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India can’t afford to be defensive against China like it has been with Pakistan on terror

Avoiding war with China will cost Delhi in long run. Beijing’s LAC aggression will return.

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Indian governments have traditionally been risk-averse; the Narendra Modi government is only slightly less so, at least when it comes to externally directed action.

Which is why it was surprising when on Monday, a highly-placed Indian government source was quoted as saying that considering China’s unrelenting stance on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, India was willing to consider a military pushback. India will not worry about consequences because, according to the official, “if you start thinking of consequences, you will not be able to move forward”.

This appeared to be clearly foolish, as actions do have consequences which need to be considered before implementing. This is particularly true of military action against China. Such action could escalate to a full-scale war that can lead to not only immediate and obvious military consequences, but also long-term political, economic and diplomatic effects.
It is unlikely that the Modi government is not worrying about the consequence of a potential military pushback.

Also read: Three cold wars involving China are dragging India into conflicts it is not ready for

India’s diplomatic history

There are consequences to both action and inaction. When considering consequences, inaction and indecision may (possibly) have the short-term benefit of helping tide over a problem. But it also carries with it the potential for negative longer-term consequences that also have to be calculated. Indeed, inaction and indecision have repeatedly hurt India’s foreign policy and security interests.

Examples from India’s diplomatic history should illustrate this. Not conducting a nuclear test in the 1960s ensured that India was left out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) that continues to have negative consequences, five decades later. India was repeatedly subject to technology sanctions, and is still struggling to get into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), all because it is not a member of the NPT. It is unclear if India could have conducted a successful nuclear test in the 1960s, but we don’t know for sure because India did not even attempt to do so. So opposed was Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri to a nuclear bomb, that he asked Britain for cost estimates expressly to counter Homi Bhabha’s public claims that a nuclear programme was inexpensive. The British provided it, while keeping secret an internal report that said India could develop a bomb “with little technical difficulty and very little additional cost”. The exaggerated cost estimate helped tide over an immediate problem, but India is still dealing with its long-term negative consequences.

Throughout the next three decades, even after India tested a “device” in 1974, Indian governments worried about immediate consequences of becoming a nuclear power — sanctions, cost — before finally taking the plunge in 1998. Sanctions followed, but they were easily weathered, while the long-term consequences still haunt India.
Another example is how India repeatedly held back from militarily responding to Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. It feared military escalation and possibly international intervention or pressure, and expected benefits for ‘good behavior’. Neither materialised. When India did retaliate with the surgical strike and the Balakot attack, the fear of escalation and international pressure turned out to be unfounded.

India’s capture of Siachen in 1984 provides a rare counterexample. Despite the continuing cost in terms of human life, the strategic costs, if India had not launched Operation Meghdoot, can be easily imagined, especially in the current context. Simply put, in estimating costs and benefits, India needs to look at not just the immediate effects of action and non-action, but also the long term effects.

Also read: Why can’t China retaliate to Modi’s virtual strike? There is no Indian TikTok to be punished

Cost-benefit analysis

Thus, while taking military action at the LAC will likely be costly, any judgement needs to be weighed against the cost of inaction. In general, it is not advisable to consider war against a stronger foe. But three qualifiers need to be considered too. First, while China is much more powerful overall, this imbalance may not yet be as significant at the LAC where the forces are at least matched. Second, India’s relative weakness has an advantage: anything other than an unambiguous victory will be perceived as a loss for China.

Finally, avoiding war may prove to be expensive in the longer term if it signals irresoluteness. China will be emboldened. Left unchallenged, there is a good chance it will push India again. China’s behavior does not suggest that this will be its last nibble. So, the question may be as much about deterrence, as it is about war. If it was only a question of war for immediate objectives, the answer is simple — the stakes may not be worth the cost. But if it is the former, there could be long term consequences because deterrence requires demonstrating resolve. There will be consequences further afield too, on India’s potential partners in the region, and ultimately on whether any coalition is possible to maintain a non-hegemonised Asia.

Talk of military pushback also assumes adequate military preparation. Both Indian military history and the Modi government’s previous actions should sound a cautionary note. Moreover, the Indian military has traditionally been oriented and prepared for defensive military action at the LAC, not offensive. Finally, public signaling such as this also raises a commitment problem: if China does not back down, New Delhi risks additional damage to its credibility, if it does not follow through with its threat.

The author is a professor in International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Views are personal.

Also read: China’s Hikvision controls India’s surveillance market. Modi needs to do more than ban apps


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  1. Very strange article,
    India is giving too much freedom to media , so such type of ridiculous posts we are getting. Can you have balls to write such things against China ? If you write or post against china then you ,your family and whole news company will disappear like a fume.
    India giving you freedom of speech so at least use your brain to sustain.

