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Border disputes – the Chinese game plan

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Border disputes have been the bane of our country since ancient times. Unfortunately, our leadership never had the urgency to address these issues which have resulted in differences being converted into disputes. The present conflict with China has been the manifestation of this malaise.

It has been no secret to us that the Chinese leadership has never desired a settlement of the border dispute. They have followed Mao Tse Tung’s expansionist theory of “Five Fingers”, i.e. Ladakh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. The Chinese has ever since made repeated intrusions in these areas and tested the resolve of our forces to defend these moves.

China understands that mobilisation of large forces will not make any difference to their 15 trillion economies but will definitely impact the economy of other nations like India, Bhutan and Nepal. The PLA has over a period of time amassed huge military assets which are exhibited by them to intimidate other nations. Today China occupies more than 50 per cent of territories through forceful occupation which includes Inner Mongolia, Akshai Chin, Tibet, Xinjiang and Yunnan.

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There has been a plethora of thoughts and analysis on the current Ladakh crisis that almost everyone has reached a saturation point. All Defence, Foreign Affairs analysts and Geo-Strategist have articulated a great deal on why China did what it did and tried to decipher the psyche of the Chinese leadership. Unfortunately, there has not been a single word from the Chinese on this.

Therefore, largely all have speculated the reason for this Chinese misadventure, stating that it could be the result of the declaration of Ladakh as a Union Territory or creation of infrastructure by India near the border areas or India’s growing proximity to the United States of America or interference in Tibet’s internal affairs, formulation of QUAD and so on. Nobody is sure what could have been the trigger as most statements have emanated from India rather than China. The most important aspect to understand here is that over the years there has been an increasing asymmetry between China and India both in terms of Economy and Military spheres. The difference between the two Asian neighbours is real and substantive. The Chinese economy is five times the size of the Indian economy, while its military spending is four times that of India’s. China’s power has grown exponentially and they have become strong to assert themselves. There is a talk in their political circles in China that there is no utility in pursuing diplomatic talks with India and has been evident with more than 23 talks have taken place without an agreement in sight.

Professor Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, a noted defence research analyst with ORF states that there are two fundamental issues that need to be borne in mind. One is China’s unwillingness to see another peer power that may be rising in its neighbourhood, which is how they appear to see India. China’s efforts at balancing India are not new; it is part of the Chinese policy since the 1950s. As India’s role and prominence increase even marginally, Beijing seems to find it unacceptable. China would like to see a subservient and pliable India. The Chinese are convinced that India needs to be taught a lesson. They also realise that the 1962 war was a mistake when they withdrew their forces from the captured areas. They are now moving towards coercive diplomacy and bring upon India to revisit their policy towards the US as also lend support to their Belt Road Initiative (BRI).

Under this backdrop how then do we visualise the implications of the present situation on the LAC? The recent Corps Commanders meeting held on the basis of the five-point agreement arrived during the Foreign Ministers meeting of both the countries at Moscow, has resulted in no further escalation of forces levels by both sides. In any case in the given areas of conflict, any further increase of forces would not be commensurate with the desired results.

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Considering the present force level of both the armies having around 50,000 troops in the conflict zone is an indicator that there cannot be an all-out offensive. It is also clear to China that this battle now cannot be won without fighting. Their strategic plans largely look at non-kinetic options, which are now evidently not happening. Therefore, presently the exit options are limited. It’s a Hobson’s choice both countries face. The Indian Army needs to hold tight, maintain a low profile and continue to reinforce their positions. Both the armies would ultimately look for exit options and may have to draw Red Lines which are acceptable to both.

The Chinese made a statement through the Hindustan Times newspaper, that it abides by the LAC proposed by their then-Premier Zhou En Lai in a letter to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru dated 07 November 1959, that China maintains the sanctity of the 1959 line of perception of the LAC and it is India which has transgressed. This seems to be a political masterstroke to pre-empt any further talks on withdrawal from their existing deployment positions. India has however refuted these claims since this statement of China makes no mention of three very important agreements concluded between the two countries Post 1959.

India intends to avoid a military escalation, which in all likelihood means that it will accept the new Chinese-established status quo on the border.  It, therefore, emerges that the 1959 claim line is now likely to be the new LAC in all areas except Demchok.

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It would therefore be in the interest of both the nations to declare the areas between the 1959 claim line and 1993 alignment of LAC as a buffer zone, where no deployment of troops or creation of border infrastructure would be permitted from both sides. This would be a face-saving solution for both Xi Jenping and our Prime Minister Narendra Modi. An agreement on these lines can pave the way for dis-engagement and de-escalation before the winter sets in.

According to a study by the Delhi Policy Group, maintaining a credible defensive and surveillance posture requires India to deploy defensive formations with a multi-layered ISR system to cover operational and strategic depths that can detect moves of centralised reserves, rocket forces and strategic assets coming from the Chinese mainland, along extended lines of communication. The surveillance system, to be dependable, must be based on satellite imagery, UAVs and aerial surveillance platforms, complemented by radars and tactical electro-optical surveillance integrated into both tactical C3I and C4ISR systems. The criticality is collation, analysis and dissemination of intelligence in real-time.

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Our current force structures continue to be infantry biased with limited mobility and firepower, which is a limitation that needs to be overcome by suitable changes in the existing defensive posture. The deployments along identified avenues of approach need to be self-contained, in the form of tailor-made Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs) which are agile and eg Vehicles equipped with missiles). Where required, Forward Air Controllers for directing air support, combat Engineers and support elements for operational logistics need to be factored in. Also, as against the prevalent practice of fighting a battle of attrition at the point of contact, these agile formations should be able to provide a capability of manoeuvre and of launching counteroffensive/quid pro quo (QPQ)/riposte operations by rapidly shifting the point of engagement. The concept of military deployment along the LAC could therefore be described as “Positional Defence by tailor-made Integrated Battle Groups supported by Specialised Mobile Reserves.

