Facing the city of Megara stood the mighty army of Antigonus II, his elephants lined up for the final, crushing assault on its walls. Then, the historian Polyaenus recorded in 161CE, “the Megarians daubed some swine with pitch, set fire to it, and let them loose among the elephants. The pigs grunted and shrieked under the torture of the fire, and sprang forwards as hard as they could among the elephants, who broke their ranks in confusion and fright, and ran off in different directions”.
Three thousand People’s Liberation Army—perhaps more—are now facing off against similar numbers of Indian soldiers along the Galwan River valley in Ladakh, in the largest crisis along the Line of Actual Control since the Doklam crisis of 2017. The story of the burning pigs tells us this: in war the smart often triumph over the strong.
For years now, Beijing has been pursuing a strategy of intimidation along its entire periphery. It has coerced the Philippines, threatened Taiwan, clashed with Vietnam and forced Japan to scramble combat jets more often than at the height of the Cold War. The strategy has allowed China’s political leadership to harvest ultranationalism to buttress its legitimacy—at little real military cost.
New Delhi has responded to the pressure on the LAC by pushing back—hard. The Galwan River crisis makes it vital, though, to consider the risks that both sides could end up in a war neither wants.
First up, it’s important to understand just how the tensions we’re now seeing were born. Following the 1999 Kargil war, India became increasingly concerned about its vulnerabilities in the east. Border road development was accelerated, and military capabilities enhanced. Then, in 2008, Defence Minister AK Antony issued a classified directive ordering the military to prepare for a two-front war—a decision that was to lead to the raising of two new mountain divisions.
Even as New Delhi was seeing a fire-breathing dragon emerging from the global financial crisis of 2008, though, Beijing was focussed on the lances and arrows of the hunters it believed had surrounded it.
Fear shaped Beijing’s thinking. Thinking—wrongly—that the Soviet Union was planning to invade China by 1985, paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had led his country into a strategic relationship with the United States. The relationship laid the foundations for Chinese prosperity and power.
But, as the world began to change from 2008, and the United States began to see China as a genuine strategic competitor, a new period of isolation seemed to be looming.
Persuaded India was working in concert with Western powers to contain its rise, Beijing began responding more aggressively to India’s build-up in Ladakh. Everything from minor road-construction work in Chumar to irrigation works in Demchok drew pushback from the PLA. The PLA also upgraded its military infrastructure in Tibet. Transgressions along the LAC, particularly in Ladakh, saw a marked uptick.
Then came the crisis: in the Chip-Chap River near Daulat Beg Oldi in 2013, at Chumar in 2014, at Doklam in 2017.
In Galwan, the crisis began with assertive Indian patrolling on territory China claims lies on its side of the LAC. In 1962, China had
annihilated Indian forward positions in the Galwan valley, with an entire PLA battalion overrunning heroic resistance from tiny, under-equipped pickets of the Jat Regiment. Later that year, China published maps claiming that the Indian positions had been built on its side of the border.
Last year, though, India completed a new road from the key forward airfield of Daulat Beg Oldi to the mouth of the Galwan river and begun to patrol the territory it had lost in 1962 more aggressively.
The unfolding crisis began when Indian and Chinese patrols brushed up against each other in the valley earlier this month, and began brawling—leading, first, to intervention by a larger PLA patrol, and then to reinforcement by the Indian Army.
In part, China’s response is simply pushback against Indian resolve. Tempting as it is to read geostrategic motives into the confrontation in Galwan, there is little evidence to suggest the face-off came about by design.
Figures show PLA transgressions have, for the most part, been dynamic—enmeshed, as it were, with the intensity of the Indian Army’s summer posture. In 2016, for example, transgressions fell sharply relative to 2015; there was a smaller dip in 2017, relative to 2016. Last year, there was a sharp rise—as India pushed forward on border works in the shadow of the 2017 crisis in Doklam.
