Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

China Has India Trapped on Their Disputed Border

Beijing’s military and infrastructure advantage has transformed the crisis and left New Delhi on the defensive.

By , a senior fellow with the Centre for Policy Research in India.
Indian Army soldiers are seen in Tawang.
Indian Army soldiers are seen in Tawang.
Indian Army soldiers are seen positioned at Penga Teng Tso Lake near Tawang, India, on Oct. 20. MONEY SHARMA/AFP via Getty Images

During the recent G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi got up from the banquet table to shake hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping and have a brief conversation—their first in-person exchange in three years. Although both sides remain tight-lipped about the interaction, it nonetheless raised hopes among observers of a breakthrough in their 30-month border crisis, which began with a deadly clash in Ladakh in 2020. But any resolution that might emerge will not dispel the challenge posed by massive changes at the border undertaken by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

This marks the third straight winter that around 50,000 Indian reinforcements will spend in Ladakh’s inhospitable terrain in the northern Himalayas, warding off an equal number of Chinese troops stationed a few miles away. Despite intermittent dialogue between the two militaries, Indian Army Chief Gen. Manoj Pande recently confirmed that China has not reduced its forces at the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Chinese infrastructure construction along the border is “going on unabated,” he said—confirmed by independent satellite imagery and echoed by the latest U.S. Defense Department report on China. Pande said the situation is “stable but unpredictable.” That unpredictability has become structural.

India and China have so far held 16 rounds of border talks between senior military commanders as well as numerous diplomatic and political engagements, but an agreement on actions to reduce the tensions in Ladakh has been slow to materialize. Of the seven areas in Ladakh where Indian and Chinese soldiers have faced one another since 2020, two have seen no change while the rest have seen each side take a limited step back. The challenge for India is becoming more concerning on the eastern part of the LAC—between the state of Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet—where China has an infrastructure and military advantage, putting New Delhi on the defensive.

During the recent G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi got up from the banquet table to shake hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping and have a brief conversation—their first in-person exchange in three years. Although both sides remain tight-lipped about the interaction, it nonetheless raised hopes among observers of a breakthrough in their 30-month border crisis, which began with a deadly clash in Ladakh in 2020. But any resolution that might emerge will not dispel the challenge posed by massive changes at the border undertaken by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

This marks the third straight winter that around 50,000 Indian reinforcements will spend in Ladakh’s inhospitable terrain in the northern Himalayas, warding off an equal number of Chinese troops stationed a few miles away. Despite intermittent dialogue between the two militaries, Indian Army Chief Gen. Manoj Pande recently confirmed that China has not reduced its forces at the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Chinese infrastructure construction along the border is “going on unabated,” he said—confirmed by independent satellite imagery and echoed by the latest U.S. Defense Department report on China. Pande said the situation is “stable but unpredictable.” That unpredictability has become structural.

India and China have so far held 16 rounds of border talks between senior military commanders as well as numerous diplomatic and political engagements, but an agreement on actions to reduce the tensions in Ladakh has been slow to materialize. Of the seven areas in Ladakh where Indian and Chinese soldiers have faced one another since 2020, two have seen no change while the rest have seen each side take a limited step back. The challenge for India is becoming more concerning on the eastern part of the LAC—between the state of Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet—where China has an infrastructure and military advantage, putting New Delhi on the defensive.

The widening power gap between India and China—military, technological, economic, and diplomatic—now constrains New Delhi’s options on the border. It also raises tough questions for India’s geopolitical partnerships, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad), and its aggressive approach toward Pakistan. The border crisis will hang over India’s decision-making for the foreseeable future.


In October, the Chinese Communist Party held its 20th National Congress, and Xi assumed an unprecedented third term as leader. Among the images broadcasted at the Great Hall of the People minutes before Xi ascended the stage was a video from the Galwan Valley in Ladakh, where at least 20 Indian soldiers and 4 PLA soldiers died in a clash in June 2020. The videos showed PLA regiment commander Qi Fabao standing with his arms outstretched to stop Indian soldiers from advancing. Qi was selected to be a delegate to the Party Congress, underlining the importance of the border crisis to the Chinese Communist Party’s narrative. Harnessing nationalism, the party wants to convey that it will protect what it considers Chinese territory at all costs.

India’s military and political leaders now confront a reality at the border that should have jolted them into serious action: China has a distinct advantage over India, which it has consolidated since 2020. By investing in a long-term military presence in one of the most remote places on Earth, the PLA has considerably reduced the time it would need to launch a military operation against India. New military garrisons, roads, and bridges would allow for rapid deployment and make clear that Beijing is not considering a broader retreat. The Indian military has responded by diverting certain forces intended for the border with Pakistan toward its disputed border with China. It has deployed additional ground forces to prevent further PLA ingress in Ladakh and constructed supporting infrastructure. Meanwhile, New Delhi’s political leadership is conspicuous in its silence, projecting a sense of normalcy.

Beijing refuses to discuss two of the areas in Ladakh, where its forces have blocked Indian patrols since 2020. In five other areas, Chinese troops have stepped back by a few miles but asked India to do the same and create a no-patrolling zone. This move denies India its right to patrol areas as planned before the border crisis began. The PLA has flatly refused to discuss de-escalation, in which both armies would pull back by a substantive distance. The question of each side withdrawing its additional troops from Ladakh is not even on the agenda. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson rejected any demand to restore the situation along the LAC as it existed before May 2020. The PLA continues to downplay the severity of the situation, instead emphasizing stability in its ties with India.

