The disputed Sino-Indian border, which stretches some 3,500km (2,175 miles) along some of the world’s most rugged terrain, is roiling after soldiers from the two countries clashed violently in June this year. The two militaries remain poised eyeball-to-eyeball in Ladakh – a high-altitude desert of which China claims and controls a 43,000-square-kilometre (16,602-square-mile) chunk.
Decades of negotiations between India and China have not yielded a solution to their competing claims over 135,000 square kilometres of territory along the border. Even so, violence of the kind witnessed on June 15, when 20 Indian soldiers and 43 of Chinese soldiers died in a brutal clash in the remote Galwan River Valley, is rare.
According to Indian accounts, the impasse began in early May when soldiers from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), who were engaged in their springtime exercises in Tibet, unexpectedly crossed the de facto border – known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC) – and grabbed chunks of unoccupied territory. India’s thinly deployed military could only watch, since its springtime manoeuvres had been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Chinese occupation of Indian-claimed territory and the killing of Indian soldiers are a heavy challenge to the image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which rests on muscular nationalism. It exposes Modi to allegations of political misjudgement since he has, over the years, invested personal and political capital into wooing China and befriending its President Xi Jinping. The two have met numerous times, including in two informal summits at Wuhan in 2018 and in Mahavalipuram last year. Modi portrayed each of these meetings as heralding a new era of strategic cooperation with China.
Modi government has been unusually mindful of China’s sensitivities, even as it repeatedly opposed India’s bids for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which controls the world’s export of nuclear materials. Beijing stalled New Delhi’s attempts in the United Nations to have a Pakistan-based radical preacher, Maulana Masood Azhar, designated a global terrorist for 10 years before agreeing to the designation last year. It also ignored India’s objections to building a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor through territory claimed by India.
Overlooking all this, India has avoided criticising China over its high-handedness against Taiwan and Hong Kong, brutal crackdowns in Tibet and Xinjiang, its role in the COVID-19 pandemic, or even the Belt and Road Initiative that tramples on India’s territorial claims.
Most significantly, Modi has remained non-committal to blandishments from USA for India to play a major role alongside the US in deterring Chinese adventurism in the Indo-Pacific region. India has consistently rebuffed invitations to carry out joint patrols with the US military, and chosen to project military power only in the Indian Ocean, rather than in the contested South China Sea.
Given the government’s care not to offend China, India’s opposition parties have seized the opportunity to lampoon Modi, made him suitable for governing. Now his political rivals are criticising him that his musculature exists only in dealing with Pakistan, but not with China. Modi is also facing trenchant criticism over inadequately funding the military throughout his six years in power. In the current year, the defence budget has fallen to its lowest level, as a share of GDP, since 1962. That year, debilitated by a decade of dwindling budgets, India’s military was traumatically drubbed in a war with China.
If China refuses to vacate the territory it has occupied, or makes impossible demands of India, Modi will be left with few options. In what would be a tectonic shift in global power dynamics, India would probably align openly with the US, enormously boosting the emerging containment of China. While China might regard India’s burgeoning relations with US as provocative, and this may have motivated it to teach India a lesson, the outcome would be a strategic debacle for China. Already, USA has signalled its readiness to stand alongside India. On at least three occasions since the beginning of May, senior US political officials have pledged support to India, following up those offers through diplomatic channels. So far, Modi has demurred, replying that India is capable of handling the situation.
Also, on the cards is the probability of India galvanising the Quad – a four-nation diplomatic grouping with military overtones that also features Australia, Japan and the US. Since 2007, India has been mindful of Beijing’s sensitivities about what was billed as an anti-China ‘concert of democracies’. Now, by allowing Australia into the Malabar trilateral naval exercises, which also include the US and Japan, India could militarise the Quad, making it a significant anti-China grouping in the South China Sea.
India could also pursue economic retribution against China. In an emphatic signal, in April, New Delhi imposed restrictions on Chinese financial investments into India, blocking cash-rich Chinese companies from cheaply buying stakes in Indian firms financially distressed by the pandemic-related economic slowdown. New Delhi could also bar Chinese firms from making further business in India.
The greatest damage to Chinese interests has already taken place – in its image mostly among Indians. The Ladakh intrusion has created Indian youth that regards China with animosity. Entire world blame China for developing corona virus.
With armed Indian and Chinese troops eyeball-to-eyeball and reserve formations mobilising to the border, the situation could quickly spin out of control. The various Sino-Indian confidence-building agreements that have kept the peace for the past few decades appear to have lost their validity. While China is a Communist country of the largest population without democracy, India is the largest democracy of the world with the 2nd largest population. China is economically far superior to India and we are still struggling to position ourselves in the global economy and power. While we have a brilliant track record of peaceful co-existence with most of our neighboring countries, Pakistan is the only country, which has caused damage to the peace in the region. China has directly and indirectly fuelled the disturbances.
While the world, including India, is fighting against COVID-19, the attempts initiated by China to fulfill its evil desires, should be condemned. The United Nations Organisation should interfere to see that no further escalation of the China-India tension is spiked.