India and China - Part 1

Rivals in the new world order

Heinz Nissel

The 2020 China-India skirmishes are part of an ongoing military standoff between China and India. Since 5 May 2020, Chinese and Indian troops have reportedly engaged in aggressive melee, face-offs and skirmishes at locations along the Sino-Indian border, including near the disputed Pangong Lake in Ladakh and the Tibet Autonomous Region, and near the border between Sikkim and the Tibet Autonomous Region. Additional clashes are ongoing at locations in eastern Ladakh along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that has persisted since the 1962 Sino-Indian War. Multiple reasons have been cited as the trigger for these skirmishes. One reason stated by observers is Chinese land grabbing involving encroaching upon small parts of enemy territory over a large period, a tactic also referred to as salami slicing. In mid-June 2020, Bharatiya Janata Party councillor Urgain Chodon from Nyoma, Ladakh, stated that successive Indian governments (including the current Narendra Modi government) have neglected the border areas for decades and turned a „blind-eye“ to Chinese land grabbing in the region. According to her, India has failed miserably in the protection of its borders, and even in 2020, all along the LAC, India has lost land. Her family had also lost grazing land to the Chinese in Koyal in 2018. Other local Ladakhi leaders have also acknowledged similar incursions by the Chinese in the region. Despite growing economic and strategic ties, there are a lot of hurdles for India and the PRC to overcome. India faces trade imbalance heavily in favour of China. The two countries failed to resolve their border dispute and Indian media outlets have repeatedly reported Chinese military incursions into Indian territory. Both countries have steadily established military infrastructure along border areas. Additionally, India remains wary about China's strong strategic bilateral relations with Pakistan, while China has expressed concerns about Indian military and economic activities in the disputed South China Sea. A few years ago, there was a lot of attention to the notion that China and India might cooperate on energy security, as they do have some common interests. That relationship did not materialize, and instead they compete against each other in drilling for oil reserves and in controlling oil fields across the globe. There is a growing sense that energy is a zero-sum game, and since it is such a crucial factor in their economic growth, both countries want to secure their energy supplies. That early potential for cooperation is all but gone. The major issues that confront India today are still domestic: poverty, socio-economic inequality, an imbalance between the aspirations of a rising middle class and the inability of governing elites to meet those aspirations. There is a large majority of Indians who cannot provide for their basic necessities. These are the political issues that will determine India’s global role. Until India can get its domestic house in order, it will be very difficult to define the country regionally and globally. There is some convergence on environmental and economic issues, but the relationship remains fraught with tension. That does not mean that India should take on China militarily, but it does mean that New Delhi should respond more proactively to what China seems to be doing in regard to India and the surrounding region. That realization pervades Indian policymaking today. This is a very crucial change in Indian foreign policy and will determine most of the initiatives that India will take regarding China. Heightened security competition between China and India in the next decade or two is unlikely because China does not view India as a major threat and because of the common interests that the two countries share. Because the gap in wealth between India and China continues to grow and because security competition between the two states will be limited, India will not serve as an effective counterweight for other states seeking to gain leverage over China. The stark difference in Chinese and Indian elite perceptions of each other may increase misperceptions and miscalculations, thus introducing greater uncertainty into the future of the relationship. China may underestimate Indian concerns, while India may exaggerate the threat posed by China.