What the History of Modern Conquest Tells Us about China and India’s Border Crisis
China and India have come closer to war over the last two months than they have in decades. In May, Chinese troops advanced to seize and fortify positions at multiple points along the disputed border in Ladakh, including Pangong Lake and the Galwan River Valley, marking a serious escalation. The two nations fought the 1962 Sino-Indian War in part over the areas at issue today. Clashes between patrols have been a regular occurrence before and since. For decades, the two sides kept those clashes limited. No lives were lost. That changed on June 15. Wielding makeshift clubs affixed with nails or wrapped with barbed wire, Chinese troops assaulted Indian soldiers who attempted to remove Chinese tents in the Galwan Valley. Reports confirm the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers, while Chinese casualties remain unclear. In the last few days, the two sides agreed to pull back troops in the Galwan Valley and Hot Springs. Chinese soldiers have withdrawn more than a kilometer in the Galwan Valley, but questions remain about whether they will vacate other seized areas such as Pangong Lake. If not, the crisis may reignite.
The importance of this crisis is clear. China conquered several small pieces of territory that India perceives as its own. In doing so, China crossed two important Indian red lines: seizing territory and killing Indian soldiers. And yet, what is most remarkable — and most disturbing — about the crisis is how ordinary it is.
Putting these events in their broader context means asking a series of questions. Do countries still seize territory frequently, or is this rare? Do modern conquests typically involve large, valuable areas or smaller areas whose worth one must squint to discern? How do these conflicts typically end? How often does the aggressor win? And what can be done in response? Answering these questions exposes the surprising normalcy of what has happened in Ladakh. It sheds light on how India can respond, in this crisis or the next, and reveals why this crisis is a harbinger of future conflicts not just in South Asia but across the globe.
China’s Land Grab in Ladakh Is a Textbook Example of Modern Conquest
Modern conquest aims small. Although there have been only four attempts to conquer entire countries since World War II ended in 1945, my research identified 65 — now 66 — instances of one country seizing part of another country’s territory. Aiming small begins with the size of the “land grab” — typically no more than one province and often much less. The strategy is to seize territory while minimizing the risks and consequences of doing so. By aiming small, conquest without war is very possible. Avoiding inhabited areas — taking land but not people — further reduces the probability of provoking violence. China stuck to the script of modern conquest, doing both in Ladakh.
Conquests have grown smaller over time, accepting lower rewards for lower risks. For the first time, starting around 1990, most land grabs began to work around defender’s military positions, seizing only undefended areas. Imagine a playing board where pieces can only move to empty spaces. Indeed, land grabs that work around defensive military positions result in even a single death only about one time in three. The bloodshed in Ladakh is, therefore, already worse than average for military operations similar to China’s. For example, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam have each occupied features in the Spratly Islands since the 1970s, with only one major instance of fighting in 1988. Even Russia’s invasion of Crimea was largely bloodless. If Beijing hoped to advance without any loss of life, the history of modern conquest provided ample precedents for that.
Aiming small also sharply curbs the odds of external intervention. Modern conquest is largely a bilateral affair, even for countries with allies. It would be historically aberrant for the United States to intervene in the crisis on India’s behalf — or Pakistan on China’s — with any means beyond diplomacy, sanctions, arms shipments, or symbolic shows of force. Larger conquests, in contrast, make foreign intervention more likely because they threaten to diminish the power of the would-be intervener’s ally.
Just as the nature of China’s land grab is dismayingly ordinary, so too is the location. Asia has been the epicenter of modern conquest. Asia accounts for 38 percent of conquest attempts since 1945, almost double any other region. This figure rises to 57 percent if the Middle Eastern portion of the continent is included.
Since the end of World War II, China and India have been involved in about twice as many attempts to conquer territory as any other country. They have occupied territory, had their territory seized, and sometimes both have occurred over the course of a conflict. China’s main antagonists have been Vietnam, India, and the Soviet Union. India confronted Pakistan, China, and — believe it or not — Portugal.
China’s Strategy Is the Fait Accompli
China’s strategy is best understood as the fait accompli. Each fait accompli is a calculated gamble. China bet that it could take small areas in Ladakh without provoking India to take them back or start a wider war. So far, that bet has played out in Beijing’s favor, but the crisis is not over.
