Saturday, 29 August 2020

Why India Did Not Go to War with China

India had the military ability to evict the intrusions in Ladakh or carry out a quick grab action of its own in the early stages of the crisis. Yet, it did not exercise the offensive military options. The explanation for such strategic reticence lies at the political level. 

The Prime Minister speaking at an all-party meeting on 19 June said, “Neither have they [China] intruded into our border, nor has any post been taken over by them”? (Wire 2020). Following from this claim, a flippant answer to the question implicit in the title could be that India did not go for a military option in Ladakh because there were no intrusions. Similarly, a superficial answer to the question is that the army was caught unawares by the intrusions and could neither evict the Chinese from the Indian side of the line of actual control (LAC) or make a counter grab across it.

Evidently, the army, taking COVID-19 precautions rather seriously, had de­­ferred the usual spring manoeuvres in Ladakh. However, privileging the threat from the novel coronavirus over the Chinese propensity for periodic transgressions was owed in part to a dis­counting of the China threat at the strategic level. After all, not only had the Prime Minister, in early December last year, hosted the second informal summit in Mamallapuram with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, but the two special representatives, Ajit Doval and Wang Yi, had met at the 22nd meeting of special representatives later in the month. Therefore, for the army to have let down its guard is explicable, but subsequent relative inaction calls for an explanation.

Not having registered any strategic warning, operational-level early warning indicators were not given due significance. An extensive Chinese troop exercise reported in late May in Korla in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, close to Aksai Chin, failed to trigger an alarm. Besides, the pattern of Chinese transgressions over the past decade, such as at Depsang in April 2013 and Chumar in September 2014, has seen an eventual falling back by them. At last, 73-day long crisis, at Doklam, India had shown its resolve, leading to a belief that this would deter China.

In the present crisis, India preferred not to follow the Kargil model of evicting intrusions. India maintains force levels in Ladakh sufficient to react to contingencies such as small-scale intrusions if launched timely, before the Chinese fir­med in or built up reserves. If the opportune time is lost for early eviction or a counter grab (taking over a sliver of territory elsewhere), then additional troops would be required and as would the time for acclimatisation and familiarisation. By then, it would be too late as the Chinese, taking advantage of their better lines of communication and having seized the initiative, would have firmed in. Thus, India lamely settled for mirror deployment, or a troop build-up intended to deter further intrusions. Even as the developments in Ladakh were playing out, China had prudently taken care to beef up other sectors, evidenced by the 9 May face-off at Naku La in north Sikkim, to deter the option of horizontal expansion of the crisis by India.

It is apparent that the Chinese accurately assessed a timid Indian military response and were prepared to handle it militarily. Even so, they must have been surprised at India’s resort to military and diplomatic talks, with an expansive aim to restore status quo ante, a reversion to their side of the LAC. Five rounds of talks between corps commanders and three days of talks at divisional commander level at the military level, interspersed with four rounds of the Working Mechanism for Consultation & Coordination on India–China Border Affairs, buttressed by telephone conversations between the two foreign ministers on 17 June and the two special representatives on 5 July, have not unseated the Chinese from the areas of intrusion at Pangong Tso, Gogra and at Depsang. The three locations found mention in the report that was pulled down without explanation from the website of the Ministry of Defence (Hindu 2020). Despite diminishing returns, India is readying to keep troops deployed for the long haul over the winter.

Explaining the Riddle

India’s operational formations have their primary operational task cut out—of defending national territory—and have the requisite resources either under com­mand or on call. In Ladakh, not only have armoured elements been pre-positioned but air force capabilities have been enhanced by advance landing grounds. Forward basing of squadrons with advanced jet fighters, as the Su-30, has been done in the North East. Two divisions were raised over a decade back for boosting defences in Arunachal Pradesh. A mountain strike corps was partially raised for counter offensives (Economic Times 2020). Therefore, not only did India have the in-theatre resources to take on the Chinese, but also the capability to deter escalation.

Doctrinally, India has been long prepared. India’s “pivot” towards China preceded the American one under Barack Obama. Over the 2000s, having catered for the Western front by drawing lessons from the Operation Parakram in a changed doctrine, colloquially called ‘‘cold start,’’ the Indian army came up with the ‘‘transformation’’ study that built up the China threat (Gokhale 2011). This eventuated into a new army doctrine that played up a collusive ‘‘two front’’ threat (Hindustan Times 2017). Extensive preparation followed the doctrinal turn, including being among the top importers of arms worldwide, for most of these years, with much of the equipment, such as howitzers from the United States (US), headed for the China front (Economic Times 2019).

