In May 2020, China launched several near-simultaneous incursions across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, into territory hitherto controlled by India. Both sides reinforced their positions with tens of thousands of troops, engaged in a deadly skirmish, and reportedly came close to war. An agreement to disengage troops was announced in February 2021, but implementation has been halting. Regardless of how disengagement progresses, the crisis poses significant challenges for India’s long-term strategic competition with China.

As a result of the Ladakh crisis, India faces a new strategic reality in which China is a clear and abiding adversary. For India, the political relationship is now defined by hostility and distrust, and the LAC will remain more heavily militarised and violence-prone. Given this new reality, India is likely to further defer military modernisation and maritime expansion into the Indian Ocean. In the face of unremitting Chinese naval expansion, India risks losing significant political and military leverage in the Indian Ocean. At the same time, China appears to have escaped significant harm. Its better-resourced military could better absorb the material costs of the mobilisation. It may have been more concerned by the prospect of an increasingly hostile India, but the disengagement agreement has limited even those modest political costs.

The central policy challenge for India is balancing the heightened Chinese military threat on the northern border with the rapidly growing Chinese military presence in the Indian Ocean. It can manage this challenge by focusing on military strategies of denial rather than punishment, focusing on imposing political rather than material costs on China, and accepting more risk at the LAC in exchange for long-term leverage in the Indian Ocean region. How India responds will shape not only its strategic competition with China, but also the interests of likeminded partners including Australia, which depend on an increasingly capable and active India.

Beginning in May 2020, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) launched incursions in several locations in customarily Indian-controlled territory across the Line of Actual Control (LAC).[1] Both sides reinforced their positions with tens of thousands of troops, as well as tanks and aircraft, and built infrastructure to sustain a long-term presence through the coming winter. The LAC had, in effect, been changed by force, with few apparent options for resolution.[2] The crisis escalated when a skirmish in the Galwan Valley left 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers dead. The two sides have endured several tense standoffs since their border war in 1962, but this was the first loss of life on the LAC since 1975. In late August, Indian forces occupied tactically-valuable peaks on the Kailash Range near Chushul — which, although on Indian-controlled territory, nevertheless gave India significant military leverage in the crisis.[3] Around Pangong Tso (lake), shots were fired for the first time in nearly half a century, and China launched cyber-attacks against Indian civilian infrastructure.[4] Tensions soared. The commander of the Indian Army’s Northern Command later revealed, “we were absolutely on the brink” of war.

For months, China showed no signs of reversing the incursions until the surprise announcement in February 2021 of a phased disengagement plan.[6] In fact, the two foreign ministers had in September 2020 struck an in-principle agreement to disengage, which appeared to go nowhere until the details of the first phase of disengagement were secretly agreed at a Corps Commanders’ meeting in late January.[7] The crisis’ future trajectory remains unclear. Disengagement may proceed as intended, leading to new dispositions and procedures for managing the border. Or, if disengagement goes awry, the two sides may yet engage in open warfare. Or the crisis may never get its photo-opportunity handshake or climactic battle — keeping India and China perpetually close to conflict and becoming the central defining feature of an unstable relationship.

Whatever its denouement — whether war or peace or something in between — the crisis will further complicate India’s efforts to compete strategically with China. The crisis has ushered in a new strategic reality, which includes deeper political antagonism between the countries, and a more militarised and violence-prone LAC, which will endure even if — a big if — disengagement continues as planned. This new strategic reality will pose yet another politically salient obstacle to the Indian military’s long-frustrated attempts to build power projection capabilities into the Indian Ocean region. Every quantum of scarce military resources that India invests in the land frontier — relatively unthreatening to China’s global ambitions — is a quantum that it will not invest to counterbalance China’s more consequential military expansion into the Indian Ocean. A relatively peripheral border crisis in Ladakh thereby risks generating a far more significant crisis in India’s strategic competition with China — the crisis after the crisis.

This paper is divided into three parts. First, I set a baseline understanding of the new political and military reality on the India–China border, emerging as a result of the Ladakh crisis. Second, I argue that this new reality will complicate India’s efforts to compete with China because it further defers India’s military modernisation and maritime expansion in the Indian Ocean and imposes only marginal costs on China. Third, I offer some recommendations for how India can use lessons from the Ladakh crisis to compete more effectively in the future.

The New Strategic Reality

To the extent that the February disengagement plan entails at least a partial PLA withdrawal, it is an evolution in the crisis. But it does not in itself meet New Delhi’s declared goal of a return to the status quo ante.[8] And, unless disengagement is completed equally on both sides, and accompanied by the withdrawal of forces from theatre — which is unlikely — it risks codifying China’s military revision of the territorial status quo. Beyond the status of specific parcels of land, the central effect of the Ladakh border crisis on Indian security policy is a new and more hostile approach to China, manifested at both the political and operational levels. For Indian defence policy, this translates into a more heavily militarised and violence-prone LAC.