Skip to main content

The Unthinkable…On the Roof of the World

The border crisis in Ladakh may end in war or peace — or it may never end.” Arzan Tarapore

“there is an absolute lack of strategic engagement among the three powers about how they would manage escalation,” and rising uncertainty about “how crises might spiral,” Vikram Singh

“Given the risks involved, a possible China-India conflict requires urgent contingency planning in Washington, Canberra, Tokyo, and other like-minded capitals. India’s partners – especially its Quad partners- have a national interest in minimizing the strategic harm inflicted upon India.” Arzan Tarapore

While so many have their eyes fixed on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the sudden withdrawal of US personnel from Afghanistan, and the growing tensions in the South China Seas with the potential of conflict in Taiwan, there brews a potential storm high up in the Himalayan mountains along the borders of three nuclear-weapon states: China, India and Pakistan. 

Central Asia’s Tibetan Plateau is justifiably nicknamed “the roof of the world”. With an average elevation of more than 4,500 meters (14,764 feet) and covering an area roughly four times that of Texas, it is the world’s highest and largest plateau. It also happens to be one of the most hotly contested areas of land on the earth. We tend to think the greatest land disputes are in the Middle East in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. I can assure you that the disputes for land in the Middle East are not greater than those in the Himalayan Mountains. We will dig into that in this edition of More than Meets the Eye.


China and India are the two most populous nations on earth, both armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, and both currently led by governments that have rallied support, in large part, through appeals to nationalist sentiment. China is India’s primary strategic challenger, with which it shares a 2,000-mile disputed border, and Beijing ultimately wants New Delhi to accept its hegemony. In a nutshell, China has its eyes on this massive piece of territory, claims it for itself and appears willing to pay a great price in order to make it happen.

China’s latest provocation—the enactment of a Land Borders Law—is a Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-enacted law for the purposes of establishing the reality that whatever China perceives as its own territory belongs to China. This law was enacted unilaterally to counter any attempts by its South Asian neighbor from encroaching into any of the disputed areas in any fashion. This would give the CCP legal grounds—in their mind—to defend its territorial boundaries at all costs. It appears primarily aimed at advancing its territorial revisionism in the Himalayas. The law effectively negates the possibility of peacefully resolving its territorial disputes with India. Instead of mutually settled borders, the law enables unilaterally imposed borders. This is no small matter.

The Question of Borders

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the most significant issue between China and India as well as Pakistan has to do with the demarcation of borders. The line of actual control (LAC) is a 3,488 km undemarcated border that runs between India and China and is divided into three sectors: the western sector (Ladakh), the middle sector (Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim), and the eastern sector (Arunachal Pradesh). A contested border, the LAC’s ambiguity has prompted many flare-ups and has even resulted in two battles between India and China. Treaties from the British colonial era in South Asia lie at the heart of these disputes. India believes it inherited firm borders from the British, while China considers the border question unsettled. When the People’s Republic of China assumed power in 1949, it renounced all prior foreign agreements as unequal treaties imposed upon it during the century of humiliation, demanding a renegotiation of all its borders.

These vestiges of colonialism continue to haunt the peoples on the “roof of the world.” Recent skirmishes which have involved deaths of both Chinese and Indian soldiers are merely the tip of the iceberg concerning where this potential conflict could head. Problematically, there are no mechanisms in place for how to deal with escalations in the Himalayas. Every time there is a conflict, it is as if it is the first time. It almost feels like both India and China refuse to acknowledge that a genuine and potentially unthinkable escalation could occur. 

Current global ramifications…

While both the United States and China have sought to calm previous eruptions of violent conflict between India and Pakistan, the increasingly pronounced alignments of the United States with India and China with Pakistan now will make it more difficult for them to play a mediating role in future crises, especially in the areas of the Himalayas.

China is well aware that in southern Asia, the Ukraine conflict is likely to disadvantage India by weakening Russia as a reliable supplier of the vast majority of Indian weaponry — from tanks to missiles to submarines. In a recent US Institute for Peace interview,  Vikram Singh, an Asia security policy specialist at USIP, asked whether such a tilting of the military balance might help prompt Beijing to consider pushing “a little harder” in the countries’ border dispute — and what the response of an uncertain India might be. His answer was sobering. “Fundamentally, ‘there is an absolute lack of strategic engagement among the three powers about how they would manage escalation,’ and rising uncertainty about ‘how crises might spiral,’ he said. ‘I think what we’ve seen in Russia and Ukraine gives us reason to think hard about the unthinkable.’”

