Reviews | Why India and China are fighting in the Himalayas

The plateau is close to “Chicken’s Neck”, a narrow corridor of Indian territory that connects mainland India to its northeastern states, an area the size of Oregon, home to 45 million people. India saw the Chinese incursion and construction as a dangerous move towards control of the Doklam Plateau, and it sparked fears in New Delhi that China would cut off northeast India in a war by taking control of Chicken’s Neck.

Indian soldiers blocked the Chinese. After intense confrontation for 73 days, the two sides retreated, but over the past five years the People’s Liberation Army has returned to the area and continued to build border infrastructure. A few years later, the deadliest confrontation on the disputed border occurred in the northern Ladakh region in June 2020 when Chinese soldiers killed at least 20 Indian soldiers with wooden sticks and studded clubs, and the Chinese military seized over 40 square miles. territory controlled by India.

After the December 9 clashes, border agreements between India and China are in tatters. Indian strategic planners, traditionally preoccupied with the Pakistani threat, now face a more complex security calculus. After the deadly clashes in Ladakh in 2020, India reinforced its defenses there with an additional 50,000 troops. Indian military planners fear that strengthening the border sufficiently with China will come at the expense of their ability to deter Pakistan.

For New Delhi, China’s new aggressiveness presents a clear dilemma: should India continue to build strategic and military relations with the United States and the partnership between America, Australia, Japan and the United States? India – known as the Quad – even though Beijing has made it clear sees the Quad as an anti-Chinese grouping? While the Quad, and its more overtly militaristic version, the AUKUS (Australia, UK and US) alliance, provide a viable deterrent for China in the Indo-Pacific maritime theater, India is the only partner that confronts China on its land border.

From New Delhi’s perspective, Chinese military aggression on the disputed border is the price India is paying for joining the Western alliance. New Delhi is careful to display its independence, even refusing an offer of US aid against China during the 2020 intrusions into Ladakh. New Delhi has limited India-US cooperation to intelligence and privately asked Washington to tone down the rhetoric about China. This is unlikely to change.

In India, Mr. Modi’s strongman image has taken a dent in the confrontation with China. His insistence that India has not lost territory to China provides ammunition for his followers, but the numbers of his blind followers have dwindled. The latest aggression by the Chinese military shows that Beijing continues to fuel confrontation and that India-China relations are facing a negative spiral with no foreseeable end. The political cost to Mr Modi, it seems, will ultimately be decided in Beijing as much as in New Delhi.

Ajai Shukla, a retired Indian Army colonel, is a consulting editor for the Business Standard newspaper in New Delhi.

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