Despite the apparent military might disparity between India and China, it is less likely that the two nuclear-armed neighbors will opt for further escalation as the threat of uncontrollable tension is appalling. It could be expected that both players will agree to de-escalate, to pursue their strategic objectives through non-violent means available to them, and to revert to another period of status quo of the borders pending final resolution of the dispute.
Historical facts speak of amity and goodwill between the present day India and old China. A branch of the Silk Road served as a major trade route, and also facilitated the spread of Buddhism from India to China and beyond, beginning in the 1st or 2nd century AD. Xuanzang, the famous Chinese monk took a 16-year long pilgrimage and learning journey to India in 629 AD and on his return founded the "Buddhist Consciousness Only School", which has developed a large following in China. There was also much goodwill after the birth of the two modern states, India in 1947 and the Communist China in 1949. India was the second non-socialist country to recognize the People’s Republic of China, and championed for China’s entry into the United Nations. To Nehru, the first Indian prime minister, India and China were the two ancient civilizations emerging as modern nations spearheading the move towards a more just world order.
In 1950, the United States offered India China’s permanent seat in the UN Security Council. Five years later the Soviet Union made a similar offer. Nehru declined both so as not to alienate China. In 1954, Nehru and Zhou En-Lai ,the Chinese Premier, signed the "Panchsheel" Treaty, which comprised five principles of peaceful coexistence. In 1955 India supported the idea of China taking part at the Bandung Conference that led to the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement. However, the decade long cordial ties came to an end in 1959 with conflicting territorial claims and border disputes emanating from gradual annexation of Tibet by China. In its essence, tensions between the two Asian powers may be summarized into one simple fact: India wishes to preserve the British-era Indian boundaries, while China seeks to reassert the Qing dynasty frontiers.
In 1954, India published maps showing "Aksai Chin" area to the east of "Ladakh" as part of the country, setting the British-defined Line as its northwestern border with China. On the other hand, the "Tawang" area of Arunachal Pradesh was also subject of the wider dispute and claimed by China as a part of the "Tibet Autonomous Region". Military infrastructure building by both sides, completion of a Chinese road through Aksai Chin connecting the Xinjiang province to Tibet in 1957 and the Tibet revolt of 1959 with subsequent Dalai Lama’s flight to India hardened positions , leading to the first border clash in August 1959.
To ease tensions, Zhou En-Lai ,through his letter of September 8, 1959 to Nehru, argued that "the existing boundary was a result of the British imperialist aggression" and labeled it as "illegal". He proposed maintaining the status quo of the border and resolving the issues step by step and over time. This disputed border came to be called the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The status quo referred to by Zhou was apparently a give-and-take compromise involving both sides to withdraw territorial counter claims on Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh and accept the Line of Actual Control as their common border. The idea did not impress Nehru. Relying on faulty intelligence assessments assuring him of no harsh reaction from China, Nehru initiated the “Forward Policy", under which the military was instructed to continue building military posts in areas claimed by China.
On November 15, 1962 Chinese troops began to break up every organized Indian force in the disputed areas at key points across a front line of over 3,000 kilometers wide and occupied Arunachal Pradesh. A week later Beijing announced a unilateral ceasefire on the same terms as Zhou had suggested in 1959 and pulled back its troops from Arunachal Pradesh. In 1963 Pakistan ,in a bid to resolve its border differences with Beijing, ceded the "Shaksgam" Valley of Kashmir to China and commenced a relationship that has strengthened over time ,serving as an effective leverage to contain a common adversary. Indian and Chinese troops clashed again in 1967 at the two passes connecting the princely state of "Sikkim" to Tibet. In 1975, India absorbed Sikkim as an Indian state. The move triggered another round of border clashes leaving 4 Indian fatalities. Those were the last soldiers ,on either side, to die for the next 45 years. New Delhi and Beijing decided to focus on their more immediate concerns rather than remaining locked in military standoff.
In 1976 and after a 15-year hiatus, India and China restored their diplomatic representation in both capitals. Tensions eased considerably in 1988 when Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited China. New Delhi and Beijing established better relations which improved further after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In 1993, they signed a peace and tranquility border agreement. For the next two decades, India and China avoided any major armed confrontation. In 1996 both sides even agreed not to "conduct blast operations or hunt with guns or explosives within two kilometers from the Line of Actual Control". In 2003 China officially recognized Indian sovereignty over Sikkim as the two countries moved towards resolving their border disputes more seriously.
