A Chinese and Indian soldier place a barbed wire fence at a border crossing after a meeting between leaders from the two countries in a file photo. Photo: AFP via Getty / Desha-Kalyan Chowdhury

The India-China military standoff in Ladakh cannot be seen as an “expansionist” move by China – as some Indian analysts prefer to describe the situation. China has nothing to gain – and probably much to lose – by attacking India.

A respected voice in Indian military matters, Lt. Gen. (Retd) Syed Ata Hasnain, who commanded troops on India’s northern border, said recently that China did not have a sufficient concentration of high-quality infantry to make deep penetrations across the Line of Actual Control (LAC). 

In an Indian newspaper article, the ex-general said the “PLA also betrayed an element of its intent of not going beyond a threshold when it did not make haste to occupy the heights… So what is China attempting to do if it is not intending to capture territory or aggressively assert its claim lines beyond a point? Why is it constantly in touch with us through military talks?” He said the situation was a “hybrid war” in which the PLA came prepared for LAC engagements and “not a campaign-style conventional effort to capture objectives. Its strength betrayed its operational intent.” 

The protracted standoff in eastern Ladakh has clarified China’s intentions. The country’s main priority is to ensure the security of Aksai Chin and the highway that connects Tibet with Xinjiang province. India upset the status quo with its August 2019 decision to bifurcate the state of Jammu & Kashmir and create a separate administrative division for Ladakh to be administered directly from Delhi. India then drew a new map showing Aksai Chin as part of Ladakh. China reacted sharply at the diplomatic level and when that failed to produce results, it proceeded to change the status quo on the ground. 

China’s core concerns were revealed in remarks by President Xi Jinping when he addressed the Central Symposium on Tibet Work in Beijing on August 29. He said China wanted to “ensure national security and enduring peace and stability [of Tibet], steadily improve people’s lives, maintain a good environment, solidify border defense and ensure frontier security,” Xinhua reported

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on September 4, 2017. Photo: Agencies

China has effectively heightened awareness of the border dispute so that a buffer zone might be created separating the two militaries and restoring peace until a final boundary settlement is reached. This underlines the importance of reaching agreement during senior military negotiations scheduled for October 12. 

Ideally, Modi’s strong leadership will produce the level of statesmanship required to break through the impasse. There is a high level of appreciation within the country that Modi has held a steady line since May. The nation also has confidence in the armed forces’ capability to safeguard the country’s territorial integrity. India’s military leadership has done well to produce a national consensus that the Indian armed forces are more than a match for the PLA. 

At such moments, perceptions matter – especially if they can boost national morale. Tough talk from strategic hawks has also supported public morale, even at a time government critics insist the country has “lost” territory. 

An Indian perspective on the border disputes. Image: Mapsofindia

India’s leadership has kept its counsel close and refused to be bullied into adopting rigid attitudes. Simply put, even in such a complex game of give and take, Modi’s ability to make difficult decisions is not in doubt. 

Modi made a very major decision on agricultural reforms recently, undeterred by an opposition threat to rally the powerful farm lobby and rural vote against the move, which could have wreaked political havoc. Overall, Modi’s popularity is far above any other Indian politician today. 

When it comes to border issues with China, Modi is better placed than Nehru was at a comparable point in the late 1950s and early 1960s. With Modi, there are no factions of insiders wearing him down with confusing advice; nor does he have to be wary of dissent from his own party. 

In the end, the border dispute will be a political decision so it’s imperative to take a broad view of India’s political economy. Significantly, the coronavirus has only affected a fraction of the country’s 1.4 billion population so there’s still a long way to go to see light at the end of the dark tunnel. With the catastrophe not fully understood, economic recovery to pre-pandemic level remains highly problematic. 

India needs all the help it can get to stimulate recovery. The intellectual challenge lies in remodeling the country’s non-alignment doctrine of the cold war era to match current global politics for economic benefit.  

Significantly, the government’s readiness to address the boundary question and reach a settlement in a realistic time frame – preferably, before the general elections in 2024. If the threads can be picked up from where Nehru and Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai left them at their Delhi meeting in April 1960, that will be a giant step forward. 

Realistically speaking, a boundary settlement is possible if the two countries accept – with minor concessions – the MacMohan Line in Arunachal Pradesh and China’s claim line in the western sector, as defined in Premier Chou’s letter to Nehru in 1959. (SeeIndia, China inch towards a Himalayan deal). 

The late US president John Kennedy’s wisdom about crises yielding unique opportunities may be more important than ever today for India’s leadership. In the highly-polarized internal political climate, it is too much to expect a consensus anytime soon. That puts the onus almost entirely on Modi himself. A far-sighted view of the India-China relationship based on a realistic understanding of China’s rise as a superpower is needed to navigate the path toward a boundary settlement.