The great escalation

September 6, 2020

Both China and India have amassed tens of thousands of soldiers along the LAC in Ladakh region

On August 31, India again accused China of building military infrastructure in Ladakh.

The Sino-Indian border stand-off flared up once again on August 30.

In a statement on August 31, India accused China of building military infrastructure on the disputed border in Ladakh that “violates the previous consensus arrived at during military and diplomatic engagements.” The statement claimed that Indian troops had taken steps to thwart the Chinese attempt to “unilaterally change” facts on the ground. A New York Times story, however, called the statement “terse and somewhat cryptic”.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, rebutted the Indian claim, stating that Chinese border troops “never cross the Line of Actual Control for any activities.” For its part, the Western Theatre Command of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) blamed India for “seriously violating China’s territorial sovereignty.” Neither side gave further details about the latest incident.

This recent flare-up is a continuation of earlier skirmishes that took place in mid-June 2020 in which at least 20 Indian soldiers were killed. This was the deadliest confrontation between the two nuclear armed neighbours. As a result, both sides reinforced their military strengths by sending tens of thousands of troops, backed by tanks and fighter jets, to the region.

Chinese analysts say that the Indian leadership is using border tensions to divert attention from domestic failures. Was it a mere coincidence that India’s latest spate of accusations against China came just after it reported world’s highest number of Covid-19 infections, over 78,000 in a single day?

Recently, independent analysts and economists have exposed Modi government’s gross mishandling of Covid-19 and dismal economic performance especially during his second stint. During his first term, he had fanned the flames of Hindu nationalism internally as well as stocked up conflicts with neighbours. The highly-charged domestic audience adopted the narrative of the BJP-RSS nexus.

Externally, India is trying to curry favour with the US at a time of heightened Sino-Indian trade war which has taken on geopolitical dimensions. The Indian leadership seems in hurry to discard the country’s long-held ‘neutral’ policy and claim a leadership role in counter a rising China in the Indo-Pacific region. Indian and US interests were never aligned as closely in history as they are today.

Parallel with India’s cryptic statement against China’s “violations”, US Assistant Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, in his address to the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum, a trade body of two countries, indicated the revival of the quadrilateral cooperation between, Australia, India, Japan and the US. The alliance of “democracies” (in fact anti-China grouping) was initiated in 2007 by Japan. Some analysts refer to it as a NATO of the Asia-Pacific. India was seen as the “weakest link” in the group as New Delhi politely avoided stoking any confrontation with China. The role of the grouping, therefore, remained limited. It is for the first time that India has become its most active member. In its upcoming session in New Delhi next month, the Quad is likely to get a formal structure. If this happens, it will cast deep geopolitical shadows in the Indian Ocean region.

China-India relations, first damaged by the 1962 war, began improving during the 1980s. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s historic visit to China in 1988 laid the foundation of a new relationship between them. In the following decades both sides signed several pacts that paved the way for peace on their border. Under that understanding, both sides decided not to bring firearms to the border. This once led India’s top Sinologist, Swaran Singh, to boast that not a single bullet had been fired on the Sino-Indian border for decades. Even the recent deadly brawl involved wooden clubs and fisticuffs. However, the June 16 brawl had shattered the hard-earned stability on Sino-Indian border, causing India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar to call it the “most serious situation after 1962”.

The Sino-Indian border tension has been eating away at the regional (and to some extent global) strategic structures and creating new ones by pushing regional security to uncertainty in the age of sophisticated nuclear weapons, cyberwarfare, propaganda and the rising tide of nationalism. This conflict has seen more escalation than any other in the region. Even though the number of casualties was low (compared to say those resulting from enduring tension between India and Pakistan, and as a result of terrorism in various parts of the region), the Sino-Indian conflict involves three contiguous nuclear states who harbour deep mistrust of their neighbours.

India’s (over)reaction indicated its confrontational mood. Following the June clash, the Modi government took a series of diplomatic, economic and military steps to counter China. India indicated its willingness to use the Taiwan, Tibet and South China Sea cards if required. The Modi government promoted a senior diplomat to be its new envoy to Taiwan recently. These areas constitute China’s core interests on which Beijing will never compromise.

Externally, India is trying to curry favour with the US at a time of heightened Sino-US trade war which has taken on geopolitical dimensions. The current Indian leadership seems in a hurry to discard the country’s long-held ‘neutral’ policy and accept the leadership role in countering a rising China in the Indo-Pacific region. Indian and US interests were never aligned as closely in history as they are today.

