South Asia Brief

Why India and China Are Sparring

The two nuclear powers have long had their differences. But the pandemic has led to some frayed nerves—and revealed longer-term ambitions.

A Chinese soldier gestures as he stands near an Indian soldier on the Chinese side of the ancient Nathu La border crossing between India and China on July 10, 2008.
A Chinese soldier gestures as he stands near an Indian soldier on the Chinese side of the ancient Nathu La border crossing between India and China on July 10, 2008. DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief. This week: What to make of a worrying buildup of troops along the India-China border, U.S. President Donald Trump suggests new plans to recall U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Uber downsizes in India, and a swarm of locusts attacks the region.

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Why India and China Are Sparring

Perhaps predictably, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted on Wednesday an offer to help resolve growing border tensions between India and China. More surprisingly, he described the situation as a “now raging border dispute.” Trump’s words were hyperbole, but they partially reflected the most serious tensions between the two nuclear powers—representing a third of the world’s population—in nearly three years.

In the best of times, both India and China restrict journalists from entering border areas, and the pandemic has made it more difficult to get accurate information. Let’s start with what we know. This month, Foreign Policy highlighted two clashes between Indian and Chinese soldiers, on May 5 and May 9, at separate border areas in India’s east and north. While no one was killed in those hand-to-hand combat skirmishes, more than 100 soldiers were injured.

The Indian press, aided by trickles of information from defense officials, has since reported that Chinese army brigades comprising thousands of soldiers have crossed into Indian territory to set up tents and trenches at key points near the Himalayas. In response, India’s army has deployed reinforcements, sparking fears of a larger conflict.

The Economist reports that on Wednesday, New Delhi and Beijing activated a high-level diplomatic channel to defuse tensions. And China’s ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, struck a calming tone, telling reporters, “We should never let differences overshadow our relations.”

The longer-term question is why tensions were sparked in the first place—and what that portends. A few thoughts:

First, the coronavirus pandemic may have strengthened—and sped up—Beijing’s growing conviction that it has the power to take bold moves around the world. This may also explain the timing of its decision to change the national security law in Hong Kong. Even in 2008, as the world reeled from the global financial crisis, Beijing responded with massive stimulus measures and a global lending spree, expanding its influence and power. In other words, China may be taking advantage of a crisis.

Second, China’s incursions are likely also a response to years of Indian construction of roads and airstrips along the Line of Actual Control that divides the two countries, improving India’s military supply chain connectivity in the area. Beijing’s recent moves may also be a response to the 2017 standoff between the two countries in Doklam, in territory claimed by Bhutan, when India stopped Chinese troops from building a road.

Third, as Sumit Ganguly and Manjeet Pardesi wrote in Foreign Policy, since 1988 China and India have shared an understanding to keep the peace so they could focus on their domestic growth and stability. But 32 years ago the two countries had similarly sized economies and spent nearly the same amount on defense. Today, China’s GDP is more than five times that of India, and it spends four times as much on defense. The dynamics of the relationship have completely changed.

There are, of course, other contributing factors, not least the fact that both countries are led by nationalist strongmen who are struggling to respond to the pandemic and its economic fallout. Both India and China have jingoistic media and populations that increasingly enjoy a bit of muscle-flexing. Even so, the worst of the current flare-up seems to have passed. But the trend lines suggest that we may see more clashes in the future.

[For more on this topic, I’m interviewing former U.S. Ambassador to India Tim Roemer and Ashley Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in a virtual event hosted by the U.S.-India Business Council on Friday at 8:30 a.m. EDT. You can register to watch here.]

What We’re Following

No exponential rise, yet. While none of the eight countries in South Asia have reported a steep rise in coronavirus cases, they haven’t been able to stop the spread of infections. As shown below, total cases are still doubling about every two weeks. But the region’s countries also still have among the lowest rates of testing in the world. Pakistan has now lifted all restrictions on movement, while India has taken some steps to begin reopening the economy.

The pandemic, a cyclone, and heat waves. Now, locusts. In what seems like a biblical array of disasters, parts of western India are experiencing the worst locust invasion in 25 years, according to scientists. Giant swarms took over Jaipur in the western state of Rajasthan on Monday and are now headed toward New Delhi. Locusts can travel more than a hundred miles a day, and the average swarm consumes as much food as 35,000 people. The bugs have made their way to India from Pakistan and Iran.

U.S. troop drawdown? On Wednesday, Trump renewed his calls for U.S. troops to return from Afghanistan. “After 19 years, it is time for them to police their own Country,” he tweeted. Trump’s comments came a day after the New York Times reported that senior military officials presented an option for withdrawing all U.S. forces before the November presidential election. U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan is already down to nearly 8,600—ahead of the schedule agreed with the Taliban—in part because of fears about the coronavirus.

Question of the Week

The ongoing skirmishes between India and China got me thinking about borders. Which pair of countries shares the world’s longest border?

A) Russia and Kazakhstan
B) Canada and the United States
C) China and Mongolia
D) India and Bangladesh

Scroll down for the answer.

South Asia Inc.

Sri Lanka’s debt. Reuters has a smart report this week on Sri Lanka’s fragile finances. Nearly 70 percent of government revenue is currently being spent on debt interest payments—let alone the principal. Sri Lanka’s central bank has called speculation about a default “baseless,” but it seems increasingly likely Colombo may have to approach the International Monetary Fund or other global lenders for assistance.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Argentina and Lebanon have already defaulted on their debt. According to the World Bank, nearly 28 percent of Sri Lanka’s export-related income comes from international tourism—a sector that has been almost entirely shut down for three months.

India’s ride-hailing industry is in trouble. This week Uber laid off a quarter of its workforce in India, or about 600 jobs. The cuts represent another setback for Uber’s ambitions in the country after it sold its food delivery business Uber Eats to Zomato, a local rival backed by China’s Alibaba, this year. (This is likely a sale it regrets, given that food delivery is the part of its business that has thrived during the pandemic.) But India should remain an important market for Uber, especially given the potential for growth in the ride-hailing business there.

And Uber’s not alone: Its main domestic rival Ola also laid off 1,400 employees last week. In a letter to the company’s staff, CEO Bhavish Aggarwal wrote that Ola’s revenue was down 95 percent in the last two months. “It is going to take a long time for people to go out and about like before,” he wrote.

Odds and Ends

A flying spy? In one of the stranger recent India-Pakistan stories, villagers on India’s side of the border spotted a pigeon with a ring on one of its legs. They captured the bird and handed it over to the police, who tried to decipher a code inscribed on the ring. A Pakistani villager now says the bird is his and that the code in question is his personal mobile phone number.

The villager, identified by a Pakistani newspaper as Habibullah, says his pigeon was innocent: “This is my pet pigeon. … It can never be a spy or a terrorist.” But as the BBC reports, there is some recent history of India perceiving pigeons as spying tools, with birds arrested in 2015 and 2016. It is unclear whether New Delhi will release its latest capture.

And the Answer Is…

C) Canada and the United States.

At nearly 4,000 miles, the two countries share the longest land border in the world. The border between India and China doesn’t even make the top 10, but it remains the longest unmarked boundary—which partly explains the ongoing crisis. India’s borders with Bangladesh and Pakistan are the world’s fifth and ninth longest, respectively.

That’s it for this week.

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Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports

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