Sino-Indian Current Border Standoff: Implications for Post CoVID Asian Security Architecture; By Dr.
Image Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons
The present border standoff between India and China started in the first week of May 2020 in northern Sikkim. The armies of the two countries clashed, leaving several injured from both sides. Subsequently, it spread towards the eastern Laddkah sector and the situation has remained tense in this strategically important area of India, which forms trijunction with Tibet (China), Pakistan. These incursions are of course not new. But, when the world has been grappling with the deadly coronavirus pandemic, the present spat of incursions on the LAC (Line of Actual Control) is quite surprising for strategic analysts and common people. However, before analysing nitty-gritty of the present standoff, it would be proper to have a brief overview of the history of Sino-Indian is must here.
Tibet was not a part of China when India came into existence. In 1914 when the famous Shimla agreement took place and a treaty was signed among British India, China and Tibet, which became the backdrop of the Machoman line, Tibet was represented by its own expert. China came into being after a few months of India’s emergence as a free country. On 7 November 1950, a month after China’s new communist regime invaded Tibet, India’s Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Patel wrote to Prime Minister J. L. Nehru, stating:
The Chinese government has tried to delude us by professions of peaceful intention… They managed to instil into our Ambassador a false sense of confidence in their so-called desire to settle the Tibetan problem by peaceful means… The action of the Chinese, in my judgment, is little short of perfidy.[i]
Nehru not heeded Patel’s Kautilya advice and went by Wilsonian idealism and almost gave Tibet to China by the 1954 agreement. All hollow slogan of ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai ‘became an archival material when China virtually expelled Dalia Lama in 1959 and attacked India in October 1962. Nehru was utterly surprised, but it was too late from his part. India was still facing the trauma of the 1962 defeat and the Chinese kept reminding us about it whenever there was any standoff. I must insist that India’s northern border, which is known as LAC, is with Tibet and not with China. From Laddakh to Arunachal Pradesh we have a border with Tibet. We became a southern neighbour of China when it grabbed Tibet due to idealistic policies of Pandit Nehru.
During the 1962 war, Nehru was not ready to fight even after the Chinese attack. He deliberately did not use air force despite the concrete intelligence report that China had no air force in Tibet at the time of the war. Wing Commander Jag Mohan (Jaggi) Nath was assigned to fly over Tibet in the earlier days of the 1962 war. His conclusions were: China had NO Air Force worth its name on the Tibetan plateau in 1962. As Nath estimates, the fate of the India-China War could have been totally different had India used its air force, but the government in Delhi chose to ignore this brave airman’s findings.[i]
May 2020 LAC Standoff
The present standoff started in the midst of corona pandemic so it has surprised many pundits. Till date, over 370 thousand people have already died globally due to it and the global community is curious to know about its origin. Since it has originated from Wuhan in December 2019, the finger of conspiracy is aimed at China. The United States led the western world has opined that it is akin to biological war sponsored by China to destabilize the global order and maximise the benefits out of this Hobbesian state of affairs.
The situation in eastern Ladakh deteriorated after around 250 Chinese and Indian soldiers were engaged in a violent face-off on the evening of May 5, which spilt over to the next day before the two sides agreed to “disengage” following a meeting at the level of local commanders. Gradually it has aggravated with the deployment of more soldiers by both sides. It was also reported by the intelligence agencies that China has deployed many fighter plane and helicopters at Nagri airbase 200 KM above the disputed lake which is the epicentre of May 2020 standoff. India has started making many strategic roads and airstrips in its border areas since 2014 and till date completed many such projects and by 2022 plans to build further 66 roads along with the LAC.[i] Since 1962 war, India has left these troubled borderlands aloof and only parodical patrolling was the order of the day. The growing connectivity of the LAC has facilitated the Indian army to have a regular patrolling of the border.
PM Modi visited China in April 2018 in the backdrop of Doklam standoff (2017) for the summit level talks with Chinese President, Xi Jinping. Both leaders had six rounds of exclusive summit level talk. President Xi Jinping sought to open a “new chapter” in relations between China and India as he hosted Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the last week of April 2018 for a summit aimed at mending ties strained by a border dispute.
Invoking President Xi’s political slogan, Modi said: “Together your ‘new era’ dream and our ‘new India’ effort will be the right step for the benefit of the world.” But neither leader directly mentioned the border row nor other sources of tension in their remarks.[i]
Border standoff between India and China is a sustainable phenomenon. It is strange because, after Doklam’s 73 days standoff (2017) both PM Modi and Chinese president, Xi had two summit-level talks, first in April 2018 at Wuhan and the second one in October 2019 at Mahabalipuram (Tamilnadu). PM Modi and President Xi have met 12 times in the last 6 years and pledged to settle the border issue amicably. Former PM, A.B. Vajpayee visited China in June 2003 and it was decided to start high profile dialogue to resolve border problem. Both sides also decided that their respective NSA’s will lead their delegations during these talks. Till date, 22 rounds of these high-profile talks have taken place, but no progress has been made to resolve the thorny border issue.
