An Indian Air Force aircraft is seen against the backdrop of mountains surrounding Leh, the joint capital of the union territory of Ladakh, on June 27, 2020. Photo: AFP

Comprehending Beijing’s short-term tactics and long-term strategies is a very tough job because of the opaque Chinese governance system. However, Chinese policy on India after the Ladakh military standoff appears lucid and very straightforward. 

China has sent an unequivocal message to India that the demarcation and finalization of their boundaries, either on the map or on the ground, are unlikely to happen soon, as reported on Friday by one of India’s less jingoistic and more reliable digital journalism outlets, The Wire. 

China’s ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, conveyed such a message to India, speaking on “India-China Relations: The Way Forward” at a webinar held by the Institute of Chinese Studies on Thursday.

Responding to a question on why China does not want to settle the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with the exchange of maps, Sun said Beijing was still not keen to restart the border-demarcation process with India. 

The Wire quotes Sun as saying, “The purpose of clarification of [the] LAC is to maintain peace and tranquility. When we look back into history, if one side has unilaterally [stated] its own perception on the LAC during the negotiations, that will lead to disputes. That’s why this process cannot … move on. I think that this is a departure [from the] original purpose.”

The process of demarcation and clarification of the Sino-Indian border was halted in 2002. China and India agreed to engage to improve bilateral ties in trade and economic cooperation, and building consensus on global issues, keeping their differences on the border issue aside. 

Sun Weidong’s remarks, as reported by The Wire, support the conclusion that Chinese strategists do not consider a final settlement of the border a priority at this time. According to Sun, the main issue is for India and China to maintain peace and tranquility on the border in alignment with the agreements of 1993 and 1996 and other confidence-building measures. 

Sun also hinted that Chinese strategists take the view that the 1993 and 1996 agreements with India were the outcome of the particular historical contexts of the 1990s, and the strategic setting has changed drastically since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in May 2014.

The border settlement cannot be made according to agreements reached under different circumstances in the past. That is, the changed context for Chinese strategists is India’s strategic “tilt” toward “the West” after August 2016.

Thus Beijing wants to say clearly to New Delhi that border-demarcation issues are irrelevant if India wants to pursue a strategic alliance with the US. 

“The important thing is that we must follow those agreements and continue our discussion and consultation along the diplomatic channels and also among corps commanders, [and] also find out a way to de-escalate the situation and restore peace and tranquility,” The Wire quotes the Chinese ambassador as telling the Indian government.

In other words, the Chinese ambassador to India has indicated that Beijing wants to maintain peace and tranquility on the border as a short-term tactic, but does not seek a permanent solution right now or in the near future but only as a long-term strategy.

Thus China has left India to choose between two options on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. 

The first option is to fulfill the “agreements and consensus” reached between India and China at their informal summits in Wuhan, China, in April 2018 and in Mahabalipuram, India, in October 2019. Beijing wants New Delhi to decouple from its strategic alliance with Washington. It also wants India to join hands with China in building an open, multipolar, pluralistic, and participatory global economic order.  

The second option is to demarcate the border with China by force. That would mean waging a full-scale war with China, and winning the battle, forcing to Beijing accept the border as defined by New Delhi.

However, if India chooses this second option, it will be suicidal. India cannot afford a war against China because of the vast disparity in power between the two countries in terms of both economic and military capabilities. 

The military and economic costs of war would be far higher for India than for China, especially right now; in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, India is struggling to meet its regular defense and development budgets. 

About 2,500 years ago, the Chinese military thinker and philosopher Sun Tzu rightly said, “Who wishes to fight must first count the cost.” How it would pay for a war is a very crucial question for India at this moment.  

More important, if war breaks out between these two Asian giants, the political setbacks will be far more significant for India than for China because of the differences in their governance systems. If India faces a defeat in such a war, the BJP won’t likely retain power. 

Thus if the BJP-led government chooses war, it will be shooting itself in the foot. 

Ambassador Sun Weidong’s remarks at the webinar indicate that China sees a clear strategic advantage over India as long as the border dispute drags on. With the deployment of 20,000 to 40,000 troops, China can keep India’s political and military leadership occupied by border issues.

The Ladakh episode has shown that China can keep India busy by prolonging border tensions. China has also gotten India to waste its scarce financial resources, political and military energy, time and effort to protect a tract of barren borderland in the Himalayan highlands. 

As a nation, India will miss the opportunity for economic development because of resources diverted to maintain the Line of Actual Control. As a result, New Delhi will fail to prioritize socioeconomic development, divert its scarce financial resources to protect barren territory, and derail the nation’s economic progress.

As a result, India will shrink economically and politically on the global stage. Overall, it is apparent that Beijing’s strategists reckon India could end up being about a half-century behind China and they can prevent India from emerging as a rival in the future.

Chinese strategists are well aware of the history and psyche of Indians, willing to fight for their territorial pride over barren land.

These strategists want to contain India for the long term by exploiting Indians’ territorial nationalism as a crucial weakness. They believe they can fulfill their long-term strategic objective – to prevent India from evolving as an aspirant superpower – as long as the border issue lingers. China wants to hang an albatross on India’s neck by prolonging the border dispute.

A final agreement on India-China border demarcation will be possible only when the military and economic capabilities between these two countries are at parity. Then, no force will be needed to settle their border disputes.

Until then, China is making strategic moves on the geopolitical chessboard, and it is India’s turn to make an appropriate counter-move by making a tough choice. 

Bhim Bhurtel

Bhim Bhurtel teaches Development Economics and Global Political Economy in the Master's program at Nepal Open University. He was the executive director of the Nepal South Asia Center (2009-14), a Kathmandu-based South Asian development think-tank. Bhurtel can be reached at