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The Murky Art of War: A geopolitical study of the India-China standoff

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The Murky Art of War

Sun Tzu, an ancient Chinese philosopher, in his seminal text called ‘The Art of War’, provides an excellent, microscopic view into the geographical terrain of a battleground, which is often a telling factor to avert a Pyrrhic victory that comes at a greater cost to the victor, something that has played out during the current border standoff between two ancient neighbors: India and China. Tzu points out that if you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.

India does know where it stands when it comes to its capabilities on all fronts, being a modern democracy of a unique nature in terms of diversity, not only in its people but more so in its physiography. But, it is in the capricious nature of China that it becomes challenging to see through its many disguises, and for a transparent nation like India, it is pure speculation that precedes any decision made at the superior levels to calm turbulent waters. Such is the nature of modern-day diplomacy which has to navigate complex situations in an insidious manner to hold its ground in this emerging new world order.

In order to understand the situation playing out on LAC, a cursory reading of the tenth chapter of The Art of War, titled ‘Terrain’, awards some prerequisites for tasting victory in battlegrounds. These have to do with capturing strategic points that give a geographical advantage; China has been successful in doing so from May 2020 onwards; not only has it inflicted a fatal attack on Indian troops in the Galwan valley of Ladakh, but also occupied precipitous heights and temporizing ground, creating a deadlock.

Sun Tzu advises not to stir forth in a situation like this, but rather to retreat, restrain, engage in tactics to entice the enemy away. All this in order to pave the way for it to exhaust its resources, become restless, come out, and naturally create a window to deliver an attack, with advantage or, in the best-case scenario, complete retreat. Whether the forces on both sides pay any heed to what Sun Tzu has said is for time to tell, and surely it will not be easy to chart out a solution anytime soon. Regardless, let us not allow the heat of the moment to extinguish this chance opportunity. We shall have to dig into the past, perhaps to devise an understanding in this fog of confusion or rather The Fog of an almost war, about what it is that we are up against, and how we got here in the first place.

What History Says

India and China are both ancient civilization states that share a 3917 km long border. These relations were forged due to the Silk Road, the haven of cultural and economic exchange. This helped in the spread of Buddhism from India to East Asia. Modern relations were set, thanks to the shared motives between these two colonized states to curb Japanese Aggression in both China and India (in the northeastern region) during British rule. These relations were carried on into the 1950s when a newly independent India recognized the power of the People's Republic of China in the region.

The appetite for Chinese expansionism grew during this time out of Mao Zedong’s ‘Right-Hand palm and five fingers’ strategy. He described Tibet as the right-hand palm while Ladakh, Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal, and Arunachal Pradesh are the five fingers. Many Tibetans hold to the belief that the recent skirmishes and flexing are a reminder to the world that what happened to them, can happen to anyone. The contact may go further back into the 2nd century BC; ancient texts like Mahabharata also contain references to China. In the 18th century, the Chinese defeated the Sikh Empire in the western sector but lost in areas like Ladakh. Both sides signed a treaty to not transgress into each other’s land.

The Panchsheel Agreement, the brainchild of Nehru in 1954, is an often-cited document - it is based on the principles of mutual respect, non-aggression, non-interference in internal affairs, equality, and peaceful coexistence. The result of this document was as vague as its terms, and so had been the coming acts of China towards India when in 1962 the Sino-Indian war broke out. Nehru’s vision was to restore the psychological presence of Tibet as a buffer zone between India and China through Panchsheel (Singh, 2020), since there was no physical barrier left, thanks to the adversary’s appetite for expanding into Tibet and it’s annoyance at India giving asylum to the Dalai Lama.

The 1962 conflict was a dispute over the sovereignty of Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh, fuelled due to the construction of roads by China in order to link Tibet and Xinjiang. The 1993 Border Peace and Tranquility agreement was a major progress on relations that outlined minimization of military forces to maintain friendly relations, but on the contrary, it led to more face-offs and undercutting of peace on the border.

This was followed by more conflicts in 1967, 1987, Doklam in 2017, and the recent skirmish in 2020. The 21st century marked convergence on many issues like trade, climate change, and reforms but divergence on the status of the Pakistan border, infrastructure developments, and the South China Sea has caused much suspicion between the two nations. Right when India and China were supposed to celebrate the 70th anniversary of their diplomatic ties in 2020, rather a love-hate relationship, it all seems to have been hitting a dead end with the present crisis, that has caused great anguish and a loss of 20 Indian soldiers for India, a heavy price that it has paid due to the bullying behavior of an ancient-neighbor-turned-foe.