India- China bilateral relations have been turbulent for the last many decades. While Trade relationship has gone up, strategic trust deficit still rules the roost. Both countries top leadership stressed for a better state of a relationship. But in the meanwhile, China kept supporting Pakistan on international platforms and that has not only kept trust deficit prevailing but even further widened it.
The United States as a Factor
China and the United States has a trust deficit and instead of narrowing down, it has widened. The United States has also publicly stated that free international navigation within international waters is one of its policy priorities. United States has deployed its warships within the South China Sea, which has been disputed after Chinese claims over its entire blue water and contested by its ASEAN neighbours. The United States has also started ‘Malabar Exercises’ along with India and Japan since 2007 to ensure a free flow of international navigation. Later on, Australia also joined it and it was one of the areas which were stressed by the Americans during President Trump Delhi visit.
Washington’s present perception of China is generally negative. This perception has developed sustainably since last two decades. The focal point of the Trump administration China’s policy is that America must abandon its illusions, realistically face the challenges that now exist, and adopt practical measures to balance against China’s rise. Under President Donald Trump administration it has further gone up. President Trump administration has launched a trade war against China. Such an aggressive US stance has highlighted the vulnerability associated with China’s heavy reliance on US high-tech imports and has consequently sparked discussion among scholars about the gradual decoupling of the two economics.[i] Prevalence of corona and its devastating impact on the United States led the western world has further sored the United States-China relationship.
The Pakistan Factor
India-China relations have been turbulent since the end of the cold war. In recent years particularly the United States -India relations have been deepening and that has been an element of concern for China. Pakistan is also an important factor in India-China relations. President Xi had launched his ambitious infrastructure development signature projects named ‘One Road One Belt’ and is popularly known as OBOR. Under the ambit of this ambitious project, China-Pakistan-Economic Corridor has been constructed since 2013. It is connecting the western restive Chinese province of Xinxiang to Gwadar of western Pakistani restive province of Baluchistan. Gwadar is strategically located at the mouth of the Persian Gulf and just 70 KM east to the Iranian border and natural harbour, Chahbahar which is being developed by India to connect with Afghanistan and Central Asia. It has become operational and goods for Afghanistan is routing through it for the last few months.
Pakistan has been an all-weather friend of China in South Asia. With India’s emerging global profile, the relevance of Pakistan for China has increased many folds just for containing India within South Asia. It is vindicated through the statements of top Pakistani leadership in the midst of Ladakh standoff in favour of China. Since the end of the cold war, China has expanded its strategic relations with Pakistan to contain India within South Asia. The Pakistani economy is in very bad shape, its growth rate has been also one of the lowest in South Asia and hardly any hope of its revival in the coming years. The arrival of the corona has further devasted global economy and Pakistan has been one of the worst sufferers.
During the Kargil (1999) China advised both India and Pakistan to resolve their issues bilaterally. After the Mumbai terror attack (2008) China shielded Pakistan at the global platforms. Since the last one-decade, Chinese top leadership while visiting New Delhi has been compulsory visited Islamabad just to remind India about the importance of Pakistan in China’s calculus. In the backdrop of abrogation of article 370 from Kashmir, China extended all diplomatic support to Pakistan. In April 2020, China was assigned by Pakistan to build the Bhasha dam, which is in Gilgit-Baltistan which is an Indian territory as per instrument of accession inked between the king of Kashmir and Govt. of India. Karakoram highway which connects northern Pakistan with China also passes through the territory of united Kashmir but given by Pakistan illegally to China. CPEC also passes through the same route and India’s declared boycott of the Chinese OBOR is due to this fact. China is developing Gwadar in western Baluchistan and will connect it with its western city of Kashgar. This route will provide an alternative to China to bypass the ‘Malacca Dilemma.’ China has pledged to invest $ 60 billion dollars on this project and despite Baluchs dissent, Pakistan is cooperating with China to develop Gwadar as a maritime hub of trade and commerce. Due to above-mentioned reasons, Pakistan has become China’s strategic ally. Growing Indian profile at the international level has further intensified this strategic partnership. 21st century will be an Asian century as opined by a gamut of scholars and China thinks that India is its only roadblock. Pakistan’s relevance to contain India within South Asia also remains intact due to this strategic perception of the Chinese.