The answer for a lack of robust military response, despite the preparedness, can be looked for using the levels of war framework that includes five levels, namely political, grand strategic, strategic, operational and tactical. At the tactical level, the sacrifice of Colonel Santosh Babu and his men on 15 June in a fierce hand-to-hand encounter with the Chinese, equipped with improvised but lethal weapons, has shown that the rank and file were game for the battle. At the operational-level, the military has a measure of the Chinese and feasible operational-level options have found discussion during the crisis (Panag 2020). The culmination of India’s preparedness was witnessed in autumn last year when integrated battle groups (IBGs) of the reformed mountain strike corps were put through their paces (Business Standard 2020).

At the strategic level, it cannot be that India was awaiting the five Rafale fighters that landed in Ambala amidst much fanfare to even the balance in the power asymmetry with China. As a former military adviser in the national Security Council secretariat writes, “Power is a relational variable and therefore the context in which power is compared is certainly closer to the truth than absolute power calculations” (Menon 2018). India has a chief of defence staff, which, though a nascent appointment, could have orchestrated a joint response. Counter grab possibilities in other theatres went a-begging for want of strategic resilience. Strategic inaction can partially be attributed to not receiving a nod at the grand strategic level.

A seemingly plausible rationale for this inaction exists at the grand strategic level. The economic rationale is most compelling since India has had an economic downturn that preceded the COVID-19 outbreak. The defence budget had been attenuated over the past few years to compensate. Over the short term, the crisis has led to fast-forwarding of arms acquisitions, with attendant opportunity costs for economic recovery (Shukla 2020). Over the long term, an increasingly closer resemblance in terms of deployment density may be envisaged along the LAC, which will prove costly in terms of infrastructure costs and number of troops to be maintained. The ongoing preparation for keeping some 30,000 troops in Ladakh through the winter is a curtain raiser (Bedi 2020). Next, the efficacy of other instruments to take on China is questionable. It is a truism that diplomacy without military backing lacks credibility. Economic retaliation against China can only have
an economic backlash in light of the asymmetric interdependence.

At the political level, there are reputational costs for a rising power such as India for not using the military instrument at a juncture at which states normally resort to it; for territorial defence. Emboldened by India’s discomfiture, Nepal and Pakistan have respectively taken out new political maps claiming Indian territory. While the opportunity has been used to deepen the quadrilateral of democracies, an irresolute India can hardly be apprised as a reliable partner. In any case, the phrase deployed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, atmanirbharta (self-reliance) to generate economic self-sufficiency, if interpreted broadly as strategic autonomy, can be expected to take a blow.

Limited War Option

The preceding consideration suggests that a war may not necessarily have proven prohibitive in comparison with the costs of military reticence. Given this, did the fear of escalation stay India’s hand? Escalation is a possibility, but being known, it can be catered for. A prominent concept in strategic studies, limited war, provides some reassurance.

Limited war is the only form of war that two nuclear weapons–possessing adversaries can reasonably indulge in. The concept has been around since the Korean War (Osgood 1957). It is one in which aims are kept limited and consequently so are resources for its prosecution. Limitation can manifest in the scope of geographical spread, choice of targets, use of weapons, etc. “Deliberate hobbling” (Brodie 1959: 311) of power is resorted to by nuclear adversaries. Thus, there is nothing inevitable about escalation, particularly where military doctrine is informed by the limited war concept.

Perhaps India, going by comprehensive power indices, was deterred by the power asymmetry. The fear of escalation dominance—the capability to prevail at the next higher level of the escalation ladder—being with China may have proved dissuasive. Keeping with limited war tenets would have helped stave off the possibility of chancing up the ladder, thus neutering any escalation dominance capability with China. In a limited conflict, only usable power at the point of decision matters, which for China is at the end of a long line of communications over the Tibetan plateau in the inhospitable terrain of distant Ladakh (Menonc2018).

Even so, by this yardstick, in the similarly skewed India–Pakistan dyad, Pakistan should not have countered the Balakot aerial surgical strike with its daylight air raid on the line of control (LoC). Likewise, early this year, the Iranians should have been deterred from launching missile strikes on two US military targets in Iraq in retaliation to the US targeting an Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani. Consequently, there is no compelling case for strategic prudence for a weaker side.

