MS Risk Blog

India and China act out their rivalry in border skirmish

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has visited Neighbouring China on five occasions since his election in 2014 – the most by any other Indian Prime Minister. Chinese President Xi Jinping has visited his Indian counterpart on two occasions. For the two neighbouring Asian giants, with approximately  a quarter of the World’s population, huge economic might and potential, coupled with grand aspirations and ambitions for economic and military dominance, one could be forgiven for interpreting the portrait painted as a backdrop for a benign, and mostly mutually beneficial partnership as they chase the stars.

That Veneer was shattered in the last few weeks, as troops from both countries squared-up on different sites in the amorphous parts of the border between both countries in the Galwan Valley, close to the Mountains of Ladakh. The clashes that occurred without the use of conventional weapons of war, but still resulted in the reported deaths of 20 Indian Soldiers, and unspecified casualty numbers on the Chinese side – was carried out deploying sticks with nails attached, and rocks. This was the first combat related fatalities between both countries in 45 years. Both sides had mobilised thousands of troops and heavy weapons towards disputed parts of the border prior to the latest flashpoint.

News of the deaths of Indian Soldiers ignited Nationalist and Anti-Chinese rhetoric, coupled with protests and incidents of burning the Chinese President’s effigy on Indian streets. “We should bleed China with a thousand cuts,” said Ranjit Singh, a retired army major who is calling for a boycott of Chinese goods. “We need to hit them where it hurts most, and that is economically.” This might well be an acknowledgement by the army major that India might have to adopt asymmetric measures in its response to deliver a more meaningful impact on China. The New York times reports that India had a trade deficit with China last year of nearly $60 billion.

China and India fought a war in 1962 over its disputed Himalayan borders, and over the decades, there have been skirmishes and clashes, but none quite at the scale of the latest episode. So, why? aspiration and ambition sometimes spark, or rekindles rivalries and suspicions – if history offers us a useful guide to these matters.

India has always seen itself as holding sway in the sub Indian continent. But as China has become economically more powerful, it has attempted through the Belt and Road initiative, and other economic co-operation pacts to extend its hegemony into Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and even Nepal.  It has been reported that China is building infrastructure projects for Pakistan on territories that India lays claims to – a fall-out of another border dispute – this time involving Pakistan. India probably views China as encroaching on its sphere of geo-political influence. Analysts see it as China’s attempt to counter India’s aspirations. As Constantino Xavier from the Brookings Institute puts it: “India went from having a monopoly of political and military power in the region to dealing with a marketplace of competition where China is increasingly predominant,”

China too has its gripes with India. Probably the sore point being India’s growing closeness with America. As the Chinese Communist Party proxy – Global Times, opines: “What the U.S. would do is just extend a lever to India, which Washington can exploit to worsen India’s ties with China”

Aside from Indian officials making unflattering comments about how China has not shared information sufficiently regarding the coronavirus out-break, China views in askance India’s alignment with countries it deems hostile to its interest: Australia, Japan America – referred to as the Quad. India has signed defence agreements with these countries to share the use of military bases; and Australia has been invited join naval exercises India conducts with Japan and America.

The Chinese State media reports that the Peoples Liberation Army staged a drill involving thousands of paratroopers being whisked from Hubei province, to a Himalayan mountain range “within hours” – to underscore the point that China has the capability for rapid reinforcements if matters escalate.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. The global economic downturn emerging as a consequence of Covid-19 makes the prospects for escalation more financially expensive, and therefore unlikely. Both Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi both understand posturing and maintaining the status quo is a smarter, and more cost-effective calculation than an escalation. But current Sino-Indian relations speaks to the cautionary tale of how aspirations and ambitions lead to rivalries and enmity. Hubris, they say, is the disease of ambition.