New Normal in Sino-Indian Ties
Tensions along the Sino-Indian border have de-escalated in recent months. Following a nine-month standoff — which entailed the most significant mobilisation of both countries’ militaries in decades, and in which 20 Indian soldiers and at least four Chinese soldiers were reportedly killed — there was a withdrawal of frontline troops from the north and south banks of the Pangong Lake area in Ladakh in February. Official statements by both governments have lauded this achievement as a sign of a return to normalcy, with Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh noting that the withdrawal will “substantially restore the situation to that existing prior to the commencement of the standoff last year.” Meanwhile, the Chinese government has been emphatic in calling for the border dispute to be separated from other issues in the bilateral relationship. Indeed, separating these issues has been a mantra guiding relations between both countries in the post-Cold War period.
However, neither the tactical situation along the border nor the broader strategic context remains conducive to a long-term reduction of tensions. None of the fundamental grievances have been resolved in their longstanding border dispute. Neither side has rescinded its claims to disputed territories and there remains a lack of mutual agreement over the exact delineation of the Line of Actual Control that demarcates their borders. Rather than a return to the status quo, last year’s border tensions signify a new normal and a growing proclivity for spillover into other areas of the bilateral relationship. This has wider ramifications for both countries’ engagement with third parties, including the United States.
Partial Tactical De-Escalation
The 10th round of military commander-level talks held on Feb. 20 signaled a partial reduction of bilateral tensions. There remain several outstanding issues, including military withdrawal from the Depsang Plains and stalled disengagement from the Gogra and Hot Springs area in eastern Ladakh (which the 11th round of corps commander-level talks in April failed to resolve). But this did not stop nascent signs of reconciliation at the political level. These include the establishment of a hotline between both countries’ foreign ministers and reports that China has supported India’s candidacy to assume chairmanship of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) Forum.
However, renewed hostilities cannot be ruled out and should be expected, given a continued strengthening of both countries’ border infrastructure, defunct rules of engagement, and Beijing’s inclination for “grey zone” (below the military threshold) tactics. First, both sides continue to strengthen their border infrastructure, which increases the likelihood of their militaries crossing paths. This is illustrated by reports that China’s military has refitted its platforms stationed in Tibet, including howitzers and anti-tank missiles for more rapid deployments, as well as an increase in surveillance and combat drone drills around the country’s border regions. Moreover, the fatalities arising from hand-to-hand combat in the Galwan Valley in June 2020 and shots fired near Pangong Lake in September have made the current rules of engagement emphasizing restraint and the non-use of arms increasingly irrelevant.
The Galwan Valley skirmishes were preceded by tensions in the Doklam plateau in 2017, the Chumar area in 2014, and the Depsang Plains in 2013. Each incident demonstrated China’s ability to apply pressure on the border and probe New Delhi’s resolve. The most recent border tensions (like the previous ones) also entailed both sides claiming victory (or at least refusing to acknowledge defeat). Nationalist rhetoric and an unwillingness to publicly examine the roots of the most recent crisis or to alter or reassess their territorial claims set the stage for renewed tensions in the future. This is particularly relevant for China, where there is limited space for independent and critical analysis of the country’s foreign policy. However, it also holds relevance for India, where there has been a longstanding tendency by the policymaking community to limit informed public debate on New Delhi’s China policy.
China’s behavior in other territorial disputes also offers lessons for the future of the Sino-Indian border dispute. Despite a commitment to not militarize disputed islands and islets in the South China Sea, Beijing has continued to do so through incremental advances employing so-called grey zone tactics. China has used a combination of psychological, media, and legal warfare aimed at altering the strategic balance in its favor without provoking conflict. This has been accompanied by the use of military and civilian resources, including fishing and oil survey vessels and coast guard and maritime militia vessels, to assert Beijing’s territorial claims (as illustrated by China’s recent actions in the Whitsun Reef against the Philippines). Similarly, China has implemented so-called salami tactics along the Sino-Indian border, as demonstrated by tensions in the Doklam plateau in 2017 that were triggered by China’s road construction activities and recent reports that China is constructing border villages in an effort to strengthen its territorial claims.
