India’s Perilous Border Standoff With China

An Indian Air Force helicopter in the Ladakh region of India, September 2020. Danish Siddiqui / Reuters
An Indian Air Force helicopter in the Ladakh region of India, September 2020. Danish Siddiqui / Reuters

High up in the mostly uninhabitable stretches of the Himalaya Mountains, the world’s two largest armies are facing off. The tensions at the disputed Chinese-Indian border, where around 100,000 troops are garrisoned at remote outposts, rarely makes international headlines. But it is one of the world’s most dangerous flash points. In 2020, clashes at the border left over 20 soldiers dead, marking the most significant fighting between China and India since the two countries fought a war in 1962.

Tensions at the roof of the world have persisted ever since. In the last four years, both sides have sought to build up infrastructure and position yet more troops along the border. Just as China spars with many of its neighbors over competing territorial claims, the unresolved boundary dispute with India is a great source of volatility. The annual threat assessment released in March by the U.S. director of national intelligence warned that sporadic encounters between Indian and Chinese troops “risk miscalculation and escalation into armed conflict”.

The deepening border crisis reflects the growing strategic rivalry between India and China. Bilateral ties sharply deteriorated in the wake of the 2020 clashes. Facing China’s superior military and its increasingly aggressive foreign policy, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought to deepen India’s alignment with the United States and other countries wary of Beijing. He has embraced India’s new role as a counterbalance to China in the Indo-Pacific. He has boosted the country’s participation in the so-called Quad, its security partnership with Australia, Japan, and the United States. And he has ensured that in many areas, bilateral relations between China and India are functionally frozen, harking back to the era between 1962 and 1988 when the two countries did not maintain normal diplomatic ties because of the border dispute.

Beyond the border—the most dangerous flashpoint—Indian officials see Beijing entering their backyard. India has long claimed that China is using its alliance with India’s archnemesis, Pakistan, to keep India pinned down in the region. China’s belligerence also resurrects India’s old strategic concern about a potential two-front war with Pakistan acting in tandem with China. Across South Asia, China and India are also vying for influence in smaller countries, such as Bangladesh, the Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Modi seems to have realized that the expansion of India’s role on the international stage will depend on how it manages China militarily and politically. At the time of publication, he looked likely to win a third term as prime minister in this year’s parliamentary elections. If his victory is confirmed, it will be propelled in part by the strength of the image he projects of himself as a confident world leader driving India toward great-power status—and keeping China in check.

This increasingly aggressive stance, however, is likely to invite more trouble. Modi’s tack toward Washington makes the rivalry between India and China look like a subset of the bigger competition between China and the United States. Some Indian analysts fear that this state of play will encourage Beijing to deal with Washington directly rather than with New Delhi, reinforcing perceptions in India that China does not see it as an equal. India’s closer alignment with the United States might also encourage China to use coercive tactics toward India to send a firm message to the United States and its allies. Although it may serve a domestic purpose, Modi’s strongman posturing makes diplomacy with China harder, thereby prolonging the crisis. To be sure, Modi has engaged Beijing before and little came of those efforts. But getting back to high-level talks with China remains the best bet for both establishing stability on the border and burnishing India’s major-power credentials.

ON THE ROOF OF THE WORLD

The origins of China and India’s border dispute go back to the 1950s, when Chinese forces occupied Tibet, which had long served as a buffer zone between the two countries. The governments of China and India inherited the borders of the regimes they replaced, the Qing dynasty and British India, leading to a welter of overlapping claims. In 1962, a brief war broke out along the disputed border, resulting in a crushing defeat for India. That humiliating loss engendered a deep and lasting distrust of China that haunts Indian policymakers to this day. A de facto border imposed by Beijing after 1962 called the Line of Actual Control (LAC) functions as a working boundary, although the two countries do not agree on exactly where it lies.

Between 1993 and 2013, Indian and Chinese diplomats signed a series of border agreements to try to minimize the dispute and reduce the risk of violent escalation by restricting, for instance, the use of firearms by both armies. But the fundamental disagreement persisted and sparked recurring flare-ups, including a streak of border standoffs in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2017. Both countries sought to paper over their differences through two informal summits in 2018 and 2019, but the worst was yet to come. In the spring of 2020, thousands of Chinese troops advanced into areas claimed by India, leading to clashes in which at least 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers were killed.

After every big crisis in the past, both sides tried to work out peace agreements and suppress their differences—but not after the 2020 clash. In an interview in April, Modi finally admitted that the standoff had taken a toll on relations between India and China: “the prolonged situation on our borders”, he said, has led to “abnormality in our bilateral interactions”. China has loomed larger over many of India’s strategic and foreign policy choices in the last four years. Since gaining independence in 1947, India has sought strategic autonomy and pursued a policy of general nonalignment, eschewing formal alliances. But China’s increasingly aggressive posture and growing power in Asia has pushed India’s foreign policymakers toward the United States and its allies.

This is not the turn Modi had hoped for. Before he came to power in 2014, he warned Beijing to shed its “expansionist mindset”. But that tough talk belied tangible moves to establish trust and a one-to-one channel with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Modi enthusiastically sought deeper economic ties, welcomed Xi to India a few months into his first term, and traveled to Beijing in May 2015 to visit Xi. Between 2014 and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Modi met with Xi 18 times and visited China five times, an unprecedented level of interaction between the two countries’ leaders.

