India has been haunted by a crushing military defeat to China in 1962. The country was so traumatized by the loss that the report commissioned to analyze the debacle has never been made public. Indians internalized the asymmetry of power between themselves and China. After all, China’s economy is five times that of India — and its military spending is several times more.
With Pakistan seen as India’s main adversary, Indians thought of China as either mostly benign or far too big to mess with. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made five trips to China in the last six years and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping 18 times. Despite tensions along the nearly 2,500-mile-long India-China border, Modi pointed out that not a single bullet had been fired between the countries in four decades.
All that has changed. Last May, China’s PLA troops made incursions across the Line of Actual Control, the agreed boundary that separates the two countries.
In August, Indian troops took control of strategically critical heights to the north and south of Pangong Lake, as well as locations along the Kailash mountain range. The Indian army was able to gain clear view of a crucial garrison town inside China. None of these were areas where the Chinese intrusions had taken place; India had effectively opened a new front of military conflict. Thereafter, for six months, Indian and Chinese troops stood eyeball to eyeball, sometimes with just 10 yards separating them at heights of over 17,000 feet; battle tanks were sometimes within 50 yards of each other.
The option to go for the jugular came after India was exasperated by the Chinese during talks. When Lt. Gens. Harinder Singh and PGK Menon met their Chinese counterpart, Maj. Gen. Liu Lin, negotiations went on for 13 to 17 hours without making headway. “The Chinese would deliberately go round in circles,“ said one official, who asked to remain unnamed. “Their only aim was to tire us out.”
In February, India and China agreed to pull back troops from peaks around Pangong Tso lake, the world’s highest saltwater lake.
“The Chinese operated on the calculation that India doesn’t have the stomach for full-blown war,” Syed Ata Hasnain, a retired army commander, tells me. “India’s military has always responded forcefully against aggression, but we have never actually launched or initiated an offensive operation. That is why this quid pro quo action [was] unique.” Hasnain believes without this offensive action, the Chinese would never have compromised.
India’s military pressure ultimately persuaded the Chinese to pull back their forces from Pangong Tso lake, seemingly lifting the country from the shadows of 1962. But the peace is tenuous, and possibly temporary. Tens of thousands of troops and tanks remain deployed in Ladakh at rear positions. There are other mountain ridges where the dispute continues, a reminder of how inflammable the region is and, ultimately, how the militarization of the Himalayas appears to be permanent.
India’s illusions about China are over. A two-front war against both China and Pakistan in the future is a real danger to India, especially considering that many consider the latter to be a vassal of Beijing. The army staved off the Ladakh crisis with China, but battleground collusion between China and Pakistan could be a nightmare.
Military battles aside, India has gone on the offensive in other arenas. China sulked as India reached out to Taiwan — a de facto recognition of its nationhood. India has banned 200 Chinese apps and restricted foreign direct investment by Chinese companies. In turn, Chinese hackers assaulted India’s power grid in Mumbai; now they are reportedly eyeing oil and gas assets.
India’s reset with China offers an opening to the United States. President Biden jumped on it last month as he led the meeting of the Quad, an alliance between Japan, Australia, India and the United States. Though unspoken, the message was clear: Counter China.
To do so, India’s hand must be strengthened. The Americans should no longer play softball with Pakistan. Currently, the Quad is holding joint naval exercises, a reminder that India’s presence in the Indo-Pacific must be backed by other allies. And, as nations call out China for its opacity on the pandemic, the Quad must move fast to roll out vaccines before China uses its own vaccine to purchase clout among smaller nations.
An “alliance of democracies,” as Biden called it, must prove itself. And one key test will be the alliance’s willingness to stand united with India against the rise of a dictatorial and deceitful China.