The sad truth is that India-China relations, which were already on the verge of collapse in the current geopolitical climate, will only get worse in the next 10 years. And, if the current situation is taken into account, a limited war between the two nuclear states certainly looks ever-more likely.
The June 15 Galwan valley clash between India and China marked the first casualties in a confrontation between the two neighbouring countries in 45 years, and has sparked a robust public debate on whether tensions can be de-escalated and ties ‘normalised’. Yet, what began as a “savage brawl” in June has only intensified despite ongoing talks. Reports of shots being fired for the first time – in break with a long-standing taboo on using firearms at the border – has left lingering fears of a full-on military confrontation.
Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar and his counterpart Wang Yi met on 10th September in what was hailed as a ‘last resort’ meeting. In a joint press statement citing a “constructive” discussion, both sides announced a broad five-point plan to ease border tensions which included a commitment to quickly disengage, abide by existing agreements, continue dialogue at military and diplomatic levels, and expedite new Confidence Building Measures (CBMs).
But despite talks of disengagement, both countries are amassing more troops at the border and strengthening rhetoric even as diplomatic talks take place at the highest level, indicating that a war might be imminent, if not inevitable.
Why Is The Current Conflict Critical?
The current Sino-Indian conflict is distinctly worrying as it comes at a time of deep-stated geopolitical uncertainty. Although the root cause lies in their disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC), the conflict is situated in much larger, overarching great power rivalry between China and the United States, making it a prime geopolitical risk with far-reaching consequences for the region and beyond. The fact that China and India rank as the world’s third and fourth largest militaries respectively in terms of capabilities, and second and third respectively in terms of spending, make its potential ramifications even more troubling.
A Long, Bloody Confrontation with a Shrinking Space for Diplomacy
India and China have shared a tricky security relationship since the 1962 war, but the present stand-off is unlike any other in modern times. For one, it has already stretched on for over four months now (with multiple skirmishes occurring in May), marking the longest stand-off between both sides by far. Reports suggest that tensions in the region may have been on-going for much longer however. In comparison, the 2013 Daulat Beg Oldie face off lasted three weeks and the 2017 Doklam stand-off lasted 73 days. It is also one of the bloodiest conflict in over 40 years, with 20 casualties on the Indian side and unconfirmed reports of over 40 deaths on the Chinese.
The conflict’s long drawn out nature is not due to lack of continued communication: since May, even as both sides amassed greater troops at the border and significantly enhanced their war preparedness, there have been multiple rounds of military and diplomatic talks. Under the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC), a joint-secretary level platform founded in 2012, over five rounds of Major General-level negotiations took place with few tangible results. The fact that China took “provocative” action even as military talks were underway on 29/30th August, violating any previous consensus reached, is evidence of their brittleness and utter failure.
There seems little hope for high-level diplomatic talks too: Defence Minister’s meeting on sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit last week was unproductive. Although Jaishankar-Yi meet yielded some progress, whether it will hold up remains doubtful. Just prior to the meeting, the Chinese reportedly fired warning shots to ‘bully’ Indian soldiers stationed merely 200m away, stirring up tensions and prompting additional military build-up. With such a complete breakdown of CBMs between both countries, a complete disengagement will be exceedingly tricky.
Constrained Responses Amid Rampant Nationalism
Secondly, disengagement is all the more complex due to the conflict’s emotionally-charged nature. Emotions are running high not only amongst soldiers after the Galwan valley, but also amongst the media and public in general. With the omnipresence of India’s humiliating defeat in 1962, strong nationalistic elements have mobilised massive anti-China sentiments.
These have gained further momentum amidst Modi’s push for self-reliance, local manufacturing and ban of over 200 Chinese apps, including popular ones like TikTok and PUBG. The veritable hashtag war that followed (see #BoycottChina, #BoycottChineseProducts, #ChineseProductsInDustbin, #BharatUnitedAgainstChina and #TeachLessonToChina) is evidence of raging negativity in Indian public opinion. China’s efforts to wage a psychological warfare have not helped; official statements and media messages shifting blame to New Delhi have only enraged Indians further. Such high negative perceptions amongst Indians place stringent restrictions on governmental response and leave few avenues and tools that could be employed to de-escalate tensions – making war all the more likely.
And Chinese leadership is constrained by domestic pressures too, with widespread criticism of the economic slowdown and US’ persistent “punitive actions”. More importantly, Xi is waging his own campaign within the Chinese Communist Party to extend his Presidency beyond two terms. With the leadership contest set to take place in 2022, Xi cannot afford to look weak on the international stage. A strong projection of power to what Chinese people perceive to be India’s provocative behaviour at the border is critical to consolidate his position.
