The current state of India-China relations is highly pessimistic, with deployments on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) reaching almost unsustainable levels. The cold vibes between Xi Jinping and PM Narendra Modi during the 15th BRICS summit at Johannesburg were clearly visible, reflecting a sense of déjà vu. The situation has been further precipitated by inconclusive rounds of discussions between top People's Liberation Army (PLA) and Indian Army (IA) commanders held in mid-August, the release of a new map by China, and the absence of Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Delhi.
The special representative's level mechanism on the boundary question which is crucial for maintaining cordial relations between the two countries has not had a meeting since December 2019 thereby ceasing almost all the channels of communication.
Therefore, on the surface, the situation seems ripe for a larger conflict between the two neighbours, with China enjoying a comparative edge in almost all parameters of comprehensive national power, be it size, political influence, economic strength, military capability, or advances in science and technology.
Factors discouraging a conflict
Nevertheless, despite the deteriorating relations, the two countries may not go to war because many factors discourage a conflict and support the conditions for maintaining the fragile peace.
The Chinese economy is going through a downturn, with Bloomberg projecting that its GDP growth rate is likely to come down to 3.5 per cent by 2030. With this kind of slowdown, China cannot sustain its $700 billion annual defence budget, many ambitious projects like the Belt and Road Initiative and expenditure on war. India, on the other hand, is experiencing decent economic growth with the World Bank projecting a GDP growth rate of 7.5 per cent in 2024. This growth which is being driven by a young population, a growing middle class, and increasing investments in infrastructure and manufacturing however cannot absorb a major disruption like an India-China conflict.
India and China are major trading partners, with bilateral trade standing at $136 billion in 2022-23. The trade deficit of $100 billion is heavily in China's favour. It is in the interest of both countries to maintain the high tempo of trade. A war between India and China would have a devastating impact on the economies of both countries and the global economy.
Diplomatically, China faces significant challenges. Its relations with the United States and Europe are strained, the Taiwanese leadership with an election on the horizon is assertive and uncompromising, the South China Sea is unstable with all countries staking their claims vocally while the Belt Road Initiative is struggling wherein Italy, the only G7 member is threatening to withdraw from the ambitious infrastructure project.
Strategically too, China is more focused towards the reunification of Taiwan under the “One China Policy” and its maritime disputes. An in-depth analysis of its policy documents indicates that it maintains the Eastern Front as the main "strategic direction”. Therefore, China is unlikely to risk a war with India, which could derail the pursuit of its primary strategic objectives.
Moreover, both India and China are conscious of the fact that they are nuclear-armed powers and a war between the two could escalate into the nuclear domain, which would have devastating consequences for the entire world.
Notwithstanding the above, the most significant reason that will stop China from going to war will however be the “uncertainty of the outcome”. Despite its edge in military capability, the PLA cannot be certain of victory in a war with India. The PLA faces a variety of challenges, including long lines of communication, difficult terrain, extreme weather conditions, and much better-prepared Indian defence forces. A major power like China will therefore not go to war where there is a possibility of a stalemate, which is a de facto victory for India.
This hypothesis does not suggest that an India-China war is an impossibility and that India can lower its guard. On the contrary, India should utilize this time to build credible capability and bridge the gap in comprehensive national power by continuing to modernize its military and strengthen its alliances with other countries. Also, its leaders and diplomats should avoid rhetoric, work towards conflict resolution, and follow a polite but firm approach with China.
The author is a retired Major General of the Indian Army. He commanded a mountain division on the India-China border.
Views expressed in the column belong to the author and not the organization