20 Indian military personnel dead. Scores of Chinese soldiers reported to be injured. Not a single shot fired. On the night of June 15th, hundreds of Indian and Chinese soldiers came to blows in the disputed Galwan Valley region of Ladakh. It is rare to see two large militaries getting into physical altercations without the use of firearms. For those confrontations to turn fatal is even more unheard of. India and China have long had an understanding in their disputed Himalayan border of not letting hot tempers and tactical gains spoil the overall bilateral relationship. It was because of this understanding that the two nations had not had any violent clashes for close to 50 years. The fact that the current stand-off in Ladakh may result in an overall reconfiguration of the Sino-Indian relationship is reflective of the widening military gap between the two nations, the shifting of geopolitical fault-lines around the world and the domestic commitments that both Modi and Xi have made to their respective populaces.
To give an indication of the growing military gap between China and India, it is pertinent to look at each country’s overall military spending. China spends about $261 billion on their military vs India’s $71 billion. While India is still the 3rd largest military spender in the world, the widening gulf between China and India is far too large for any sort of equivalence of hard power to be made. Asides from this, the logistical prowess of the Chinese cannot be matched by the aging procedures that are still implemented by the Indian army. For example, in the current crisis in Ladakh, China was able to move troops, tanks, armored vehicles and other heavy weaponry to the frontlines in Western China all the way from Hubei in Central China, in just a few hours. This was done without the use of cargo flights. On the other hand, India still relies on costly air transport to supply their frontline troops in emergency situations thus depleting funds and being at the mercy of unfavorable weather conditions. Moreover, the current stand-off has created several difficulties for both China and India in trying to ensure supplies are flowing to their troops before winter sets in. In normal circumstances, the pre-winter period between April and September is critical to ensure troops from both nations are well supplied, however due to the current clash this task is made even more herculean. In this context, China seems to have ironed out many kinks in their logistical processes while India is still struggling to keep up with their increased troop deployment.
While hard power and influence often go hand in hand in the realm of realist IR theorists, the shifting geo-political environment around the world also plays a crucial factor in how the Ladakh crisis is seen by the international community. To understand today’s ground realities, it is important to analyze India and China’s historical global alliances. Firstly, India has long counted on military and diplomatic support from Russia and the erstwhile Soviet Union. This was most clearly seen in the 1971 War in East Pakistan when Soviet warships were dispatched to counter American naval vessels who were patrolling the Indian Ocean in support of West Pakistani forces. While the US was firmly in the Pakistani camp, the Soviets, to counter the US, backed India in all forums both overtly and covertly. Moreover, in the 1962 Sino-Indian war, the Soviet Union supplied India with a plethora of arms and fighter jets partly due to the Sino-Soviet split that was taking place at the time. Like in 1971, the US declined to support India hence the latter choosing to embrace Moscow.
However, things have changed since 1971. The Soviet Union is no more. China is a superpower with Pakistan firmly in its camp. The US and China are about to enter the new Cold War of the century and India-US ties are growing. How does this tie to Ladakh? For one, India cannot rely on its historical ally Russia for several reasons. Firstly, the Sino-Soviet split of the 60’s is far less pronounced today than it was previously. In fact, Russia and China have found themselves aligned on several global issues especially those relating to the US. Secondly, the Russians are wary of growing Indo-American ties such as the Civil Nuclear Deal signed between both countries under the Bush administration as well as Modi’s current fondness for Trump. Thus, Russia is no mood to act even as a mediator between China and India let alone support Indian actions. This was apparent when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov clearly said that the crisis in Ladakh does not need outside mediation. If India cannot rely on the Russians, then their only other option is to court the US. This would have been made easier by the current tensions between China and the US and policymakers in Washington may have looked towards Ladakh as another front by which they could pressurize China. However, the US too has not offered much support to India asides from a few perfunctory remarks by Secretary of State Pompeo.
One reason for the American reluctance to openly support India could be due to an overestimation of India’s capabilities in the region to act as a bulwark against Chinese influence. American leaders may have realized that backing India in this conflict would only give the Chinese more ammunition to use in their own bilateral dealings while not providing many strategic gains. In other words, the costs of supporting India outweigh the benefits. Another reason is that while Russian-Indian relations have certainly cooled over the recent past, Russia is still a major supplier of jets, defense systems and other weaponry to the Indian forces. With news emanating from Afghanistan that Russia offered bounties to militants in exchange for targeting US troops, the trust levels between Moscow and Washington are once again hitting a new low so Indian ties to Russia will not be looked at kindly by the US. Taking all this into consideration, it can be surmised that in trying to straddle the middle-ground, India has missed out on cementing strong geopolitical alliances that may have been useful in the current stand-off with China.
Finally, the personal leadership styles of both Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi are useful in explaining why the current Ladakh crisis exploded the way it did and why it will not cool down anytime soon. Since coming into power in 2013, XI Jinping has strayed from the Chinese governance model of keeping to themselves, biding their time and having working relationships with all countries. Instead Xi’s China is more aggressive, more confident and less patient. From the South China Sea to Hong Kong to Ladakh, the new China is eveready to use military power in achieving strategic goals. This could be a consequence of their growing stature as a global superpower as well as an indication of how serious they take the One Belt One Road Initiative that aims to become the New Silk Road. The message is clear, any impediments to this project will be dealt with by force if necessary. On the other side of the border, Narendra Modi is caught between a rock and a hard place. Militarily dwarfed by China, he currently only has two options. Either let China annex parts of Indian territory and turn that into the new status quo or respond militarily to China. The second option, as we have discussed, would be a foolhardy attempt on the part of India due to China’s advanced military and the risk of a wider conflict erupting. Normally, the first option of ignoring the ground realities and letting China create a new status quo would have been less risky. Not for Modi. For a leader who has prided himself on being a strongman, on defending India’s sovereignty on all forums, on being a superpower and on taking back disputed lands, to quietly accept Chinese incursions in several areas of the LAC would be tantamount to abject surrender by his nationalist voters. With the next Indian General Election 4 years away, logic dictates that Modi would accept China as the regional hegemon and hope his voters have short memories. For China, they would view Indian capitulation and unwillingness to fight back as an invitation to further annex other disputed territories. By painting himself as a leader who fights fire with fire, Modi has in fact painted himself into a corner.