For Beijing and New Delhi, 2020 Was the Point of No Return

After decades of uneasy ties, China can no longer deny that India is a real threat.

Bharatiya Janata Party activists hold a sign showing an X over the face of Chinese President Xi Jinping during an anti-China protest in Siliguri, India, on June 17.
Bharatiya Janata Party activists hold a sign showing an X over the face of Chinese President Xi Jinping during an anti-China protest in Siliguri, India, on June 17. Diptendu Dutta/AFP/Getty Images

In a year that challenged policymakers across the world, one development will perhaps have the most significant long-term impact in the Indo-Pacific—the ongoing standoff between India and China in the Himalayas. Chinese forces have shown no inclination to back away from the positions they have occupied along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which divides India- and China-controlled territory in Ladakh region, since April. Meanwhile, Indian troops have been amassing at the disputed border, with New Delhi demanding comprehensive restoration of the status quo ante. Several rounds of military and diplomatic talks have failed to yield any results, underlining the high stakes for both sides.

2020 may well be the year when romanticism about Sino-Indian ties finally died. Many in New Delhi evinced a naive belief that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, India would be able to manage China diplomatically and that it was possible to keep the shadow of the border dispute from darkening the larger relationship. Even after the 2017 standoff between the two militaries in Dolkam at the India-Bhutan-China border, in which the People’s Liberation Army razed stone bunkers that the Royal Bhutan Army had constructed, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tried to build a personal relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping. This was as much about the practical necessity of dealing with a much stronger neighbor as it was about shaping the bilateral engagement beyond disputes. It worked for a while, but Beijing clearly had other plans.

In its attempt to unilaterally redraw the LAC this year in its favor, Beijing ended up disregarding the central tenets of all pacts it has signed with India since 1993 to keep the border peaceful. Its behavior will inevitably alter the trajectory of the Chinese-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 tenet today stands seriously undermined.

In some ways, China’s assertiveness is understandable. As long as China was the dominant party along the border, it could continue with the facade of upholding peace and tranquility. After all, that was on its terms. Indeed, it is India’s assertion of its interests in the region in the last few years that has emerged as the sticking point. 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—simply put, the Indian military now has presence in areas where the Chinese military was not used to seeing it. India is also now ready to take Chinese aggression head-on, thereby getting ready for a more volatile border. If a lasting solution to the border problem is not found, therefore, greater turbulence along the LAC will continue to be the new normal.

To be sure, China remains a significantly more powerful entity, and its infrastructure is in much better shape. But Indian infrastructure development has reached a critical point. And it is not without reason that the Chinese opposition to one project in particular is so vehement. The 160-mile-long strategic Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie Road—which will connect the Indian city of Leh to the Karakoram Pass, the historic trade route through the Karakoram mountain range that links Ladakh to China’s western regions—is India’s frontal challenge to China’s expansionist designs in the region. Despite Chinese objections, India has continued to pursue this project. China raising the temperature on the border is a further attempt to dissuade India from moving ahead.

Indian foreign policy has been at the front and center of challenging China’s global designs. New Delhi was the first country to warn the world of the dangers of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) at a time when almost every other country was willing to buy into Beijing’s narrative that the project was meant to spur global infrastructure development rather than to enrich Chinese businesses. Today, India’s framing of the BRI is widely accepted by most major global powers. Given that the BRI is very much also a vanity project for Xi, India’s role in shaping the global opposition to it must be particularly galling. India has also managed to shape the global discourse on the Indo-Pacific and is now working closely with like-minded regional players to give it operational heft. And at a time when the Trump administration is attempting a process of trade and technology decoupling with China, Washington and New Delhi are closer than ever. Chinese attempts to marginalize India on the global stage have not worked, and New Delhi’s cache has only increased.

And so China has opted for the blunt instrumentality of force, hoping that it would teach India a lesson. The reality is that Chinese actions have ended up producing exactly the opposite effect. Indian public opinion, which was already negative on China, has now become even more strongly anti-Chinese. Those in India who have been talking about maintaining an equidistance from China and the United States today find it hard to sustain that position. And New Delhi has become freer to make policy choices, both strategic and economic, that are anti-China. From reducing trade dependence on China in key strategic sectors and walling off critical sectors from Chinese entry to galvanizing global support for the Indo-Pacific, India’s response has been across domains.

None of these options is cost-free for India. But China’s actions have ensured that today India is ready to bear those costs. India’s military and diplomatic responses to Chinese aggression have made it clear that New Delhi is neither without options nor is it reticent in choosing them. It is now for China to make up its mind about whether it wants a permanent foe in India or a neighboring country with which it can do business. Whatever the choice Beijing decides to make, it will determine the strategic landscape of the Indo-Pacific.

Harsh V. Pant is director of research at Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi, and professor of international relations at King’s College London.

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