Along with calls for boycotts of Chinese goods and protests that included burning of effigies of Chinese leaders at public level, the Indian government banned at least 49 Chinese owned-apps, including the TikTok, Weibo, CamScanner and Wechat, citing data privacy concerns. New Delhi might add more products to the list. India has also frozen Chinese firms out of contracts and held up Chinese goods at customs posts. Modi deleted his Weibo account which he had created in April 2014 ahead of his China visit. A BJP spokesperson termed the step a “personal level” decision.

On military front, India deployed a frontline warship in the South China Sea and has maintained constant contact with the US Navy in the region for secure communication systems. New Delhi also deployed its warships along the Malacca Straits near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and close to the route from where China’s ships enter the Indian Ocean Region – the most critical route for China. The Indian Navy also held “passage exercise” with the US warships in the Indian Ocean region.

This satellite image shows Galwan Valley between Tibet and Ladakh. It is the current flashpoint between the two countries.

China’s naval experts have these measures pressure tactics, meant to create a hype and entice the US. The Indian strategy shows that it is finally stepping away from its traditional so-called neutral foreign policy towards an alliance with the NATO and the US. India recently pulled out of the Caucasus-2020 military exercises, being organized by Russia in mid-September. Though India explained the decision in terms of the coronavirus pandemic and logistics difficulties, New Delhi is definitely trying to openly align itself with the US. India is likely to invite Australia to join next annual Malabar naval exercises which it started in 1992. The US and Japan are already members, Australia’s joining these exercises will strengthen its structure.

Modi’s policies have raised a number of questions. In recent months, besides China, India has also ignited a border conflict with its benign neighbor, Nepal. Bangladesh, that was created with direct Indian assistance in 1971, has also developed palpable differences with New Delhi in recent years. Besides this, India’s abrogation of Article 370 of its constitution was a crucial part of its efforts to transform itself into a Hindu state. This provoked serious reaction from China and from Pakistan.

Can the US, located thousands of miles away, suffice India’s realignment? China and India are also engaged with each other at a number of bilateral and multilateral levels. What would be India’s attitude towards those platforms? Has India calculated the cost of confrontation if it is stubbornly determined to take this path?

China and India are founding members of intercontinental grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS). The group has established the New Development Bank which grants loans for development projects among member countries. Likewise, India is full member of China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as well as the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), besides being a partner with China in many other bodies. Does India want to continue with these bodies or has it decided on reduce its role in them? How can India achieve its economic targets by confronting all neighbors and radicalizing its public internally? Can India afford missing opportunities in its neighborhood especially under the Belt and Road Initiative and still achieve economic growth? Above all, is all this possible in a globalized and increasingly interconnected world?

Regardless of how (Western) media portrays China’s role in South China Sea and its confrontation with India, China will be the last country to seek tensions with its neighbours. Stability, internal and external, is China’s core interest.

Like the Doklam standoff, India is greatly responsible for the current crisis. In 2017, India and China had locked horns for 75 days. Doklam is a disputed area between China and Bhutan. Though Beijing and Thimphu lack formal diplomatic ties, Doklam is out of India’s jurisdiction. India’s crossing the China-Bhutan border, entering into territory under China’s control and stopping China from the construction of a road was a brazen, provocative act. However, like the current crisis, India was projected as victim and its interference in two countries’ internal affairs was portrayed as a “defensive act” against a Chinese “incursion”.

Where will the current crisis lead to? It largely depends upon India’s attitude. If New Delhi does not show restraint, it can escalate the situation. Keeping in view the trajectory of China’s foreign policy behaviour, Beijing is unlikely to make any major change in its South Asia policy. While giving a matching response to India’s polemics at policy level, China is likely to press for resolving the issue through bilateral means. This can be discerned from the ongoing reporting in the Chinese media.

There is, however, a point Beijing needs to ponder. If the Quad turns into a quasi-alliance, China must review its historic disdain for alliances. Real politics can vary from traditions and norms.

The author is an associate professor at the Sichuan University of Science and Engineering, Zigong, China. He is the author of China-Pakistan Relations: A Historical Analysis (Karachi: Oxford, 2017) and co-editor of Perspectives on Contemporary Pakistan: Governance,

Development and Environment (Routledge: London & New York, 2020).

China-India border standoff: The great escalation