The December 2022 clash between Chinese and Indian troops along the two countries’ 2,100-mile-long contested border — known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC) — highlights a worrying “one step forward, two steps back” trend. This brawl was the worst since 2020, when fighting in the Galwan Valley took the lives of 20 Indian and at least four Chinese soldiers. Although these clashes are often followed by dialogue and other steps to reduce tensions, both sides have increasingly militarized their border policies and shown no indication of backing down. And the situation on the border remains tense, as Beijing and New Delhi are hardening their positions on either side of the LAC, with the potential for escalation between the two nuclear-armed powers.
Tensions over the border dispute are a particular cause for concern given the overall trajectory of the Sino-Indian relationship, which has soured significantly in recent years. If Beijing and New Delhi are to resolve these long-standing disputes, they have several challenges to face, many of which were only exacerbated by these recent clashes. These include militarization of the border, India’s increasingly assertive foreign policy and growing threats to regional strategic stability.
Military Buildup Near the Border
After the Galwan incident, the two sides participated in 18 rounds of corps-commander level meetings that led to a limited withdrawal of forces and the creation of military buffer zones. Indeed, these talks helped limit unwanted escalation — a success that shouldn’t be overlooked. But real disengagement has been nominal, with huge numbers of forces remaining near the border. The most recent round of talks led to no major breakthroughs.
Despite repeated disengagement agreements since 2020, both sides have deepened their relative footholds along the border, bringing in new combined-arms brigades and building additional infrastructure. China, in particular, has focused on building up infrastructure along the LAC. In 2021, China’s legislature passed a land borders law, which stipulates that the state shall “promote coordination between border defense and social, economic development in border areas.” In line with this mandate, China has constructed significant civilian and military infrastructure near the border.
According to the Pentagon’s most recent China military power report, since the 2020 Galwan clash, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has “maintained continuous force presence and continued infrastructure buildup along the LAC.” This is corroborated by the latest satellite imagery of the border regions. Images from CSIS’s China Power, for example, show a division-level headquarters being developed at Pangong Lake, just south of the Gogra Hot Springs where troops disengaged last fall. Commercial satellite imagery also shows what appears to be barracks and other new infrastructure in the Galwan Valley. These new sites point to an increasingly permanent Chinese military presence along the border.
Meanwhile, the Indian military has undertaken its own military buildup along the border. In 2021, for example, New Delhi redirected approximately 50,00 troops to the LAC. The Indian Air Force also remains operationally deployed near the border. This force increase is bolstered by infrastructure projects, such as plans to construct 73 strategic roads along the LAC, including nearly 1,430 miles of road in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh — where the December 2022 clashes happened and which Beijing claims as “Southern Tibet” — alone, as well as several tunnels to facilitate quicker transportation to border regions. The Indian government also launched its “Vibrant Villages” campaign this year to build important infrastructure in villages on its side of the contested border.
The hard reality is that both sides are militarizing the border. In response to a persistent and growing Chinese threat, India has begun rebalancing its army away from Pakistan to the LAC. As a result, we can expect a larger and more permanent presence from both Chinese and Indian forces in the year ahead. And these developments will only be a fresh barrier in the way of resolving these perennial disputes.
India’s More Assertive Foreign Policy
Overall, New Delhi’s foreign policy in recent years has been geared more toward countering Beijing than engagement, and the border dispute has sabotaged increasingly fraught bilateral relations. Indeed, both India’s prime minister and foreign minister have said that peace at the border is a prerequisite for normalized relations.
After the Cold War, the Sino-Indian relationship warmed and included regular high-level engagement. Both countries aligned on several global issues, including desire for reform of the multilateral international order, and bilateral trade boomed. As a result, a common assumption in Indian foreign policy circles was that the boundary dispute could be kept separate from the political and economic relationship, eventually creating space to accommodate each other’s interests and stabilize the bilateral relationship.
