Are India-China relations crisis-prone?


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ARE India-China relations crisis-prone? After the events of spring and summer 2020 in Ladakh and all along the India-China border, this is a legitimate question. After a period of calm during the globalization decades of the nineties and noughts, India-China relations are again in crisis. That calm was brought about by a strategic understanding or modus vivendi arrived at in the eighties and formalized during the Rajiv Gandhi visit to China in December 1988 to: negotiate differences like the boundary but keep the peace; develop relations in other fields such as trade; and, cooperate on the international stage where they could. Over the next two decades or so, the border stayed where it was and remained peaceful, trade grew from US$ 200 million to almost US$ 100 billion, over 24,000 Indian students were studying in China in 2019, and India and China cooperated on the international stage in the Doha Round and climate change negotiations.

That understanding and phase of the relationship is now clearly over. On 15 June Indian and Chinese troops died in a clash in the Galwan valley, the first such deaths on the border in forty-five years. Both governments are parsimonious with the truth and facts about the situation on the border, but it is clear that the Chinese PLA has moved into and occupied territory hitherto on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), and is preventing the Indian Army from patrolling where it has done so for years in Depsang, the Galwan valley, north of PangongTso and probably elsewhere. In response India has built up forces in Ladakh and in late August occupied some heights south of PangongTso on the Indian side of the LAC.

China had chosen to significantly and consequentially change her behaviour, going against the letter and spirit of bilateral agreements starting with the 1993 Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement, which committed both sides to respect and maintain the status quo and to discuss and negotiate peacefully all differences, including differing perceptions of where the LAC lies. Judging by the military buildup on both sides, and the lack of success of military negotiations in forging a disengagement, let alone a return to the previous status quo, it would appear that we are in for a long stand-off on the border. The LAC is now militarized and, since the agreements are no longer respected, must be considered live all along its length. China has also chosen to frame the issue as a sovereignty question thus making it harder to settle, rather than seen as a dispute which would involve give and take to be resolved.


The crisis comes at the culmination of a series of escalating military standoffs and confrontations, each larger in scale and harder to resolve, starting with those at Depsang in 2013, Chumar in 2014, and Doklam in 2017, the last of which lasted 72 days and involved Bhutanese territory.

It also comes after several years of deteriorating India-China relations from around 2012. The signs of trouble have been many, including China’s open opposition to India’s NSG membership bid in 2015, unlike her going along with the consensus NSG exemption for nuclear trade with India in 2008; China’s hold on the designation of Pakistani terrorists who had attacked India; China’s shift from professed public neutrality on India-Pakistan issues, and her commitment to the US$ 62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in 2015, part of which involved Chinese investment and presence in Indian territory in J&K occupied by Pakistan, thus creating a Chinese stake in Pakistan’s continuing hold; China’s increasing military presence and political activism extending to involvement in the internal politics of India’s immediate periphery in the subcontinent and Indian Ocean region.


The Indian government sought to deal with these stresses in the relationship through a strategy of high-level engagement – Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping meeting eighteen times – and through economic engagement. Chinese investment in India, which was minuscule before 2014, grew to over US$ 26 billion by 2019, most of it in hi-tech, fin-tech and startups. After the Doklam crisis in 2017 the government of India was mindful of Chinese sensitivities, restricting displays by Tibetan exiles in India, muting criticism of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), refraining from comment on events in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and China’s responsibility for the Coronavirus pandemic, and defining the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ in inclusive ways to include China. Nor did India call out China’s subsequent actions in Doklam where China occupied the plateau that she had only previously visited occasionally, while leaving just the face-off spot vacant.

One can only speculate on the Chinese motives to undertake such a significant shift in behaviour. It must have been occasioned by more than local tactical or military advantage, which may be applicable but is not a sufficient explanation. Specific issues in India-China relations are sometimes adduced to explain the events of this spring on the border, but these too are unsatisfactory and could have been dealt with as in the past and resolved through negotiation.

For instance, the Indian government’s decisions changing administrative arrangements in J&K in August 2019 are often mentioned as a trigger for Chinese actions. And yet, President Xi Jinping visited Mammalapuram in India after those changes for another informal summit with Prime Minister Modi. No public Chinese commentary even hinted that the subject had come up. But now that the relationship is in trouble, the changes in J&K are offered by both Indian and Chinese commentators as an explanation. The negative consequences of the shift must have been apparent and must have been outweighed by other considerations in the mind of the Chinese leadership who had to have approved the PLA’s actions.


At the strategic level, there have been three fundamental shifts since India and China agreed and then implemented the modus vivendi of the eighties, which kept the peace and the border where it was for over two decades. It is these shifts which, to my mind, have created an atmosphere in which China chose to do what she did and the crisis occurred.

Firstly, the balance between India and China has shifted in China’s favour. In 1988 the Indian and Chinese economies were of roughly the same size, India was more integrated into the world than China, and their technological levels were also similar. Today, the Chinese economy is almost five times larger than India’s, China is the primary source of growth in the global economy, China is central to global value and supply chains, and China is knocking at the doors of advanced technologies such as communications, artificial intelligence and quantum computing, to name a few. China has also used her economic strength to build a powerful military revamped into an instrument of power projection rather than defence in depth, and has abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s ‘hide and bide’ strategy for a much more assertive pursuit of an expanded list of ‘core interests’.

