annual Malabar naval war games now include all the Quad partners.

The military standoff with India, meanwhile, leaves Mr. Xi with less room to accomplish what he has called a “historic mission” – the incorporation of Taiwan. India is aiding Taiwan’s defence by tying down a complete Chinese theatre force, which could otherwise be employed against that island democracy.

As Admiral Michael Gilday, the U.S. Navy’s chief of naval operations, put it last year, the standoff presents China with a “two-front” problem: “They [Indians] now force China to not only look east, toward the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, but they now have to be looking over their shoulder at India.”

More fundamentally, Mr. Xi has picked a border fight with India that China cannot win. While the Chinese military relies heavily on conscripts, India, with an all-volunteer force, has the world’s most-experienced troops for mountain warfare.

A war between the two nuclear-armed demographic titans would likely end in a bloody stalemate, which would be seen internationally as a defeat for the stronger side, China. That would seriously damage Mr. Xi’s image.

So, if the confrontation with India were to escalate, Mr. Xi could risk being hoisted with his own petard.

Against this backdrop, would Mr. Xi be willing to find ways to defuse the military crisis with India?

The Sept. 9-10 G20 summit will bring together world leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and possibly Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, at a time when tens of thousands of troops on each side are facing off on the Himalayan massif, it would be odd if Mr. Xi visited New Delhi without seeking to defuse the border confrontation.

At the past G20 summit in Bali, Mr. Xi and Mr. Modi briefly interacted at a cultural event in front of television cameras, but did not hold a private meeting, as each did with other leaders.

The only way to end the military standoff is through a deal to implement a sequential process of disengagement, de-escalation and de-induction of rival forces. The details of such a deal could be hammered out through military-to-military talks.

Mr. Xi, however, seems caught in a military crisis of his own making. He may want to resolve the crisis, but without losing face. His efforts to compel India to buckle have come a cropper. This means that any compromise settlement would require that Mr. Xi climb down to some extent.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe