The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in the summer of 2020 coincided with the rise in tensions between India and China on their disputed boundary in Ladakh. The apogee of these tensions was on June 15, 2020, when a clash took place between the soldiers of both armies in the Galwan Valley. At least four People’s Liberation Army and 20 Indian soldiers lost their lives in the fighting where no shots were fired. These were the first deaths since 1975 on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), as the disputed border is known by both sides. The LAC is neither delineated on the map nor demarcated on the ground and has overlapping claims by both sides on the 3,488 km long border.
After 16 rounds of talks between senior military commanders of the two armies and numerous other talks at an operational level, besides the engagement at diplomatic and ministerial levels, has led to some reduction in tensions. Out of the six broad areas where the Indian patrols had been denied access to the regions in Ladakh that they hitherto patrolled – Depsang, Galwan, Kurang Nala, Gogra, Pangong Tso and Demchok – only the first and the last have soldiers facing each other. In other areas, as in Kailash range, where Indian Army launched a riposte in August 2020, disengagement – a process which separated the soldiers of both sides by a few kilometres to create a “no patrolling” buffer zone – has been completed. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson has rejected any plans to restore the status quo in the area before April 2020, blaming India for disturbing the peace. Additional soldiers and military equipment of both the armies remains deployed in Ladakh, and political engagement between the two leaders – Indian PM Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping – has not materialised so far.
Principal underlying causes of tension and conflict
The proximate cause of the current conflict, or the previous tensions between India and China over the past decade, is the disputed border which has not been agreed upon with independent India in more than seven decades of Chinese Communist Party rule. It led to the 1962 border war between the two countries. With a breakdown of border agreements and protocols in Ladakh, the détente between the two countries that began in the late 1980s and early 1990s has only lasted three decades. Attempts at resolving the international boundaries during this period have been stalled since 2013, with neither side demonstrating the political will to move things forward. The agreement on the LAC was stalled even earlier, two decades ago, after the delegations of two countries had exchanged the maps of Middle Sector but the Chinese side refused to accept the maps of the western sector. The unresolved border, with competing and overlapping claims of both countries, has spawned tactical situations of local disagreements between the two armies that have then become strategic problems between India and China. This was the case in Depsang in 2013, Chumar in 2014 and Doklam in 2017.
Another related issue is the development of border infrastructure, which can be used for military purposes, on the disputed border. With a rise in economic growth, this exercise was started by the Chinese side in the late 1990s and India started playing catch-up in the middle of 2000s. Due to easier terrain on the Chinese side, better technology and the early start, the asymmetry in border infrastructure has become significant and hard to bridge for India. Attempts by India to build infrastructure in the border areas have been resented by the Chinese side, which even proposed a moratorium on any new border infrastructure in the early 2010s. This was rejected by New Delhi, as it would have meant freezing the advantage China had gained over India due to an early start.
It was around the same time that India, with the cushion provided by a period of high economic growth, decided to augment its military capacities along the China border. This was based on an assessment of Beijing’s assertive behaviour on its eastern periphery after the 2008 global financial crisis. Construction of infrastructure and raising of new military formations for the border were largely defensive moves on New Delhi’s part, to establish deterrence and prevent Chinese assertiveness against India, but were interpreted by Beijing as aggressive gestures driven by its increasingly closer partnership with the United States. This is the period when India and the US had signed the nuclear deal and Washington had pressed upon Beijing to end its opposition to India’s exemptions to international nuclear trade at the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
Historical narrative in India about Communist China has been a barrier to rebuilding trust, an issue complicated by Beijing’s patronage of Pakistan, India’s foremost military adversary. As China, with its deep pockets and the vision of BRI, started challenging India’s influence in South Asia, the unease in New Delhi over China’s rise increased. This drove home the truth about mounting power asymmetry between the two Asian neighbours, with Chinese economy now more than five times the size of the Indian economy. This has meant that the Chinese defence spending is also nearly four times that of India’s military expenditure, and Beijing’s advancement in technology has left New Delhi far behind. In such a scenario, New Delhi finds it hard to provide matching resources for its military, to rebuild the deterrence on the border that has broken down.
Another result of this asymmetry is the trade imbalance between India and China. Despite trouble in all the other fields, China remains India’s biggest or near-biggest trading partner for the past few years. More importantly, the trade balance is lopsided in China’s favour, even though India does not import any primary raw material like coal or crude oil or LNG from its northern neighbour. Heavy machinery, power plant equipment, and APIs for pharmaceuticals form the core of India’s imports, which are hard to replace from elsewhere. Despite Indian foreign minister claiming numerous times that “ties with China can’t be normal as the border is not normal”, trade ties have thus remained strong. Moreover, India is one of the biggest beneficiaries of loans, nearly a quarter of them, from the Beijing-headquartered AIIB bank. This constrains New Delhi’s non-military options to retaliate against China, with the banning of Chinese apps or greater regulatory pressure on Chinese companies in India having negligible effect on Beijing.
