The Great Himalayan Showdown – India’s China Problem

Leaders of India and China

16th August 2020

Kenzaburo Fukuhara/AFP/Getty Images

The recent Sino-Indian confrontation at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) marks yet another localised instability along the un-demarcated boundary between the Asian giants. While both the militaries have so far refrained from use of firearms against each other, the violent hand-to-hand clash on June 15, 2020 at the Galwan Valley led to the first ever casualties (including 20 Indian troops) due to combat along the frontier in decades. With reports of unprecedented bloodshed at the Galwan valley and Chinese occupation of roughly 50-60 sq km of territory on the Indian side of border, the present crisis is a manifestation of India’s failure in dealing with the Chinese intimidation. As such, has the time come for India to change its China playbook for the better? In order to answer it, this piece will explain how the simmering border tension has evolved and why India must make course corrections to respond to the strategic challenge posed by China.

China and India Border Dispute

China and India’s Disputed Border / US State Department and Natural Earth



Sino-Indian Boundary Dispute


China and India have a long disputed border and claim territories controlled by the other. Since the deadly Sino-Indian war of 1962, the LAC has served as the de-facto boundary separating them, and has been relatively calm. But there exist deep contentions between both on the territorial limits under their control which paves the way for sporadic localised infractions by patrolling parties of both the militaries. However, the border crises at Depsang valley in 2013, Chumar in 2014 and Doklam in 2017 escalated into major confrontations which were ultimately resolved through high-level diplomatic interventions from both sides. 


Pant, Fravel and Tellis explain that Chinese assertion in the Himalayas aims to deter India from improving its infrastructure in the region as well as to occupy small chunks of its territory and claim previously unclaimed areas. It has been astutely pursuing a strategy of fait accompli in order to make territorial changes along the Sino-Indian border without incurring any cost of doing so. While these factors hold true, not much focus has been given to India’s recent administrative changes in Kashmir (which is bordered by the LAC) and its resistance to the Belt-Road Initiative, both of which antagonized China.


Beijing’s actions along the border are not limited to frustrate Delhi tactically on the territorial dispute, but also to subdue it strategically. As the present crisis unfolds, India concurrently faces troop buildup by Pakistan, and a diplomatic standoff with Nepal highlighting how its China problem can evolve into a serious geostrategic challenge within South-Asia. Further, the timing of the present skirmish also suggests that China has sought to utilize distractions faced by India due to COVID-19 related economic and health challenges, therefore catching it off-guard and far more underprepared when compared with previous encounters. 


India is often considered as a rising Asian power, and this crisis puts a question mark on its ability to maintain its rise alongside China – a great power which views Asia as its own sphere of influence. The Himalayan showdown should serve as a reminder to Delhi that its ascent in the world will never be accepted without stiff opposition from Beijing. Its failure to predict and thwart Chinese belligerence despite the persistent tensions reflects the absence of a well-crafted Sino-centric policy. Instead, India has consistently displayed an absolute lack of attentiveness which its eastern neighbour deserves.


India’s redundant China Policy


One way or another, China has been rather successful in pushing India around, without any concern for retaliation due to its ineffective playbook for dealing with its neighbour. During all the previous border flare-ups, it has sought to follow a very specific pattern – downplay the incident, issue diplomatic statements and protests, carry out a military build-up along the border and at the same time, pursue negotiations with China to restore status quo. Since the LAC straddles across some of the most hostile terrain making on-ground military pushback next to impossible, Delhi has relied on such negotiations and summit diplomacy to cool off crises thus far. The fact that the current crisis has erupted after Modi’s meetings with Xi following Doklam proves that its negotiations have failed to curb Chinese territorial ambitions. Absence of an effective Indian response has only emboldened China to execute repeated incursions on its territory.