But after the 2020 Galwan crisis these assumptions have been challenged. In the economic domain, New Delhi responded to Beijing’s border transgressions with increased scrutiny and sanctions of Chinese investments and firms. India also banned dozens of Chinese apps following the 2020 clash, including TikTok and WeChat. Since then, more bans have been implemented, resulting in hundreds of Chinese apps being prohibited from the massive Indian market. At the same time, it has prioritized economic engagement with other partners to reduce its dependence on China, including recent free trade negotiations with the European Union and the United Kingdom, as well as the Resilient Supply Chain Initiative with Japan and Australia.
These changes to its economic engagement with China have also been buttressed by India’s deepening strategic relationship with Western democracies. For example, U.S.-India defense trade has grown from “near zero in 2008 to over 20 billion USD in 2020.” Most recently, Washington and New Delhi launched the Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies to expand their strategic technology partnership and industrial defense cooperation. The two militaries have also regularized several exercises, including Tiger Triumph, Yudh Abhyas, and exercise Malabar, which now bring together the navies of Australia, India, Japan and the United States, collectively known as the Quad.
As New Delhi has hardened on Beijing, it has deepened its relationship with the United States and other Indo-Pacific partners. This also comes at a time of growing economic challenges and mutual mistrust between India and China. Inevitably, New Delhi’s new foreign policy direction will clash with Chinese interests and could likely lead to new challenges for managing the border disputes in 2023.
Strategic Instability in Asia?
Amid tensions between China and India, Pakistan’s political and economic turmoil, and the resurgence of great power competition, strategic stability in Asia is getting harder to manage. The region is experiencing a cascading security dilemma where nuclear-armed states — China, India and Pakistan — justify advancements to their own arsenals as a response to perceived threats from their adversaries. This dilemma heightens the risk that border disputes could cross the nuclear threshold.
At last fall’s 20th National Party Congress, Chinese leader Xi Jinping said his country needed to build a strong “strategic deterrence system.” Xi’s remarks point to Beijing’s increasingly negative perception of the international environment. This new threat perception, paired with Beijing’s expanding nuclear arsenal and investments in advanced delivery systems, may fuel New Delhi’s own nuclear build-up. At the very least, it will increase the already high levels of mutual mistrust.
While nuclear use remains unlikely, tensions along the border complicate this dangerous dilemma. Infrastructure development and military patrols along the LAC may spur new military investments, both conventional and nuclear. In turn, these investments will likely heighten tensions along the border.
A Role for the United States?
Clashes along the LAC have become all too routine in recent years, and current trends in the Sino-Indian relationship offer little hope of improvement. Both sides appear to be digging-in near the border instead of disengaging, and New Delhi’s foreign policy has evolved to become more assertive in criticizing Beijing, while Beijing has become increasingly intransigent. Despite these tensions, there are still opportunities for Washington to help lower the temperature along the Sino-Indian border.
First, Washington can and should voice support for New Delhi, but it must do so in a way that does not exacerbate an already fraught situation. Such a calibrated response will include opposing unilateral attempts by either side to change the territorial status quo, as well as championing India’s own efforts toward de-escalation. This steady and confident support, especially during a crisis, will go a long way to building trust and credibility in the U.S.-India partnership.
Second, the United States can share valuable information and intelligence about Chinese movement in border regions, as well as equipment to support India’s own intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. The United States provided India with such support during the December 2022 border clash in Arunachal Pradesh. The intelligence allowed India to better prepare to confront the Chinese incursions. Experience from this incident can be a model to build on for future collaboration. Materiel commitments can also be bolstered by joint intelligence reviews where analysts from both countries collaboratively discuss the PLA’s activities and intentions along the border. Such action from Washington would proactively and resolutely support New Delhi’s plight without fanning the flames of conflict or conflating the issue with ongoing tensions in its own relationship with China.
Unfortunately, business as usual is likely to define the contested border in 2023. Structural challenges to China-India relations are unlikely to dissipate anytime soon, leaving ample possibility for future clashes. Military talks between Beijing and New Delhi will almost certainly continue — and may very well prevent unnecessary escalation — but they are unlikely to reach terms for large-scale disengagement. And if an incident were to snowball into a crisis, large numbers of nearby forces could also become embroiled in a conflict. Such a devastating possibility should not be ignored.
Nishant Rajeev is a senior analyst with the South Asia Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technical University in Singapore.