Although the intensifying multiple military standoffs between nuclear-armed titans China and India have grabbed few headlines, the risk of renewed border skirmishing, if not outright war, is increasing. Indeed, the Pentagon’s newly released annual report on China says the Chinese military is bracing for a two-front war scenario: “any escalation of border tensions with India, as well as preparing to support a Taiwan contingency.”

Unlike China’s expansionism elsewhere, including swallowing Hong Kong and redrawing maritime frontiers in the South China Sea without firing a shot, its Himalayan aggression has run into armed resistance. India has not only matched Chinese military deployments in the region, but, in recent days, it also test-fired a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile as a warning shot to China and conducted daring border paratrooper exercises simulating territory capture behind enemy lines.

Could it simply be all about water?

Though officially unspoken, there are several reasons that China is determined to secure sovereignty over the Tibetan Plateau. The Himalayan glaciers play a critical role in supporting Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, China, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar.

Himalayan glaciers store 10 percent of the world’s freshwater and support irrigation, energy, and the livelihoods of 750 million people living downstream. More than 1.9 billion people rely on the water that flows from the glaciers, whether for drinking, agriculture, energy, or other purposes. As the region warms, critical rivers and groundwater sources could eventually dry up, which could trigger conflicts, undermine economies, and spur mass migrations.

I would like to suggest that the conflict between China and India is actually not for land, but for water. China needs fresh water sources for its semiconductor industry. It needs clear and uninterrupted access to the Shaksgam Valley (which is overlooked by Indian troops posted at Siachen Glacier). The Chinese are irked by India’s furious border development. The issue is compounded by the formation of the QUAD. China has not only continued its military and civil infrastructure construction, but has also threatened to build a new dam on what India calls the Brahmaputra River—a move which would give China control of a crucial water source for northeastern India.

India and China together are home to a humongous 35% of the global population, a whopping 2.7 billion souls. Both China and India’s freshwater needs are increasing by the day. You can live without a lot of things: Water isn’t one of them!

From a strategic standpoint, we will see water become an increasingly major issue in global diplomacy, and not just along the Himalayas. There are four groundwater aquifer basins in Palestine, which are located either partially or totally in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. There is little wonder why the Israelis are hesitant to subject themselves to a two state solution. As a nation, Israel could easily find itself waterless in a desert. 

Diplomatic Dilemmas

What is interesting about this dangerous and probable escalation among India, China and/or Pakistan is that with all the experience wielded by Chinese, Indian, and Pakistani diplomats there seems to be a void of a cogent strategy to manage their international aspirations, especially when it comes to possible escalation over these disputed territories. Diplomats on all sides seem out of creative ideas to some how break through the intransigence of all parties involved. Here are just a fe examples of how confusing these players actions are.

At a May 2022 QUAD summit, the leaders of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States unveiled a maritime information-sharing project in the Indo-Pacific region. The initiative is designed to respond to natural disasters and combat illegal fishing; it comes in part as a response to Chinese activity in the region. Days later, news broke that India had also agreed to work with China on space cooperation. Under the new plan, two Indian satellites will be part of a “virtual constellation” that allows data-sharing among the BRICS countries, which also include Brazil, Russia, and South Africa.


As I researched and wrote this edition, I found myself doing the exact thing that the rest of the world is doing. I have been avoiding writing the words, “China and India are dangerously close to engaging in a war that could draw Pakistan in as well as other regional powers.” It makes the realignments in Afghanistan also come into a little more focus. 

I asked myself, “why was I avoiding saying it.” I realized the answer was in the title of this article. It is “unthinkable.” Why? Because it involves a third of the world’s population and the nationalist policies of both China’s Xi Jinping and India’s Narendra Modi, either of which would leave this part of the world in a very destabilized condition.

We no longer live in a world where everything can be bifurcated into a “good guy, bad guy” kind of world. Much of the West in particular lives in a Cold War mentality where there were only two sides… us and them! The world has moved on past this paradigm and, as uncomfortable as it feels, it is a reality that all of us are going to have to deal with.

