India and China have a demonstrated history of border tension since Independence, once even leading to war. Yet, a simultaneous effort to establish “Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai” has persisted parallelly. Every subsequent government that has come to power has had a strategy of establishing ‘mutual trust’ and a ‘shared vision’ with their Chinese counterpart. The diplomatic efforts almost turned into a blossoming ‘friendship’ under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Both countries have been carving out their space in the international arena and have commanded global attention. In their mission to establish a global footing, the neighbours have recognised each other’s importance. In 2010, after a bilateral talk, they even released a joint statement saying “there is enough space in the world for both China and India to grow”. China started displaying an interest in India since the beginning of the 21st century. India too, recognised China as a potential strategic partner, owing to its economy and geographical proximity.
Efforts from both sides since 2004 led to a chain of favourable events that helped cultivate the strategic relationship. The BRICS conference held at New Delhi in 2012, saw the two countries unite to condemn US action in Libya and Syria and asserting the importance of respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states. By the next BRICS meeting in Durban in 2013, the countries had grown significantly closer, and border disputes were pretty much put on the back burner.
However, since the shift in leadership to the NDA alliance there has been a visible deterioration in the trajectory of the relationship. Gradually leading to the current heightened tension in the Galwan Valley region.
The retraction of evolving relations under the Modi regime can be attributed to three primary changes in India’s foreign and domestic policy:
1. India’s shift towards joining the US camp
The UPA government had set the stage for a grand visit by Xi Jinping in September 2014 to be carried forward by a newly anointed Prime Minister Modi. However, the Modi government treated the visit “more as a bilateral mending of fences… rather than as the culmination of a long and patiently sought rapprochement.”. Additionally, Xi Jinping’s visit was preceded by a visit to Washington by Modi and followed by a surprise visit by President Obama as the chief guest for Republic day celebrations in 2015.
The Obama visit culminated in the signing of the ‘U.S.–India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region’. This demonstrated move to the US camp sent a clear signal to China against any kind of strategic relationship with India.
In 2016, under intense tension between USA-China in the South China sea, the Modi government sent four warships with the US-Japan task force that were docked in Vietnam and Philippines ports for over two months. This was clearly seen as “a blatant assertion of India’s freedom of navigation (under American protection of course) in the South China Sea.”
Furthermore, China is concerned about India’s participation in the Quad, trilateral, and military exercises such as the Malabar naval drills which China considers a quasi alliance.
More recently, Trump’s visit to India in February’20 and the Indo-US ‘Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership’ in the support of free navigation in the Indo-Pacific, all contributed towards a retaliation from China.
2. India’s refusal to join the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)
India has expressed concern against joining the BRI, as it breaches its territorial integrity. A portion of the BRI passes through POK- which India considers an illegal occupation by Pakistan -directly threatening India’s sovereignty. Additionally, India is wary of China’s debt-trap diplomacy that offers favourable loans, indebting the member states to China.
The primary concern, however, is that the BRI expands China’s unilateral power, threatening India’s position as an alternate power in the Indo-Pacific region.
This has invited retaliation from China through repeated vetoing of India’s membership into the Nuclear Suppliers Group and obstruction of permanent membership into the UN security council.
The 2018 Doklam standoff was a push back from India against China’s construction of a road in the disputed region with Bhutan, whose claim India supports.
3. India’s reforms in Ladakh
Another significant transgression by India, in the eyes of China, are its reforms in Ladakh and Jammu Kashmir. Part of the new territory of Ladakh contains land that Pakistan gave to China in the agreement in 1963. China made their objection to the revocation of Article 370 and 35A clear, in August last year by issuing a statement that asked India to ‘exercise restraint’ and calling out their ‘unilateral’ attempt to change the status quo in Ladakh. India dismissed these accusations by calling them ‘misplaced’ and having no bearing on the LAC or the external boundaries of India. However, soon in September, PLA troops started blocking Indian patrol in the region.
In the Chennai Connect informal summit in October, President Xi Jinping suggested an India-China-Pakistan trilateral dialogue “free from the influence of third parties”, but Modi ignored the suggestion.
Indo-Chinese border clashes have occurred before, but the difference this time has been the changed context in domestic as well as international circumstances.
China has turned more assertive in the face of international backlash for its handling of the virus. They have implemented stricter security laws in Hong Kong despite international condemnation, cautioned Taiwan against their independence and have made assertions in the South China Sea. China has been subjected to a supply chain reshuffling due to US tariffs on Chinese products and an unofficial China-boycott leading to overproduction and fall in demand.
India on the other hand has been dealing with a deteriorating coronavirus outbreak as well as a severe economic downfall. India’s relations with its neighbours are also at a decline, Bangladesh has not been pleased with the NRC policy implementation, Bhutan is not eager to join the BBIN, ties with Nepal have hit a rough patch since the blockade in 2016 and “with Rajapaksha in power, Sri Lanka will have no love lost for India”.
The ‘Dragon Elephant Tango’ has reached a heightened climax with the growing hostilities in the Galwan Valley. The rising US-China tension has led China to diversify its trade away from the US. In this regard, India serves as a perfect market. However, the growing Indo-US ties have triggered China against India. India is stuck in a bind regarding the Huawei 5G investment, as it keeps prices down but also does not want to enter into US-China trade tensions. China’s assertions in the Galwan Valley could be China’s attempt to pull India away from playing a central role in US-Japan ties. Whatever the case, it is clear that both countries have more to lose than gain from an escalation of hostilities. Instead, there is ample scope for a quid pro quo from either side.