Woes and Thorns in Sino-Indian Relations

Any kind of conflict between India and China is not desirable for the Indian economy nor even for China which is acutely concerned about multiple domestic issues. 
Keywords: China, India, Border, Conflict, Doklam, Bhutan, Partnership, Cooperation, Geopolitical, Kashmir, Development, Perception, LAC, USA, Ukraine, War, Russia, Middle Power
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China has been trying for a long time to become a major power not only in Asia but also in the world.  That is why China is making desperate efforts to expand its footprint (not influence in an indirect sense alone) all over the globe and as a result, Beijing is getting involved in conflicts of interest particularly with “middle powers” like India, Japan, Australia et al. In particular, there is a bitter relationship between China and India since the days of China’s ‘Five Finger Policy’ led by Mao-Zedong which regards Tibet to be China’s right-hand palm, with five fingers on its periphery: Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, and the North-East Frontier Agency (now known as Arunachal Pradesh); despite many rounds of talks between the two countries, it was not possible to end this rift. According to some IR Experts, China’s so-called “String of Pearls” is already throwing a gauntlet at India. In international politics, nothing is a bolt from the blue. Therefore, we are witnessing a clear shift in China’s behavior ever since Putin’s military offensive against Ukraine that started in the last week of February 2022 and Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in early August 2022. Of late, Dr. Jaishankar’s recent remarks that the situation of LAC in eastern Ladakh is very fragile intensifies our concern over China’s switch to strong-arm tactics. In this context, we need to take a deeper and broader view of the current turn behind China’s provocation, or in other words, why China chooses to be more aggressive vis-à-vis India, particularly around this time when the Ukraine war is going on. 

If we look at the pattern of the Sino-Indian rivalry, it would be crystal clear that it is mainly related to land boundary (though other factors like the US factor, Kashmir, CPEC etc are there) which means Chinese claims, including government statements are not only directional but target-oriented to shift the territorial border which from the Indian side is not admissible. From Beijing, it is a kind of deliberate attempt to change the status quo in its favour. According to the Chinese, it is legitimate to alter the ‘unjust’ boundaries which they see as a legacy of colonial times. 

Although any dispute can be fought through legal arbitration and institutionalization of its verdict in the UN, China is adamant to take unilateral action through military actions which shows its strategy of force application without relying on international law and institutions. It is natural to think that China, which is hostile to the USA, may display its power by declaring war against India to divert attention from the Indo- Pacific front. The Chinese leadership probably assumes that if India can be taught a lesson it would serve twin purposes simultaneously: on one hand, it is likely to scare smaller powers like Vietnam, Philippines, and Indonesia while on the other hand, it would widen the strategic space for China in the Southeast Asian region because most ASEAN nations seem to rely on their own resilience without siding with either China or the US. 

The situation has taken a decisive turn with Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Russia on March 7, 2023. China should have avoided this visit at this particular time because it adds to building a worldwide perception of China’s tacit support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Moreover, it reveals a kind of new strategic equation among the potential revisionist powers vis-à-vis NATO. Its immediate implication is not only polarization in world politics but China’s resolve to oppose US-led Western hegemonism in all forms. Although China’s Foreign Minister presented China-Russia bonhomie as a “non-alliance, non-confrontation” kind of bloc meant to resolve the Ukraine crisis, several small and middle powers are becoming worried about a China-Russia alignment that might act against their interests. 

After more than five years of the Doklam impasse Bhutan’s Prime Minister Lotay Tshering’s recent official comment that, like Bhutan and India, China has got an equal say in finding a solution to the dispute over the patch of land called Doklam may be discerned as an ominous signal. It is so because India is apprehensive of China’s furtive advance towards India’s Siliguri corridor—often dubbed as the “chicken neck”. 

There is a probability that President Putin might visit India in May-June 2023, on the occasion of India’s current chairmanship of G20. Therefore, China might be thinking to exploit the situation in such a way that the circumstances take an embarrassing turn when Putin becomes a peace broker between Beijing and New Delhi. In that case, China would be able to derive maximum benefits from a Russia-brokered negotiation. 

