March 30, 2023

India-China Border Tensions and U.S. Strategy in the Indo-Pacific

Executive Summary

India-China border intrusions and clashes have become more frequent and threaten to lead to all-out conflict between the two Asian giants. In recent years, China has upped the ante in its border disputes with India through infrastructure development, military deployments, capability enhancements, and periodic efforts to encroach into territory controlled by India. The first deadly border clash between the two countries in 45 years occurred on June 15, 2020, in the Galwan River Valley, where 20 Indian troops and at least four Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops were killed. More recently, on December 9, 2022, Chinese and Indian forces clashed along the disputed border in the mountains near Tawang in the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh after an estimated 300 Chinese PLA soldiers tried to cross the border.

While the Chinese and Indian militaries have since pulled back forces from the most contentious standoff sites where the 2020 buildup occurred and established temporary buffer zones, both sides retain high numbers of troops forward deployed along the disputed frontier, and there are several flashpoints that could erupt into another border crisis at any time. The most recent clash that took place near Tawang is a reminder that, even though recent attention has been focused on the Ladakh region, there are multiple trigger points along the 2,100-mile-long Line of Actual Control (LAC) that bear monitoring. With both China and India enhancing infrastructure and introducing new and advanced weapons systems on their sides of the disputed border, combined with forward deployments and heightened lack of trust, the chances for continued standoffs that could erupt into local or even full-blown conflict remain high.

While the Chinese and Indian militaries have since pulled back forces from the most contentious standoff sites where the 2020 buildup occurred and established temporary buffer zones, both sides retain high numbers of troops forward deployed along the disputed frontier.

The increased prospect of India-China border hostility has implications for the United States and its Indo-Pacific strategy. Washington has a strategic interest in what happens between India and China—two nuclear-armed nations whose populations together will soon total 3 billion. As the United States considers the role that India will play in the Indo-Pacific and how to maximize U.S.-India cooperation to meet security challenges in the region, U.S. policymakers must closely monitor and be prepared to respond quickly to future India-China border crises.

Until recently, U.S. officials handling South Asia policy have focused the bulk of their conflict management resources and planning on preparing for a potential India-Pakistan conflict. However, they are shifting their attention to the growing potential for an India-China military crisis and will benefit from additional resources as part of the Indo-Pacific strategy to address the China challenge more broadly.

For its part, India does not seek direct U.S. involvement in the India-China border dispute or any crisis that may arise there, but it is likely confident that it can count on the United States for some forms of support if requested. The United States responded to the 2020 border crisis by extending full diplomatic and material support for India. The United States provided information and intelligence and expedited delivery of equipment, including two MQ-9B surveillance drones and specialized gear for extreme cold weather conditions. The Biden administration in its October 2022 National Defense Strategy notes that it will support its allies and partners when they face “acute forms of gray zone coercion from the PRC’s campaigns to establish control over the East China Sea, Taiwan Strait, South China Sea, and disputed land borders such as with India,” signaling that support for New Delhi in a potential fresh border crisis with Beijing would be forthcoming.

U.S. officials are shifting their attention to the growing potential for an India-China military crisis and will benefit from additional resources as part of the Indo-Pacific strategy to address the China challenge more broadly.

Indian officials believe China is trying to contain India by forcing it to divert more resources into defending simultaneously both its western border with Pakistan and eastern flank with China and by weakening its willingness and ability to challenge Chinese ambitions to dominate the region. Developments along the LAC in 2020 brought clarity to India’s strategic approach toward China, meaning India’s views of the China challenge are starting to converge with those of the United States. Given the dangerous implications of another India-China border crisis, the United States must start implementing policies now both to prevent another border flare-up between New Delhi and Beijing and to be prepared in the event another crisis erupts. To help deter and respond to further Chinese aggression along the border with India, the United States should:

  • Elevate Indian territorial disputes with China on par with Beijing’s assertiveness against other U.S. allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific and ensure this is reflected in all national security–related documents and speeches.
  • Offer India the sophisticated military technology it requires to defend its borders and initiate coproduction and codevelopment of military equipment.
  • Assist India in strengthening its maritime and naval capacity.
  • Conduct joint intelligence reviews with India to align assessments of Chinese plans and intentions along the LAC and enhance coordination with Indian officials on contingency planning in the event of a future India-China conflict.
  • Establish or support an official or unofficial organization charged with collating unclassified commercial satellite imagery on the position of PLA troops along the LAC and disseminate these images routinely for public consumption.
  • Criticize Beijing’s efforts at land-grabbing in multilateral forums, including the U.N., Shangri-La Dialogue, G20, and East Asia Summit.
  • Message Pakistan—and enlist help from Pakistan’s other important partners to convey similar points—about the need to stay neutral in the event of a potential future India-China border flare-up.
  • Be prepared to extend full support to India, in the event of another border crisis or conflict.

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  1. India says the LAC is around 2,100 miles long, while China holds that it is around 1,200 miles long. This is because India claims the boundary starts where Afghanistan meets Ladakh, and China says the LAC starts at the Karakoram Pass.
  2. U.S. Department of Defense, 2022 National Defense Strategy, (October 2022), 15, https://media.defense.gov/2022/Oct/27/2003103845/-1/-1/1/2022-NATIONAL-DEFENSE-STRATEGY-NPR-MDR.PDF.

Authors

  • Lisa Curtis

    Senior Fellow and Director, Indo-Pacific Security Program

    Lisa Curtis is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at CNAS. She is a foreign policy and national security expert with over 20 years of service in...

  • Derek Grossman

    Senior Defense Analyst, RAND Corporation

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