The Russian/Ukraine war has turned the world on its edge. China has thrown its hat in the ring with Russia. This is having grave consequences for China. Old partnerships such as the Russia/India partnership have changed significantly as a result of the Russian invasion. Why? First, Most of India’s weaponry comes from the former Soviet State. Russia has squandered that stockpile to a devastatingly low level. Second, the effectiveness of Russian-made weapons systems against the newly arrived US and European weapons have proven less than satisfactory. Third, Russian influence is on a steep decline. This will realign many things, especially when it comes to geopolitics. We can already see how that has affected Finland and Sweden. I think India could find itself swimming in new orbits simply for its own survival. Their days of being unaligned are most likely soon coming to an end.


Here are some actions that are recommended by the Lowy Institute for how India can reduce the tension and possible war in light of Chinese aggression and encroachment.

  1.  Ensure any military strategy to counter coercion is centered on denial, not punishment: The Indian military’s standing doctrine calls for deterring adversaries with the threat of a massive punitive retaliation for any aggression, capturing enemy territory as bargaining leverage in post-war talks. But this did not deter China from launching unprecedented incursions in May 2020, and the threat lost credibility when retaliation never materialized. Punishment is generally less effective than denial, and especially so against highly resolved adversaries like China. In contrast, the Indian military’s high-water mark in the crisis was an act of denial — its occupation of the heights on the Kailash Range on its side of the LAC in late August. A doctrinal focus on denial will give the Indian military greater capacity to thwart future land grabs across the LAC. It would require a suite of improved capabilities and practices, including more wide-area surveillance, more devolved command authority, and well-practiced tactics for responding to attempted incursions. By bolstering India’s defensive position, rather than launching an escalatory response, such a strategy is also more likely than punishment to preserve crisis stability. Over time, improved denial capabilities may allow India to reduce the resource drain of the increased militarization of the LAC. But denial is important not only in deterring territorial aggression — it is equally essential to counter coercion elsewhere, such as against third-party countries in the Indian Ocean.
  2. Ensure any strategy to coerce China prioritises the coordinated imposition of political, rather than material, costs: To the extent that the crisis is evolving in a way that serves Indian national security interests — with disengagement to lines that approximate the status quo ante — it is because Beijing responded to the prospect of intolerable political costs, not material costs. India successfully raised the risks of the crisis for China, but through its threat of a political rupture, not military punishment. A permanently hostile India or an accidental escalation to conflict were risks that China, having achieved its goals in the crisis, assessed were an unnecessary additional burden while it was contending with a generally unstable international environment. The corollary lesson is that individual powers, even large powers like India, will probably struggle to shift Beijing’s calculus alone. China responded to the cumulative effect of multiple pressure points. Against the rising behemoth, only coordinated or collective action is likely to be effective.
  3. Consider accepting more risk on the LAC in exchange for long-term leverage and influence in the Indian Ocean region: The Ladakh crisis has ushered in a new strategic reality — with the increased militarization of the LAC at its core — that may hasten shifts in the balance of power in the Indian Ocean region. Mitigating that risk will require New Delhi to make tough-minded strategic trade-offs, deliberately prioritizing military modernization and joint force projection over the traditional ground-centric combat arms formations required to defend territory on the northern border. A more competitive long-term posture that consolidates influence in the Indian Ocean may come at the price of accepting more ground incursions. This will be a politically formidable task — blood has now been spilled on the LAC, and for domestic political reasons India cannot be seen to be passive on the border. But it will be a fundamentally political task. Rebalancing India’s strategic priorities will require the central government, through the Chief of Defense Staff (CDS), to issue firm strategic guidance to the military services. This response will be a test not only of the government’s strategic sense and farsightedness, but also of the national security apparatus’ ability to overcome entrenched bureaucratic and organizational-cultural biases. Absent bold leadership, the inertia of the military services will guarantee that India suffers a crisis after the crisis.

The follow-up.

What the Arabs Expect from Biden’s Visit to the Middle East…

Russian War Crimes in Ukraine Are Backfiring…

The feed-back.

 For your comments or questions about any of our digests please feel free to write to me at:


© 2019 • More Than Meets