These developments demonstrate that any agreement is only as robust as its verification and enforcement mechanisms. China’s incremental advances and grey zone tactics will require strengthened intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities along the border and calibrated and targeted actions by India to match China’s below-the-military-threshold activities. India is aware that these measures are required: The military preempted what it called China’s “provocative military movements” on the south bank of Pangong Lake in August 2020 by strengthening its own tactical position vis-à-vis China. Singh has also noted that the recent de-escalation will take place in a “phased, coordinated, and verified manner.”
Changing Strategic Context for India
Beyond these tactical developments, the broader strategic context is also not conducive to resolving tensions. The most recent hostilities have shattered the long-held consensus in New Delhi that the border dispute can be shelved while maintaining engagement on other issues in the bilateral relationship. This has been the dominant narrative since then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited Beijing in 1988, which was the first visit by an Indian prime minister to China in over three decades and followed the war between the two countries in 1962. However, Beijing continues to cling to this narrative. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently stated that the boundary issue needs to be put in its “proper position,” implying that it should be separated from other issues in the Sino-Indian relationship. At an operational level, a reduced appetite for taking a siloed approach toward the bilateral relationship increases the likelihood that border tensions will spill over into other areas of interaction. There is already evidence of this in New Delhi’s decision to tighten foreign investment regulations and impose bans on Chinese companies operating in India.
Similar to China policy discussions in the United States, where a clear bipartisan consensus has emerged to view China as a long-term strategic rival (after previously oscillating narratives of China as a strategic partner or strategic competitor), the benign view of China in New Delhi has also dissipated. This is reflected in deteriorating Indian public attitudes toward China. Chinese venture capital into India’s tech startups has also fallen amid rising barriers to entry for Chinese investment, although any economic decoupling between both countries will be easier said than done as China remains India’s leading trade partner. There is also likely to be less public enthusiasm in India about the virtues of China’s economic model, although New Delhi will continue to draw inspiration from China. This is evidenced by the “Make in India” campaign of the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which aims to emulate China’s centrality in regional and global supply chains and transnational production networks. New Delhi’s efforts to strengthen self-sufficiency in strategically important sectors through the Modi government’s Atmanirbhar Bharat (“self-reliant India”) campaign also parallels elements of China’s dual circulation strategy.
Politically, the lauded informal summit meetings between General Secretary Xi Jinping and Modi (held in Wuhan, China in 2018 and another in Mamallapuram, India in 2019) are also likely to be discontinued or, at the very least, downgraded and made contingent on substantive and verifiable improvements in the bilateral relationship. Both countries continue to engage each other through such fora as the Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa grouping; the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation; and the Russia-China-India trilateral grouping, but the strategic significance of these fora has diminished. This has been driven by the shifting balance of power within these organizations in China’s favor. China clearly outshines the others in terms of its economic heft, which has been further fueled by the first-mover advantage of its post-COVID economic recovery (as illustrated by its record 18.3 percent growth in the first quarter of 2021). Meanwhile, China’s relations with these organizations’ member-states have also deteriorated, as seen in the case of India but also Brazil under President Jair Bolsonaro and even to some extent Russia (despite the rhetoric of Chinese-Russian public interactions indicating otherwise).
Drivers of Chinese Foreign Policy
There remains much speculation around the motivations for China’s actions during last year’s border tensions. Among the theories: Beijing’s opposition to India’s expanded infrastructure and strengthened military presence along the border, New Delhi’s separation of Ladakh from Jammu and Kashmir following the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution in 2019, and Beijing having taken advantage of India’s preoccupation with the COVID-19 pandemic. However, China’s actions also allude to an attempt by Beijing to teach New Delhi a lesson for challenging China’s view of the regional order. This is illustrated by India’s refusal to accede to China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its participation in regional initiatives (such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad) that exclude China. In this context, Sino-Indian border tensions can be framed within a broader canvas of competing visions of Asia’s regional order. This view, although not explicitly stated by Chinese policymakers, are evident in Chinese strategic debates about India’s self-perceived regional and global role (see, for example, here, here, and here).
China’s decision to de-escalate tensions with India may also be partially rooted in domestic political and economic considerations. Xi is entering a crucial period with several political milestones over the next 18 months, starting with the recently concluded “two sessions” (National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Consultative Conference) that culminated in the 14th Five-Year Plan. Next will be the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party this summer and the Winter Olympics in February 2022. These events need to go smoothly ahead of the 20th Party Congress in late 2022, when Xi will stand for an unprecedented third term as president (after the removal of constitutional term limits in 2018). The Chinese government will seek to avoid foreign policy crises during this period, as Xi remains focused on ushering in China’s emergence as what he has termed a “modern socialist country.”
