Arriving at a new normal in India-China relations | Opinion
While restoring status quo at LAC must be the immediate goal, structural fautlines will continue to make ties volatile.Updated: Jul 03, 2020 19:50 IST
The ongoing stand-off between the Indian and Chinese forces in eastern Ladakh is a fork in the road, fundamentally reshaping the direction of the bilateral relationship. Over the last few years, the architects of the gradual thaw and developing partnership between the two sides, which began in 1988, had been warning about the withering of old mechanisms that had kept the peace on the disputed boundary.
Despite the pageantry of informal summitry, the strategic guidance provided by the leaders to their respective militaries has clearly not succeeded in stemming incidents. In November 2019, the minister of state for defence, Shripad Naik, told Parliament that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had transgressed into Indian territory 1,025 times between 2016 and 2018. Roughly a third of these incidents took place in 2018. In April that year, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping held the first of their two informal summits. Recent reports suggest that the number of transgressions across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) increased significantly in 2019.
In fact, over the past decade or so, both India and China had seemingly settled into a routine characterised by episodes of scuffles, transgressions and incursions at different locations along the boundary. Some of these, of course, drew greater attention and were more intense than others. This had become an uneasy pattern. The loss of life in the Galwan Valley, the first in 45 years, on June 15 presents a clear break in this pattern.
The current scenario, therefore, throws up a new challenge for diplomats, military personnel and political leaders on both sides. While we cannot return to the ways of the past, it is important to arrive at a new normal. Doing so, however, will first require PLA to step back and the ground situation in eastern Ladakh to return to the April status quo. This will not be easy and will not happen quickly, if at all. It will likely require more than military-level engagement, which is largely what has taken place over the past month. In the interim, it is important for India not to let its guard down militarily.
It must consider demonstrating asymmetric, low-intensity escalatory options in other sectors and theatres. Economic measures, on the other hand, need to be carefully calibrated, keeping in mind the costs to the Indian economy. Cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face will be strategic folly.
If and when de-escalation is achieved, it will need to be followed by sustained high-level engagement and significant political capital being spent. Given the differences in the governance systems of the two countries, the political cost is, of course, going to be far higher for any Indian leadership than for China’s leaders. The fact that conflict doesn’t serve either side’s strategic interests is likely to encourage the two leaderships to consider bearing the cost of engagement. Does that mean that we should rule out the possibility of conflict? No, it doesn’t. But it does mean that both sides will incur extremely heavy costs in case of conflict.
For all its bluster, a conflict will seriously retard Beijing’s march towards its centenary goals. At the same time, even with significant political engagement, the structural fault lines between India and China imply that a new normal will not be any less volatile. This will complicate political decision-making going forward.
There are tactical and strategic factors driving the current stand-off, which derive from these structural fault lines. While there is a significant power asymmetry between India and China, both are experiencing a simultaneous rise. Both sides have greater capacity today than at any point since the formation of the modern Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China. This translates, for instance, into enhanced infrastructure development on the boundary, which can spark insecurity in itself.
At the same time, both sides also have coinciding and expanding circles of interests, which lead to new sources of friction. This has been evident in the jostling for influence and crossing of old redlines in the broader Indian subcontinent.
Now place all this in the context of the geopolitical flux that prevails in the world — a flux characterised by not just China-United States (US) competition but also socio-political chaos in the US, the unpredictability in its foreign policy, and ambivalence with regard to alliance partners and global institutions. In such an environment, one can only expect increased volatility between India and China.