At a seaside summit in southern India in October 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to take relations between their two countries to “greater heights” in the next year. The Asian neighbors—which together contain over a third of the world’s population—promised to work more closely in 2020, the 70th anniversary of formal ties between the two nations. Officials outlined 70 joint activities, ranging from trade and military delegations to academic studies of ancient civilizational links, all intended to strengthen Sino-Indian cooperation.

But instead of deeper ties, 2020 has highlighted the growing rivalry between China and India. Since early May, Chinese and Indian troops have been facing off at multiple points on the remote, rugged, and often disputed border between the two nations. The situation escalated on June 15 when Chinese and Indian soldiers clashed in the Galwan Valley. At least 20 Indian soldiers died in the skirmish, along with an unknown number of Chinese troops (China has yet to disclose any casualty figures). According to the Indian government, China precipitated the fighting by seeking to change the status quo on the boundary, advancing into or hindering Indian patrols in territory that both countries claim. Chinese officials, meanwhile, blamed India for instigating the violent face-off.

The border dispute between China and India caused a full-fledged war in 1962, and it has been a constant source of friction since then. Still, last week’s violence is a serious escalation. The skirmish resulted in the first fatalities along the Sino-Indian boundary in 45 years. It also demonstrated that despite New Delhi’s and Beijing’s cooperative efforts, their relationship is a fundamentally—and increasingly—competitive one that can spill over into conflict. This bloody clash in the Himalayas, in other words, could have wider implications for geopolitics in Asia.

SOURCES OF TENSION

Over the last two decades, China and India have deepened their diplomatic relations. They have strengthened their economic ties; held meetings at the highest levels; and participated together in regional institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and multilateral organizations such as the BRICS grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. China is India’s second-largest trading partner, and Chinese investment in India has grown from a negligible amount a few years ago to around $26 billion of current and planned investment today, including in the technology sector. Recent years have also seen a greater number of Indians traveling to study in China and more Chinese tourists visiting India.  

But these signs of greater cooperation cannot mask the growing competition between the two countries. Over the last decade, the long-running boundary dispute has flared up at Depsang in 2013 and at Chumar in 2014, with the two militaries also involved in a 73-day standoff at Doklam in 2017. In each case, India accused China of trying to unilaterally change the territorial status quo by advancing troops and establishing a permanent presence in positions they were not supposed to occupy. Other unresolved issues continue to bedevil the bilateral relationship, including the presence of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan refugees in India (which rankles China), China’s control of the waters of the Brahmaputra River (a source of concern for India), and what New Delhi sees as an unbalanced economic relationship.

Moreover, New Delhi feels increasingly encircled. Not only has Beijing strengthened its close ties with India’s longtime rival Pakistan but China has also expanded its presence in other South Asian countries, including Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, as well as in the wider Indian Ocean region. For its part, Beijing has looked askance at India’s growing closeness not just to the United States but also to Australia, Japan, and some Southeast Asian countries. Chinese officials worry about India joining U.S.-led efforts to balance against China.

At the level of global institutions, Indian officials believe that China seeks to stymie India’s ambitions on the international stage by blocking its membership in organizations such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the United Nations Security Council. China, in turn, worries that greater Indian coordination with the United States in multilateral institutions such as the Financial Action Task Force, the United Nations, and the World Intellectual Property Organization will threaten Chinese interests.

“A WATERSHED MOMENT”

Increased friction along the disputed border was, to some extent, expected. Over the last decade, India has built up infrastructure—including roads and bridges—near the boundary to try to match similar Chinese efforts. But the current standoff differs from the three previous clashes of the Xi era in scale as well as intensity. Whereas previous skirmishes occurred in a single location, this one erupted almost simultaneously at multiple locations in the western sector of the Sino-Indian border and at one in the eastern sector. This round of clashes also saw the deployment of a greater number of troops, and far more aggression, on both sides than in previous skirmishes. Satellite imagery and local reports suggest that China and India are sending reinforcements to the region following the clash.

The violence of June 15 has the potential to mark what some analysts have called “a watershed moment” in the China-India relationship. Not only did the fighting result in the first fatalities along the border since October 1975 but it made clear that the existing boundary agreements and protocols are not working. It also suggests that Chinese and Indian officials don’t have the same view about which stretches of the border are settled and which remain contested. Beijing is now claiming sovereignty over the Galwan Valley, an area that had not been a flash point since 1962. This impasse worryingly echoes the middle to late 1950s, when Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru believed the boundary issue to be settled but eventually learned that the Chinese side did not accept the status quo, leading to a series of events that sparked the 1962 China-India war.  

De-escalation may not be straightforward.

Chinese and Indian officials are currently engaged in dialogue at the military and diplomatic levels to ease tensions, but de-escalation may not be straightforward. After the loss of so many soldiers, a furious Indian public will make it harder for Modi to accept a change in the status quo along the boundary. But to restore the status quo prior to the Chinese military movements in May, India needs either to convince Beijing to remove its troops from multiple points or to dislodge the People’s Liberation Army by force from the disputed areas.

The clash in the Galwan Valley might lead Indian policymakers to take a hardened approach to China. The Indian readout of a June 17 call between the foreign ministers was much firmer than the Chinese one. It noted that Subrahmanyam Jaishankar told his counterpart Wang Yi that “this unprecedented development will have a serious impact on the bilateral relationship.” Since then, an Indian official bluntly noted that it would be “ridiculous” to expect no economic or other repercussions. Reports of changes to procurement guidance to India’s telecom sector to exclude Chinese companies might be intended as signals, but they also offer a hint of what might come next. 

A HARDER LINE

The standoff will likely weaken the position of those within the Indian government who seek more engagement with China or argue that stronger economic ties would ease political strains. Many erstwhile advocates of these softer approaches have now adopted a more assertive stance. Public sentiment regarding China, already turning sour owing to the spread of the novel coronavirus, has deteriorated further as details of the brutality of the killings of Indian soldiers in the Galwan Valley spread in Indian media. Calls for a boycott of Chinese products quickly followed news of the clash.

This latest skirmish has made clear that New Delhi has to make some critical choices. At home, the government could feel compelled to improve Indian military capabilities and border infrastructure, which will require the diversion of resources away from development spending. In addition, Indian officials will now aim to reinforce relations with other regional and global powers to balance against a more assertive China. New Delhi and Washington will likely grow closer. Concerns about China’s behavior in large part drive U.S.-Indian relations, alongside an Indian belief that the United States is “indispensable” to a global balance of power. But there will be some hesitation in New Delhi about putting all its eggs in the American basket. Indian officials worry about Washington’s reliability and the consistency of U.S. policy toward China. They will also not want to irk Russia, a key source of military equipment and one of the few Indian partners that might have some influence with China.  

There remains the distant possibility of India and China reaching a new, more effective agreement or modus vivendi. A serious border confrontation in 1986–87 led to a landmark visit to China by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1988 and the subsequent forging of new boundary agreements. But such a positive outcome seems unlikely for now. And even if a new agreement materializes, the rancor of the past few weeks ensures that India will doubt China’s commitment to future pacts. New Delhi will warily watch its mountainous northern border for any sign of Chinese aggression.

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