by Prithwiraj Basu 12 June 2020
India and China once again have found themselves busy amidst a standoff, this time in Ladakh near the Pangong Tso Lake. A scuffle that broke out on 5th of May has eventually resulted in a mutual accumulation of security forces by both countries on the Line of Actual Control (LAC)[ii]. At a time where the world is sweating over the COVID-19 pandemic, such an escalation has led a lot of people bewildered as to what possibly could have been the rationale behind such a development especially keeping in mind how India and China are both confronted with domestic issues which are an obvious state priority. The world has witnessed a fierce political rivalry between the two countries on diverse issues ranging from peaceful usage of Nuclear energy and a consequent membership to the NSG that has been blocked by China to India trying to overcome Chinese influence in the UN Security Council in a bid to attain permanent membership to Chinese support to India’s rogue neighbor in Pakistan. However, things have never escalated since 1962 as both the nations have fought this rivalry while adhering to its commitment of maintaining peace among them. However, what we might witness in the upcoming days is this competition rapidly leveling up as both countries , two of the major economies in the world aspiring to be politically dominant in the International sphere shall potentially agree to disagree more on contentious issues. Needless to say, none of them would shy down from seizing the opportunity to get the better of each other. The future of Peace and Security in South Asia shall hugely depend on the way India and China act as these two Nuclear power heavyweights shall not back away from voicing their own claims and protesting against what hurts them, not very different from what has transpired over the last one month at the Line of Actual Control along the Indo-Chinese border.
The first Sino-Indian tremor in the post COVID-19 world order?
Many feel that this might be an attempt by China to divert global attention away from claims where countries have tried to hold China accountable for a possible leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virulogy,[iii] creating diplomatic pressure on China which ultimately led Beijing to accept the proposal for an international probe. India under Narendra Modi adopted a more proactive approach than settling for the neutral when it for the first time, formally articulated its stand on the COVID-19 outbreak, backing the need for accountability, transparency and an impartial evaluation that investigates the origin of the virus at the 73rd session of the World Health Assembly[iv]. It might be a touch too unrealistic for China to be using the standoff as a tool to dissuade public opinion away from its role in the COVID-19 outbreak but we must also note how India’s stand at the WHO might well instigate resentment as far as Beijing is concerned.
In the post COVID-19 world order, many predict India playing a key role in reducing global economic overdependence over China when it comes to foreign investments[v]. The West, led by USA has quite apparently shown enough apprehension when it comes to China and it would not be a surprise if India gets the nod ahead in the immediate future, both politically and in terms of Foreign investments and market advantages[vi]. Hints of the same have been felt through the intent of U.S. President Donald Trump to expand the G7 in a way that enables more participation from India while at the same time, cornering China out of the platform. On the other hand, Chinese investments abroad are also bound to suffer[vii]. For example, in Africa where fortunately, the cases of COVID-19 have been far less as compared to Europe, Chinese presence might not be as warmly welcomed as it was before. The presence of Chinese nationals might possibly put the continent at risk for a spike in COVID-19 and it would be impossible for Africa to take this blow, especially looking at how it has always found itself wanting in terms of resources and money. On the other hand, India has had a long standing friendship with the African Union, slowly trying to make its route into the investment market in the continent. It gradually gives India a strategic advantage in terms of increasing its political presence, possibly through an increase in the number of military bases. The Trade War had also seen the US and China confronting each other in an economic deadlock . US President Trump, ever since the COVID-19 outbreak that has wreaked havoc in US, has expressed his displeasure with China quite openly. The US-India bonhomie along with a wide horizon of opportunities presented in front of India, some of them possibly at the extent of China has naturally left the Chinese gutted, wary and possibly enraged.
Decoding the dispute over territories and its underlying implications
Border confrontations are nothing new when it comes to Indo-China diplomacy. [viii][ix]Ever since the 1962 War that was a result of Chinese resentment over India’s diplomatic support for Tibet and Dalai Lama when he fled to India and sought asylum in 1959, New Delhi has made its claim firmer on the Aksai-Chin area while China still strategically maneuvers around with its claim for Arunachal. While the Indian response with Doklam gives a lot of confidence when it comes to this standoff, it would be a mistake to disregard the possibility of witnessing a next wave of Chinese military aggrandizement centered around the region especially after Chinese President XI Jinping openly asked the PLA to be prepared for war without specifying any enemy[x]. The situation becomes even more volatile given the presence of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the consequent involvement of Pakistan in the geopolitics of the region.