In this context, Beijing will seek to undermine the Joe Biden administration’s attempt to forge a “united front” in confronting concerns about China. This has been evidenced by the conclusion of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with the European Union in December, ratification of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership in March, and expression of interest in joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (successor to the erstwhile Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement). This desire to maintain a benign international environment extends to limited rapprochement with regional rivals, including India.
But once Xi has consolidated power following his “reelection” in 2022, we should expect renewed vigor in China’s projection of power. This includes efforts to reclaim “lost” territories. While the most significant implications are for Taiwan, there also are implications for the Sino-Indian border, particularly if the death of the Dalai Lama fuels renewed instabilities in Tibet that are traced to the Tibetan government-in-exile operating from India. While China’s behavior is more likely to take the form of covert political and economic coercion than overt military action, it nonetheless indicates Beijing’s willingness to make short-term tactical concessions in order to secure long-term strategic gains.
Moreover, bilateral tensions might escalate in the interim period as Beijing seeks to counter any challenge to its national prestige and sovereignty. China’s assertive diplomatic posturing was highlighted during the recent vitriolic exchanges that accompanied the Anchorage, Alaska meeting of U.S. and Chinese officials. Beijing’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy demonstrates that it appears willing to suffer substantive economic losses in order to secure symbolic political wins. For instance, the decision to sanction several European individuals and entities in retaliation for E.U. sanctions on China over its actions in Xinjiang has jeopardized the ratification of the E.U.-Chinese investment agreement.
With respect to India, it remains unclear why Beijing would seek to provoke New Delhi at a time when their “spirit of Wuhan” remained strong, particularly as both countries were preparing to mark 70 years of diplomatic relations in 2020. Despite India’s participation in the Quad, New Delhi remained a strong proponent of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” regional architecture that is “inclusive” (implying that it was not opposed to China’s inclusion). Whatever the trigger for the most recent hostilities, it is clear that Beijing is more prone to taking offence, including through efforts to punish India.
Spillover in Other Aspects of the Sino-Indian Relationship
Another strategic implication of the recent border hostilities is the growing potential for spillover (or “cross-domain escalation”) in the Sino-Indian relationship. The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced another theater of competition arising from both countries’ vaccine diplomacy. A Chinese state-backed hacking group (known as APT10) reportedly targeted the IT system of two Indian vaccine manufacturers. As such, India will continue to face a threat from China on multiple fronts: militarily on both the land border and at sea (amid China’s expanding presence in the Indian Ocean Region) as well as in economic, diplomatic, and cyber matters. This escalation of tensions across various areas of the bilateral relationship will demand a whole-of-government response by India. There have been some limited efforts to mount one, as indicated by New Delhi tightening foreign investment restrictions. However, it remains to be seen whether New Delhi can sustain a long-term, strategic, and holistic approach towards China in the context of India’s often messy and insular domestic politics (where patronage and alliance-building take precedence over foreign policy and grand strategy).
This spillover of tensions in the bilateral relationship also extends to the role of third parties. Traditionally, New Delhi’s longstanding preference for maintaining strategic autonomy in its foreign policy (as a legacy of nonalignment) has fueled claims that India is the most cautious major power in the region when confronting concerns about China. However, the most recent hostilities have prompted New Delhi to move away from this timidity. Examples of this more flexible diplomatic approach include the first Quad Summit in March, which included a commitment by member states to expand areas of cooperation beyond a traditional focus on hard security to include broader geo-economic issues such as supply chain resiliency, climate policy, and vaccine diplomacy. Australia’s inclusion in the U.S.-Indian Malabar joint naval exercises in November 2020, (following Japan’s permanent inclusion since 2015), also demonstrates that India has overcome its earlier fears about offending Beijing. India’s participation in the French-led La Perouse joint naval exercises with the other Quad member states in April is further evidence of new thinking in New Delhi (and also alludes to the emergence of a potential Quad-plus framework in the region).