The view through a geographical lens

The current crisis can be divided into two threats for India, one on land and the other in the ocean. The threat on land has unfolded in Aksai Chin, this is the area under question in Ladakh which is a part of the Indus watershed, a part of the Eastern frontier of India in North, extending from the Tibetan Plateau, at an average elevation of 17000 feet. Being a highly isolated and uninhabitable region there is rugged terrain and cold, dry climatic conditions that are very challenging for human survival. Both sides have differences of perception and opinion on boundary in these scant areas, owing to the Johnson, McCartney, and McDonalds lines drawn up by the British in an arbitrary manner. China had built NH 219 in this area during the 1950s the discovery of which by the Indian army kicked off the border crisis that has continued to this day.

At present, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA hereon forth) has made its presence felt in different areas with distinct geographies in what seems like a properly planned intrusion. In Pangong Tso Lake, they have left their original position of Finger 8 and fixated themselves between finger 4 and 5, which are Indian patrolling points. The fingers are basically mountain spurs, a lateral ridge descending from the top, providing them a higher vantage point.

Other points like Hot Springs or Gogra are also under siege at Patrolling point 17; Galwan valley was the hotbed of a major scuffle that resulted in casualties on both sides. The most crucial of all is Depsang Plains, which is close to Daulat Beg Oldie, an important Airstrip, where the Chinese have intruded in large numbers at a Y-junction with troops, heavy vehicles, and military equipment. Beijing’s interest in these areas is supported by its “Li” concept that functions on a ritualistic tributary system of the “core” dominating the “peripheries” through myriad forms of relationships, with which it grabs territory in surrounding areas whereas India has trodden the path to its historical greatness with the practice of its “Rajamandala” idiom – a circle of sacred and friendly space or an Indic world order which was metaphysically embedded in unity through peace (Stobdan,2020).

Unlike China’s tributaries federation of peripheries being fuelled by the core, the Indian model revolved around the core being fuelled by the peripheries. But with the present strength in numbers and a well-planned out strategy by the PLA to destabilize the status quo on land, it also calls for an analysis of threats in the Indian Ocean. China has regularly tried to bully nations in the South China Sea, and there has been activity of Chinese Naval Ships conducting survey missions to collect oceanographic data for military purposes in the Indian and Australian water frontiers(Gokhale,2020). The ‘string of pearl’ theory that suggests militaristic strategic interests for China in developing ports, bases and cutting marine based communication and economic lanes circling around India, is also a point of concern and adds to the current pressure. Everything that China does on land and in India’s water frontiers is sure to raise the tensions further.

Diplomatic Dilemmas

On the Geopolitical front, from China’s point of view, Indian actions like infrastructure development and abrogation of Article 370 to show assertiveness in the area are important factors cited by the Chinese experts on the present conflict. China views India as a quasi-ally of the USA. They say that the periodic violent conflicts are the new normal in ties since there seems to be diminishing cooperation on all fronts, due to regional competition between both the rising powers, leading to a trust deficit of sorts. China needs to build peace in the region, if it has to take on a power like the US; it cannot turn against India, it would cause future hurdles to its stability since India is a central point in the trade routes of the Indian Ocean. Not only is it connected to all its neighbors via a geostrategic standpoint, rather all its neighbors are connected to each other via India. China might be aiming at containing India's growing power, just like it did in 1962 so that the western forces do not use India for containing Chinese hunger for Global Hegemony.

It seems to be hell-bent on keeping India under control by meddling in attacks across Aksai Chin in the west, supporting Pakistan on the Kashmir issue, Arunachal and interfering in internal affairs like Maoism, Nagaland disputes, to fracture India both from outside and inside (Singh,2020). On the other hand, it could be that China may not be having any such intent, rather just a muscle-flexing approach, which could in turn cause damage to itself, as India seems to be uniting on all fronts to harm China's interests. India is not out of tricks to curb Chinese aggression, it has the golden tool of blocking Chinese interests in the Indian Ocean, if any, which is also terribly threatened due to the String of Pearl theory. With help from Western powers, there will be a sizable advantage for India to tackle China in both the borders and the ocean.

China’s behavior is strangely similar to classical empires like the Greeks, Romans, Persians, British, French, and Russians. They had sought territorial expansion, established colonies, vassal, and buffers states. Beijing is also using North Korea as an ideological buffer against South Korea, Japan, and the US. In South Asia, it tries to neutralize India’s traditional friends to make them its own friendly buffers against New Delhi. There may be many such sinister designs, but the most manipulative expansionist policy that Beijing pursues is to seek its reunification agenda with Taiwan but tacitly discourage any serious inter-Korean and India-Pakistan rapprochement.

Former NSA - Shivshankar Menon (Menon, 2020), an expert on Indo-China affairs, comments that in an uncertain new world order, with the crowding of rising powers in Asia Pacific, the calls for India to enter into stronger alliances with USA to counter an unstoppable China are not required, as India is much greater and resilient than believed. He believes India should not get entangled in the US-China rivalry, and rather focus on creative diplomacy and flexibility to focus on its own national interests. It should keep its head out of the water, and develop itself on all fronts, so that skirmishes do not shake its very foundations.

