Interview with NBR: India-China Relations after Clashes in Ladakh – Looking for a New Modus Vivendi

In June, Chinese and Indian soldiers clashed in the Galwan Valley in Eastern Ladakh. The close-combat skirmish at high altitude, which resulted in twenty deaths on the Indian side and an unknown number of Chinese casualties, was the bloodiest fight along the disputed Sino-Indian boundary in over four decades.

John S. Van Oudenaren interviewed NBR nonresident fellow Deep Pal to better understand the context of recent Sino-Indian friction, assess the outlook for relations moving forward, and examine the implications of these developments for both the broader region and the United States.

Tensions on the contested China-India border have recently flared up with the first deadly clash in over four decades. What is behind the recent escalation?

While it is not possible to be certain about what caused the latest flare-up, the escalation of tension is by no means sudden. Over the last few years, there have been a number of such incidents in the congested boundary region, including at Daulat Beg Oldi (2013), Chumar (2013), Demchok (2014), and the Doklam trijunction (2017). However, the current standoff is unique in its spread, with the buildup of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces reported from the Depsang Plains in the northern end of the western sector to Naku La in the eastern sector.

The standoff points to multiple causes, some proximate and some distant. Changes in border infrastructure on the Indian side in recent years are one major immediate cause. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has enjoyed better infrastructure near the Line of Actual Control (LAC) for a number of years. However, India in 2005 announced a project of 61 roads covering 3,400 kilometers near the LAC, which, once completed, will erode China’s traditional advantage. The agency in charge, the Border Roads Organisation, expects to complete all roads in 2023. One of the most important of these, the Darbuk–Shyok–Daulat Beg Oldie road, which runs parallel to the LAC and was completed in 2019, is close to the Galwan Valley, the location of the incident on June 15–16. A PLA troop buildup in the area directly threatens the road.

However, a more overarching reason could be China’s desire to bring India down a notch or two and metaphorically put the country in its place. It is increasingly clear that Chinese leaders have left Deng Xiaoping’s “hide and bide” mandate behind and believe that the PRC needs to be considered the leading power in the neighborhood, on its way to global leadership. One consequence of this new approach is that any state that attempts parity on any count with China must be shown its place, which is what the PRC is doing in the LAC. It also means that even if the current incident ends with the two sides disengaging, such standoffs are likely to occur with regularity across the LAC. Beyond the issue of border infrastructure, China is likely to want to show India its place in other respects, amplifying the competitive aspect of the relationship.

After the 2017 Doklam standoff, India and China were able to defuse tensions through high-level diplomatic engagement. What are the prospects for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and General Secretary Xi Jinping to ease friction?

The Xi-Modi meeting in Wuhan in 2018 helped create personal rapport between the two leaders, which continued in their subsequent meeting in Mamallapuram in 2019. These, by definition, were “informal summits,” with no specific agendas or official statements beyond an opportunity for the two leaders to interact on the various issues. While such meetings have their place in diplomacy, particularly in the case of two rising neighbors such as India and China, they can only do part of the work, especially where historical disagreements abound.

Over the years, the boundary question has been discussed in multiple bilateral arrangements at various levels. The most significant is the special representatives framework, which has met 22 times since it was established in 2003 with the purpose of exploring the question from a political perspective. The two sides also formulated multiple agreements and confidence-building measures between 1993 and 2013 to manage the boundary situation, right up to the level of the patrols that both sides undertake.

That these measures have worked was evident because, despite the dispute, the India-China boundary did not see any deaths for 45 years—until the current standoff. The events of June 15–16 in the Galwan Valley, which resulted in the death of twenty Indian soldiers, have changed the India-China relationship irrevocably. On the Indian side, these developments have brought into question the good faith and intent of the PRC in resolving outstanding issues and cast doubt on the various agreements and rules of engagement that have guided behavior along the boundary. While these are still enabling the two sides to converse, India is deeply skeptical of the Chinese side’s intent, and whether these agreements best reflect the changed realities of Chinese ambition. As long as this lack of clarity persists, we are unlikely to see Modi and Xi engaging in any meaningful way.

Currently, both sides are focusing on bolstering communication channels at various levels. This includes talks at the LAC between three-star generals to map out processes of de-escalation and disengagement; meetings of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs, which is mandated with helping facilitate conversations between the special representatives; and most recently, conversations between Wang Yi and Ajit Doval, the two special representatives. As readouts from the Indian and Chinese foreign ministries demonstrate, while both parties agree on the necessity to disengage, there is still much ground to cover on how to carry this out. The Indian side also wants to wait and watch, given that the Galwan Valley clashes occurred after the two negotiating generals had agreed on de-escalating and disengaging in the location.

How have the recent border altercations affected the Indian public’s perceptions of China?

