Ensuring Deterrence along the India-China LAC: The Way Ahead

- ICS and KAS India

The events of 2020 mark a watershed moment for Sino-Indian relations, with India reevaluating its strategic posture vis-à-vis China. Reorienting the country's military posture remains a crucial aspect of deterring future Chinese aggression along the border. Though the past few decades have seen various CBMs and border agreements holding the peace along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), events like the Galwan clash and Op Snow Leopard reflect the inadequacy of past agreements, and the urgent need to bolster India's conventional deterrence against China's military. In order to hear the views on these themes from the personages who have been there and done that and more, the Institute of Chinese Studies & the India Office of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) organized an interactive webinar on the topic "Ensuring Deterrence along the India-China LAC" on 7th April 2021.

Key Takeaways:


  • In the past, there was a mutual understanding of the alignment of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and where it lay between the two militaries. There was an acknowledgement of some disputed areas and where they lay, but both sides were also clear about areas where there was no dispute, with each patrolling up to their perception of the LAC.
  • Depsang Plains is an example of one of the disputed areas, with both sides attempting to patrol till their perception of the LAC. Similarly, the North Bank of Pangong Tso was also a disputed area. However, Chinese aggression at sites like Galwan and Gogra-Hot Spring indicates that the earlier mutual understanding has completely broken down, because there was no dispute over these areas earlier.
  • The stand-off over the course of 2020-21 shows a complete disregard of confidence-building measures (CBMs) that used to keep the peace by the Chinese. Going forward, such incidents are likely to arise along the entire LAC.
  • It is unlikely that the LAC with China will become as violent as the Line of Control with Pakistan, but it will continue to remain tense and uncertain. We are likely to see greater suspicion, greater mistrust, increasing deployment of troops, and more aggressive reactions to the other sides’ actions in the future.
  • China miscalculated in Doklam and Eastern Ladakh by identifying India’s redlines incorrectly – India’s resolve in responding was not factored into their calculations. They may have taken a strategic pause at the moment, but will continue trying to achieve their political objectives.
  • The military capability gap between India and China is significant, and is likely to grow much more in the future. While in the past the Indian Army used to have a slight disadvantage due to the infrastructure build-up on both sides, the Navy and Air Force had some advantages. These are also rapidly shrinking, and could disappear over the next decade.
  • Long-term planning naturally has to involve economic and technological developments, but one must recognize that India is currently outstripped by China in most parameters. Therefore, in the short-term, India has no choice but to look at coalitions and alliances, whether formalized or unformalized, while understanding that no coalition is going to get boots on the ground along the border with China.
  • China is increasing the military capability gap because of its significant investments in cyber, space, and electronic warfare capabilities – all enabled by the Military-Civil Fusion strategy where dual-use high-end technologies are being inducted.
  • Though there were doubts about the ability of both militaries to continue the recent standoff through the winters, they clearly mitigated the various difficulties involved. The PLA has been conducting military exercises in Tibet during the winter months for several years now. While their terrain allows easier movement, the Indian Army in Ladakh is cut off 4-5 months a year. Similarly, in states like Arunachal, India still doesn’t have roads going up till the LAC. All these points highlight the urgent need for India to invest further in infrastructure development.
  • Recent events may prompt attempts to put more boots on the ground. While some restructuring is required, capability development must be emphasized over boots on the ground - issues of budgeting and revenue are exacerbated by manpower-intensive approaches.
  • India should consciously be moving away from kinetic and contact-centric doctrines to a more nuanced strategic response to the kind of grey-zone tactics China is favoring. Deterrence by denial, and deterrence by punishment, both these options should be considered.
  • Dealing with the grey-zone warfare India finds itself besieged by, requires not only a military or diplomatic response, but a whole-of-nation response. This kind of warfare creates a sense of perpetual conflict, and also increases the potential of real conflict while undermining deterrence.
  • Grey-zone tactics also thrive in toxic sociopolitical environments. The more schisms, the greater the vulnerability of a nation. Measures should also be taken to keep India’s social cohesion intact.
  • India’s decision makers should reflect on why we face narrowing options every time India faces a strategic challenge. Why is the security establishment scurrying around looking for options when response options should be readily available?
  • The three very important aspects of deterrence to consider are – capabilities, resolve, and communication. While India has demonstrated significant resolve in various incidents with China, urgent doctrinal relooks are required to ensure efficient capability development. Similarly, the security establishment has to decide what India’s redlines are and convey them effectively to China.

Peter Rimmele