The Ladakh plateau is a high-altitude desert, sparsely populated, parts of it studded with poplar, deodar, and juniper trees. It comprises the Himalayan and Kunlan mountain ranges, consists of river valleys, and has limited flora and fauna. It is an inhospitable place that is part of the Kashmir region of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, now under direct control of New Delhi as Union Territory since 2019. The Aksai Chin area of Ladakh is under Chinese control since a war between India and China in 1962 — but claimed by India.
Since April, there has been an uneasy standoff there of the world’s two largest armies: in an incident, 20 Indian soldiers were killed in hand-to-hand combat, along with an unspecified number of Chinese. Both sides have increased their military resources, and most recently China has dispatched H-6 bombers capable of carrying cruise missiles that can strike Indian mountain bases. In the meantime, India has procured the Russian S-400 air defense system that it intends to install in Ladakh. Of late, both sides seem to be trying to moderate tensions, pledging not to send more troops, and increasing communications to avoid a misunderstanding.
So why is China resorting to bullying tactics against India at this time?
First, China is giving India a warning not to tilt too closely toward the United States. U.S.–India relations are a success story over several administrations in each country. India’s current defense budget of $74 billion has limited capacity for weapons imports from abroad; in recent years, however, the U.S. has emerged, after Russia, as a leading supplier, along with Europe and Israel. India is interested in acquiring from the U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drones, Boeing’s Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, other aircraft for intelligence purposes, and an air defense system made in partnership by Raytheon Technologies Corporation and Kongsberg Defence & Aerospace AS of Norway.
Further, and as I have written in these pages, Boeing is collaborating with the Tata Group and with Mahindra & Mahindra to manufacture Apache attack helicopters and the F/A-18 Hornet, and Lockheed Martin is partnering with Tata to make the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
Of late, and contemporaneous with the standoff in Ladakh, the USS Nimitz carrier strike group conducted exercises with the Indian Navy in the Indian Ocean, where both India and China have strategic interests to maintain the oil sea lanes. Moreover, and continuing for many years, is Operation Malabar, a naval exercise comprising the U.S., India, and Japan. The U.S. and Indian navies also have a joint logistics agreement as well as the ability to share encryption platforms.
Second, while the U.S. and India in particular are devastated by COVID-19, believed to have originated from a Chinese laboratory in Wuhan, China is leveraging an opportunity to advance its hegemony while the world is in chaos. However, its Belt and Road Initiative, which embraces about 70 countries with trade and investment protocols centered upon Beijing, does not include India, which is a holdout. With English law, language, and considerable Western culture, India has no intention of accepting a rules-based order commanded by Beijing.
Third, China appears to be emboldened by its successful lockdown to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, with its second-quarter GDP on the mend and increasing by over 3 percent. Admittedly, there is a credibility issue with statements emanating from China, although its seeming return to quasi-normalcy is nonetheless faster than that of Western democracies. Having survived a devastating hit from the coronavirus, the Chinese Politburo may calculate in its moments of hubris that it can prevail in the humiliation of India.
Frank Schell is a business strategy consultant and former senior vice president of the First National Bank of Chicago. He was a Lecturer at the Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago, and is a contributor of opinion pieces to various journals.