Indo-China Standoff: The Chinese Way of Thinking

Next month would be four years since the armies of India & China confronted each other in the bloodiest confrontation since 1967 along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Aside from the physical violence that resulted in killing of troops on either side by methods that can only be termed as barbaric, the Chinese continue their belligerence in contravention to all Agreements and Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) that had ensured peace and tranquility on the borders for almost six decades. The talks between military commanders continue at various levels to resolve any misunderstanding, while the larger issue of disengagement between the two armies is discussed at the Corps Commander level talks. Those talks, now in their 21st edition, too, have reached a stalemate after the initial vacation of at least four illegally occupied areas by the PLA in 2020. China keeps changing its claim lines in Demchok and Depsang Plains, thereby vitiating the overall relationship.

The Indian government has been clear and consistent in its view that no meaningful forward movement can happen in the relations unless the border issue is resolved. In January 2024, while speaking at Nagpur, Mr. S Jaishankar, the Foreign minister said “I have explained to my Chinese counterpart that unless you find a solution on the border, if the forces will remain face-to-face, there will be tension, then you should not expect that the rest of the relations will go on in a normal manner, it is impossible,”  and again at the Express Adda forum on 13 March 2024, he was  candid in stating that “The tension has not served either of us well. So, the sooner we resolve it, I genuinely believe it will be good for both of us. And I am still very much committed to finding a fair, reasonable outcome. But one which is respectful of agreements, which recognises the LAC, and does not seek to change the status quo.”

So, under the circumstances, it is important for the Indian military to understand the Chinese military teaching on management of border crisis.

The Science of Military Strategy, 2020 (SMS, 2020) is one such seminal document released by the PLA’s National Defence University, Beijing which covers this in considerable detail.  Written in three parts, it covers the theory of strategy; operations of war; and, strategic guidance to each service to prosecute war including the People’s Armed Police Force (PAPF) which is responsible for border guarding, including maritime borders.

But first, a word about Military Strategic guidelines (MSG). MSGs are the essence of China’s military strategy and lay down the strategy that PLA would be expected to follow to prosecute war. Normally, MSGs are driven by political considerations, especially when there is a change of leadership or a power shift in China. To date there have been nine MSGs issued, in which the first five (1956-80) focused on USSR and the US as adversaries, while from thereon the next four (1988-2014) changed to local wars. What is of concern to us is that in recent years, while the primary strategic direction has changed, the secondary strategic direction continues to be India. That is a clear acceptance that China perceives India as a consistent and persistent adversary. Therefore, any resolution to the border dispute must be seen through the prism of this threat perception.

The other important political consideration is the relevance and importance of the LAC to both countries. Hither-to-fore, China has resolved its border dispute with 12 of its 14 neighbours in a spirit of mutual accommodation. This has been affected by a trade off in land in a “give and take “model, suggesting that China is not averse to giving land if it serves the larger interest of building relations with its neighbours. It is only against India and Bhutan that China continues to let the border dispute fester, although in recent years, China has been offering a trade off in land to Bhutan to settle the border dispute and wean it away from Indian influence thereby leaving its differences with India unresolved. Thus, for China the LAC is ‘ephemeral” or short lived and therefore reversible. On the other hand, for India, the territory of Ladakh and Aksai Chin as well as elsewhere along the LAC is an issue of sovereignty and therefore permanent and irrevocable. This has implications on the settlement of the border dispute, because the settlement, when reached, will be in consonance with international law, leaving no room for China to renege on this commitment. It is important to note that China’s unilateral disregard of the award in favour of Philippines by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Seas (ITLOS) in its maritime dispute has put China’s reputation of disrespecting international law into question.

The SMS, 2020 lays down with fair clarity, the escalation ladder that the PLA must follow to deter an adversary from going to war. It is for our Commanders to understand these and extrapolate China’s intentions and future trajectory along the LAC. The eight levels of escalation, from low to high, that are taught are:

