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Can India Pursue the ‘Strategic Encirclement’ of China?

Pushing back against Chinese behavior in East and Southeast Asia would shore up India’s position in the Himalayas.

Mohamed Zeeshan
Can India Pursue the ‘Strategic Encirclement’ of China?

The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson leads the guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill and the missile destroyer USS Halsey during a passing exercise with Indian navy ships during Exercise Malabar 2012.

Credit: Flickr/Official U.S. Navy Page

As winter approaches in the Himalayas, India faces a dangerous and difficult problem. China has occupied Indian territory along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) amounting to as much as 1,000 square kilometers, according to some intelligence sources. And far from vacating it, Beijing is now digging in.

Last month, reports claimed that Chinese troops were laying fiber optic cables in the region, preparing to remain for the long haul, even as talks with India dragged on. Then, China started to advance its boundary claims from 1959, which many believe lent credence to the theory that Beijing is trying to take more territory from India bit by bit – a strategy that is called “salami slicing.”

For India, all this means that taking back lost territory would require the forcible eviction of Chinese troops, even war on some scale. That is a huge problem for New Delhi, but not least because any war is costly. Even though China has several enemies along its periphery, a war in the Himalayas would likely find India fighting alone.

The South China Sea is a multilateral theater. Chinese maritime claims there affect several countries, and peace in the region is seen as being integral to the trade interests of many nations. The United States also has a considerable presence in the area and is bound by treaty obligations to protect countries like the Philippines. Likewise, in East Asia, the U.S. has wide-ranging cooperation with Japan and South Korea, which will help those countries in the event of a conflict with Beijing.

But in the event of a conflict in the Himalayas, India will be entirely on its own. The only other major power that has had any participation in the Himalayan dispute recently is Russia, but New Delhi should not expect any help from Moscow in a war against Beijing.

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China likely knows this, which is why it has been willing to step up its aggressive activity in the mountains, even at the cost of diplomatic talks. But for India, these calculations make the border situation even more dangerous: If Beijing is betting that India will be isolated during a war in the Himalayas – and India is unable to take back any of the land lost to Chinese troops so far – China has little incentive not to attempt further land grabs along the LAC in coming months.

In response, India should probably take a leaf out of Beijing’s own book. In recent years, China has been practicing strategic encirclement around India in South Asia. It has made India’s prospects in the Himalayas more difficult by forging a partnership with Pakistan and launching the prospect of a “two-front war”: New Delhi now fears that if it goes to war with Beijing, it will also face simultaneous aggression on the Pakistani front.

In order to deter Beijing in the Himalayas, India should try to do the same in Southeast and East Asia. New Delhi needs to cultivate allies along China’s periphery who would turn a conflict in the Himalayas into a multi-front conflict for Beijing in Southeast and East Asia.

But such a strategy would only work if India is willing to shed its non-aligned, hands-off approach to the South China Sea and tensions in East Asia.

India is wary of making security commitments to allies in the South China Sea and East Asia, which would see Indian troops fighting alongside the U.S. and others in those regions in the event of a war. New Delhi believes that such arrangements are futile because it is skeptical that anybody would come to India’s defense in the event of a war in the Himalayas.

Yet, on the other hand, India’s pursuit of non-alignment and strategic independence has now left India  on its own. If India links the Himalayan disputes to the South China Sea and East Asian disputes – by getting into mutual defense arrangements and pledging military support to allies in those regions – it would help strengthen India’s hand in the event of a war in the Himalayas.

Apart from helping drive simultaneous resistance in Southeast and East Asia, such a policy may also help India secure more direct support in the Himalayan region itself. If there is a war in the Himalayas, India will gain from intelligence support and military equipment. And if there is any country that could be relevant in such a situation for New Delhi, it is the U.S. Appealing to American interests more directly by fighting in the South China Sea would help bring U.S. support to India in the event of a war.

To deter China’s “salami slicing” tactics, India has to increase the costs of a Himalayan war for Beijing. To that end, it’s time for New Delhi to explore the option of strategic encirclement.