According to K Subrahmanyam, an eminent strategic thinker and author[i] (Father of India’s present foreign minister) “A successful and democratic India, which rises fast and eliminates its poverty in a reasonable period, is the biggest challenge to the legitimacy of China… The competition between India and China is, therefore, an ideological one”
Chinese behaviour in the backdrop of their acquisition of newly earned economic power has become unruly which is bound to create conflicts. China wanted to dominate Asia as America is dominating the globe but wanted multiple power structures at the global level. For Mearsheimer, rising powers tend to seek regional hegemony and China is heading in this direction.[ii]
Chinese have shown this mindset while consolidating its dominance over the South China Sea despite ardent opposition by the disputants of ASEAN and other concerned global powers. As former US foreign officer senior Alice Wells has stated just days before her retirement that China is doing nasty activities to harass its neighbours right from the South China Sea to the Himalayan border of India. China keeps alleging that India is doing incursions in Chinese territory. After standoff erupted in May 2020, Global Times mouthpiece of China commented:
India in recent days has illegally constructed defence facilities across the border into Chinese territory in the Galwan Valley region, leaving Chinese border defence troops no other options but making necessary moves in response, and mounting the risk of escalating standoffs and conflicts between the two sides.[i]
The Chinese economy is three times bigger and so is the defence budget of both countries. Despite this asymmetrical strategic status, India has aligned well with the like-minded countries who are very much interested to keep Asia multipolar. Countries of ASEAN and East and North-East Asia despite their high-profile trade relations with China have serious trust deficit with China and they wish that India and other like-minded countries must play strategic balancer role in the region and keep Asia multipolar.
Why China Started Standoff with India Amidst Corona period
It is simply strange that China has started the standoff with India amidst of the corona crisis, which has become a global pandemic and consumed over 375 thousand innocent lives till date. As I have stated earlier also, China is under severe global pressure about the origin of the corona. Global public opinion believes that China has not been transparent in this issue and even manipulated WHO. President Donald Trump and his western allies have already blamed China and pledged stern action against China for this criminal negligence to put global humanity vulnerable. In the meanwhile, China has also planned to curb Hong Kong liberties and trying to shut the cannons of the opposition of one country two system policy which China pledged in 1997 when Britain gave Hong Kong to China and this special arrangement is valid till 2047. Taiwan still remains a serious challenge for China. In sum, China is under unprecedented global pressure due to these factors. China is also facing internal heat against the top leadership for the mishandling of the corona crisis and it is alleged by the gamut of sources that a number of victims from corona in China is many rounds bigger than the official Chinese data. Border Standoff with India and with the disputant countries of ASEAN for the South China Sea has aroused mainly due to these reasons to divert people’s attention. In the last week of May 2020, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi stated that the United States pushing China to the brink of a new cold war.[i]
Despite 22 rounds of the high voltage dialogue between India and China, the thorny border problem has not been resolved. Since the last two decades, the border standoff incidents have been increasing. The deepening strategic relationship between India and the United States and its Asian allies (Japan, South Korea and ASEAN) has further made the Chinese apprehensive. Sino-Indian trade has been around $ 90 billion for the last few years and its top leadership also visiting each other countries on a regular basis. They are also cooperating on many multilateral platforms and also stalwarts of BRICS, SCO etc. But despite all these high profiles interactions their trust deficit has been very intense and will be further widened due to May 2020 standoff.
In fact, the Chinese are not willing to resolve the border problem. China has used the border problem to harass India psychologically. The universal demand for the investigation about the corona origin, Hong Kong problem, Taiwan assertion and Tibet issue all have contributed negatively to flare up present standoff at the LAC. This standoff is a candid reminder to India to remain away from the United States and follow China-dominated Asian order.
The May 2020 border standoff came after two exclusive summit-level dialogue between PM Modi and President Xi. These dialogues had given the perception that China is willing to accommodate Indian concern and peace and tranquillity at the border will be sustained. But it has aggravated further the prevailing trust deficit between both traditional Asian rivals. It will have a deep imprint on post corona Asian security architecture. India is now doubly assured that multiplicity in Asian security architecture is best for its interests. India will take all possible steps to ensure it and of course, will solicit the support of the like-minded countries.
India should invoke the Tibet issue and once it will be supported by western countries as an independent country, India should also give its recognition as an independent country. Chinese are in fact playing their strategic game with India as per the teachings of Sun Tzu, we should also reciprocate to the Chinese on the same plank. We must understand that the Chinese are going to embarrass India on border issue for a longer period of time. We must reformulate our policies for a longer period of time. Our strategic policy formulator and implementation bide must understand that Chinese are only listening the language of force and we must revisit our policies to cope up this sustainable Chinese attitude regarding standoffs at the border.
(Dr. Sudhir Singh teaches political science at Dyal Singh College, University of Delhi. The views expressed are personal and not reflect the views of C3S. The author can be contacted at email@example.com)
 Guha, Ramchandra, India After Gandhi, the History of the World’s Largest Democracy, Macmillan, London, 2007, p-169.
 Claude Arpi, What if Nehru had used the IAF in 1962, Rediffmail.com, Mumbai, March 2, 2019.
 “New Indian Roads, Air Strips Triggered Flare-up with China; Analysts”, Reuters, May 27, 2020.
 Dingding Chen, “The case of ZTE and US-China Relations,” The Diplomat, 2 May 2018.
 General J.J. Singh (retd), India-Chna; Lessons from History, 11 October 2019.
 Mearsheimer, John J. “China’s Unpeaceful Rise,” Current History, 2006, 105 (690), P-161.
 “Long Xingchun, India should Eschew Western Views of China for Border Peace,” Global Times, Beijing, 25 May 2020.
 “China Warns US Using Rations to Brink of New Cold War,” AFP, May 24, 2020.