If the situation in Ladakh is “stable but unpredictable,” Indian military leaders have told Foreign Policy that major stretches of the LAC’s eastern sector—2,500 kilometers (or 1,553 miles) away—are an even bigger cause of concern. In 1962, this area was the site of a humiliating defeat of the Indian Army at the hands of the PLA. Today, massive Chinese infrastructure development and troop buildup closer to the LAC has placed India at a military disadvantage. In September, Pande said when it comes to infrastructure in the area, “there is lots to be desired to be done.” Recent reports suggest at least three additional PLA brigades remain deployed in the area even after the Party Congress, further worrying Indian military planners.

China officially claims the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh, which includes the Tawang Monastery where the sixth Dalai Lama was born in 1683. Tawang was historically a part of Tibet; Chinese officials, such as Dai Bingguo, who served as China’s boundary negotiator with India from 2003 to 2013, have publicly stated that it would be nonnegotiable in a permanent settlement of the disputed border. As questions arise over the succession of the current Dalai Lama, who is 87 years old, Chinese sensitivities about Tawang will intensify—even more so when linked to its internal security problems in Tibet. In the coming years, it is likely to become a higher priority for China.

Still, it is in Ladakh that the Chinese have built up infrastructure at a frenetic pace, with only military operations in mind: roads, bridges, airfields, heliports, accommodations for troops, and storage and communication infrastructure. Pande noted that one of the biggest developments is the G695 highway, which runs parallel to the LAC and gives the PLA the ability to quickly move from one valley to another. Flatter terrain on the Chinese side already gives Beijing an advantage, now further bolstered by infrastructure—an extensive network of new roads, bridges, and heliports.

In the 1960s, the PLA needed one full summer season to mobilize and launch military operations in Ladakh for the next summer. Now, it would need a couple of weeks to undertake the same operation. Indian military planners must live with this scenario, even if the current border crisis is resolved.


Modi approaching Xi in Bali recalled a short exchange between the two leaders on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, in 2017. Then, their conversation sparked diplomatic communications between New Delhi and Beijing that aimed to resolve a standoff between Indian and Chinese troops at Doklam in Bhutan, which China claims as its territory. The talks led to disengagement, but the Chinese only stepped back a few hundred yards. They have since consolidated their military deployment and undertaken massive infrastructure development in Doklam, such as roads, helipads, and a military garrison. Even if an immediate crisis was averted, the status quo was permanently altered in China’s favor in Doklam.

A similar resolution of the Ladakh border crisis would carry bigger risks for India. Unlike in Doklam, China has entered areas in Ladakh that Indian troops regularly patrolled until 2020. Reinforcing the LAC over the vast span of Ladakh would require enhanced deployment of Indian ground forces. This permanent instability would put the Indian military under further pressure. With an already limited defense budget—China’s is more than four times as large—shifting more troops to the border would also divert resources from the Indian Navy, where multilateral cooperation with Quad partners to contest China’s influence in the Indian Ocean region is an absolute imperative.

Fearing escalation, India is forsaking even limited offensive options, such as launching a quid pro quo military operation to capture some territory in Tibet to arrive at the negotiating table with a strong hand. New Delhi’s defensive position instead seems to acknowledge its widening gap with Beijing; due to this power differential, it is unable to even use economic or diplomatic instruments to target China. After all, India’s bilateral trade with China—its biggest trading partner—reached record levels this year, with an all-time high trade deficit in Beijing’s favor. The U.S. Defense Department report on China reveals that Beijing has warned U.S. officials not to interfere with its relationship with New Delhi; Kenneth Juster, a former U.S. ambassador to India, said New Delhi doesn’t want Washington to mention Beijing’s border aggression.

India’s defensive posture plays out in its approach to diplomatic engagement and security cooperation. Unlike its Quad partners, India abstained from voting against China on the Xinjiang issue at the United Nations Human Rights Council meeting in October, and its comments on China’s crackdown in Hong Kong or aggression toward Taiwan have been guarded. Modi participated in both the BRICS summit and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit this year, along with Xi; Chinese delegations are still regularly invited to New Delhi for multilateral events. And an Indian military contingent participated with a PLA contingent in a military exercise in Russia this year.

The current situation along the LAC, both in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, as well as China’s refusal to discuss issues on India’s agenda for resolving the crisis have added to the structural instability in their relationship. Chinese infrastructure development and the widening gap in power means that this instability will become permanent, even with a solution to the immediate crisis. India’s military will remain under pressure and on guard. Pande made this implicit when discussing future Indian plans on the border in November. “We need to very carefully calibrate our actions on the LAC [so as] to be able to safeguard both our interests and sensitivities … and be prepared to deal with all types of contingencies,” he said.

The risk of an accidental military escalation between Asia’s most populous countries—both nuclear powers—has increased significantly since 2020. This will continue unless Modi and Xi find a new modus vivendi. Establishing guardrails in the relationship will require political imagination and an honest appraisal of relative strengths; failing that, New Delhi faces tough geopolitical choices. It has so far eschewed any security-centric step with the Quad that could provoke Beijing, but murmurs from its partners about reticent Indian policy are bound to get louder. Meanwhile, India’s reliance on Russia for military equipment and ammunition now falls under a cloud of suspicion. And an unstable border with China prevents India from targeting Pakistan, a tactic that has proved politically rewarding for Modi.

The fundamentals of Indian foreign policy that have held steady since the years of former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru—namely, strategic autonomy and ensuring territorial integrity and sovereignty—will come under greater stress as the border crisis looms over New Delhi. Modi boasts of great ambitions for India as a “Vishwa Guru,” or master to the world—a euphemism for a global superpower. But questions raised by the situation at the border with China continue to limit him.

Sushant Singh is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in India. He was a lecturer in political science at Yale University and the deputy editor of the Indian Express, reporting on strategic affairs, national security, and international affairs. He twice won the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award for his reporting in 2017 and 2018. Twitter: @SushantSin

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.