Is the India-China conflict intractable?
China’s refusal to resolve the border dispute, and force Delhi to accept Beijing’s primacy, cannot be acceptable to India
A senior Indian official recently told a visiting foreign counterpart that India’s relations with China were “irretrievably broken”. A trifle exaggerated, but the statement does reflect the mindset in New Delhi these days.
Trade between the two countries may be setting new records and the two continue to interact at multilateral forums, including those associated with security such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) Regional Forum. But the growing tension along their 3,488 km border is difficult to miss, as is the generally testy tenor of their relations.
Apropos of the 2020 events, the Chinese say that border issues are an ongoing malady and should be kept aside while bilateral relations are normalised in other areas. The Indian side is equally insistent that the paradigm, which had enabled normalcy over the last 30 years, has shifted. The issue in 2020 was not of an ingress here or there, but a concerted move to ram through a version of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) onto India, backed by massive People’s Liberation Army (PLA) deployment.
The Chinese behaviour is part of a recent pattern where India has been alienated, Australia went from friend to foe, Hong Kong brought to heel, and large chunks of the Chinese private sector gutted in the name of “common economic prosperity”.
But surely, China knew that the Indian side would not tamely accept the fait accompli in Ladakh. The government has not told us the whole story, but it has responded strongly to the Chinese challenge with a massive programme of infrastructure construction, upgrading military equipment, and reorienting it away from Pakistan towards China. This comes not a moment too soon since the PLA had been reorganising and reinforcing its deployments substantially in Tibet since 2017.
India and China are neighbours and have been seen as competitors since the 1950s. By the 1980s, when they decided to open up their economies, both were roughly similar in terms of their economic size, with India actually ahead in some areas.
Then came China’s spectacular economic growth and it streaked ahead of India in all elements of comprehensive national power. China began to benchmark itself against the United States (US) and see India as a second-level power. As its economy and military power expanded, the South Asia-Indian Ocean Region (SA-IOR) emerged as second only to the western Pacific in its importance to China. Besides markets, existing and potential, it is the highway on which key resources, especially petroleum, is carried.
In SA-IOR, India has believed that geography confers it primacy. But its inability to consolidate a vibrant South Asian economic area has left it bereft of instruments to shape the continental or oceanic political discourse. In the meantime, China has made significant inroads into what Indians considered its backyard — Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bangladesh, and expanded significantly across the Indian Ocean.
As a wannabe world power, China must first be dominant in its neighbourhood. The problem for Beijing is geography, where big powers such as Russia, Japan and India are its neighbours, and the US has a major oceanic presence. China’s own heavy-handed conduct has left it with few friends. It has actually provoked the formation of a new military alliance, AUKUS, in the western Pacific, layered upon Quad which includes India and Japan as well.
In SA-IOR, India has a locational advantage, with its peninsula jutting 2,000 km into the Indian Ocean. Just as small South Asian countries use China to balance India, there is a wider region — Southeast Asia and Central Asia — which sees New Delhi as a balancer to China.
Sadly, India has so far failed to live up to expectations, but things can change.
Then there is demography. Where China is aging rapidly, India’s demographic profile will be positive till the 2050s helping power its economic growth. There may be a huge difference in the national power of China and India today, but New Delhi’s role as a global actor is aided by the American need to balance China in the western Pacific.
But India needs to understand that the texture of the Sino-Indian relationship is different from that of the US and China. The upcoming Joe Biden-Xi Jinping virtual summit suggests that both sides are agreed on the “extreme competition” paradigm articulated by the US. American trade with China is booming and its businesses chafing at the continuing restrictions on their activities in China. A recent Wall Street Journal article noted that US companies continue to aid China’s efforts towards dominance in the semiconductor sector, ignoring the political mood in Washington.
India may be weaker than China, but it is strong enough to ensure that any conflict would be mutually destructive. The modus vivendi of the kind that operated between 1990-2020 looks difficult. But cooperation in some managed form offers advantages to both.
The situation would have been less intractable if India and China could have resolved their border dispute. But China has shied away from that because it has used it as an instrument for keeping India off balance.
The bottomline is that Beijing wants Washington to accept it as a peer, and at the same time, wants to push New Delhi to acknowledge its primacy in SA-IOR. Just as the US rejects the Chinese contention, so, too, does India, which has a strong sense of its own destiny as a leading nation of the world, if not a great power. All this makes for a situation of intractable conflict.
Manoj Joshi is a distinguished fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal