Could China and India be heading for war?

Posted: June 12, 2020 in Prospect
Tags: , , ,

A new article for Prospect magazine in the UK which ran in the magazine with the slightly more apt title ‘Great Power Play at Himalayan Heights’. Continuing the spate of China related pieces have been working on, this looks at the current dust-up between China and India in Doklam. Have a few longer Central Asia pieces in the pipeline (as well as a Webinar or so which are being planned as I type), as well as some bigger terrorism pieces coming soon. As ever, welcome any feedback!

Could China and India be heading for war?

Flare ups at the border need to be handled with caution
by Raffaello Pantucci / June 11, 2020 / Leave a comment

Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, right, talks with Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi before their delegation-level meeting in New Delhi, India. Photo by Manish Swarup/AP/Shutterstock

In the late summer of 2017, I was sat in the sumptuous lobby of one of Beijing’s luxury hotels with a Chinese military contact, catching up about current events over tea and cakes. A dust-up between China and India over Doklam, a plateau high in the disputed mountain ranges that China shares with India and Bhutan, was winding down, with both Beijing and New Delhi eager to calm tensions. With a dismissive wave my Chinese colleague said it did not really matter anyway as “winter is coming and it will resolve the situation. The Indian soldiers are old, while our PLA [People’s Liberation Army] boys are young and fit.”

This image of a vigorous China and creaky India is one that Beijing loves. Both may be rising Asian powers, but China is leaps and bounds ahead of India economically. And it is hard not to form such an impression from a visit to the respective capital cities. Beijing is a booming metropolis where the old has been swept away for the new. Giant glass skyscrapers loom over a crowded web of concrete. In contrast, New Delhi is green and dusty, with unfinished or ageing construction linked by bumpy and poorly marked roads.

But it was India’s desire to improve its infrastructure that set off the latest flare up between the two nations in May. The construction of a road on the Indian side of the disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC) led to a Chinese reaction, with Chinese soldiers suddenly appearing to pick fights with their Indian counterparts at various points on the disputed border. Stones, sticks and punches were thrown with some reports suggesting that soldiers on both sides had to be evacuated due to their injuries.

The state-controlled Chinese press downplayed the incident, blaming the Indians for trying to change the situation on the ground. The more vibrant Indian media was full of chatter, with retired Indian officials competing with guesstimates as to how many Chinese soldiers had invaded Indian territory. A row over a road has now turned into the most serious flare-up between the two powers in years.

The question is, why? India and China are not natural allies, but both realise there are economic benefits to be had by working together. As Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi put it, “the Chinese ‘dragon’ and the Indian ‘elephant’ must not fight each other, but dance with each other. In that case, one plus one will equal not only two, but also eleven.”

The answer is likely to be found in the China that Xi Jinping has been building—a country that sees itself as a strong and leading power on the world stage; that no longer feels it needs to bow down to others and is able to stand up to the omnipotent United States. This helps explain China’s aggressive push out in every direction—menacing Taiwan, asserting itself over Hong Kong, strengthening maritime claims in the South China Sea—and the combative “wolf warrior” diplomacy that has captured international imagination.

Xi has telegraphed his intent a number of times. At an Army Day celebration in 2017, he told gathered military leaders: “Today, we are closer to the goal of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation than any other time in history, and we need to build a strong people’s military now more than any other time in history.”

The current standoff is the end product of this aggressive mood and a desire to lash out in the wake of Covid-19. What is perhaps most worrying is that it is not certain whether Beijing was aware of the details of the attack until it had happened. While it is unlikely that PLA commanders in China’s south would have the temerity to launch an attack against their neighbour without orders, it is possible they pushed further than their bosses may have initially intended. Given the low regard they have for Indian forces, a quick prod across a disputed border would both show Beijing they were doing their bit while also reminding the Indians of their dominance in the region.

The problem is the ill will that is generated. As Tanvi Madan, an expert at the Brookings Institution, put it, even before the current clash “anti-China sentiment has gone mainstream” in India. An app that promised to remove all Chinese apps from a smartphone was downloaded 4.7m times in just five days in India before it was banned by Google.

China has likely strengthened the hands of its enemies over its southwestern border. This is an entirely unnecessary outcome that is mostly the product of Beijing’s arrogance towards Delhi and the hubristic mood that President Xi has been fostering.

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