In 2005, talks between China and India were supposed to arrive at a framework agreement on the boundary question as part of the second phase of negotiations. But talks stalled, to the frustration of India’s leadership. This stagnation, in turn, made India take intense border stand-offs in 2013 (Daulat Beg Oldi, Chumar) and 2014 (Demchok) more seriously, triggering a change in attitude toward border patrolling and management in the border areas. India was already concerned about the rapid infrastructure build-up in Tibet and the upgrade of feeder roads to the borders areas allowing Chinese troops to amass more quickly and efficiently. The lack of substantial progress in negotiations also led to the perception that the Chinese were reluctant due to a desire to use India’s infrastructural and military disadvantage to amass territorial gains in the border areas, where Indian patrolling was minimal or non-existent, to solidify its border claims. As a result, the 2013 border stand-off made India expedite decisions to update infrastructure at its border areas. Indian efforts to reduce tensions through clarification on the border areas seemed unsuccessful.
Consequently, India signaled its intention to patrol along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), wherever its perception of the border may lay, and acquire weapons and equipment necessary to do so. In the recent years, aggressive border patrolling has become part of India’s border management strategy. India’s road infrastructure along the border with China has been significantly improved in an effort to reduce the gap in military asymmetry. Indian military planners had to consider that changes on the Indian side would incur Chinese responses and stand-offs would become increasingly part of border tensions as India patrols within its perceptions of the border, which had been out of reach before due to its poor military resources and a previously defensive attitude.
The Chinese PLA have been sensitive to the Indian military infrastructure changes in India-China border areas. Naturally, China wanted to preserve its military advantage against India. Logistical problems on the Indian side continue to be a welcome respite to Chinese military planners, who believe that India would be unable to sustain a war with China. Increasing alarm over Indian military upgrades was always tinged with dismissals of poor quality and slow place. These twin assertions — about Indian military modernization as well as boasting of the superiority of Chinese military infrastructure — have created cognitive dissonance regarding the Indian military posture. It leads to the public advertising of questionable Indian military modernization along the border, and at the same time more attention and resources in upgrading Chinese capabilities in what is commonly described in China as plateau operations (高原作战). It has also led to the elevation of the Tibet Military Command in the aftermath of wider Chinese military reforms.
For example, readings on plateau operations show the seriousness of the Chinese response to the improvement in India’s military posture. First, more training exercises in terms of deploying integrated brigades are now part of China’s responses keeping in mind Indian upgrades in anti-tank capabilities, and the need for troops to conduct extensive reconnaissance compared to China’s other theater commands due to plateau conditions. Second, the many disadvantages in plateau operations are being assessed far more in exercises in order to see the relative advantages in the border posture against India. Third, air defense capabilities are being strengthened, including special focus on mobile howitzers and air reconnaissance capabilities. Overall, the Western Theater Command has increased its attention toward the border with India, especially after the reorganization of the military regions, which is either a recognition of the existing importance of India or a growing one.
Political Constraints and China’s India Policy
The apprehensions triggered by military posture changes would not descend into conflict if the political environment is controlled efficiently. For example, after Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, his immediate response to Indian military upgrades and increased patrolling was tempered in terms of ground patrolling. Even the intense stand-offs thereafter were only in response to border infrastructure such as tin sheds, and road construction in the disputed areas that both sides considered crucial to their border claims. Broadly, the Chinese responses could be attributed to a desire to keep military tension with India low when China was increasing its interactions with Pakistan through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and reorienting its strategy to have a more proactive presence in South Asia.
Nonetheless, the PLA’s traditional dominance in the land borders and the legitimacy it had derived because of its victory in the 1962 border war with India meant that it has significant influence in China’s India policy. Moreover, the Chinese military faces less pressure from its political leadership in the Indian theater compared to the Korean Peninsula, Japan, or the South China Sea as the Indian theater is devoid of any leadership from external hegemons such as the United States. However, the Chinese leadership did restrain the PLA when the overall bilateral relationship became destabilized by the situation. Chinese military reforms and centralized control, to some extent, has made the changes in the India-China border areas more integrated and in cohesion with the responsibilities of the theater command. In other words, the PLA’s assessment of its capabilities would become more nuanced as the joint command would look at not only the traditional dominance of the army, but also compare the effectiveness of all the services in the border areas leading it to suggest more changes to China’s military posture.
These changes no doubt are enhancing mutual apprehensions as China brought the early harvest proposal in the Sikkim area. The continued increase in military infrastructure in the India-China border has put India ill at ease, and has strengthened its resolve to maintain advantage wherever it can. India is not willing to compromise unless and until there is a corresponding effort from the Chinese side. The Doklam stand-off in 2017 unravelled these issues as Chinese actions betrayed the need to offset any perceived Indian military strength in the border region. The surprise and astonishment over India’s military response led to adverse reactions and solidified China’s perceptions that India’s military advantage is a threat to Chinese military posture, rather than seeing India’s actions as motivated by legitimate security concerns. In their understanding, as long as their border management is defensive, military infrastructure to offset India’s military advantage is legitimate. Thus, any improvement at border control has to be remedied before the Indian military becomes too adept at curtailing Chinese movements.
Dr M. S. Prathibha is an Associate Fellow at the East Asia Centre in Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.