Regionally generated or geopolitical and geo-economic causes
The immediate triggers for a crisis between India and China, more so in the last decade, have been one of the disputed areas on the border that emerge as a flashpoint. The local military difference on the LAC then snowballs into a major dispute, bringing in national governments into play once the matter gains prominence in the media. The problem then gets enmeshed in issues of geopolitics and geo-economics, which provide the prism through which Beijing and New Delhi view the issue. A lack of trust and increasing asymmetry of power, with two totally different systems of governance in the two countries, further limit the common ground for understanding and aggravate the situation.
In the past few years, New Delhi has built closer ties with the US and become an active member of the Quad. It has also undertaken major military exercises with the US and other Quad partners. While India is careful enough to keep the charter of Quad limited to non-security issues and say anything that would confirm Beijing’s apprehensions of the four-member grouping, voices emanating from Washington DC are more direct in targeting China. This makes New Delhi’s utterances and actions suspect in Beijing’s eyes at the time of an aggravated border crisis, as rising majoritarian nationalism weaves a narrative of Indian dominance in India that is contrary to the actual situation. India has however tried to maintain its strategic sovereignty, as demonstrated by its actions during the Ukraine crisis, to smoothen these angularities.
Both Beijing and New Delhi benefitted from the openness and stability provided by the previous global order which has now been upended. As developing countries, they cooperated and collaborated on various multilateral platforms on the issues of trade and environment. With the global order in flux and China envisioning a dominant role in the new order, those avenues of cooperation have vanished. There are few, if any, common interests that bind New Delhi and Beijing together, and can help rebuild a certain degree of trust and confidence such that the border issues are not always seen through the prism of geopolitics and geo-economics.
Strategies to counter China
The greatest limitation imposed on New Delhi is due to the increasing asymmetry of power with Beijing, which is a direct outcome of tepid economic growth in India since 2016. New Delhi needs to find ways to kickstart the economy by returning to a period of high economic growth, that would need a political environment which promotes social harmony and a governance model which provided consistent policies to all sectors of the economy. This would also mean doing away with protectionist and autarkic policies on trade pursued by the current dispensation. New Delhi’s exit from both the RCEP and the trade arm of the IPEF is unlikely to help matters and will further reduce India’s attractiveness as a geo-economic power in the region.
After the Ladakh border crisis, New Delhi has attempted an internal rebalancing of its armed forces from the Pakistan border towards the China border. With the Pakistan threat remaining live and presenting a nightmarish scenario of a two-front collusive threat with China, India needs to build its military capabilities quickly and substantially. These capabilities have to be in conventional military domains but also in newer domains of cyber, space and electromagnetic warfare. This will not be possible without a higher rate of economic growth sustained over a decade. During that period, India’s political leadership will need to find a way to manage the problem and buy the time it needs.
As India’s internal balancing is insufficient to provide the capacities to meet the external challenges, it would need to undertake certain external rebalancing by forming partnerships and friendships in the region. These partnerships cannot compensate for India’s weaknesses on its continental border with China or engage in military conflict on India’s behalf but can augment New Delhi’s strength and will to stand up to Beijing. But if India goes overboard with such a stance, it can lose the cachet of strategic sovereignty, placing it more directly in China’s crosshairs and a prisoner of clashes between the big powers.
Other Regional powers
As most other regional powers also face the China challenge, they will need to work in tandem with others to prevent China from becoming a regional hegemon. This would need establishing and adhering to norms and rules of an international system that is fair and just to lesser powers. Already overly dependent on China, these regional countries need to develop trade ties with other countries like India to curtail any possibilities of blackmail due to single-source dependency.
The United States must remain focused on the Indo-Pacific and not be diverted by other events in Europe or West Asia, vying for its attention. It should work closely with its partners and friends in region, not merely to counter China, but to build bilateral ties and augment the intrinsic strength of these countries. That would need Washington DC to be cognisant of the limits of its strategic power and avoid the pitfalls of overreach like the one witnessed in Afghanistan. With India, it has to encourage India to take actions that help increase economic growth and support advancement of India to newer generation of technologies in strategic sectors. However, it must eschew the lazy option of promoting India as a regional counter to China, as that would render New Delhi more susceptible to Beijing’s aggressive moves even before it is fully prepared.
Other states may not have a direct role to play in the region, but they can help by asserting a fair set of norms and rules for the global order. They must also emphasise the importance of the principle of respecting territorial integrity and sovereignty of all countries, irrespective of their size, location, or power. They can diversify their trade ties by creating viable alternatives to not become too dependent on China as a single source that can hold them hostage to its demands. Finally, the framing of a new cold war between the US and China must be avoided, as it works to the disadvantage of countries like India.
Sushant Singh is Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research in India. He has taught at Yale University and worked as a journalist, after serving in the Indian Army for two decades.