  2. Hindus have over rated Modi. His delusions of grandeur may (appear to) work with Hindu audiences in India and abroad. At least Hindus will believe it. But Hindu delusions are not going to work with China. India has only one option : accept the reality that China is going to be the global superpower, and India cannot and should not challenge that. Population alone is not an entitlement to great power status. India is more or less in the same boat as Sri Lanka, Nepal etc.

  3. the world has many more options than simply ‘a’ or ‘b’. politics and elections really have only one option. how to get re-elected and cling to power.

  4. A professor is a professor. with no practical knowledge. does he not realise that China has long term goal and the current skirmish is just the starter. they have opened aggressive positions on all their front and bullied all the Nations around it China has to be stopped and that is what the world needs to and will do OR our future generations will pay the price.

  5. Talking about being defensive / offensive against China is absurd for any one with common sense. China will have to be handled tactfully as any other bully who is stronger than you. Just as the equation between India and Pakistan makes sure that neither side can be pinned down to the wall, the same applies to China. So all the loose talk that goes on in the media should stop there is no expert who has a solution just as against the Corona virus. Media is a big economic activity supporting a lively-hood for many many people. With the coming of the social media print and electronic media is no more the opinion maker. Live and let live.

  6. Modi’s government is only slightly less cowardly than the past government. In the national security area only two achievements of this government are confinement of terrorism to J &K, and three surgical strikes. Otherwise the policies and practices of this government are hardly different from those of UPA government. Once in a way, a bully has to be pushed back and kicked in the groin. If China is not punished for the fights in Pangong tso and Galwan, again it will nibble some more land.

    • Modi is too busy fighting in India with students, minorities and women, and most Hindus are happy with that. China is far away.

  7. Dear Mr. Rajgopalan,

    You will need to be mindful about the consequences of your words and opinion especially for those brave military personnel ready to defend India’s sovereignty at any cost . I am not an Indian but I feel sad to see as an Indian journalist how you could share such opinion that clearly comes from weakness. God bless you.

    Dr G

  8. Please stop writing these kind of stupid articles! Stop showing this hatred towards modi! Whatever he does is wrong for you and this is what making people to loose intrest in your articles and posts

    • Tell us one thing Modi has done that is correct. He cultivated Xi and touched his feet, he enabled Xi in trade for a little investment in Gujarat, and in exchange, he has to cede land. Modi’s time is spent on engineering internal fights between Indians – that is his power base, that is how Hindus were in the past also.

      • you have nothing but hate towards India and Modi. Dont you see now Chinese retreating?. also if UPA was in power this news of occupation would not even come to light thus people would believe all is well. Modi stood firm in Doklam. And take assetive stance now. banned Chinese firms and apps. infact China did self goal and gave free hand t India to act on its firms who is operating from India..

  9. Sekhar Guptha the CEO of print forgot about his nationality and didn’t loose his nature in “India Today” group.

  10. Author Keep up the good work. I appreciate your effort you put to write it. Fantastic you have really done a great job. Its 100% entertaining I got stomach pain by laughing. Don’t Livi in history. For the worst case India can and will defend LAC at any cost.

  11. “India can’t afford to be defensive against China like it has been with Pakistan on terror”
    Good joke, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Please tell more jokes like this on a regular basis so that people can laugh more. What about Hindustan supporting and financing terror outfits like TTP, BLA, PTM, MQM and the list goes on. But then, you already knew that but out of habit, you had to stick with your age-old mantra. Enjoy the chitrol at the hands of Chinese and I meant, literally at the hands of Chinese.

    • MQM is given safe house in UK…while hafiz saeed Osama bin Laden Massoud azar were/are in Pakistan…looks like someone got wrong impression of what a teacher is

  12. China’s move in Ladakh has left Modi will little choice but to take decisive action given his political standing in the country. He cannot afford to be seen as yielding to China with whom he tried to be friendly but was cheated. Further, after Balakot and surgical strikes as also Dhoklam, Modi can not be seen as going back foot. Modi is proceeding cautiously and firmly. He is giving enough time to the Army and diplomacy to work things out for achieving status quo ante and also preparing ground for a possible action to evict Chinese from illegal occupation on LAC.
    The Army ready for the long haul and so is Modi. We are getting morale support from major powers in the world as well, something which never happened before! Let us ignore this fact. Hence, let us wait and give time for Modi to act appropriately.

  13. War should always be the last option. Not least if both sides possess nuclear weapons. The intrusions took place largely undetected, a lapse for which accountability should be enforced after the crisis has passed. We should not progress from a blunder to a catastrophe. It is never personal between great nations. Our diplomacy needs to become impersonal, professional, coolly appraising of long term interests. The phase of cultivating presto always friendships has not proved to be fruitful.

  14. “So opposed was Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri to a nuclear bomb”
    BJP should seek explanation from Snil Sasthri and Sidharth Nath Sngh for this lapse on the part of Lal Bahadur Shasthri’s .

    • Shastri family did not rule the country and amass wealth.They lead a normal life unlike your buddy family.

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