At the turn of century, China under President Hu Jintao and India led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh forged links anew. China lent support to India’s bid for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council; their armies have held joint military exercises; and at WTO negotiations, they did adopt similar positions on some major issues. With much fanfare they joined Russia, Brazil and later, South Africa to form the "BRICS", the new economic bloc, in hope of dominating the global growth and economy and to counter the supremacy of the United State and its western allies. In 2004, India joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as observer and assumed full membership of it in 2017. By passage of time, they also witnessed stronger bilateral cooperation in trade, commerce, investment and technical exchanges. China gradually became the second largest trade partner of India after the United State. India ,despite its initial attachment to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) formed in 2007 in response to the increased Chinese military power, maintained a safe distance from the US, Japan and Australia, and continued to build closer ties with China.
Changes of administrations in Beijing and New Delhi in 2012 and 2014 respectively led to the rise of Han and Hindu nationalism. Since the rise of Xi Jinping to presidency, China has become more globally assertive and India under Modi Administration adopted a less resilient nationalistic posture, at least, locally. However, on the surface, the apparent promising nature of bilateral relations continued to shine through the Xi Jinping and Modi’s 18 meetings between 2014 and 2019. Steady rise of China's military might and its assertive conduct in the South China Sea coupled with Beijing's ever increasing influence and presence in India's immediate as well as extended neighborhood in the Indian Ocean places New Delhi faced with a new dilemma. Prime Minister Modi’s government had to balance bilateral relations with the United States, as well as China and Russia and to seek the safest route to lure in outside support to counter Chinese push without further alienating Beijing. Until now, New Delhi has been wary of being perceived as too close to Washington and cautious not to provoke China.
Notwithstanding all the calculated initiatives of both sides in recent years, confrontation between Chinese and Indian troops at the disputed border areas has been on the rise. Scuffles, fistfights and stone-throwing often break out between patrolling parties. Both sides have embarked on infrastructure projects such as roads, tunnels and bunkers along the poorly defined LAC. Though New Delhi and Beijing have been keen to prevent fresh escalation, the first fatal clashes since 1975 occurred in June Last year in the Ladakh and Aksai Chin area of the LAC ,leaving 20 Indian and undisclosed number of Chinese troops dead. Following the clash, anti-China sentiment in India grew, with calls to boycott Chinese products , and official measures to limit Chinese investment, QUAD meeting announcements, as well as banning Chinese apps and excluding Huawei from India’s 5G infrastructure. To ease tensions, the Indian and Chinese Defense Ministers met on September 6 on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Moscow and agreed not to "take any further action that could either complicate the situation or escalate matters in the border areas".
India’s foreign policy has mostly remained strategically autonomous, but the latest dispute with China is likely to push India closer to the United States, Japan, Australia, and the Southeast Asian countries if not generating the momentum needed for New Delhi’s long-term strategic tilt towards Washington. In late October US Secretaries of State and Defense visited India and concluded a bilateral agreement for expanding military satellite information sharing, and highlighted strategic cooperation between the US and India. They also paid tribute to Indian troops killed earlier in the border incident with China, with Pompeo referring pointedly to China stressing that "The United States will stand with the people of India as they confront threats to their freedom and sovereignty". In another move that further laid the foundation for the eventual formalization of the QUAD grouping, following an invitation extended by New Delhi, Australia, for the first time since 2007, joined the annual Malabar naval exercises held in November this year in the Bay of Bengal.
India has long embarked on promoting ties with the ASEAN. In 2017, India celebrated its 25 years of dialogue partnership, 15 years of summit level interaction and 5 years of strategic partnership with the ASEAN. For India, however, the relationship has so far been geared more toward economic cooperation than other domains that might further aggravate China's suspicion. But the chronic South China Sea territorial disputes and the shared security concerns of India and some China-wary ASEAN member countries on the same issue coupled with the continued India-China border standoff may initiate a consensus for moving towards a more diverse India-ASEAN collaboration.
The recent upheaval in Sino-Indian relations has made New Delhi lend more thought to its new theater of opportunity, the "Indo-Pacific", which has emerged as the hub of global trade and energy supply. Notwithstanding open criticism from Beijing, the Indo – Pacific concept has been well received globally with some nations launching their own Indo-Pacific strategies, the latest of which being Germany.
With that said and despite the apparent military might disparity, it is less likely that the two nuclear-armed neighbors will opt for further escalation as the threat of uncontrollable tension is appalling. The current situation is not as grave as that of the 1962 armed conflict , therefore, it could be expected that both players will agree to de-escalate, to pursue their strategic objectives through non-violent means available to them, and to revert to another period of status quo of the borders pending final resolution of the dispute.
(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)