The Sino-Indian military clash at the Galwan Valley in Ladakh will not only determine the course of their future bilateral relations, but also strain their own interests as they aspire to exert more influence on the global stage.
The implications of the face-off will bring about developments in their relations that both will not appreciate. Any conflict of such nature between the immediate neighbours and nuclear-equipped states with historical animosity will necessarily be a zero-sum game.
The Galwan face-off was the first in the last 45 years to cost lives since the 1975 clash at Talung La in Arunachal Pradesh that reportedly killed four soldiers of the Assam Rifles. The casualties on the Chinese side remain unknown. China and India boasted that ‘no bullets have been fired since’. Until this dangerous confrontation on 15 June.
In perspective, the ramifications of the latest China-India showdown will be detrimental to the incremental progress they have made over past decades to mend frayed bilateral relations wrought by the 1962 border war. Particularly, the clash undid the positive developments in resolving the territorial dispute and maintaining tranquility in the border areas.
China and India enjoy the dubious reputation of being embroiled in the longest and the oldest international border dispute – a spillover of history over which modern China and India did not have any influence and control. The McMahon Line demarcating the legal boundary demarcation between China and India was signed between British India and Tibet at the Simla Convention in 1914. The mutual difference in the understanding of international borders between contemporary China and India is as old as the colonial legacy they share.
Galwan could lay waste to decades of diplomatic and political energy, human and financial resources invested to improve bilateral relations. Can these two ambitious rising powers afford to dislocate their carefully managed yet fragile ties? They will now see an increase in long-running strategic mistrust – which will further upend their relationship. China and India will then realise how destructive and expensive the Galwan fiasco turned out to be.
The strategic mistrust between the two powerful neighbours assume different dimensions: historical, perceptional, and their global ambitions. The trust deficit goes against the essence of their much-vaunted rhetoric of camaraderie as victims of imperialistic colonial powers and shared future as prosperous custodians of the 21st century.
Asia and the world are not too small for China and India to accommodate their global aspirations, especially as the old powers decline. They just need to ensure their bilateral relations are progressive and farsighted.
The Ladakh clash has now laid fertile ground for Sino-Indian strategic competition which will have implications for both regional and global political architecture. The increased momentum of ‘strengthening conventional and strategic deterrence capabilities’ in the border areas from both sides will drive them into security and strategic dilemmas.
It might propel circumstantial strategic and economic compulsions for their immediate neighbours to choose sides, and the geopolitical and geostrategic outcomes might not necessarily be what China and India want. Post-Galwan a subtle, if not obvious, shifting of alliances and partnerships among major and middle powers might also occur. Again, this might not favour the regional and international aspirations of both countries.
The face-off has thrown into doubt their much advocated bilateral principle of ‘setting political differences aside and cooperating in other possible areas’, and confidence-building mechanisms (CBMs) they had worked on over three decades. The 1993, 1996 and 2013 CBMs and protocols they signed served to restore peace and tranquility on the border when the soldiers of opposing camps tended to go wayward.
Now these CBMs bear the risk of further violation. Even in the worst border flare-ups, China and India must at least uphold the 1996 bilateral agreement: ‘Neither side shall open fire … conduct blast operations or hunt with guns or explosives within two kilometres of the Line of Actual Control.’
Even the timing of the Galwan incident is cruel given the difficult situation the world is reeling under. The COVID-19 pandemic has ruptured humanity’s livelihood, and has destroyed the global economy from which it will take a long time to recover. Being home to more than one-fifth of the human population, China and India have the international societal responsibility to help the world fight this deadly virus.
Expending energy and resources fighting the coronavirus could be more humane, and bring better positive outcomes than violent flare-ups in the deserted Himalayan sphere where precious lives of soldiers are laid down for nationalistic causes.
In this time of global crisis, the world wants to see how China and India can help fight the pandemic, not contribute to further geopolitical disruptions and anxieties. Given that the spread of COVID-19 does not show signs of subsiding, both China and India have enough on their domestic plates. The control leaderships of both countries have over their own countries will depend on how effectively they handle the coronavirus.
Failure on this front could further drive their economies into shambles, fueling uncertain domestic politics. They have everything to lose if the border faceoff is not de-escalated at the earliest. Exercising reason and restraint over the dispute, and diverting the energy and resources to fight the fallout of the pandemic will yield more political and strategic dividends for both countries.
There are concerns and even implicit encouragement from some quarters that the rules of engagement between China and India might and must change. This is dangerous. The rules of bilateral engagements must stick to the existing CBMs and protocols – even improve on them. Changing the mechanisms now will tilt the balance, and send bilateral ties spiraling downward and further once again.
Any deviation from existing otherwise progressive rules of engagement will add fuel to differing interests underpinning their history, understanding of geopolitics, strategic cultures and geo-economics. The popular narrative of the Sino-Indian mutual strategic mistrust is that India thinks China is a revisionist power encroaching into the Indian strategic sphere of influence in political South Asia.
On the other hand, China thinks that India dreams of power, and anything it does to that effect will invade China’s own ambition. The biggest problem in Sino-Indian relations is that their global ambitions to influence world affairs, and strategic timing and spaces to do that converge – on land and sea. This rivalry is intensified by the national psychological impact of the watershed 1962 border war.
But there are exceptions. When I was researching for my PhD dissertation in China and India a few years ago, I got the strong impression that China and India compete in strategic and geopolitical arenas with a deep sense of animosity. However, they cooperate in economics and softer non-conventional issues with some perceived sense of shared prosperity and mutual benefits.
They must capitalise on the mutual recognition that they need to maintain good relations to achieve their converging strategic interests by setting differences aside. For example, they can champion a multipolar international system to challenge western domination, commit to join hands to fight terrorism and climate change, and try to speak up for developing countries.
China and India must end their border dispute and face-offs through dialogue and peaceful means. They must leverage the brighter spots in their relations, and try to ‘accommodate two tigers on one mountain’ for but mutual benefit, a stable regional and the global order.
Passang Dorji, PhD, is a member of Bhutan’s parliament, and a scholar on Bhutan and Nepal relations with China and India. The views in this article are his own.