The Indian public’s perception of China has long been colored by memories of the short war in 1962 that ended decisively in the PRC’s favor. Since 1988, the two countries have decided to set issues of contention aside and work to improve relations. The focus of these efforts, however, has been on building economic interdependence and cooperation in fields such as science and technology. People-to-people connections have featured far lower in the order of priorities. Consequently, public opinion about China has swayed between distrust about Chinese motivations and a sense of admiration for the country’s economic advancement. Yet public distrust has not been strong enough to deter successive Indian administrations from collaborating with the PRC in bilateral and multilateral forums.

More recently, however, there has been rising public opinion against inroads made by China in South Asia, which India has traditionally considered its sphere of influence. The Belt and Road Initiative in general—and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in particular—has been interpreted in the popular imagination as an attempt to encircle India. The Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes and Trends survey found that while 31% of Indian respondents held a favorable view of China in 2016, this dropped to a mere 23% by 2019. In the same period, the percentage of respondents with decidedly unfavorable views about China rose from 36% to 46%.

The perception in large parts of the public during the current standoff is an extension of this sentiment. China is increasingly viewed as a neighbor whose actions are inimical to India’s interests. This has become manifest in calls to boycott Chinese products and even stop trade with China, and in some cases even has resulted in public spectacles of dumping Chinese goods. The government too has banned 59 Chinese apps from operating in India and is reportedly considering limiting the sectors in which Chinese companies are allowed to operate. The move has already affected some aspects of bilateral trade, though not in permanent ways. Significantly, the current situation seems to have hardened views even among elite opinion-makers, with fewer supporting a primarily cooperative relationship with China.

Rising antipathy toward the PRC carries its own risks for the Indian government. Strong anti-China sentiments may make it difficult to negotiate a way to dial down hostilities along the LAC. The PRC also seems aware of this upsurge in anti-China sentiments. While outlets like the People’s Daily have not covered developments on the LAC as a significant story, other Chinese news agencies have accused the Indian government of fomenting popular sentiment against China. Even the Chinese readout from the special representatives meeting urged India to “guide public opinion in the right direction.” Irrespective of how adept the two governments turn out to be in defusing tension along the LAC, 2020 seems to be as significant as 1962 in turning Indian popular sentiment against the PRC.

How does the deterioration in China-India relations affect India’s strategic situation vis-à-vis Pakistan?

In comparison to the boundary with China, India’s boundary with Pakistan, especially the contested section known as the Line of Control, is far more active, with regular skirmishes and ceasefire violations. There has been no significant change in this during India’s current standoff with the PRC. Additionally, India-Pakistan relations have been frigid since India’s airstrikes on terrorist camps in Pakistan’s Balakot in February 2019, in response to attacks on Indian security personnel in Kashmir. Most recently, both countries decided to reduce staff in their respective high commissions by 50%, suggesting a further downgrading of relations.

The standoff between India and China, however, has not seen any response from Pakistan, at least officially. For the Indian administration, the major question is the role that Pakistan would play if the standoff at the LAC were to escalate into limited war. This is not a new concern, as the Indian military has been wargaming “two-front war“ scenarios for many years. In the current situation, much depends on what role the PRC would expect Pakistan to fulfill.

What impact might the recent deterioration in Sino-Indian relations have on India’s relationship with the United States?

“Strategic autonomy,” which refers to the practice of retaining freedom to take foreign policy decisions based on Indian national interest, is hardwired into the Indian foreign policy decision-making process. In the context of India-U.S. relations, this has prevented India from entering into a formal alliance with the United States. However, India has failed to convince China of its decision not to ally with the United States. As a result, many public statements from official Chinese channels seem to consider an alliance between India and the United States to be a foregone conclusion.

It is important to note that India’s decision to not enter into a formal alliance with the United States is partly guided by domestic considerations. It is also historically based on memories from the Cold War and after, such as during the 1971 war that led to the creation of Bangladesh or in the aftermath of the 1998 nuclear test. In these and other instances, India felt penalized by U.S. actions. Moreover, even though India worked closely with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, it did not enter into what could be considered an alliance relationship with Moscow—creating a precedent for a partnership that is not an alliance. Even today there are several geopolitical issues in India’s immediate neighborhood, including U.S. policy in Pakistan and Afghanistan, on which India and the United States do not agree. These will continue to hinder a relation of allyship.

What is likely to happen, though, is twofold. One, we will see a far greater partnership between India and the United States on issues of mutual interest—which, in the current environment, is likely to have a substantial China component. Two, India will also likely look to build greater cooperation through configurations such as the “Quad plus” (expanding the existing grouping of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States to include New Zealand, South Korea, and Vietnam). The latter grouping has already started work on an arrangement to contain Covid-19, but it is quite possible that other strategic objectives are under consideration. India plans to invite Australia to participate in naval exercises it conducts with Japan and the United States, while also signing a defense agreement that allows the two countries to use each other’s military bases. The possibilities for such cooperation are endless, limited only by the imagination of the respective administrations.

The interview was published on the NBR website on July 10, 2020.

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