The standoff between India and China at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), a disputed border between the two nuclear-armed powers, has been going on for a while. It has been a main story in South Asia, since at least 20 Indian soldiers were killed, while Beijing is yet to say anything on casualties, however it was reported that five PLA soldiers died as well. This has been the worst stand-off between the two regional powers in over 45 years. However, it seems the tensions are deescalating as both India and China are pulling their troops out of the disputed region. What cannot be ignored, however, is the geopolitical impact of this conflict, and what kind of implications it will have for the greater South Asian region in the future.
When the stand-off began, there was a lot of uncertainty on what led to the escalation. However, once the dust settled, multiple theories came to surface that pointed towards the deep-rooted causes that could have led to this confrontation. One of the arguments is that tensions started to escalate since last April, as both China and India were building military infrastructure in the disputed area to assert their control and dominance, and both ended up frustrating the other. This may definitely be the tipping point which led to the confrontation. However, another angle to look at this conflict may show the cause behind the escalation. Last year in August, India unilaterally annulled the special status of Kashmir that is given to it by the Indian constitution, as it revoked article 370 which gives Kashmir some form of autonomy, and also it brought the Ladakh region under the central rule. This change in status quo eventually led to the flare up, since China considers Ladakh’s borders to be disputed, and along with multiple statements made by the officials in the Indian government of reuniting Aksai Chin with India, like Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah said “Kashmir is an integral part of India, there is no doubt over it. When I talk about Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan occupied Kashmir and Aksai Chin are included in it”.
This is where geopolitics enter the equation. China shares cordial relations with India’s arch-rival in the region, Pakistan, and the relations reached a new depth when Pakistan and China in 2015 initiated the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a multi-billion-dollar project. CPEC is the most valuable part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the goal behind the project is to build a network of highways, railways, and pipelines that will connect China’s eastern most and landlocked region, Xinjiang, with the warm waters of the Arabian Sea at Gwadar. The purpose indeed is to promote connectivity, but for both China and Pakistan, the project also entails strategic goals as well. CPEC also goes through the Pakistani-administered region of Kashmir, and as India has made a claim of taking “Pakistan occupied Kashmir” back and also called the project illegal, this is seen as a direct threat by the Chinese and Pakistanis to the CPEC project.
Over the last decade, China’s rising role in the Asian region is quite obvious, from the South China sea all the way to South Asia. India sees the CPEC project as a strategy by China to isolate it in the region, although some scholars believe that by not joining the BRI project, which China offered India to do so, the government in India may end up isolating itself. Beijing finds its strength in its economic growth and power, and it understands that a peaceful and well-connected neighborhood is a pre-requisite for its economic success. Indeed, the reason behind the failure of that is the mistrust between New Delhi and Beijing, which is now beyond the breaking point after this border dispute. The mistrust is further fueled by the competition in the region between the two; since India sees itself as the regional hegemon in South Asia, and China is definitely challenging India’s position, especially with CPEC, and also with its investments and growing relationship with India’s neighbors like Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. However, China doesn’t see India as a primary threat or a competitor when it comes to ‘great power competition’, instead it sees United States as its main rival in the global stage, which brings us to the next geostrategic implication.
Somescholars have assessed that this recent conundrum between India and China will push New Delhi towards Washington. Indeed, there is truth involved in this argument, given the increase in animosity between US and China, and how Washington will look at India as a way to balance China. However, on the other hand, India’s foreign policy is driven by the notion of “strategic autonomy”, and it is important to clarify to what an extent India is willing to go for Washington. Sameer Lalwani from the Wilson Center in DC has argued that there’s an “India fatigue” in Washington, and so far the relationship has been “all talk and no show”. Also, one cannot ignore the fact that India shares a historic and close relationship with Moscow as well, another adversary of Washington. They played a vital role in 2017 when they backed India for its membership in Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), with the motive of balancing the increasing role of the Chinese. China agreed to that on the condition that Pakistan would also join the SCO. Given India’s relationship with Russia, New Delhi will be very careful in pushing itself into an “alliance” with the Americans. It will seek a careful balance and maintain its strategic autonomy in its dealings with the US. It is also important to keep in mind that China won’t want to have an India on its border that’s close to the Americans, as this will further lead to more distrust between the two, and maybe even worse escalation in the future. However, it is possible that India may find some comfort in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy of Washington, with the aim to contain the increasing Chinese influence in the region. Even if India’s FOIP policy is driven by the same ‘strategic autonomy’ formula, it will attempt to further deepen its relationship with ASEAN countries and Japan, as a way to respond to the Chinese “strategic encirclement” of India.
The situation between China and India is heading towards de-escalation, but this is in no way the end of tensions that are coming ahead. Indian government has put a ban on 59 Chinese apps, mainly the famous TikTok app, which has more than 200 million users in India. The economic impact of the rift between India and China will be understood much more clearly in the coming months, since both have a trade of $100 billion, and given how badly COVID-19 has damaged their economies, the wiggle room is very little for both regional powers. At the end, it seems it will come down to who blinks first.