Plate Tectonics

International Magazine

India’s pushback at China’s growing regional ambitions draws their disputed border into an emerging Great-Power conflict, writes Nishant Kumar

India and China marked 2020 as the 70th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations. They are the two major regional powers in Asia and in 2008, China became India’s largest trading partner. But their poorly defined and disputed border has come to define their relationship.

The present crisis comes at a time of global churning caused by the Covid pandemic and three years after the Doklam standoff, which lasted for more than two months. The latest confrontation began when the Chinese sought to prevent Indian border patrolling of several customary points in Depsang, Hot Springs-Gogra-Kongkala, near the Galwan River, and around Pangong Tso Lake last April.

The clash in the Galwan Valley is the gravest military confrontation the two nuclear powers have faced in fifty years. India in retaliation moved troops forward on its side of the line of actual control (LAC) to occupy heights south of Pangong-Tso which has served as a bargaining chip in current border talks. But the border clashes point to a deeper distrust.

“The border crisis is because of Chinese perception of India’s closeness with US and US aggressively intervening in Asia like in South China Sea, Malabar Exercise and others,” says Abhishek Choudhary, professor of international relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. “India has always adopted a balancing strategy between China and the US even when both countries jointly worked against India’s interest, like in the 1971 India-Pakistan war. The perception of India-US working against the Chinese interest will further harm India-China relations and work as foundation for more ties with US.”

As senior Chinese scholar Liu Zhongyi, at the Shanghai Institute of International Studies expressed it, “Presently, India and the United States have formed a de facto military alliance. Agreements like Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement and Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement are laying the foundation for deeper military cooperation.”

A recent article published in the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece Global Times however claimed that China was provoked by India’s decision to change the status of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. China views India’s claims on Aksai Chin and Gilgit-Baltistan as an attack on its sovereignty and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), its flagship programme.

But, as Stanly Johnny writes in The Hindu, “China doesn’t see India as a swing state any more. It sees India as an ally-in-progress of the US. If India is what many in the West call the “counterweight” to China’s rise, Beijing’s definite message is that it is not deterred by the counterweight. This is a message not just to India, but to a host of China’s rivals that are teaming up and eager to recruit India to the club.” India’s membership of the Quad (an informal security alliance with the US, Japan and Australia) has confirmed China’s worst fears.

India in the recent years has been losing clout in its neighbourhood. As security analyst Brahma Chellaney writes in Project Syndicate, “By financing large projects including Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, Chittagong Port in Bangladesh, Gwadar Port in Pakistan, Kyaukpyu Port in Myanmar and mega infrastructure in strategically located Maldives, China is making these nations financially dependent and extremely vulnerable to China’s unhindered strategic control.”

“Both deterrence and strategy have failed. By occupying territory on the Indian side, China put the onus of escalation on India if it wishes to restore the status quo,” observes Shiv Shankar Menon, former national security advisor and ambassador to China. “There are calls in India to review India’s one-China policy by developing relations further with Taiwan, to use the Tibet card and to agitate China’s Malacca dilemma.”

India fears a two-front war, provoked by cross-border terrorism from Pakistan and muscle-flexing by China. Her decision to strengthen border infrastructure at the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie Road near the Karakoram Pass, where the three countries rub up against each other, is the next challenge.

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