Sino-Indian Relations: A Tough Road Ahead

Author Name: Hassan Tahir      25 Jun 2020     Regional security/Region

After decades of relative calm, Sino-Indian relations have returned to a bumpy road with a recent bloody brawl between the Chinese and Indian soldiers on the ridges of Galwan Valley in Ladakh, causing fatalities on both sides. Reports in the media say that the ongoing stand-off started on May 6th, with supposed Chinese military advances into Indian-perceived Line of Actual control (LAC) in Aksai Chin, which unexpectedly escalated into confrontation. The Chinese foreign minister outrightly refuted such claims and accused the Indian military of continuously violating the mutually-agreed boundary over past few years.

Beijing is deeply perturbed over recent Indian moves, particularly on the construction of borderland infrastructure in parallel to the LAC, as well as renewed claims by New Delhi reflected in legislation adopted by the Indian Parliament on 5th August, 2019. The unilateral attempt to alter the status quo of an international dispute through revocation of Article 370 and 35A by the incumbent BJP Government antagonized two of its neighbors (China and Pakistan), with the former reacting assertively after making long and intensive calculations.

Let’s first presume that Indian military made incursions into the Chinese-controlled area with its expansionist motives. On August 7th, 2019, the Indian Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah reaffirmed his country's claims to China's Aksai Chin region of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, followed by a new official map in November that continued the tradition of Indian claim on Aksai Chin by showing it within boundary of Ladakh. Prior to this in 2018, Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat, while referring to the 73-day long stand-off with China in 2017, stated that Indian military must be prepared for a two-front war. He further elaborated that “as far as our northern adversary is concerned, the flexing of muscles has started. Salami slicing, taking over territory in a very gradual manner, testing our limits of threshold is something we have to be wary of and remain prepared for such situations, which could gradually emerge into conflict”.

Externally, India is cultivating a strategic partnership with the United States and a major agent in Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy, in which China is placed as a major challenge. New Delhi is also a member of the Quad (group of four “like-minded democracies,” Australia, India, Japan and US). In a recent move, Australia and India have sealed a mutual logistic support agreement, similar in nature to what New Delhi has with the United States, during a bilateral virtual summit between both premiers held on June 4th this year. The agreement allows both sides to access each other's military bases with the purpose of military ships and aircraft to refuel and access each other’s maintenance facilities. New Delhi’s foreign policy ambition of joining the club of major powers, corroborated with international support particularly from Chinese rivals, could have supplied encouragement to prime minister Modi’s move to provoke more powerful China without rationalizing its potential cost.

Certainly, Beijing is persistently irked by such developments amidst a widening rift with United States over a host of issues including the Novel Coronavirus that has gravely impacted the American economy. Commentators are trying to put blame of Sino-Indian fist fight on China with intent to reestablish itself in the disputed territory of Ladakh. But China neither wants to push her neighbor to the wall nor let her jump into the rival block which is in the offing. Some analysts believe that just as Mao Zedong strengthened his control over China by going to war with India, in 1962 and crushing it militarily, Mr. Xi is burnishing his strongman image by slapping down an India that is growing uncomfortably close to the United States. Further with this episode, President Xi solemnly reaffirmed his resolve against any hostile maneuver to other adversaries as well and hinted at reviewing its long-adhered strategy of pacifying the opponents in light of emerging security environment.

New Delhi must be wary of the fact that any attempt of abandoning the previously adopted policy of nonalignment will eventually reverse its progress particularly in face of more assertive China. It may be unchangeable geographical reality that India has to live with China, but in peace and tranquility as pledged in bilateral agreement in 1996. The stalemate would prevail for the longer period, unlike the Doklam stand-off, but one must hope that both sides will keep on moderating their competition as during the last decade and show restraint in any such tense situation.

 

Hassan Tahir is a researcher at the Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS). This article was first published in Regional Times. He can be reached at cass.thinkers@gmail.com.