And India and China are at it again – soldiers clashing at the borders, growing transgressions, diplomats talking tough and armies boosting their presence in critical sectors. Like a bad memory, Sino-Indian border tensions have a way of making their presence felt at precisely the moment they are least needed. The world is struggling with Covid-19 pandemic and governments across the world are busy trying to get their heads around how to deal with a health and an economic crisis it has engendered to the best of their abilities. India is no different where the health crisis is yet to peak even as a burgeoning economic crisis is challenging its policymakers. We are told by many that big picture strategic issues can take a backseat as day to day management of a growing humanitarian crisis should be our priority.
But lest we forget, we have neighbours like China and Pakistan, nations that make it difficult for India to have the luxury of a sequential response to the global crisis. Pakistan can be handled but when China ups the ante, it’s an entirely different ballgame. And so in the midst of the health pandemic, the 3,488-km-long Line of Actual Control (LAC) is once again on the boil with border clashes between the militaries of India and China seemingly at their highest since 2015. The Chinese military has enhanced its troop presence in areas around Pangong Tso lake and Galwan valley along the LAC in Ladakh amidst growing Indian pushback. China has accused the Indian Army of trespassing into its territory, claiming that it was an “attempt to unilaterally change the status” of the LAC in Sikkim and Ladakh while New Delhi has asserted that India has always taken a very responsible approach towards border management and that it’s the Chinese military hindering normal patrolling by its troops. A number of meetings at the level of local commanders over the last few days have failed to defuse tensions.
Management of border with China is India’s topmost strategic priority and New Delhi has over the years tried various options at its disposal. There are more formal mechanisms to talk about the boundary issue and since 2018 Prime Minister Narendra Modi also started an informal dialogue process at the top leadership level. Modi’s first informal summit with Chinese President Xi Jiinping at Wuhan in April 2018 resulted in “strategic guidance to their respective militaries to strengthen communication in order to build trust and mutual understanding and enhance predictability and effectiveness in the management of border affairs.” The two leaders also “directed their militaries to earnestly implement various confidence building measures agreed upon between the two sides, including the principle of mutual and equal security, and strengthen existing institutional arrangements and information sharing mechanisms to prevent incidents in border regions.” While it did manage to stabilise a seemingly free-falling Sino-Indian relationship in 2018, it has clearly failed to bring any stability at the border.
Part of the reason for growing Chinese belligerence on the border has to do with India’s better management of its peripheries. India’s border infrastructure has witnessed a significant improvement over the last few years. This is given newfound confidence to the Indian military and they are now visible in areas where the Chinese military was not used to seeing them. Indian military’s patrolling along the LAC has also become more effective and their pushback against Chinese aggression is stronger. For a border that is not well-defined and demarcated, growing contestation is producing local instability which the armies of both nations are having to contend with on a daily basis now.
But it would be easy and simplistic to dismiss this instability primarily as a function of local level factors. To do so would also lead to suboptimal policy outcomes for India. Any serious assessment of Chinese behaviour vis-a-vis India today should take into account larger structural and institutional factors. New Delhi is not being challenged by any nation – it is being challenged by a nation that deems itself to have arrived as the next global superpower, replacing the US; it is being challenged by a nation that is led by an insecure authoritarian Communist Party; it is being challenged by a nation that has a leadership whose ability to provide high rates of economic growth is increasingly under question; and it is being challenged by a nation that is beset with multiple internal challenges from Hong Kong and Xinjiang to Taiwan and is facing an increasingly hostile global community that is demanding answers for the mismanagement of Covid-19 in the initial stages.
The Trump Administration’s trade and technology war with China is resulting in a reassessment of China’s own economic projections, especially in the context of a global economy beset with Covid-19. The Communist Party of China (CPC) has acknowledged the severity of economic challenge it faces by scrapping its annual economic growth target for the first time since 1990. There are increasing questions about China’s use of economic globalisation for geopolitical leverage which the world got the full exposure of during the coronavirus pandemic, generating an intense backlash against China.
For the leadership of Xi Jinping whose success is predicated on “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” these can seem like tough times when the world is rallying against Beijing and internal pressure is mounting. From an over ambitious Belt and Road Initiative to an initial mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis, from a ham-handed approach to the Hong Kong crisis to further alienating Taiwan, questions are being raised in China against Xi’s leadership style.
And so to salvage his reputation around the time of the National People’s Congress, Chinese military comes to his rescue to generate a sense of nationalism on territorial matters. From the maritime space of South China Sea to South Asian continental borders, we have seen a ratcheting up of pressure by China. It sends a message to Xi Jinping’s domestic audience that he and the CPC remain firmly in charge and it also makes it clear to the target nations that they need to behave. New Delhi has challenged Beijing on a number of fronts in recent months – it has tightened its FDI laws, it supported the group of nations who have called for an independent enquiry into the origins of the coronavirus and two Indian MPs even virtually attended the swearing-in ceremony of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen.
Raising tensions on the border is Beijing’s way of telling New Delhi to rein in its ambitions. It would be a mistake for India to think that by giving in to Chinese aggression it would be able to mitigate tensions with China. Chinese belligerence towards India is a function of its own global ambitions and domestic insecurities. The best that India can do is to build deterrence capabilities vis-a-vis its more powerful northern neighbour. Standing firm on its own red-lines is the first step for a nation in enhancing its deterrent credibility. And that remains a challenge for New Delhi as the latest round of border tensions continues to fester.
Professor Harsh V Pant is Director, Studies and Head of the Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.