China’s infrastructure program along their border with northern India is a blatant attempt to ensure that their military can more rapidly and easily deploy to the rugged and distant Ladakh than the Indian military can.
With the world still reeling from Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, many in the Indo-Pacific are watching with bated breath. After all, as the Russian Federation’s unjustified actions against the fledgling Ukrainian democracy continues to isolate the country from much of the rest of the international community, Moscow still counts China, the world’s second-largest economy (and growing) among its closest friends.
In fact, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Moscow and Beijing have only grown closer. Not since the heady days of the Sino-Soviet alliance in the early years of the Cold War have the two Eurasian autocracies worked so closely together. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine has shredded whatever international legal standards existed governing the proper use of force in the twenty-first century, other countries with ambitious territorial designs akin to those of Russia’s—such as China—are taking copious notes for how they, too, should act.
Concerns abound that China seeks to replicate in Taiwan that which Russia has recently done in Ukraine. And while conquering Taiwan is the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) greatest strategic ambition, it is probable that China will not have the amphibious capabilities needed to capture a target like Taiwan until at least 2025 (though the United States Department of Defense insists the earliest China could move on Taiwan would be 2027). While the West must always be vigilant for a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan, Washington would do well to keep an eye on other conflicts that China is involved in throughout the Indo-Pacific. Specifically, the ongoing standoff in the northern Indian Ladakh.
In 2020, a brutal fight erupted between Chinese and Indian forces patrolling their respective sides of what is known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC)—the area that officially demarcates where Indian territory ends and Chinese territory begins. What started as fighting between soldiers using their fists, rapidly devolved into something far more dangerous. For two years, the standoff over Ladakh has been a frozen conflict. Yet, despite repeated calls from New Delhi for Beijing to meet and negotiate a settlement, China has continued reinforcing its position.
There is a bridge that China has been building since the initial fighting took place two years ago on their side of the LAC. It is just one of countless major infrastructure projects that the Chinese military has undertaken in the region since the conflict erupted. India, too, has implemented many infrastructure projects. But the Chinese efforts are increasingly complex, sustained, and clearly intended for more than just reinforcing their side of the LAC.
One might say that China’s infrastructure program along their border with northern India is a blatant attempt to ensure that their military can more rapidly and easily deploy to the rugged and distant Ladakh than the Indian military can. These infrastructure projects, then, are more akin to the ongoing illegal Chinese island-building programs in the South China Sea: they are a means of aggressive power projection and great state intimidation—and they are designed to push the rightful owners of a given territory, in this case Ladakh, out so that China can move in.
While everyone is focused on a major Chinese amphibious invasion of Taiwan, the People’s Liberation Army is building up its presence along India’s rugged border. China believes that one day it will be a great naval power that can simultaneously invade Taiwan and threaten the United States Navy from across the world. China’s naval modernization program is certainly impressive. Yet, it is still in development. Until Beijing completes its ambitious naval modernization program it will remain a land power first. Picking a fight with India in Ladakh plays to China’s immediate military strengths while at the same time, at least in Beijing’s formulation, keeping the conflict just below the threat of a major war.
China’s potential fight with India is the likelier scenario than an invasion of Taiwan (though that is likely coming sooner than most realize, notably the Pentagon’s leadership). China already has large forces built up around the contested region and they are now copiously expanding their infrastructure footprint in Ladakh to allow for easier access and sustained combat operations against India. Plus, a Chinese move against India would be a repeat of the salami slice tactics that not only China has used in the South China Sea but that Russia has used in places like Georgia and Ukraine. Since both Moscow and Beijing are moving closer together than ever before, it stands to reason that the two budding strategic partners would borrow from each other’s playbooks.
India must not rest on its laurels and assume that China’s silence equates with non-violence. In fact, China is likely plotting to execute a lightning push into Ladakh and push aside the Indian presence in the contested zone. And it is unlikely that any other power could assist India, since the world is so badly distracted by the terrible events in Ukraine. India must redouble its reinforcement of Ladakh and begin signaling to China that any attempt to escalate in Ladakh will be met with overwhelming force. Failure to do so would allow for China to rejigger the geopolitical map in its Near-Abroad the same way that Russia is doing to its own region.
The world is watching the historic events in Ukraine with bated breath. The world’s autocrats are taking detailed notes of what transpires there, readying to apply those lessons learned against their foes. Western powers and their allies, like India, must do all that is necessary to deter the autocrats before the attacks begin. Ladakh, not Taiwan, is likely next on China’s menu of irredentism.
Brandon J. Weichert is the author of “Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower” (Republic Book Publishers). He manages The Weichert Report: World News Done Right and can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.