These transgressions have no little to do with the fact that the two sides agree on little about the LAC, other than the fact that it ends at the Karakoram pass. Zorawar Daulet Singh, an expert on the China-India military relationship, has
noted that both sides have long engaged in “probing up to their preferred Lines of Actual Control”.
In essence, both armies are making their red lines known to the other—and hoping good management, along with good luck, ensure the conflict stays limited to pushing-and-shoving.
For all the aggression, there’s little evidence either side is willing to go to war to change the status quo. The PLA Air Force’s forward airfields in Tibet, the Indian Air Force says, show none of the signs of hardening and expansion preparation for conflict would entail. Though the PLA Army has upgraded its capabilities in Tibet, moving in new armour and artillery, its troop numbers remain modest. India, moreover, has also expanded its military capabilities in Ladakh, pumping in armour and artillery, and building new roads.
There’s a good reason for the PLA to be war-averse. In 1984-1985, when China fought its last real war, with Vietnam, it ended up with an exceptionally bloody nose. President Deng Xiaoping ordered his armies to “touch the buttocks of a tiger”, hoping to demonstrate “our military is still good enough”. Instead, the PLA ended up 12,192 dead—and none of its objectives in Vietnam secured.
The 1984-1985 war, moreover, demonstrated an army rotten to the core. Elements of the 67th Army, on their way out of Laoshan, Xiaoming Zhang’s magisterial history of the war records, demanded $1,500 from their 47th Army replacements for all intelligence on enemy positions and firepower. In another case, an armoured unit which did not receive care packages despatched its tanks to surround an infantry division headquarters and extorted its share.
In the decades since, China’s military dragged itself into the 21st century, but the dragon is still missing claws and teeth. Paul Dibbs, an Australian defence expert, points out the country’s state-of-the-art Type 95 submarines will only be as stealthy as the 1980s Soviet titanium-hulled Akula-class. Large parts of the Air Force and Navy are still made up of obsolescent equipment.
For all the technological gloss, the ghost of 1984-1985 still hangs over future wars. The combat qualities of the new cohort of PLA officers—products of China’s one-child policy, which spawned a generation derisively referred to as “Little Emperors”—are unclear. PLA newspapers are replete with stories of new recruits using boarding-school tricks like spitting out red ink to avoid training.
Liu Mingfu, a scholar at China’s National Defence University, estimated in a 2012 report that 70 percent of the PLA’s troops were only sons—a number rising to 80 percent among combat troops. In a country with a growing cohort of aged people, with ancient cultural norms against sending only sons to war, the consequences could be significant.
These stark realities, and a clear-eyed understanding that large-scale war would come with crippling costs, restrain China from military action. Even hawks in China’s strategic establishment, like Major-General Qiao Liang,
have been cautioning against the costs of a full-blown war, arguing it would inflict economic desolation.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has since 2015, repeatedly tried to nudge China towards a rapid agreement on the border dispute. Beijing, however, seems to believe the concessions that would involve would have a negative impact on more important territorial disputes it has elsewhere in east Asia. Even more important, some in Beijing think the border issue will give China leverage should politics in Tibet become unsettled after the passing of the 84-year-old Dalai Lama, Lhamo Thondup.
The lesson India should be drawing is simple: a border settlement is profoundly unlikely any time soon.
New Delhi knows there’s no easy path forward. Though the idea of allying more closely with the United States might seem seductive, President Donald Trump has shown himself a fickle friend—even to long-standing partners in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and South Korea. And though countries like Japan or Vietnam might have concerns about Chinese aggression, neither is looking for a rupture with China.
For the foreseeable future, therefore, India is going to have to find ways to push back against the PLA on the LAC—while at once avoiding crisis that serves no clear ends. New Delhi needs to beware of the seduction of becoming mired in stand-offs of little or no strategic value, only because domestic political opinion makes retreat difficult.Leaders in both countries believe their success in managing past crises gives reason for confidence that the next one will also contained. Each crisis, though, brings with it the prospect of misjudgment and missteps that could lead both countries into a war neither wants, nor can afford.