Secondly, the international environment, which Xi Jinping describes as a moment of strategic opportunity, has improved for China in several respects. Her remaking of global connectivity with China at the centre, the BRI, is proceeding apace as is her acquisition of ports globally, and her trade and investment links continue to grow. China is the largest trading partner of over 120 countries in the world. China owns or operates over 100 ports around the world. In 2019 she accounted for 40 per cent of the growth in the world economy. This proportion will likely grow after the Covid pandemic. The US retreat from Asia-Pacific, hastened by the free gift to China of president Trump’s walkout from the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, have meant that China’s attempts to consolidate the Eurasian landmass and her periphery are proceeding steadily. She has been free to put in place the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with ten ASEAN countries, Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand.


The pushback that China has faced in the last few years has been in the maritime domain, and, to some extent in technology. Given how far she has come in pursuit of her goals, and how rapidly, it is easy to understand why a certain hubris has crept into Chinese statements which speak of China being ready to take centre stage in the world. That conviction of strategic opportunity and China’s centrality is also evident in the strident and assertive diplomacy for which China is now known, the so-called ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy, named after a Rambo-style series of Chinese action hero films.

This assertiveness has won China no friends abroad, with China’s popularity in all the polls plummeting throughout Asia and in the developed world. But it has been popular within China where the regime finds ultra-nationalism useful for legitimacy and control. The narrative of ‘never forget national humiliation’ that Xi has stressed as the justification for his ‘Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese people’ and centralization of power has an ultra-nationalist appeal of considerable power in China.

Which brings us to the third shift, that in the internal drivers of Chinese external policy, which are always the hardest to estimate. In this decade, China has seen a slowing economy, a harsher external political and economic environment, and difficulty in translating her economic heft into political outcomes, China too has been diminished by the Covid pandemic and has internal stresses to deal with, as we see in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and elsewhere. The harder authoritarianism now practiced by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Xi Jinping has meant that the state now spends more on internal security than national defence, and has had to construct a surveillance state the likes of which have never been seen in history, with a system of ‘social credits’ to grade and reward or punish each citizen for their behaviour. It seems logical, though speculative, that a more assertive nationalist line abroad, and token foreign adversaries, would serve the regime’s domestic interests at this time.

Together, these amount to a potent incendiary mix of overconfidence, a sense of victimhood, and a single minded pursuit of China’s interests – a China in a hurry, as it were.


Where will the India-China relationship go from here? It seems unlikely, given the fact that both countries are under strong, authoritarian leaders who rely on nationalism for their legitimacy, that India and China will find a new strategic framework or modus vivendi for the relationship, as they did between the 1986 Sumdorongchu/Wangdong crisis and the December 1988 Rajiv Gandhi visit to China. The broader factors that I have mentioned as affecting China’s behaviour also make that difficult. Instead, both governments are signalling their resolve to continue talking while jostling for advantage on the border and resetting the overall relationship.


Extensive economic and commercial links have mostly continued during 2020 despite some calls for boycotts. The shifting international constellation with the coming to power of President Biden, whose climate change and domestic economic revival agendas would require more cooperation with China than president Trump’s last two years in office, suggests a brief hiatus in India-China relations, such as they are, until they settle into a pattern of mixed cooperation and contention, albeit much more adversarial in its portrayal by both sides.

The primary arena for India-China contention is likely to be in India’s neighbourhood, in the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean region where China has committed over US$ 100 billion to BRI projects. India’s neighbours welcome the funding, infrastructure and military hardware that China is in a position to provide, thus balancing and lessening the preponderant presence of India.

Equally predictable is the impetus that the crisis has given to India-US relations, something that China presumably foresaw but discounted in deciding to do what it did. For a little over a year, Chinese scholars have spoken of India as having abandoned non-alignment in favour of alignment with the US. If they actually believe this, it suggests a limited understanding of India’s consistent balancing strategy. In reality, neither is the government of India seeking an alliance, as External Affairs Minister Jaishankar has made clear, nor is one on offer from the US. Instead, India-US strategic congruence, to which China has contributed, is likely to see the two-decade old process of improving and tighter India-US relations continue. As a bipartisan effort in both countries this process should continue despite changing administrations and governments. Chinese actions will help the process along.

What is less certain is the effect that worsening India-China relations will have on India’s role and actions in Asia outside its immediate periphery. The crisis has probably contributed to the drawing inwards occasioned by an economic slowdown over the last three years, and by the Covid pandemic of 2020 and its attendant economic crash. The Modi government, like Xi Jinping’s China and others around the world, now stresses self-reliance, though there is no clarity on the degree of autarchy that this involves. Even before the pandemic and the crisis with China the Modi government had left the negotiations of the RCEP, raised tariffs for four years running, and reduced India’s development assistance abroad. How far the new preoccupation with the land border and consequent demands on the limited defence budget turn India from the sea and south-east Asia remains to be seen. If it does so to any significant extent, it will hollow out the political and security outreach to the rest of Asia that is so necessary for India’s security and prosperity.

All in all, India-China relations are at a turning point, as the cliche says. But this could be another occasion when history arrives at a turning point and fails to turn.