Beyond the Quad, India has also demonstrated that it is no longer sitting on the fence with respect to China’s disputes with third parties in the region (characterized as a strategy of “evasive balancing”). For instance, it has shown a growing willingness to support claimant states of the South China Sea maritime territorial disputes through the supply of military platforms, such as the possible export of India’s Brahmos supersonic cruise missile to the Philippines and the upgrading of relations with Vietnam (with the conclusion of the “India-Vietnam Joint Vision” in December 2020). The Indian Navy also conducted several deployments to the South China Sea in 2020, during which it was in contact with its American and Japanese counterparts. New Delhi has also become a more vocal supporter of Taiwan. India exported vaccines to Paraguay to support Taiwan’s efforts to resist pressure from China (as Paraguay is one of only 15 countries to maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan).
Another potential game-changing development is the recent resumption of the 2003 ceasefire agreement along the Line of Control between India and Pakistan, China’s longstanding ally. While this has been officially attributed to mediation efforts by the United Arab Emirates, de-escalating tensions with Pakistan also offers a means for India to evade its worst-case scenario of facing a two-front war with China and Pakistan. As such, it is in New Delhi’s interest to leverage fissures in the Sino-Pakistani relationship. These developments indicate efforts by New Delhi to deepen relations with China’s neighbors, particularly with those states experiencing difficult relations with Beijing, as a source of leverage in its disputes with Beijing.
Implications for the United States
The trajectory of the Sino-Indian relationship also has implications for the United States. Actions taken toward China by regional powers often provide a harbinger of U.S. policy toward China. Indeed, many U.S. policies toward China can be traced to the actions taken by China’s neighbors. For example, scrutiny of Huawei and ZTE in national 5G development plans originated in Australia; bans on Chinese apps, such as Tik Tok and WeChat, originated in India; and the Indo-Pacific concept and the Quad have their origins in Japan’s call for an “arc” of democratic states.
Long before it became commonplace to talk about the emergence of a potential “new Cold War” between the U.S. and China, India and China had already been engaged in a longstanding rivalry. India justified its nuclear tests in 1998 on the basis of China’s nuclear weapons capability (and support for Pakistan’s nuclear program). New Delhi’s expanding naval power projection capabilities have also been partially driven by concerns about China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean. And U.S. grievances about its widening trade imbalance with China are echoed in India, prompting protectionist tendencies by both countries, including the American withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement and India’s withdrawal from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
There is a growing synergy between the United States and India in their views on and approach toward China. While an U.S.-Indian alignment on China is not new and was one of the underlying justifications for the rapprochement between Washington and New Delhi almost two decades ago, it has acquired newfound importance amid renewed tensions in the Sino-Indian and Sino-U.S. relationships. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s recent visit to India highlighted efforts to further operationalize the bilateral security relationship through enhanced cooperation on information sharing, logistics, artificial intelligence, cyber capabilities, and space. An important signal to watch will be a willingness by the United States and India to overlook areas of divergence (such as New Delhi’s dependence on Russian military hardware and its support for Iran in the construction of Chahbahar port). This comes as U.S. policymakers have voiced concerns about Russia’s drift into China’s embrace — a concern shared by India — and the necessity of dividing Russia from China. On Iran, the Biden administration is also in the process of considering a revival of the nuclear agreement (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). These developments signal a broader strategic convergence in the Indian-U.S. relationship that could further strengthen their alignment and engagement on confronting concerns about China.
The recent de-escalation on the Sino-Indian border is a positive development. Both countries have a stake in maintaining a stable bilateral relationship, and stability in the Himalayas is an important first step. Unfortunately, the détente along the border remains fragile and last year’s hostilities between China and India signal a new normal for the bilateral relationship. Border clashes in 2020 shattered the long-held view that commercial and economic relations can be separated from strategic and security concerns.
The 1962 Sino-Indian War signified an end to a short-lived vision of a familial bond between the two countries (encapsulated in the phrase, “Hindi-Chin Bhai Bhai,” which means India and China are brothers), which was briefly resuscitated in the early 2000s amid rhetoric of “Chindia” and an “Himalayan Consensus” between both countries. Similarly, border hostilities last year dashed any illusions each country had about the other. This will have far-reaching implications that extend into other areas of the relationship. The United States should pay close attention to this deterioration in Sino-Indian ties, which will have long-term strategic implications for regional order in the Indo-Pacific and the international system more broadly.
Chietigj Bajpaee, Ph.D., has worked with several public policy think tanks and risk consultancies in the United States, Europe, and Asia.