Index > Briefing
Friday, July 03, 2020
The Current Options in Sino-India's Geopolitical Relations
Chan Kuang

Both China and India have suffered the highest number of casualties in 45 years following clashes at the Sino-India border in Ladakh on the night of June 15. It is estimated that 20 Indian soldiers were killed, with 3 members dying on the spot and another 17 dead from critical injuries and a lack of medical treatment, while 76 others remain injured. Meanwhile, China has yet to disclose its number of its casualties.

In the week since the incident has happened, Sino-Indian relations have descended into a state of tension. On top of publicly pointing fingers at one another, both countries are now experiencing a wider range of issues. ANBOUND’s follow-up study shows here are the changes taking place in India:

One, Sinophobia has risen sharply in the country. People are aggressively calling for the act to boycott Chinese goods and refuse Chinese investment, though most of it is merely a public opinion for now, with only a few, smaller areas actually doing it. Two, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has come under fire from the hardliners for his “incompetence”. Leader of the Indian Parliament, Rahul Gandhi, nicknamed Modi "Surrender Modi" following his statement on television on June 19, where the prime minister assured the country that Chinese soldiers did not invade Indian territory nor have they dismantled the Indian post. Three, the Indian army has been authorized to respond to China's aggressive measures. Following a meeting between Defense Minister, Rajnath Singh, and senior military officials, government sources reported that Indian armed forces were deployed to the 3,500-kilometer border and were given “full clearance” to deal with any aggression from China as they see fit.

On an official level, China and India are exercising restraint towards the matter. From the very moment the incident had broken out, both Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, and Indian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, immediately contacted one another via phone calls to discuss things. Wang Yi stressed that it was important for the warring parties to adhere to the consensus reached by the leaders of both countries, and work towards strengthening communication and improving coordination to ensure the scuffle is well resolved. This will be accomplished through the diplomatic mechanism between representatives of the Sino-Indian border and the border defense forces to maintain peace and tranquility. Jaishankar also shared that India is willing to act in the greater interest of bilateral relations, to ensure that consensus is properly reached between the leaders, and to verbally resolve any border disputes with utmost peace. Essentially, both countries have agreed to abide by the consensus reached on a military level and hope that the tension dies down quickly. Even Modi’s two recent public statements show his take on the matter is softening.

Judging by the way things are progressing, it is clear that both countries hope to resolve the matter as quickly and discreetly as possible. Therefore, of all the geopolitical challenges that China is facing, ANBOUND believes the Sino-Indian border dispute is the one that is least likely to affect China, as it is unlikely to escalate into a full-blown military and diplomatic conflict.

That being said, the long-term issues arising from the matter cannot be ignored. As two powerhouses living in close geographical proximity, how should China and India address one another on a strategic level? This is especially considering that we live in a world where anti-globalization sentiments are on a rapid rise and geopolitical conflicts are intensifying. The answer to that, as is the choice of strategy, may very lie in both countries’ long-term development.

Historically, both countries have valid reasons to refuse any strategic cooperation, seeing that there has never been any political mutual trust between the two. Instead, there are a range of problems like territorial border issues, wounds from wars past, issues concerning the Sino-Pakistani agreement, and large trade imbalances. Plus, the rise of China’s economy and its infrastructure construction in its neighboring countries (Southeast Asia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka) are considered a hindrance to India too. As a whole, India’s politicians and intellectuals typically regard China as an obstacle and a threat to the country, and they believe that a powerful China is a China that deters India from rising to power.

With all that in mind, it is going to be difficult for China and India to eliminate any strategic competition that stands between them, what more when India’s attitude towards China has always been to avoid any confrontation, to tread cautiously in the games of politics, and to limit any economic cooperation. Meanwhile, the country is highly skeptical of China's invitation to participate in the "Maritime Silk Road" initiative that links the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean too. On top of that, its diplomatic and security agencies are reluctant to carry out any land connectivity projects with China, which further reflects the wariness that is deeply rooted in India towards China.

Modi’s premiership marks the commencement of “Modi Era” in India’s “Second Republic” after its independence. The biggest change in India’s foreign policy is its willingness to embrace the US, making India a potential business opportunity for the country, and deepening the India-US military and security cooperation. As India’s South Asian expert and foreign policy analyst Raja Mohan pointed out, it was only natural for India and the US to strike a security cooperation out of geopolitical reasons. How well New Delhi and Washington can get along will depend on how large a threat Beijing is to India. India’s strategic considerations will be the basis to the India-US cooperation, and it will be affected by Sino-Indian relations as well.

While studying Modi’s Strategies in the past, ANBOUND had pointed out that Modi went the extra mile compared to the non-aligned Congress Party for the sake of India-US relations. However, the strategy has its own objectives, and is by no means fully integrated into the Indo-Pacific strategy. In truth, Modi is stretching US’ Indo-Pacific strategy to the fullest to make the country do India’s bidding. After all, Modi’s political ideal also happens to be the core of Modi‘s Strategies, that is to realize the dream of a "Great India", i.e. making India a leading power with global influence, a dominant power in the Indian "subcontinent", and possess exclusive sovereignty over the Indian Ocean.

Therefore, there is all the more reason for China to avoid engaging in a strategic confrontation with India, what more when considering the ongoing US-China trade war, the sharp deterioration in US-China relations following the pandemic, and the comprehensive institutionalized "decoupling", all which has become a reality. While Europe and the US have different political stances, they do think the same of China in many aspects. Take the consensus between Europe and the US on the issues of Hong Kong, Xinjiang, the pandemic, etc. In any case, China should avoid turning into a bitter strategic rival to another neighboring power as the world decouples from it.

Delivering his speech in Chinese, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi described China-India relations in the following: "Both emerging powers with a population of over 1 billion should bear the historic mission of accelerating their development and revitalization." Sure enough, as the two largest developing countries, China and India possess their own independent international geopolitical status and strategic goals, and neither of them should become adversaries in strategic confrontation nor abandon their personal goals and completely fall into other international camps. In April 2018, President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi held their very first informal bilateral meeting in Wuhan, followed by a second meeting in Chennai, India in October 2019. In both meetings, both leaders agreed that China and India would build a new strategic cooperation framework based on certain agreements.

Bearing China and India’s goals and the current situation in mind, ANBOUND believes the geostrategic cooperation framework to be built between the two countries should be one of a "partnership between emerging market powers" that is built on the following: (1) Both countries should avoid confrontations at all costs and work towards the greater interest of both parties; (2) Both countries will pursue independent foreign policies; (3) Both parties will cooperate and promote economic development. One of Modi’s core objectives in his strategy as well as its raison d’être is to make Modi’s "Made in India" vision happen and ensure it brings economic growth to India long-term, and that can only be accomplished if both countries strengthen their strategic cooperation.

Final analysis conclusion:

China and India are two large, neighboring countries that have traditionally lacked political mutual trust. For the sake of their country’s development and strategic goal, however, both countries must avoid turning into rivals of strategic confrontation. To do that, they must resolve the recent border conflict soonest and seek to establish a mutual "partnership between emerging market powers" in the long run.


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