There has also been talking about LOC-i-sation of the LAC. In the classical sense, this would not be possible in Eastern Ladakh given the type of terrain. Since all agreements have now collapsed and there is a trust deficit with China, India would need to push in additional troops in this region to guard all avenues of approach. Task-oriented battle groups as described above would need to be deployed with specific task orientation. Use of Special Forces would become paramount. The holding of heights South of Pangong Tso up to Rezing La virtually closes most avenues to Leh. The present deployment on the Kailash ridge lines cannot be vacated, because if we leave these critical areas we will not be able to get them back. The mistake made of giving back “Haji Pir” to Pakistan on a platter cannot be repeated.

Battles are not fought in a linear dimension as Vietnam defeated France, USA and China with almost nothing. Afghanistan defeated UK, USSR and USA with less than nothing. The Indian Army is better prepared than Vietnam or Afghanistan. PLA may have great equipment, sophisticated infrastructure at the theatre level but at lower levels, they lack battle experience and operational adaptability. As Clausewitz said, “Strategy is about picking the right battles. Tactics are about successfully executing the battles”. China is getting hyphenated with India. A stalemate is a victory for India, anything more will be a bonus.

The Indian Army has improved its sectoral operational preparedness. It has carried out key strategic maneuvers, has deployed its troops to cover all likely avenues of infiltration and has almost completed its winter stocking. A massive logistical exercise was done to push in almost two lac tons worth of supplies through the two axes i.e. the Zojila and the Rohtang pass. Our forces are battle-ready to face any eventuality.

From current developments in India’s immediate neighborhood, it is evident that the level of threats across our borders is increasing exponentially. Our aim of achieving “punitive deterrence” against Pakistan and “dissuasion/dissuasive deterrence” against China is unlikely to even in the medium term (2030-35). Under these circumstances, “going it alone” seems a challenge which our existing economic and military power can ill afford.

There will be both greater institutionalization as well as a flurry of mini-laterals that will emerge in the Indo-Pacific driven by shared concerns about China’s aggressive behavior. China’s continuing harassments and naval as well as land border intrusions have seen a particular increase in 2020. This has prompted several new partnerships such as Australia-India-France trilateral. The contours of a comprehensive Indian-U.S. partnership, and New Delhi’s commitment to it, will be clear only after the results of the U.S. presidential election in November.

Though we have so far followed a policy of strategic autonomy we will have to look now to strengthen partnerships with other countries in terms of issue-based alliances such as Japan, Indonesia, Australia, USA and Russia. Economic and military areas of co-operation will need to be identified. In September, India and Japan sealed a logistics agreement to provide their militaries with access to each other’s bases for supplies.

Our maritime presence would need to be strengthened. The nation will have to build a strong military posture coupled with economic growth. India would need to gear up itself to explore other markets such as South Korea, Vietnam and Indonesia till such time the Atma Nirbharta Campaign takes off.  The small and medium industries are the backbone of our economy and should be brought on the rail. The world has now changed over. Adaptation will be the key.


Our future relationship with China would need to go through a change. Even if the PLA moved away and restoration of the status quo ante was to happen, which is doubtful, a return to normalcy in India-China bilateral relations may be difficult. The fact that China broke several of the commitments contained in the border agreements and CBMs starting from the 1993 agreement will have a serious impact in rebuilding the ties, as also the domestic political criticism of the government’s handling of this issue.

For all practical purposes, the Chinese military has crossed over into Indian Territory and altered the status quo. With Beijing possibly thinking that it has the overall military balance in its favour, it is in no mood to disengage and return to positions prior to the Galwan clash. While India does not appear to be looking to return to Wuhan summit bilaterally, New Delhi has shown some inclination to establish some semblance of normalcy in the relationship. However, this would still require Beijing to meet India at least halfway.

China has always wanted to de-link border disputes with economic activity. This cannot happen anymore. Till border disputes are settled there has to be an embargo placed on all Chinese firms and no import-export activity to take place. This is easier said than done because over a period of time our industry has become China dependent as is evident with the huge trade imbalance we have. Therefore this will pose the greatest challenge for us. There would be a requirement to re-draft Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) and de-lineate the LAC. China is now slowly getting isolated. It would need to shed its baggage of history. Jingoism will not work. It would have to do away with its “Son of a Heavens” concept. The world will have to get together to evolve a policy of “Congagement” i.e. contain and engage with China. The time for reckoning is coming near.

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Maj. Gen. Dr. Rajan Kochhar, VSM
Maj. Gen. Dr. Rajan Kochhar, VSM
Maj Gen Dr Rajan Kochhar, VSM, retired from the Indian Army, as Major General Army Ordnance Corps, Central Command, after 37 years of meritorious service to the Nation. Alumni of Defence Services Staff College and College of Defence Management, he holds a doctorate in Emotional Intelligence and is a reputed expert on logistics and supply chain management. Gen Kochhar, a prolific writer and defence analyst, has authored four books, including “Breaking the Chinese Myth” which was released recently. He is a Senior Adviser with Defence Research and Studies, Member, Manoj Parikkar Institute of Defence and Strategic Analyses, New Delhi, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) and Society of Airspace Maritime and Defence Studies (SAMDES). He is also on the Board of Management and faculty with Noida Institute of Engineering and Technology, Delhi NCR.


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