Written by Ameya Pratap Singh
At the 20th meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs, it was announced that the ninth round of Corps Commander-level talks would be held at an early date to resolve ongoing border tensions. In any future crisis bargaining, however, India’s ability to force a return to status-quo ante (as of April 2020) will squarely rest on its perceived resolve to reverse China’s territorial gains. But, signalling resolve is not about border roads, military personnel, or defence equipment and advanced fighter jets (these only speak to capacity). It requires demonstrating one’s determination to take action and impose costs on one’s opponent in response to nonconformity with stated expectations. Put simply, India (the sender) must unambiguously communicate to China (the receiver) that it will not tolerate the latter’s unilateral revision of the LAC (the message).
Sounds simple enough. Indian diplomats could convey this message to Beijing and the goal would be achieved, right? Well, not really. If India’s risk-appetite on the border and its ability to impose heavy penalties on China are suspect, why would Beijing take New Delhi’s threat seriously? India has “deterrence by punishment” options, such as a Mountain Strike Corps that has been aided by the acquisitions of Apache attack helicopters, Rafale fighter aircraft, and more Chinook heavy-lift helicopters. It could await a suitable opportunity to retaliate with a limited counter-offensive and exploit points of vulnerability on the Chinese side (similar ops to securing the Kailash Range Crestline on the night of August 29–30, 2020). But such counter measures also risk escalation now that the border is militarised. China could assume India’s threat of retaliation is a bluff. The general perception that India lacks any good military options has been pernicious to its bargaining leverage. In light of this, private communication at the diplomatic or military level may not be enough to signal India’s resolve. Although greater concessions would only be forthcoming if China believed India was serious about imposing heavy costs — as this would diminish China’s perceived value of gains from offensive action — it is clear that it does not currently believe so.
So, what are India’s options? To signal its resolve, the Indian government could take on “audience costs”. By publicly declaring India’s commitment to reclaiming lost territory and returning to status-quo ante, the Indian government could “tie its hands” and impose on itself reputational costs should it fail to deliver on its objective. If a hyper-nationalist government in a democratic state staked its reputation on a policy goal, Beijing would be forced to take notice of its resolve. But, this option is implausible. The Indian government has deftly avoided a clear acceptance of Chinese aggression in Eastern Ladakh. Acting in concert with favourable media coverage (resulting in selective sharing of information with the public-at-large) and easily overcoming a weakened parliamentary Opposition, even ordinary audience costs related to Chinese aggression have not been faced. A voluntary embrace of this seems even more unlikely.
Secondly, India could use covert actions to signal its resolve. Think of pre-Modi surgical strikes across the LOC against Pakistan that showed India’s non-tolerance for cross-border terrorism but did not receive any media coverage or public acknowledgement. However, this option may be counterproductive. As international relations scholars Austin Carson and Keren Yarhi-Milo have argued, if leaders are “unconstrained” and do not face domestic and international pressures against the use of “robust overt options”, the use of covert options can instead signal weakness. Since India may not want to attract international censure relating to the use of force in POK, covert surgical strikes against Pakistan signal resolve. But, since no such constraints apply on the Sino-Indian border, China would assume the Indian government is unwilling to escalate or risk public scrutiny, and this would only weaken its perception of India’s resolve. This is why allowing the US Navy to covertly conduct drills off the coast of the Andaman Islands or deploying the odd warship in the South China Sea are not costly indicators.
The third option available to India — which it is proactively using — is that of “sinking costs”. When a type of action incurs heavy and irretrievable costs up front it is seen as signalling resolve. On the border, this has manifested in military mobilisation. It seems that China’s plan was to offer a mutual withdrawal of troops between Finger 1 and Finger 8 in Pangong Tso as the winter approached. This would yield India’s previous patrolling up till Finger 4 while China would merely retreat to its pre-crisis positions. New Delhi’s rejection of this offer despite the constraints of indefinitely maintaining large numbers of troops in Eastern Ladakh during winter months is a strong signal of its resolve. The second policy manifestation has been India’s economic sanctions on China. Many financial analysts have despondently highlighted that India’s restrictions on Chinese investment and trade of goods disproportionately affect India’s economic growth. But this may be the idea. The fact that India is willing to suffer such economic costs amid a nationwide health emergency and a deep recession tells Beijing how serious it is about restoring the status-quo. Of the three discussed here, New Delhi may have actually chosen the better option. Recent research shows that “hawks” (apropos of Chinese wolf-warriors) tend to see military mobilisation as a more credible signal of resolve than public threats.
Unless Beijing unexpectedly relents, the stand-off on the border with China is likely to be prolonged. In 1986, the Sino-Indian border stand-off on the banks of the Sumdorong Chu river lasted for almost two years. It was only after India’s resoluteness was evidenced that the unprecedented period of rapprochement under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and his Chinese counterpart, Deng Xiaoping, took place. In this case too, if India successfully signals its resolve and is able to restore status-quo ante we could witness another period of extended cooperation. After all, diplomacy serves the cause of peace when it allows states to reveal what they are willing to ﬁght for, thereby avoiding the necessity of doing so.
The writer is reading for a PhD in Area Studies at the University of Oxford