The western powers showed a lukewarm approach to help India during Doklam in 2017, therefore one cannot expect much from them now. India needs to focus on developing a new relationship with China, one that does not reek of past strings, like the 1988 Rajiv Gandhi visit. A higher level strategic dialogue is required to forage for newer grounds on which both can look eye to eye, rather than lock heads.

India needs to adjust itself in a multipolar outlook rather than a Bipolar one, as the world shifts from a cold war age to a new age where the wolf warrior seems to be rising in every sphere. The growing dependence on the outer world will only lead to insecurity in India. There is a need for innovation not only in technology it seems, but rather in the policy and mindset of Indians, we need to catch the bus to becoming a developed nation, on our own merit, not by mirroring other nations, and using their experiences to guide our own, because we have enough of our own to suffice; we have what it takes, we just need to act now.

The Winter has come

As the India - China disengagement process has reached a stalemate and winter has approached, the situation on ground continues to remain as tense as ever. The presence of almost 100,000 soldiers belonging to two mammoth armies, spread over 872 km, in the harshest climate ever, on top of colossal peaks, has never been seen before in history (Kaushik, 2020). There are not two, but three foes in this long haul, the entrance of winters, with negative temperatures and winds moving at a breakneck speed adding to the situation. A soldier stranded in these conditions can only survive through endurance, both physical and mental. Nothing can compare to the adversities that are waiting on every end, as with falling temperatures, come frostbite, snow blindness, chilblains, and peeling of the skin due to extremely dry conditions.

There is no question on the fact that Indian troops have much more experience on these heights, given their resilience, experience, motivation, and well-rounded training. In addition to defense, soldiers also have to build bunkers, carry heavy equipment, patrol, dig into the earth, and be vigilant 24x7 for both environmental, physical, military, and psychological threats. Some arrangements made for the soldiers include corrugated, galvanized iron sheets for bunkers; heated tents on the frontlines, and new ‘smart camps’ with integrated electricity, water, heating behind the LAC. With this there is also Rotation at forward posts and at some places, as short as every two weeks, to minimize exposure. Despite timely preparation and supply chains working non stop to provide for any eventuality, it is to be seen whether this dreaded long haul finds any culmination or turns into a permanent fixture for both the militaries, further intensifying India’s border defense engagement along not only the LOC (Line of Control - military control line between India and Pakistan) but also the LAC (Line of Actual Control) this time around.


As China tries to change the status quo, using its historical leverage in Ladakh on account of difference in perceptions and as an answer to India’s infrastructure development on borders, it is to be seen whether it makes an effort to restore the status quo. The disengagement and de-escalation process has reached a stalemate, as it continues on but it is quite crystal that China has trapped India in a “Two steps forward, one step back, with a net gain of one step” and loss of one step for India. The delay of a response by the Indian government and silence on the matter may have given more negotiable power to China.

India should devise a counter approach that projects its historical strength and links with adjacent nations that have favored relationships with India. As China opts for expansionism, India should aptly redeploy its long-cherished realist wisdom and adaptability strategy, the hallmark of its diplomacy, and simultaneously develop its military and economic capabilities. The approach should also be vested in culture and soft power than in politics or the military alone. After all, China and India are not ancient enemies. India also needs to focus on the development of underwater domain awareness to safeguard the Indian Ocean, it can do this by developing robust mechanisms for the exchange of data between different stakeholders of marine, environmental and naval portfolios.

It can also take help from the various fishing communities to back intelligence gathering in the ocean and on the coastal front. In response to the ‘String of Pearl’ theory, the development of a “necklace of diamonds” counter encirclement strategy by India (Mishra,2020) through the development of ports and bases in Japan, Mongolia, Iran, Singapore, and Seychelles is a welcome change. India needs to develop its intelligence - cyber capabilities and leverage some power through the usage of satellites as well to track Chinese movement well in time. Sun Tzu can be recalled again at this stage, for he rightly said “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity” now it is upon India to make an opportunity out of this chaos; it may not know it’s enemy to the best of its abilities, but it knows itself.

China is opening many old wounds, unsure of their consequences; as it blinds itself in the pursuit of power, it should not forget that choosing to destabilize India could slow down its pursuits way more than it anticipates. India is not one to give up easily, a formidable rising power in Asia on its own merit with the hand of civilisations upon its head, it's not only subordinate to China's power but also chases dreams of its own, of 1.366 Bn Indians who are going to surpass the latter in population soon. Also, a hold on democratic values is something that China lacks and India thrives on. It would be quite interesting to see how these two powers with distinct outlooks tackle each other, in order to establish themselves in the new global order. For all we can do for now, is what we do best: speculate.


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A Night Owl original, this piece has been authored by Yastika Sharma.


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