The June 2020 clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers in the Galwan Valley has frequently been termed as a watershed moment in the history of bilateral relations. The incident marked the first loss of life in conflict along the boundary between the two countries in over four decades. A year later, while some equations have shifted, there has not been a sudden break — rather, ties appear to be drifting towards greater contestation with a certain ambivalence evident on both sides. This is underscored by five key trends.
First, after 13-months of friction and 11 rounds of Corps Commander-level talks, all that the two sides have been able to achieve is partial disengagement at the Pangong Lake. The standoff along other friction points in Eastern Ladakh continues, and both sides have very different aims from the talks.
While New Delhi wants disengagement followed by de-escalation, Beijing wants it to go the other way ‘round. This logic, of course, is akin to putting the cart before the horse, and is driven by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) understanding of the tactical advantages it enjoys.
Chinese Leadership May Remain Unyielding Until It Has Enough Reason to Compromise
The Chinese statement after the 11th round of talks in April was terse and to the point. It called on India to “cherish the current positive trend of relaxation and cooling” along the border, indicating an unwillingness to restore the status quo as on April 2020. Indian sources, meanwhile, told the media that the PLA had come with a predetermined mindset of being inflexible.
The situation in eastern Ladakh has shown the limits and pitfalls of Beijing’s military adventurism. But, as things stand, unless the Chinese leadership believes it has sufficient incentive to compromise, it is likely to remain unyielding.
Second, in the meantime, the continuing standoff is leading to the mutual political distrust rapidly trickling down to popular discourse and public sentiment in both countries. This will complicate future engagements.
Even before Galwan, the Indian strategic affairs community viewed China’s rise as the most significant external challenge for India. In addition, surveys had shown that the Indian public opinion of China, although never overwhelmingly positive, had been steadily worsening, with a mere 23 percent of people viewing China favourably as of 2019. The enthusiastic support by the public and trading community to the campaign to boycott Chinese goods after the Galwan Valley clash is an indicator that this number is likely to have sustained, if not having fallen further.
India & China’s ‘Acknowledgement’ Of ‘Mutual’ Threat
Importantly, India’s military planners also now seem to be far more comfortable acknowledging the threat from China in public. Across China, meanwhile, for the first time since the late 1950s and 60s, the threat from India is a matter of mainstream media discourse.
In February 2021, the Chinese side, rather uncharacteristically, publicly acknowledged the death of four soldiers in the Galwan Valley clash. Since then, the media have been allowed to eulogise these men. For instance, in early April, reports informed of commemorative ceremonies being held during the Qingming festival to honour the soldiers. Earlier this week, China’s national broadcaster CCTV featured a conversation with Qi Fabao, a regimental commander from the PLA’s Xinjiang military command. He was identified as someone that had suffered a head injury during the Galwan clash.
China’s Perception Of Itself As An Indispensable Global Economic Power
Third, the increasingly nationalistic rhetoric in Chinese media is part of the churn that’s underway domestically. Xi Jinping’s emergence as the ‘core’ leader has not been without friction, and has resulted in the Party doubling down on nationalism and ideology. This is evident from repeated official calls to pursue self-reliance, maintain political loyalty, and preserve territorial integrity and sovereignty along with the discourse around the superiority of the Chinese system and Cold War-like systemic competition with the West.
At the same time, Xi’s ascent to unparalleled authority since Mao Zedong has cemented the trend of top-level design in foreign policy. This complicates the feedback loop and makes course-correction and policy-adaptability much more challenging.
All of this goes hand-in-hand with China’s perception of itself as a major power that is indispensable to the global economy and must be a leading voice in shaping the world order.
This sense of manifest destiny as a major power, heightened threat perception and rapid military capacity development had led to Beijing becoming less risk-averse in its exercise of power.
India’s Westward Drift & How China Views It
Fourth, Indian policymakers have responded to all this by adopting a clearer position in terms of external balancing with the US and other like-minded partners, attempting to pursue greater internal balancing and re-emphasising to Beijing that the border issue cannot be de-linked from other aspects of the bilateral relationship. This was underscored by Foreign Minister S Jaishankar as recently as late last month. He not only fended off Chinese criticism by defending India’s right to maximise its options, but reiterated that “border tensions cannot continue with cooperation in other areas.”
For much of the past year, Beijing has bristled at these propositions.
Beijing’s argument on the border issue has been that this is a matter that is “left over from history and should be put at a proper place in the overall bilateral relations.” This betrays a lack of acknowledgement in Beijing of the damage that its actions in Eastern Ladakh have caused to the bilateral relationship, or a genuine desire to reassess policy.
Greater Desire In India to Reduce Economic Dependence On China
Finally, the Chinese side has also emphasised its manufacturing prowess, centrality to key global supply chains and the importance of the trade relationship to underscore its indispensability as an economic partner for India. Indeed, in terms of dollar value, the India-China trading relationship has thrived despite the COVID-19 pandemic and tensions in Ladakh. But expecting it not to would have been foolhardy. Complete economic decoupling is neither feasible nor desirable.
What’s unmistakable, however, is that there is greater desire among Indian policymakers to reduce economic dependence on China, particularly in critical sectors.
The recent decision of keeping Chinese vendors out of India’s 5G ecosystem is an example of this. In saying so, it is important to note that resilience and alternate capacity creation are not a short-term game. While the trend and political will are evident, the time this will take, and the degree to which one can be successful, remain to be seen.
What Shapes How Both India & China Operate?
Fifth, and finally, despite all of this, geography and aspirations continue to shape the structural equation between the two countries. Neither India nor China can wish the other away as a neighbour. This fact, in itself, does shape how both sides operate.
While the PLA’s adventurism last year indicates that the caution that the disputed boundary had engendered for the past few decades might no longer sustain as it once did, India’s advantage in the Indian Ocean Region and China’s increasing stake there, create a new dynamic between the two countries.
At the same time, there are areas where evidently both sides seem to enjoy a commonality of interests. For instance, India has been extremely cautious in refraining from commenting about Beijing’s policies in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang. Even with regard to the Taiwan issue or the matter of the probe into the origins of COVID-19, Indian policy has been marked by restraint.
Also, despite the tensions over the boundary issue, both India and China have continued to work together at forums like BRICS and SCO.
The recent BRICS Foreign Ministers’ statement about the multilateral system reiterated the desire for a “more fair, just, inclusive, equitable and representative multipolar international system, based on international law and the UN Charter, in particular sovereign equality of all States, respect for their territorial integrity and mutual respect for interests and concerns of all.”
The Road Ahead
It is noteworthy that New Delhi finds it worthwhile to invest in such an idea while also supporting the Quad’s more nebulous conceptualisation of a ‘rules-based order’. Likewise, there are commonalities between India and China in terms of global trade and climate change.
The extent of cooperation in this regard, however, is likely to be limited to specific issues and driven by pragmatism.
Consequently, none of this is unlikely to inhibit the relationship from drifting into a more competitive state. Of course, all of this can change to an extent, if Xi Jinping decides to reassess China’s approach to India, particularly the boundary issue. Hope, however, is not good policy.
(The author is a Fellow, China Studies at Takshashila Institution. He tweets @theChinaDude. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)