A few months ago North Korea issued another threat against the US-South Korea military drill, charging that it deliberately escalated tension in the Korean peninsula. No doubt, it has encouraged China since the latter feels that the existing status quo needs to be disrupted to make way for a significant power transition. Moreover, China’s behavior also indicates some impatience to change the status quo in the post-Cold War structure. 

Besides, there are two potential developments that might have irritated China. One is His Holiness Dalai Lama has recently announced the name of K. J. Dhampa Rinpoche as the third highest dignitary in Tibetan Buddhism whereas China has always maintained that it will only accept the Buddhist leaders of its own choice. 

Also, it is worth mentioning that the Indian Government has decided to move on twin tracks insofar as the emergent Chinese challenge is concerned. One is the holding of joint Army-Air Force exercises in the eastern sector to promote inter-services coordination and testing capability in a multi-domain environment. Secondly, the GOI puts stress on building new border roads in addition to existing ones so that the cumulative strength of force mobilization and logistics may be synchronized to boost the morale of the force.

However, due to the escalation of tension and conflict of political interests, the economic relations of India with China, and the “civilian approach” that focuses on exploring connectivity between contiguous states are likely to be affected most despite the fact that trade and supply-side chain are very important in today’s globalized economy. The “military approach” always asserts itself and pits itself in opposition to the economic connection. Yet it should be noted that in this international arena, there is no way out except through cooperation, solidarity and non-aggressive foreign policy. Unfortunately,  sovereign states fail to realize this fact. In particular, any kind of conflict between India and China is not desirable for the Indian economy nor even for China which is acutely concerned about multiple domestic issues. 

On the other hand, the Chinese Premier recently said that the QUAD, a grouping between America, Australia, Japan and India, is actually an attempt to build an Asian NATO to corner China in Asia. That is an extension of the cold war mentality to the contemporary post-cold War scenario. At the moment, the state of diplomatic relations between China and the USA is worse than it was under President Trump. America has doubled down on its policy of imposing additional import tariffs on China, which is damaging for any initiative aimed at future bridge-building and it can further push China towards backing Russia’s geopolitical action plans. Here two points stand out clearly. One is that arrangements are being made to prevent China from importing American technology-based special components while the US is trying to secure more military bases in the island state of the Philippines so that it can monitor Taiwan better.  It is notable that recently American Vice-President Kamala Harris’s Africa outreach plans included discussions on how China’s engagement in Africa adds to US concern. Thus, the shadow of America’s China containment policy is weighing heavily on Sino-Indian relations. But we should not forget that at the moment the world economy is yet to recover from the lingering effects of Covid turmoil. So, the flames of the India-China geopolitical contest could start another fire in that area. 

Interestingly in the early 2020s, in the wake of the India-China border standoff and the deterioration of diplomatic relations, the Indian Government imposed restrictions on various mobile Apps on grounds of security. Later the Indian Government further tightened the noose on some other apps with strong Chinese connections which were alleged to have been involved in transferring personal data to Chinese companies. 

Although India does not follow US dictates of not buying oil from Russia and since Washington has not directly sanctioned India, the country is able to buy oil at relatively low prices. Therefore, it may be said that India is now valuable to both sides in the confrontation. It is worth noting that America no longer looks apprehensively at India’s pragmatic hobnobbing with Russia and China. If commercial and economic relations with China are facilitated, only then can the present war cloud in South Asia be dispelled and further this can help Production Network driven business expansion to alter the power structure in international economics. This in turn can bring down developing countries’ dependence on Northern markets. 

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Dr. Gouri Sankar Nag and Dr. Manas Mukul Banyopadhyay

Dr. Gouri Sankar Nag is Professor, Department of Political Science, Sidho-Kanho-Birsha University, West Bengal and Dr. Manas Mukul Banyopadhyay is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Hooghly Mohsin College, West Bengal.

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