Hence, both Xi and Modi cannot de-escalate for they risk losing face and appearing to bow to the other on not only the international, but the domestic stage. Attempts to negotiate a disengagement at the LAC are thus severely hindered and a complete de-escalation extremely tricky politically.
Misunderstandings, Misperceptions, and Misjudgements
Thirdly, the probability of war is raised dramatically owing to China’s authoritarianism and ‘wolf warrior’ approach to diplomacy. Xi’s philosophy has been made abundantly clear over the years: China would take any offensive action (including military coercion and intimidation) it deemed necessary and exploit all opportunities to secure its strategic interests, disregarding international norms.
As a revisionist China looks to rise as a predominant regional power and regain its medieval glory, checking India’s increasingly active foreign policy has become a priority for the nationalist People’s Liberation Army (PLA) leadership. It is no coincidence that New Delhi’s rising tensions with Beijing have followed India’s emergence as a critical link in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and its growing security partnerships.
China perceives New Delhi’s growing security ties with US, Japan and Australia as a critical threat to its pre-eminent position. While India is perfectly within its right to pursue deeper defence cooperation with like-minded partners, its heightening partnerships are deeply unnerving for Beijing. In June – incidentally, a mere ten days before the Galwan valley clash – India and Australia upgraded their ties to a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ and signed a defence pact (the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement) that would allow them reciprocal use of resources to enhance military inter-operability. They also agreed to escalate maritime cooperation in defence of an “open and inclusive” Indo-Pacific. Now, with India and Japan poised to sign a similar agreement, titled the Acquisition and Cross-Serving Agreement (ACSA), the prospect of a limited confrontation is not out of question – but something that New Delhi is already preparing for.
And defence is far from the only common area of collaboration between these like-minded, democratic partners in line with their shared visions. In an expansion of the India-Australia-Japan trilateral, the three countries are expediting the process of launching a Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) that seeks to reduce dependency on China by creating an alternative global supply chain, in light of Beijing’s aggressive political and military behaviour.
With Japan, in particular, India shares a robust friendship, with both countries finding synergy in their infrastructure diplomacy initiatives and outreach to Southeast Asia, Indian Ocean Region and Africa. While they are innocuous enterprises that aim to escalate regional development, China sees their challenge to its flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a national security risk. As India’s cooperative ventures rise (and they no doubt will), Chinese threat perception of the rejuvenation of Indian foreign policy will make confrontation more probable. CCP views building military pressure as an ideal way of putting pressure on New Delhi to stay on guard and rethink any ‘anti-China’ endeavour or policy. It is likely meant to deter the Indian government from being cautious in matters like construction of border infrastructure, the Dalai Lama incarnation and the South and East China Seas.
Notably, Beijing’s persistent violations of India’s sovereignty are remarkably similar to its outlook towards the South China Sea and other conflict zones, and therefore, very much in the norm. India’s prior experience with the dragon has also convinced it that Beijing will not be passive and that it will, in all likelihood, follow an ambiguous and shifting interpretation of any disengagement agreement. Essentially, China will intrude to protect its interests as and when it desires. Such lack of mutual trust and deep suspicions of the other’s intentions exacerbates the risk of a full-fledged confrontation.
Resetting Ties to Calm Tensions
Under such highly-charged situations, misperception, misunderstanding, and misjudgement become more probable, and the ‘fog of war’ looms increasingly closer. Nevertheless, it bears mentioning that a war between two of the world’s largest nuclear powers is not in either of their interests. Although the Chinese military is backed by state-of-the-art weapons and technologies, it is largely unexperienced while also being involved in multiple flashpoints simultaneously. Facing the Indian army in Ladakh – arguably India’s turf – would not come without losses. With war, Beijing risks not only international scorn and isolation but also domestic unrest – which would harm its global ambitions (as well as Xi’s political ones).
While China tends to be dismissive of India’s military and nuclear prowess, in reality, this may only serve to propel New Delhi’s armament efforts – thus paradoxically fuelling a dangerous rivalry between the two states. Hence, although war is not inevitable, a smaller scale of confrontation – perhaps one similar to India’s conflict with Pakistan at Kargil in 1999 – cannot be ruled out, but looks like a distinct possibility.
Therefore, both countries must tread with utmost cautiousness and actively work to devise new avenues for cooperation and a “new structure of diplomacy”. As noted, this will be exceedingly tricky amidst constraints for both governments. Yet, a carefully calibrated policy approach, conceived clinically and devoid of nationalistic passions, may be the only way to avoid war.
*Mahima N. Duggal is the Editorial Assistant to Series Editor (Routledge Studies Think Asia) and a Warwick PAIS alumnus (MA International Security with distinction). Her research is focussed on security matters in East and Central Asia. Email: [email protected]