The original article charted changes in South Asia’s geopolitical landscape since the end of the Cold War, and particularly how other major powers, including the United States, Russia, and China, have adapted to the rise of India and how this has impacted the relationship between India and Pakistan. In June 2020, the deadliest clashes between India and China on parts of their disputed borders since a brief conflict in 1962 erupted. Orbis editor Nikolas Gvosdev turned to Professor Harsh V. Pant, director of studies at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations at King’s College London, for his thoughts on recent developments and how these events fit into the overall geopolitical analysis he and his co-author, Kriti M. Shah, presented last year.
Can you give us a thumbnail sketch of the recent clashes between India and China?
Since the start of May, Indian and Chinese forces have been squaring off in the tough terrain of the Line of Actual Control, the un-demarcated border known as LAC—more than 3,000 kilometers for India and 2,000 for China. Reflecting heightened nationalism from both Asian powers, the conflict took a dramatic turn on June 16 when clashes in Ladakh led to the deaths of at least 20 Indian troops and an unconfirmed number of Chinese troops. The confrontation emerges as the biggest and most serious border crisis since the 73-day Doklam standoff in 2017 when Indian soldiers detected construction activity on what is considered disputed territory on the Doklam Plateau and had to cross into Bhutan to restore status quo ante.
What has become a routine activity in recent years has taken on a grave dimension as the two sides quickly ramp up their numbers and fortifications in the Galwan Valley. Even as both sides continue attempts to resolve the problem at the military and diplomatic levels, Indian and Chinese troops have remained engaged in a bitter standoff in a number of sectors along the LAC in the high-altitude region of eastern Ladakh for more than a month.
In early May, soldiers from the two sides engaged in a violent faceoff in Pangong Tso before agreeing to disengage. A few days later, there were skirmishes at Naku La in north Sikkim. Even as these subdued, New Delhi found that Beijing had ramped up its troop deployment as well as construction activity close to the perception line in the Pangong Tso area, historically contested by India. The Indian Army responded by shoring up its own presence in areas where Chinese assertiveness was growing. And in the Galwan Valley area of Ladakh, the two sides engaged in direct hand-to-hand combat, resulting in casualties on both sides.
Can you give us a sense as to why the construction of infrastructure on both sides of the Line of Actual Control by India and China provokes this type of reaction?
China has built sound infrastructure on its side of the LAC for years now. It is construction by India that is now causing turbulence. The militarization of the LAC is taking place at an unprecedented pace today partly because Indian infrastructure is in much better shape and Indian patrolling is far more effective. A more heated LAC is a result of the Indian military’s presence in areas where the Chinese military is not used to seeing it. That India is ready to take on Chinese aggression head-on is also reflected in the scale of casualties that both sides suffered in the Galwan Valley. The Indian military is operationally more nimble and better prepared than it has ever been. Therefore, if a lasting solution to the border problem is not found, we should be prepared for more such action along the LAC. China remains a significantly more powerful entity, and its infrastructure is still in much better shape. But Indian infrastructure development has reached a critical point. And it is not without reason that the Chinese opposition to the 255 km-long strategic Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie road has been so vehement. Connecting Leh to the Karakoram Pass, this all-weather road is India’s frontal challenge to China’s expansionist designs in the region. Despite Chinese objections, India has continued to pursue this project given its strategic importance. China raising the temperature on the border is a pre-emptive move to dissuade India from moving ahead.
How does this fit into the larger pattern of South Asian geopolitics?
South Asian geopolitics in recent years has been transformed by two factors: India’s rise as global player and China’s substantive entry into South Asian geopolitics and economics. As a consequence, contestation between the two Asian powers is at an all-time high, both in the continental Himalayan belt in the north as well as in the maritime space in the wider Indian Ocean. The crisis along the border is a manifestation of this contestation, which is becoming sharper by the day.
Do you think that the Russians can successfully mediate between New Delhi and Beijing?
Russia would like to play safe and not offer mediation. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has made it clear that India and China do not need outside help in resolving long-standing issues between the two countries. For Russia, India remains one of the largest buyers of its defense equipment, and China is a significant strategic partner at a time when tensions with the West are high.
How have recent events affected conclusions that you drew in your Orbis article? Are there any long-term implications for the balance of power in the region?
Most conclusions remain valid. But where the article talked of a long-term trend of Sino-Indian competition, the latest crisis is likely to significantly alter the trajectory of the Sino-Indian relationship, which has been premised on an understanding that even as the boundary questions remain unresolved, the two nations can move forward on other areas of engagement—global, regional, and bilateral. That fundamental assumption has now been seriously undermined. Aggressive Chinese actions will produce exactly the opposite effect of what they probably intended to do. Indian public opinion, which was already negative about China, will now become even more strongly anti-Chinese. Those who have been talking about maintaining an equidistance from China and the United States will find it hard to sustain that position. And New Delhi will now be even freer to make policy choices, both strategic and economic, that will have a strong anti-China orientation. There will be costs for India, but China’s actions have ensured that today India is ready to bear those costs.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.