Political Rationale

At the political level, the Clausewitzian logic that the “war is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means,” is the most significant (Clausewitz 2008: 34). That no military option has been exercised by India suggests that there were other superseding political-level considerations. The recent observance on 5 August, the first anniversary of the reduction of Jammu and Kashmir to the union territory status, provides a clue. The consecration of the Ram temple at Ayodhya was supervised by the Prime Minister on this very day. Had military options been exercised against China, the more significant political preoccupation of the Modi regime—that of transitioning the secular Indian state into a majoritarian Hindu republic—would have been interrupted and its timeline disrupted. The outcome of military conflict being unpredictable, Modi could not have chanced reputational damage since it would have set back the wider political agenda. If Modi’s image and power became collateral damage from a war with China, it could potentially unravel the advance of Hindutva across the national polity and social spaces.

At the political level, there is also a non-trivial, less remarked consideration. The march of majoritarianism has been such that, arguably, most institutions have been felled by it. The military has been relatively unscathed so far. From a civil–military relations perspective, a regime with an expansive domestic agenda, which some fear includes reshaping the Constitution in its own image at some point in an indeterminate future, can be expected to exert to neutralise the military. The crisis provides an opportunity for this in some measure. Being caught off guard and subsequent inaction detracts from the military’s image of professionalism. Also, the military’s staying put indefinitely, which amounts to an LoC-isation of the LAC, will keep it to the professional till.

Thus, the answer to the question of why India did not exercise a military option is easier seen at the political level. Internal political compulsions stemming from the present government’s need to stay in power and give it a rightist orientation takes precedence. Whereas, limited surgical strikes against a weaker neighbour, have utility in terms of societal polarisation for the right-wing political enterprise, and taking on a stronger and well-prepared foe—China—can upset their political project. That is the more plausible reason why India held off from exercising the military option in the face of a compelling casus belli.


Bedi, Rahul (2020): “LAC Tension Means Indian Army’s Advanced Winter Stocking for Ladakh Needs Major Rejigging,” Wire, 6 July, viewed on 9 August,­-

Brodie, Bernard (1959): Strategy in the Missile Age, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Business Standard (2020): “Exercise Him Vijay’ was Very Successful; Mountain Strike Corps Ready: Army Chief,” 31 December, viewed on 1 August,­­­­-119123101204_1.html.

Clausewitz, Carl von (2008): On War, Beatrice Heuser (ed), translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics.

Economic Times (2019): “India to Deploy Latest American Weapon Systems for Ex-HimVijay along China border,” 13 September,

— (2020): “How India Defends Its Border with China,” 19 June, viewed on 20 August,­­fen­­ce/how-india-defends-its-border-with-china/articleshow/76465059.cms?utm_sou­r­ce=con­tent­ofinterest&utm_medium­=text­&­utm_cam­pai­gn=cppst.

Gokhale, Nitin (2011): “India’s Doctrinal Shift?” The Diplomat, 25 January 2011, viewed on 10 August,­­­di­­­­as-doctrinal-shift/.

Hindu (2020): “Defence Ministry Takes Down Report on Chinese Transgressions Beginning Early May,” 6 August, viewed on 10 August,­kes-down-report-on-chinese-transgressio­ns-into-indian-territory/article32284188.ece.

Hindustan Times (2017): “Army Chief Says China Taking Over Territory Gradually, Warns of Two-front War,” 6 September, viewed on 11 August,­­dia-news/china-taking-over-territory-gradually-testing-india-s-threshold-army-chief/story-31zaiTY0X0l7PgAe4Kb24H.html.

Menon, Prakash (2018): “Stand Up against China,” Pragati, 20 April, viewed on 1 August,

Osgood, Robert (1957): Limited War: The Challenge to American Strategy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Panag, Harcharanjit Singh. (2020): “India Has Two Options with Stubborn China. The Better One Involves Taking the Battle to Them,” The Print, 23 July, viewed on 30 July,

Shukla, Ajai (2020): “Urgent Arms Requirement in Ladakh Puts ‘Make in India’ on Back Seat,” Business Standard, 16 July, viewed on 7 August,

Wire (2020): “Galwan Clash: After All-party Meeting, Modi Says China Has Not Intruded into Indian Territory,” 19 June, viewed on 15 August,