  • Create an atmosphere of war. This is done by releasing statements, issuing orders for mobilisation, deployment of troops in forward areas, practising air defence activities, activating casualty evacuation drills etc
    Display of advanced weapons. This is typically done by conduct of large parades, showcasing military might and new technologies, conduct of live firing in training bases in close proximity to crisis areas with greater frequency.
  • Conduct military exercises. All group armies (GA) embark on conduct of live ‘confrontational ‘exercises (two sided) with actual battle drills and live munition to rehearse realistic plans with greater frequency. This also includes move, reconnaissance, and deployment of reserve forces from the hinterland.
    Change in military deployment.  This involves relocation and redeployment of forces from peacetime or normal state to an operational deployment in keeping with operational plans.
  • Improve Combat Readiness levels. This is done by increased patrolling, recce, stepped up infrastructure construction of roads, logistics installations, habitat etc
  • Execution of Information attacks. This is the active employment of all organs of the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF)- Cyber, Space, Electromagnetic Spectrum and Media to degrade and destroy the adversaries cognitive and decision-making capabilities before the kinetic application of force.
  • Restricted Military Operations This is done by limiting or restricting the freedom of an adversary to use the battlespace for Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance (ISR) and deployment of   strategic assets. For e.g., declaration of Air Defence Identification Zones (ADIZs), ordering No Fly Zones for extended periods of time, nominating weapon tests and testing areas for firing missiles etc.
  • Delineation of exercise areas, interference in shipping routes and buzzing foreign aircraft. This is to limit freedom of passage, caution international users of air and maritime space and impose own will.
  • Cautionary military strikes. This involves the use of kinetic force to attack small scale targets in the face of extreme provocation. A typical example is the firing of missiles across Taiwan after Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022 which China termed a grave provocation.

In the case of the LAC, the PLA has reached level 5 of escalation against India. What is implied is that China has not entirely given up its belligerence and aggression on the LAC, and retains the option of escalating the border tensions at any time that it feels the need to up the ante.

In the interim, what is the teaching for the PLA to manage the border crisis?

The PLA has suggested a series of guidelines for Commanders to control any crisis. The ways of controlling a crisis are:

  • Leave room for manoeuvre, suggesting that at each stage, the use of force must leave sufficient opportunity for both to manage the crisis based on existing principles or accepted Confidence Building Measures (CBMs). In Chinese thinking, to adhere to Sun Tzu’s philosophy of ‘winning without fighting,’ this is an important consideration at every stage of a crisis.
  • As far as possible, the crisis must be isolated without jeopardising other domains of engagement. For e.g., if the boundary issue is a sensitive issue that is restraining the relationship, it must not impact the economic or social or cultural ties. As far as possible ‘business as usual’ must continue, away from the crisis at hand.
  • The Chinese have consistently viewed such crisis on their borders as ‘bilateral’ issues and are loathe to carry this to multi-lateral fora. In most relationships, China prefers to deal directly with the adversary because it affords them the ability to use all tools of statecraft on the weaker nation leaving little or no space for an equitable and fair negotiation. Therefore, the mantra is to avoid internationalising the crisis.
  • The method of control of a crisis is recommended to encourage negotiation and consultation. In every crisis, the control of the crisis rapidly shifts to the Central Military Commission (CMC) or the Politburo Standing Committee, depending on the nations involved, the gravity of the situation and the location of the crisis. In the case of DBO and Chumar in Ladakh in 2013-14, the PLA was quick to seek negotiation as the response by the Indian Army was forceful and in strength. However, in the case of the EP-3 incident in 2000, where the PLAAF force landed a US AEW&C aircraft in Hainan, which was damaged after it was involved in a crash with a J-8 over the South China Sea, China had the upper hand with 24 persons in custody and refused to talk to the Americans for 10 days. Even in the Ladakh crisis in 2020, negotiation and talks began much later after the clashes of 15 June 2020 in Galwan.
  • Inherent in the teaching is that should an adversary fail to comply with China’s interests or if the situation turns unfavourable, the use of coercion, ultimatums and blockades are acceptable and must be enforced to compel the adversary to accept its conditions.
  • Finally, the teaching recommends Commanders to measure and control the intensity of a crisis. The intensity here refers to the use of force, the type of equipment and force levels committed to avoid unnecessary escalation. Essentially, at every stage of the crisis, the Chinese aim to have strategic advantage and unbalance the adversary so that he is at position of disadvantage. As such, the degree of force employed needs to be commensurate with the issue at hand.

Crisis Guidance

An interesting feature of the guidance to a Commander is the need to exploit fleeting opportunities created by a crisis.  The SMS, 2020 says the PLA must “turn crisis into opportunity, harm to gain & bad things to good things” and quotes two examples from history; first, the 9/11 bombing of the World Trade Towers, which gave US an opportunity to deploy forces to the Central Asian Republics (CARs), ostensibly to pursue terrorists in Afghanistan and; second, the deployment of PLAN naval flotillas in the Gulf of Aden to combat piracy off the Somali coast, which afforded the PLAN to experience operations in the ‘far seas’.

