The confrontation between China and India might seem to be a thing of the past. After violent border skirmishes last June resonated high and wide around the world, SARS-COV-2 and the US presidential campaign diluted most non-China-related news spreading from Asia. Nonetheless, the situation on the Himalayan border today is still far from resolved due, among others, to emerging silent players that contributed in destructive and constructive ways to the confrontation.
The Economy Matters, Too
What makes a confrontation taking place 6,000 kilometres from Brussels and 11,000 from Washington so crucial to the West certainly are the characters at play. With similar populations, estimated by the World Bank at around 1.3 billion people each in 2019, China and India are Asia’s two nuclear giants. Although China’s GDP roughly equals to five-times that of India, before the health crisis hit, both had made the list of the fastest growing G20 economies. Nowadays, however, China and India, are at opposite ends of the G20 economic growth spectrum. China, in fact, is the only country in the world to present a positive growth outlook for 2020 (+3.5 percent), while India registered the deepest GDP fall among G20 economies (-25 percent). Bilateral trade has increased at a steady annual average of little over 21 percent in the last two decades, amounting to about 92 billion dollars in 2018. Yet, the trade balance has been leaning sharply in China’s favour (+59 billion dollars in 2018), raising a red flag for New Delhi that wants to avoid becoming over-reliant to Chinese products at all costs. Although the border skirmishes have proven to be mainly the product of history, politics and security, economy and trade calculations are also entering the confrontation. New Delhi, in fact, has already banned 118 Chinese mobile apps and threatens to take a leaf out of the US playbook and impose tariffs on China’s main exports to India – from electronic goods to electronic machinery and organic chemicals. By doing so, though, the Indian government risks to take an even higher toll on India’s consumers, already under strain from the socio-economic effects of the health crisis, and eventually stir the pot of domestic contention.
The U.S. at Play
India has enjoyed several doses of U.S. support throughout the phases of its confrontation with China. Although then-US President Donald Trump went out of character, sparing the China-India border skirmishes of vitriolic Twitter comments but simply offering a mediation, Washington has been trying to take advantage of tensions in order to push India away from its traditional non-alignment foreign policy. Indeed, India and the U.S. have conducted a joint maritime military exercise in the Bay of Bengal last July, in-between the two violent episodes that mostly characterized the Himalayan confrontation. The exercise took place under the banner of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), a Japan-proposed informal framework of cooperation with India, the U.S. and Australia, which China repeatedly identified as an attempt to establish a NATO-like alliance in Asia, ultimately aimed at countering Beijing’s rise in the region. A joint military exercise at such a particular juncture, then, does not only have a symbolic meaning for India but also for other FOIP members. It now seems that India has taken up the US hint. In fact, in the congratulatory phone call with Suga Yoshihide (Abe Shinzo’s successor to Japan’s premiership) last September, Narendra Modi significantly emphasised the need to enhance cooperation in order to ensure that the Indo-Pacific region remains ‘free, open and inclusive.’
A Role for Russia and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization
At the end of June, it was Russia’s somewhat unexpected mediation that succeeded in lowering the tones between China and India. As rotating president of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Russia organised a virtual trilateral meeting with China and India’s foreign ministers. Although the Moscow-mediated truce between the two countries turned out to be rather short-lived, with violence resuming in mid-August, it has proven to be an appreciated alternative to third party mediation. The annual SCO Heads of State council on 10 November was another occasion allowing for the dialogue between China and India to continue.
Yet, given its strong relations with both the parties involved, Russia remains the prime candidate to foster dialogue. Indeed, while China and Russia enjoy a well-publicised ‘marriage-of-convenience’, Russia was the main promoter of India’s full membership to the SCO in 2017. The role of mediator is rather new for the organization, which was less involved in bilateral disputes in the past. After the 2019 Pulwama terrorist attack, for instance, the SCO made no particular effort to mediate between India and Pakistan.
Other than pointing to an alternative form of dialogue, Russia’s involvement in the China-India confrontation through the SCO also points to a more mature organization, ready to play a more prominent role in regional security, even when member states are involved. Certainly, the fact that it was Russia to lead has made all the difference, as the country has not yet abandoned the vision of a ‘Greater Eurasia’.
 An Asia-based international security organization comprising China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India, and Pakistan.