India’s response through the current crisis


Though initially downplaying the magnitude of the border crisis since May, the simmering public outcry following the Galwan clash (and anti-China sentiments prevailing due to COVID-19) led India to retaliate by banning 59 Chinese apps and imposing economic sanctions to protect its pandemic-struck economy. Experts fear that its retaliations aren’t significant, as its economy is dependent on Chinese imports and investments, therefore raising doubts over the efficacy of such a response. In essence, these restrictions are mere token instruments to buy Delhi more time as it searches for ways to negotiate with Beijing and restore the status quo which existed along the LAC prior to May. While the latter has “expressed serious concerns” over the sanctions, its relentless military build-up along the LAC despite sanctions has worried the former. As a result, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been consistently facing criticism for his handling of China – a far more economically and militarily powerful opponent. This contrasts with his aggressive stance towards Pakistan which is seen as its weaker adversary, with the opposition in Delhi calling out the Government’s double-standards in dealing with both of its hostile neighbours.


India’s Choices


India’s options for regaining its position are woefully limited; i) direct military action to expel intruding troops may lead to escalation beyond its capabilities, ii) any attempt to slice and occupy Chinese territory elsewhere along the LAC and use it as a bargaining chip for withdrawals from the recently lost territory has most probably been already accounted for by the People’s Liberation Army, iii) negotiations, if successful may only end the stalemate without reversing China’s gains during this crisis and validate its “triumph” in the border clash, resulting in loss of strategically crucial real estate for the Indians along the contentious LAC. Clearly, the lack of options favouring India means that its contender has eventually succeeded in dealing it a major geopolitical setback. Its inability to fend-off Chinese expansionism on its own has led many in Delhi to support external balancing of Beijing by militarization of the “Quad” – a geopolitical grouping of India, US, Japan and Australia which was formed keeping China’s rise in mind. 


India and the Quad


The crisis does present Delhi an opportunity to recalibrate its relationship with Beijing by engaging more closely with the US and the Quadrilateral Forum that too at a time when China has flexed muscles along the South China Sea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and India at the same time, driving global political opinion against it. With the US and China engaging in a diplomatic showdown, the Quad has again garnered attention. Even during the ongoing Sino-Indian crisis, the US has attempted to convey its support to India. However, Delhi has not been keen on dealing with Beijing with external help. Defying realistic expectations, it has been keeping an arm’s length distance from Washington DC owing to its aversion to being dragged into a US-led alliance. In the past, harsh Chinese reaction to the partnership in 2007 forced India to break away from it. While Doklam convinced it to revive the grouping as a clear signal to China that its machinations will no longer be ignored or tolerated without costs, the message wasn’t loud and clear enough to halt it from resuming its land-grabbing along LAC. In absence of genuine retaliation from India, China will continue to inflict such territorial assaults in future. Therefore, it is high time for Delhi to pursue proactive diplomacy with its Quad partners in order to counter Beijing’s bellicose behaviour in the region.


Deepening cooperation with the Quad will be beneficial to India: it will allow the Indians some breathing space in their geopolitical struggle vis-à-vis the Chinese in the Indo-Pacific region, as the US-led venture can increase pressure on the Pacific seaboard of China, thereby diverting its build-up along the Indian borders. It will also strengthen India’s negotiating position as its participation in this initiative can tilt the scales in its favour: a strategically encircled China will be more likely to accede to Indian demands on the border issue. With a paucity of options to exercise against China, the quadrilateral partnership may exactly act like the last ray of hope for India to come out of the Chinese trap.


As this present face-off has presented India with an opportunity to make strategic moves which will leave a large imprint upon the regional geopolitics, it is weighing two unpleasant possibilities: i) embrace the Quad and being possibly forced to play as a second fiddle to the US as the Americans wage a new cold war against China or ii) remain vulnerable to Chinese violations of Indian territory in the future. Tanvi Madan cautions that while the coalition is not a silver bullet for the “China problem” India and others face, it certainly has the potential to provide a strong platform to ensure rules-based norms in the Indo-Pacific region and rein in China. Therefore, a well expressed intent and dedicated roles for each member of this “Concert of Democracies”, subject to their political satisfaction remains crucial to make it successful. And with an empowered Quad, India might just turn the tables and strengthen its geopolitical standing with respect to China in particular and Indo-Pacific at large.

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