Territorial claims have often been established by state actors by enforcing economic activities or settlement in the disputed territories. Off late, India has heavily prioritized the same over the claimed territories across the LAC, establishing legal ownership of property by India, actively building infrastructure in the region. [xi]Even though the Indian army has deployed reinforcements at the four standoff points, it has not halted work on the border infrastructure work including the concrete Galwan Bridge being built as part of a 255-km road to access Daulat Beg Oldie, the last military post south of the Karakoram Pass. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) through their deployment of troops at four strategic standoff points has tacitly expressed its political opposition to these projects which weakens their dominance that they’re trying to establish. Needless to say, such actions by India comes at the most urgent hour considering the Pakistani-China bilateral friendship, once established through the CPEC, will be difficult to compete against. Diplomatic support for the Baloch insurgency also happens to be one of India’s covert tools for pushing the CPEC a step back when it threatens to take giant strides.
Not just a tale of two competitors- the Indo-China-Pakistan conundrum
Overall, the Ladakh standoff might be well negotiated as both countries have expressed their willingness for a peaceful solution[xii]. However, the eagerness of the United States to be involved and the presence of Pakistan as state sponsors of terror with a continuous attempt to inflict harm within Kashmir makes the overall geopolitical situation potentially complicated and in the worst case, threatening for India. [xiii]Even in the midst of the standoff, there was an attempted terror attack allegedly by the Hizbul Mujahideen and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) in Pulwama that was thwarted by the Security forces in India. [xiv]This reminded India of the horrors of the 2019 attack at the CRPF Convoy, adding a rather bitter touch to it considering how China kept opposing the addition on the JeM to the sanctions list by the United Nations Security Council. As India and China have witnessed five rounds of consultation between its army delegations led by major-general rank officers, the extent to which the current impasse has been resolved is difficult to understand. India has been demanding that Chinese troops move back to their erstwhile positions, and also that China reduce their in-depth deployment, which includes fighter bombers, air defence radars, jammers etc. However, China has maintained its firm opposition to the infrastructure projects even during the consultations that were held among the two nations, claiming a potential threat to its sovereignty owing to the presence of the mentioned projects.
While the importance of the infrastructural projects is of paramount to India, it is also clear why China feels the need to pose such a firm opposition and back it up with a rather subtle display of force and might. To add to that, the spokesman of the Chinese embassy in Pakistan has created a flutter in diplomatic circles by appearing to suggest the standoff between Indian and Chinese border troops was linked to New Delhi’s decision to scrap Jammu and Kashmir’s special status last year. Being critical of India’s unilateral decision of changing the status quo of Jammu and Kashmir last year by revoking Article 370, the diplomat has expressed the complex contemporary nature of Indo-Pakistan-China interrelationship that has led to China being wary of any plausible situation that might hurt their sovereignty, a subtle and smart way to push the ball back in India’s court while justifying their actions using an instance that has attracted a lot of criticism domestically in India. [xv] India expectedly has dismissed such implications of actions which are strictly internal matters.
The way forward
Over the last few days, we have seen the likes of Rajnath Singh, Defence Minister of India and Bipin Rawat, Chief of Defense Staff sweat over the situation in Ladakh and hold regular meetings with top officials of the army and its chiefs. While both sides have expressed a desire for ‘limited disengagement’, the numbers of troops have been on an exponential rise making the Indo-Pak-China border possibly the most militarized in South-East Asia. Even after Five rounds of Military talks, the Chinese knee on the India’s neck continues to put pressure. Several hotlines have been established between the two militaries as both nations have continued to keep the issue strictly bilateral. Earlier this week, Beijing had seemingly softened its position on the military face-off, saying that China and India have the “capacity and willingness to properly” resolve border issues through “negotiation and consultations”.
While it remains to be seen how quickly India is able to resolve the military standoff, the broader picture requires India to be vigilant if not wary when it comes to its National Security objectives at the concerned regions. India needs to be able to diplomatically prevent Chinese opposition in the Ladakh-Aksai Chin region while at the same time, confront the hegemonic provocations by its political adversaries when she must. In this fierce political competition between the two Asian heavyweights, how India maneuvers around China to fulfill its Foreign Policy objectives shall determine how well it can be the world leader that it aspires to be. While India’s foreign policy has equipped itself with an amicable relationship which major international actors including the ASEAN who have also been subjected to Chinese aggrandizement at the South China Sea, the might of the Chinese military and its potential power of the purse will be key factors that India will focus upon along with mending relations with immediate neighbors like Sri Lanka and Nepal who might well turn out to be decisive contributors to the exhilarating geo-politics of the Indian subcontinent. India in 2020 is far more confident and steady as an international actor than what it was during 1962. We are no longer a tiny little voice at the back of our heads looking down at the bottom of the ravine hesitating. Today’s India has the ability to overpower its fear of failure with its faith in success.