This bonhomie, however, did not produce any real change in Beijing’s foreign policy. Its long-standing alliance with Islamabad remained intact. And China worked to thwart Modi’s global ambitions. New Delhi resented Beijing for standing in the way of India’s efforts to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2015 and for failing to back India’s entry to the elite Nuclear Suppliers Group in 2016. China blocked Indian appeals to the UN Security Council between 2016 to 2019 to designate the chief of the Pakistani jihadist group Jaish-e-Muhammed, which was responsible for attacks on Indian soil, as a terrorist.

Then China ratcheted up the pressure on the border. In line with other expansionist moves in the South China Sea, where it has sparred with the Philippines and other countries over maritime claims, China grew bolder in asserting its territorial claims in the Himalayas and in criticizing India for any attempt to strengthen its position in those regions. The bloody clash that ensued in 2020 and the resulting Chinese land grabs put Modi in a difficult position, as admitting that China had brazenly taken land claimed by India would make him appear weak. Initially, he flatly denied that Chinese troops had crossed the border and entered Indian territory. He asserted that not even an inch of land has been lost, although by some accounts India has lost access to around 775 square miles that it once patrolled. He continues to avoid talking directly about China, out of fear of inviting scrutiny of the fact that India has lost ground to its neighbor on his watch. At the same time, his government has retaliated through other means. It has banned 59 Chinese apps, targeted Chinese companies with tax raids, and created hurdles for Chinese investment. Indian public opinion has also grown steadily more hostile to China, disincentivizing diplomatic engagement and compromise.

Modi’s domestic critics and political opponents have blamed him for losing territory to China, but that has not hurt his government. By pounding the drum of Hindu nationalism and insisting on India’s great-power status, Modi has deflected domestic criticism of his foreign policy. With the help of a pliant Indian media and a fervently pro-government social media, there is little discussion about India’s China policy in the public sphere, never mind in Parliament. His hardened stance against China has helped him forge stronger ties with the United States and its allies, but it has done little to resolve the underlying dispute or bring stability back to the border.

NOT FRIENDS, NOT ENEMIES

In the words of Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s foreign policy is now focused on how “to manage a more powerful neighbor while ensuring its own rise”. In line with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s predilection for condemning prior governments, Jaishankar has argued that former Indian leaders were responsible for “consciously underrating the China challenge” until Modi brought about a strategic revolution and more openly aligned with the United States. New Delhi and Washington were already “natural allies”, according to Indian officials in 1998; they signed a civil nuclear deal in 2005 and became “closest partners” in 2013. But the Modi government took this defense and security relationship from fine words to hard fact. In 2016, India signed a military logistics pact with the United States, which soon designated India a “major defense partner” on par with its “closest allies and partners”. Once studiously nonaligned, India under Modi has drifted ever closer to the American camp.

As the rivalry between China and India becomes subsumed by broader geopolitical dynamics, the border is becoming more volatile. The prospect of either side’s ceding ground and striking a territorial compromise appears to be vanishingly small. Over 20 rounds of high-level military talks since the 2020 clash have yielded little progress, and any small provocation or miscalculation could easily provoke another round of fighting. With China consolidating its military positions in the last four years and India trying to mirror those moves, the border has been significantly militarized, and an accidental escalation could carry very serious consequences.

Modi may well feel he has landed on a strategy that wins him domestic popularity. But if he does not change his approach to China, he risks undermining all his gains by taking India to the point of no return with a full-scale armed conflict that he can ill afford. The best way forward for India would be to restart high-level political engagement to address differences related to the Himalayan dispute with China. Many of these disagreements may take a long time to resolve, but some can be broached. In the interim, both sides must make crisis management an urgent priority, reassert their commitment to the existing bilateral agreements, and explore ways to strengthen them, given the fast-changing dynamics on the border. Both China and India can take small steps toward the goal of permanently delineating the LAC by restarting the process of border demarcation, which came to a halt in 2002.

New Delhi could take a page out of Washington’s playbook in managing its relationship with Beijing by striving to set up guardrails and prevent a competitive relationship from escalating into an outright feud, without having to achieve a full reconciliation. This would, of course, require Beijing to be willing to engage, which is not guaranteed. But by sticking to his strongman image for domestic purposes, Modi heightens the risk of turning the border into a permanent flash point.

In the past year, China has reached out to the United States, the European Union, Japan, Australia, South Korea, and Vietnam—but not to its neighbor India, sending a message that it’s in no hurry to resolve the crisis. The fact that Indians have a very low opinion of China at the moment is likely dissuading Modi from making any overture lest he appear to be normalizing relations. But he has enough political capital and nationalist credentials to convince the public that leader-to-leader discussions will advance India’s interests.

It will take high-level negotiations to break this impasse. Meetings between Chinese and Indian military officials since 2020 are little more than formalities. Only the engagement of the top leaders will bring about any real change. Any resolution to the border dispute may involve both countries’ exchanging stretches of territory with the other—and Modi will have to convince an increasingly jingoistic Indian public that such compromise is worth it.

But it is in the interest of both Beijing and New Delhi not to let this crisis escalate. China does not want to divert resources from its primary security concern in the east, the near seas in the Pacific, to its western front with India. Modi does not want to get caught in a prolonged crisis with a more powerful neighbour that would impede his domestic and global ambitions. Returning stability to the border between China and India falls short of rapprochement, but it would be a far better outcome than overt war.

Praveen Donthi is Senior Analyst for India at the International Crisis Group.

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