Some commentators will suspect that China’s motive is intimidation, part of a strategy of coercion. By seizing territory and killing Indian soldiers, China could hope to pressure India to rethink policies like road construction near disputed areas or changing the administrative status of Ladakh in what Beijing saw as unwelcome assertions of sovereignty. Yet, history suggests that China is unlikely to accomplish either goal. Such threats usually fail. In crises over land, countries tend to get what they take, not what they demand. China’s aggressiveness will more likely provoke India to ramp up its efforts to fortify the border than to desist from them.
Historically, about 50 percent of land grabs still hold onto the ground they seize at the end of the initial crisis. Approximately 40 percent still control it a decade later. In comparison, no strategy for aggressively revising the status quo has a generalized success rate clearly in excess of 50 percent (to my knowledge). Against that backdrop, it becomes clear why the fait accompli is often an effective tool for acquiring territory. Recent progress toward a diplomatic settlement is encouraging, but it remains to be seen where and how far Chinese forces pull back. Because approximately 80 percent of land grabs that succeed initially endure a decade later, India should understand that letting the current crisis fade away will likely mean that China controls these areas well into the future.
Why Seize Small Territories?
China’s encroachments in Ladakh share the most baffling quality of conquest in recent decades: risking military conflict for such a small territorial payoff. Describing the disputed region before the 1962 war, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru belittled its importance, saying “[n]ot a blade of grass grows in Aksai Chin.” Indian parliamentarian Mahavir Tyagi then pointed to his head and replied, “Nothing grows here. Should it be cut off or given away to somebody else?”
This exchange brings to mind Jose Luis Borges’s description of the Falklands War as “two bald men fighting over a comb.” Why so many bald men so often fight over so many combs is the defining puzzle of modern conquest. From Siachen to Sumdorong Chu to Kargil to Doklam to Pangong Lake and the Galwan River Valley, South Asia is no stranger to this question.
It is a question that defies easy answers. There is no oil in Pangong Lake or the Galwan River Valley, nor is there industry, nor a compelling ethnic grievance akin to Kashmir. There is little evidence that China has used the crisis to rally public opinion around the flag, despite its gains.
One possible motive is proximity to strategic lines of communication, in particular India’s Dalut Beg Oldie Road. Consistent with Taylor Fravel’s important finding that China tends to become aggressive in territorial disputes when its adversaries try to create facts on the ground to strengthen their claims, Indian road construction may have provoked China to respond. Strategic roads feature in most South Asian land grabs, including the 1962 Sino-Indian War, the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War, the 1999 Kargil War, and the 2017 Doklam crisis. In 1962, China’s interest in a strategic road to Tibet contributed to its aggressive pursuit of Aksai Chin.
Notably, however, strategic roads are rarely a significant motive for conquests elsewhere in the world. Why the difference? One explanation is that the uniquely mountainous geography of India’s borders makes roads more valuable. This is reasonable to a point. Yet, in Ladakh, China has merely approached the Dalut Beg Oldie Road, threatening but not crossing or blocking it. Is moving closer to a road running along the border toward the Siachen Glacier truly worth the risks and costs of the crisis for China? In light of the rarity of the strategic road motive for conquests elsewhere, there is room for doubt.
China’s Fait Accompli Left India with a Poor Set of Options
The fait accompli is often effective in part because it leaves its victims with no appealing options. Arrayed from least aggressive to most, India’s options include tolerating China’s fait accompli while working to dampen public discontent, working toward a diplomatic settlement, coercive diplomacy leveraging the threat to use force, a limited military operation to eject the People’s Liberation Army from the seized areas, and a more general assault on China’s forces along the border. Given its advantageous position, Beijing may not agree to or abide by a diplomatic solution acceptable to New Delhi, though this remains the best-case scenario for India. Prime Minister Modi has pursued this option so far. Historically, diplomacy alone fails to convince occupying forces to depart from the areas they seized in most cases. Success with this strategy would be a noteworthy achievement for India, though that track record also suggests that it would not be a reliable indicator that diplomacy would work against a future Chinese land grab. Similarly, coercive threats have rarely convinced states to relinquish territory. India’s recent ban on certain Chinese phone apps is unlikely to affect China’s position on the border dispute.
