Irrationality To Realism: China-India Standoff

Author Name: Omer Aamir      03 Jul 2020     Regional security/Region

There is a central tenant of realism that postulates ‘self-help’ in an anarchic world system. Although, according to neo-realists, global institutions can manage the anarchy; nonetheless, at the end of the day, it is every state for itself. This principle applies very clearly to South Asia and its peripheries. Indian media was abuzz with fake news and amplifying the Pak-Afghan border clash in June 2016 in which Major Ali Changezi of Pakistan Army embraced martyrdom. Similarly, in the wake of a border attack that resulted in the death of six Pakistani military personnel near the border with Iran, the anti-Pakistan media was once again at the forefront and portrayed Pakistan as being encircled by hostile neighbours. Well, guess what? It looks like the tables have turned. While the delusional Modi was waiting for American and Western help, it is likely not to come. In a classical snub, these faraway powers have decided to sit on the fence and let the two Asian neighbours box it out. The informal quad arrangement (Japan, Australia, India, US), COMCASA & LEMOA agreements between India and the US, all look to be in vain. As realism postulates, self-interest prevails.

First casualties occurred along the long and un-demarcated Indo-China border since 1967 earlier this month. Nepal’s Parliament endorsed a map in which territory claimed along the Kalapani River by India is indicated as being part of Nepal, and Bangladesh voiced concerns for revisions to the Citizens Amendment Act (CAA). These developments have made India’s aspirations of being regarded as a regional net security provider, a mockery. Instead, it looks encircled by hostile neighbours.  

History is often portrayed as a tragedy, and rightly so for the Indian statecraft. Nehru courted the communist Chinese regime with the famous slogan of ‘Hindi-Chini bhai bhai’ (Indians and Chinese brothers); however, the unresolved McCartney-MacDonald line and McMahon line along the long and sparsely populated 3,488 Kilometre border resulted in border clashes in 1962. This resulted in over 1,300 Indian soldiers killed, more than a 1000 wounded and 3,000 plus taken as prisoners of war. India was battered. Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai, eventually withdrew and established the Line of Actual Control, at mutually agreed temporary points; however, the two sides had already spilt bad blood. World’s two most populated countries were once again at loggerheads in 1967 along Nathu-La, and Cho-La border passes that connected Sikkim with Tibet. 

To Indian army credit, this time, they did manage to push back the Chinese. However, the sensitivity dynamics of the two neighbours were exposed. Pakistan readily took advantage. Field Marshal Ayub Khan negotiated outstanding border disputes with China (even though the US Department of the State still indicates the international border between China and Pakistan with a disclaimer due to Indian claims).

Fast-forwarding to a 2020 world beset by a pandemic, global recession, crumbling of the established world order in the face of populist leaders, and a plethora of other problems, the future already looked dark and gloomy. Nonetheless, for India, the current standoff is of their own right-wing government’s making. On August 5th, they not only revoked the special status of the disputed territory of Jammu & Kashmir by abrogating Article 370, but the home minister Amit Shah also echoed calls for taking back the entire state of the Raj era. This claim included Aksai Chin and Shaksgam Valley (the tract negotiated by Pakistan to China to resolve outstanding border disputes). The frenzied BJP government abounded by domestic issues further antagonized its northern neighbour by stating that the Chinese were responsible for the spread of the pandemic. Patience had been tested, even by Chinese standards. Chinese, who had adopted a pacifist tone in 2017 Dokhlam valley crisis, were not so conciliatory this time. The border clashes that erupted appeared heading southward until recently when Modi shied away from the confrontation. The mess is India’s own doing. Chinese claimed that ‘its’ sovereignty must be respected,’ as calls within Indian armed forces grew for a limited military strike to evict the Chinese soldiers. As the war drums grew louder among the general populace, Indian Air Force already readied documentation for the purchase of additional aircraft (12 Su-30’s and 21 Mig-29’s to be exact). France also indicated earlier this month that the delivery of the first four Rafale jets would be on time, i.e. by the end of July. However, the BJP government once again let its’ military down. 

By all estimates, a significant asymmetry exists between the militaries. China not only has indigenous weapons systems that are well-integrated and synchronized, but the PLA also outnumbers its rival to the south. An Economist article in 2018 explained how the Chinese military had become a leaner and meaner fighting machine. Incorporating artificial intelligence, autonomous weapons systems, latest radars, long range air to air missiles (such as PL-15), and other weaponry have made the Chinese military undoubtedly superior. 

Chinese will make the Indians pay dearly if the chest-thumping Indian government ever decides to engage in a self-destructive war with its northern neighbour. Nevertheless,the battle guns seems to have been drawn back as Modi conceded that the Chinese did not intrude any part of India.

Meanwhile, India continues to make childless out of Pakistanis living along Line of Control and inside Kashmir. Now it seems to have been given a taste of its own medicine. What happened in Galwan valley can be summarized by a quote from the great Chinese strategist Sun-Tzu. He said, ‘Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.’ 20 Indian soldiers have faced the Chinese thunderbolt under a moonlit sky deep in the Himalayas. PLA (which according to one Indian media channel was mislabelled as Pakistan Liberation Army) will continue to give India the brutal treatment as the weaknesses of Indians’ vis-a-vis China have been exposed. (not to mention their policy of appeasement)

It will not be the first time that the two nuclear neighbours engage in a limited war. The previous instance was in 1999 when Pakistan and India faced off in Kargil. That resulted in a complex blame game, and eventually, a coup in Pakistan. What implications will the current standoff between India and China have, only time will tell. Nonetheless, there seems to be no semblance to India’s actions under the current regime. The head of government in India brings irrationality to realism.


*Omer Aamir is a Researcher for Security & Legal Affairs at Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS). This article was first published in Eurasia review and analysis. He has done B.A LL.B (Hons) from Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).

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