In the Ladakh crisis of 2020, the internal situation in China was adverse for the CPC. After the international condemnation for being the origin of COVID -19 and the subsequent economic backlash and outrage which disrupted supply chains and crashed the Chinese economy, Xi Jinping desperately needed an image makeover and seized the opportunity to show strength and divert attention by bolstering nationalistic fervor and the threat of war against India across the LAC. The subsequent actions of honoring martyrs and huge media blitz to draw the attention of the Chinese people to India’s ‘perfidy’ helped unite the people in showing internal unity.

The second guidance that is advocated is the status of the crisis. Typically, a crisis can be ‘shelved’ as hot or cold. ‘Cold shelving’ means freezing the crisis and leaving its resolution to later, while ‘hot shelving’ implies keeping the crisis alive, prolonging any solution by procrastination and keep the adversary in a continuous state of disequilibrium. Both these states are manipulated and driven by national interests. It may be recalled that in the early years of China- India rapprochement, Deng Xiaoping sought to keep the border issue in the backburner often stating that it was a ‘leftover of history’ and be left for ‘future generations’ to resolve. Those were the days when China was growing and needed no distraction or diversion from its path to achieve the “China dream.” Today, when China has achieved ‘great power status,’ she refuses to come to the table to reach an amicable solution on the LAC, ‘hot shelving’ the dispute and choosing to keep the LAC active.

Finally, the SMS 2020 is clear in the advocating rule of law and directs Commanders to adhere to the relevance of national laws. It states, “the best way to deal with a crisis is in accordance with the law and within a legal frame work” – and says…. “Focus on finding the basis of military action in relevant national laws & regulations.”  What is of interest is the emphasis on national laws which takes precedence over international laws, stating that “when international law conflicts with national interests insist that national interests are above all else.”

This has serious implications for nations dealing with China’s land or maritime borders. The Chinese teaching that all actions must be in accordance with national laws made by the Chinese government and interpreting them in accordance with local laws in an international crisis or dispute is deeply flawed and disregards international rule of the law. For e.g., the local laws governing the creation of Sanya prefecture in Hainan province and extending them to the islands in the South China Sea (SCS), have completely ignored the claims of certain South East Asian states to the SCS. China totally disregards the UNCLOS decision on Philippines claims to the SCS in which the panel ruled that China’s claims of ‘historic rights’ within the ‘nine dash line’ were without legal foundation. China termed the award as “nothing more than a piece of waste paper.”

In 2021-22, China passed a new ‘Coast Guard Law” that empowers the Chinese Coast guard to use weapons against foreign vessels, changing the dynamics of use of force by para-military forces. Similarly, on September 1, 2021, China’s Maritime Traffic Safety Law (MTSL) required foreign vessels entering Chinese territorial waters to notify the Chinese authorities, possess required permits, and submit to Chinese command and supervision. In the context of the LAC, the New Border Law 2022, and the creation of Xiaogang villages along the LAC must be seen in through the prism of China’s insistence and interpretation of national laws in the future settlement of the disputed areas along the LAC. It is also likely that all the Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) which were built painstakingly over the last four decades (1988 – 2020) will be disregarded as null & void by the PLA, given its new found status as a “great power”.

Therefore, what is the future of the LAC?

When summarised in the Indian context, it is possible to glean a fair idea of how China intends to manage the LAC in the future and control any border crisis emerging consequent to the ongoing standoff in Ladakh.

In my opinion, China will:

  • ‘Hot shelve’ the LAC thereby keep the ‘pot boiling,” i.e., continue to create pin pricks on the LAC so that the militaries remain embroiled in a standoff with no conclusive results.
  • Restrict any confrontation in geographic extent ‘locally’ thereby ensuring that the confrontation does not spread to other parts of the LAC.
  • Insist on keeping communication channels open by encouraging negotiation and consultation. Typically, that implies that incessant talks will continue and without any expectation of tangible outcomes till such time as the Chinese feel that there are gains that may accrue from any settlement of the dispute.
  • Use ‘national laws’ to legalise and legitimise her claims: and;
  • Exploit any opportunity that she may find to improve her strategic posture or extract territorial gains along the LAC.

This last point is what demands operational readiness to thwart any actions that the PLA may take to improve its physical posture on the LAC or change the status quo. One also cannot predict which spark may turn into a conflagration.


Maj Gen Mandip Singh a third-generation soldier, was commissioned into the Regiment of Artillery. After a brilliant tenure, he retired on 30 June 2021 after 38 years of distinguished service. A prolific writer, the General often gives talks at ITBP Academy Mussoorie, BSF Academy, Tekanpur, DSSC Wellington, Naval War College, Goa, Air War College, Hyderabad, Dept of Def Studies, Punjab University, and Allahabad University. Presently he is a Distinguished Fellow, at the United Service Institution of India, New Delhi.

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