Author: Deepa M Ollapally, George Washington University
The border clash in the Galwan Valley between Asia’s two rising powers on 15 June has tested some key assumptions about their bilateral relationship. India and China both thought that they could contain any border disagreement without casualties. They were confident in their ability to rapidly de-escalate, as well as insulate their economic ties from a skirmish. There was also a prevalent assumption that it would take a lot more than border brawls to change India’s strategic preference for hedging and decisively move toward a US coalition.
Underlying these assumptions was also the notion that to extricate themselves from intermittent face-offs would require some serious face-saving artistry. All these assumptions have been quashed to varying degrees.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval finally spoke with each other and stated their mutual goal of ‘earliest complete disengagement’. But by overplaying its sovereignty claims, Beijing has significantly reduced chances for the two states to negotiate themselves out of stand-offs, leaving their options narrower and riskier. Whether one characterises it as a tactical or strategic misstep, Galwan likely ensures that China–India relations will no longer be the same.
The immediate cause for this crisis was India’s completion of a key road in eastern Ladakh. It was undertaken with the goal of making access easier and redressing China’s advantages in high elevation warfare.
Beijing’s reaction suggests a double standard as it expects other states to accommodate its growing interests and capabilities as legitimate given its status as a rising power, but this logic isn’t extended to its neighbouring rising power. If this is its ultimate message to New Delhi, Beijing has miscalculated, because of all the things that could push India closer to the United States, Chinese strategic intransigence is at the top of the list.
Although China’s economy is five times the size of India’s and its military three times larger, the Indian government has taken unprecedented strong retaliation by banning 59 Chinese technological applications, including the popular video-sharing application TikTok. It shows a new willingness to challenge China even if it hurts the Indian economy. The compartmentalisation of economics and security is coming apart at the seams, despite Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s earlier intentions of cementing relations on an economic foundation.
With a 2167-mile border that has not been mutually delineated on maps, China has preferred to just agree to disagree with India and concentrate on economic relations and common global concerns like climate change and reform in multilateral organisations. But it begs the question of why Beijing has been willing to settle land boundary differences with 13 of its 14 neighbours, except India. New Delhi has long suspected that China wants to keep India off balance.
The latest Chinese thrust into territory on India’s side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) resulted in 20 Indian casualties. Beijing’s continuing belligerence suggests that its objective may now go beyond just rattling India and instead indicates a new phase in China’s assertiveness under Xi Jinping. This concerning new behaviour is seen most vividly in its regional maritime neighbourhood. And there has indeed been an uptick in China–India border incidents since Xi became President in 2013, with stand-offs occurring in 2014, 2017 and now 2020.
Remarkably, the two countries have avoided casualties since 1975 and were able to diplomatically de-escalate each crisis. That they engineered such outcomes owes in no small part to the willingness of each to not officially declare a clear winner or a loser.
But unofficially, there was a growing impression that China was still nibbling away into the disputed areas. There are unconfirmed reports that Chinese troops have returned after the initial withdrawal of forces in the 2017 crisis. Still, there was enough ambiguity in official statements to paper over any differences left after seemingly successful negotiations. Above all, the rapid growth in China–India economic relations and the high-profile summits between Modi and Xi tended to tamp down any residual political misgivings.
After this round of border battling, falling back on the traditional face-saving option looks highly dubious and is likely to give way to more strategic trade-offs that will be hard to recover from. The latest ‘phased’ and ‘step-wise’ agreement to disengage announced by Yi and Doval buys some time. But China has reportedly tightened its hold on Pangong Tso and it has been rebuffing India’s efforts to exchange maps on this western border area since 2002.
Perhaps Beijing does not want relations to get bogged down in a long, acrimonious cartographic exercise. Or more likely, Beijing wants to preserve a first mover advantage while ambiguity persists and while it builds even greater leverage. The unavoidable strategic question then is whether Beijing is departing from its past diplomatic script to a tougher geopolitical agenda. The clue to this possible shift lies in China’s actions indicating that it is unwilling to countenance any closing of the gap in capabilities by India on the border. China has shown that it is willing to openly challenge India even amid a global pandemic and risk its reputation.
Even with agreements to disengage now in place, military presence on the border has already swelled and it is likely that both sides will engage in more active patrolling on the LAC with soldiers carrying more powerful self-defence equipment. Most importantly, with a changed strategic mindset, especially on the Indian side, coupled with new economic estrangement, Asia’s two rising powers must learn to manage greater geopolitical tensions without any easy face-saving diplomatic option.
Deepa M Ollapally is a Research Professor of International Affairs and Director of the Rising Powers Initiative at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University.