Given the costs of war and the present correlation of forces, a general military offensive offers India no great prospect of success and comes with grave risks. Fighting at high altitude poses serious challenges in itself, and doubly so when attacking fortified defensive positions. Nor does a limited operation to eject Chinese forces from the seized areas seem promising. India prevailed with that strategy against Pakistan in the 1999 Kargil War, but China is a much more capable adversary. In contrast, South Vietnam fared much worse when trying it against China in the Paracel Islands in 1974. China counter-escalated and took full control over those islands, which it holds today. Absent a diplomatic breakthrough, these options fail to offer much hope of a favorable outcome for India at an acceptable level of risk.
However, if diplomacy fails, several precedents suggest that India’s attention may turn to an easily overlooked option: turning China’s tactics back on Beijing by advancing elsewhere along the disputed border, working around Chinese posts and patrols without firing a first shot. India can use the initiative and a measure of surprise to conduct such an operation. China would then confront the same dilemma now afflicting India alone: accept the encroachments or attack to reverse them? When Vietnam lost a 1988 skirmish with China over Johnson South Reef in the Spratly Islands, it seized several other features in the Spratly Islands in response. Hanoi could then regard the outcome as closer to a draw than an unalloyed defeat. This approach is inferior to a diplomatic breakthrough due to its risks, but its historical track record appears stronger than other options that rely on the use or threat of force.
Although China has surely anticipated that India might adopt this strategy, positioning troops to block every possible encroachment along such a vast border is not feasible. In this respect, the extensiveness of the disputed border — which runs over 2,100 miles — advantages India. Many conquest attempts elsewhere do not share this dynamic, as the disputed territories are too small. Importantly, even a mostly symbolic advance could strengthen India’s hand. As a primarily political — not military — strategy, the value of the land India occupies would matter less than the symbolism of having taken and held it. China could react to this strategy by seizing additional unoccupied areas — a risk underscored when it suddenly articulated a new claim to territory in Bhutan — but New Delhi might still prefer an outcome in which both sides seized territory to an outcome in which only Beijing did so.
India’s employment of this strategy might also lay the groundwork for a mutual pullback deal to restore the status quo ante. When Greece seized the tiny Aegean islet of Imia in 1996, Turkey chose to occupy a nearby islet of its own rather than attack to eject the Greek marines. Both sides then mutually withdrew, restoring the status quo ante — an outcome that should interest India in Ladakh.
Will It End in War?
As Thomas Schelling explained long ago, crises often unfold in a curious form of competition in which each side plays right up to the limits of the rules of the game. For India and Pakistan, the salient lines that are crossed only at grave risk are geographic, most importantly the Line of Control in Kashmir. For India and China, the border remains too ill-defined for that norm to hold. Instead, the governing “rule” is simple: no shooting. It is even codified in a 1996 agreement. Sadly, this does not mean no violence, but rather it leaves room to work around the shooting constraint with violence limited to crude tools such as fists, stones, and clubs.
The resort to medieval weaponry is the most unusual feature of the crisis. It is more common for shoving matches and rock-throwing to mark the upper limit of non-shooting altercations, at least on land. (The sea offers different options, including ramming and water cannons.) However, there are precedents. For example, variously known as either the Poplar Tree Crisis or the Axe Murder Incident, a 1976 scuffle over an American attempt to trim a tree in the Korean Demilitarized Zone led to the deaths of two Americans at the hands of dozens of North Korean soldiers armed with clubs and axes. This sparked a crisis but not a war. The deaths of Indian soldiers and encroachments past the Line of Actual Control crossed important Indian red lines. Nonetheless, the fact that both sides continue to play by the “no shooting” rule provides some basis for optimism that escalation can remain contained — and that both sides wish to avoid war.
Will this crisis end in war? The history of modern conquest suggests that the best estimate emerges from the confluence of two conclusions that may seem contradictory: the probability of war lies well below fifty percent, but this type of crisis (featuring a small land grab as the defining element) nonetheless remains the most important pathway to war between India and China. The relationship between disputed territory, conquest, and war is so strong that even small faits accomplis are more dangerous than other types of conflicts in a world where larger conquests are rare. An initially nonviolent competition to build military posts in disputed territory culminated in the only modern war between India and China in 1962. It could happen again.
Dan Altman (@daltman_IR) is an assistant professor of political science at Georgia State University. Follow him on Twitter at daltman_IR.