The latest face-off between Indian and Chinese troops last week on the Sikkim border ended without any casualties but the confrontation demonstrates the worsening situation that Delhi faces on its long and contested China frontier. Unlike the recent military crises on the northern frontiers in 2013, 2014 and 2017, the current military confrontation that began in April last year has lasted much longer. Multiple rounds of negotiations are nowhere near finding a framework for disengagement and de-escalation. Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Army is activating multiple points on the frontier with its bold tactics to nibble at India’s territory. Of course, China’s brazen appropriation of territory is not limited to the high Himalayas. Beijing has employed similar tactics in its territorial disputes with most of its neighbours in Asia. Not long ago, China had promised to resolve its disputes with neighbours through peaceful negotiations. But China, today, believes it can unilaterally force changes in territorial disposition. This belief is rooted in the material fact that the military balance of power between China and its neighbours has shifted decisively in Beijing’s favour. The imbalance is far more serious if you look at the growing gap between the economic power of China and its neighbours — Beijing’s GDP is more than five times that of Delhi.
The combination of military and economic imbalance and an ambitious political will for hegemony in Beijing has produced an adverse set of circumstances for India. This new dynamic is evident not only on India’s northern frontiers but also in the subcontinent and its waters as well as in regional and international spheres. Delhi needs near-term actions to hold off Chinese aggression as well as long-term strategies to secure India’s territorial integrity and strategic autonomy from China. Nearly six decades ago, Chinese aggression in the Himalayas compelled India to radically overhaul its defence management. Unlike Mao, who was leading a poor and divided nation, Xi’s China is a superpower that can impose considerable costs on India . At the operational level, China is trying to pin down the Indian army that must stay vigilant and on high alert in defending the disputed border that has become active. The focus on protecting the land frontiers has already begun to reduce the much-needed emphasis on naval expansion. But it is not just a question of matching China’s resources, military or financial. India needs to develop asymmetric strategies that can help overcome the growing power gap with China.
Since Independence, India has allowed political illusions about solidarity with China to mask the depth of real problems with the northern neighbour, underestimate Beijing’s growing power, and misread its political intentions. The 1962 shock did not prevent Delhi from making the same errors of judgements from the late 1980s when India bet on normalising ties with China and aligned with Beijing to produce a “multipolar” world. The price of that folly has just begun to unfold. It will need an enormous, prolonged and, above all, a wise national effort to stop China from dictating terms to India.