In a year challenging policymakers around the world, one development is likely to have the most significant long-term impact in the Indo-Pacific – the ongoing stalemate between India and China in the Himalayas. The Chinese armed forces have shown no inclination since April to withdraw from their positions along the Line of Effective Control (LAC) that divides the area controlled by India and China in the Ladakh region. In the meantime, Indian troops have rallied on the disputed border and New Delhi is calling for a full restoration of the status quo ante. Several rounds of military and diplomatic talks have yielded no results, which underlines the high stakes for both sides.
2020 could be the year that romance over Sino-Indian relations finally died. Many in New Delhi displayed a naive belief that, despite all 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 obscuring the larger relationship. Even after the 2017 stalemate between the two military in Dolkam on the Indian-Bhutanese-Chinese border, where the People’s Liberation Army destroyed stone bunkers built by the Bhutanese royal army, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tried to establish a personal relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping. This involved both the practical necessity of dealing with a much stronger neighbor and the design of bilateral engagement beyond disputes. It worked for a while, but Beijing clearly had other plans.
In its attempt to unilaterally redraw the LAC in its favor this year, Beijing has disregarded the central tenets of all pacts it has signed with India since 1993 to keep the border peaceful. His behavior will inevitably change the course of Sino-Indian relations, based on the understanding that even if border issues remain unresolved, the two nations can move forward in other areas of engagement – global, regional and bilateral. This fundamental principle is being seriously undermined today.
In a way, China’s assertiveness is understandable. As long as China was the dominant party along the border, it could continue with the facade of maintaining peace and calm. After all, it was on his terms. Indeed, India’s assertion of its interests in the region has proven to be a sticking point in recent years. The militarization of the LAC is happening at an unprecedented pace today, also because the Indian infrastructure is in much better shape and the Indian patrol is far more effective – in simple terms, the Indian military is now present in areas where the Chinese military is not at it was used to seeing it. India is now also ready to tackle Chinese aggression directly, in preparation for a more volatile border. Unless a permanent solution to the border problem is found, major turbulence along the LAC will continue to be the new normal.
Of course, China remains a much more powerful entity, and its infrastructure is in much better shape. However, Indian infrastructure development has reached a critical point. And it is not without reason that the Chinese opposition to a project is particularly vehement. The 160-mile Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie strategic road that connects the Indian city of Leh to the Karakoram Pass, the historic trade route through the Karakoram Mountains that connects Ladakh with the western regions of China, is India’s head-on challenge to China expansionist drafts in the region. Despite Chinese objections, India continued to pursue this project. China, which is raising the temperature on the border, is another attempt to keep India from moving forward.
Indian foreign policy has been at the center of the challenge of China’s global blueprints. New Delhi was the first country to warn the world about the dangers of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) at a time when almost every other country was ready to agree with Beijing’s tale that the project was more likely to boost global infrastructure development than this enriches Chinese companies. Today India’s drafting of the BRI is widely accepted by most of the world’s major powers. Given that the BRI is also a vanity project for Xi, India’s role in shaping the global opposition must be particularly onerous. India has also managed to shape the global discourse on the Indo-Pacific and is now working closely with like-minded regional actors to give it operational momentum. And at a time when the Trump administration is trying to decouple trade and technology 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 violence, hoping to teach India a lesson. The reality is that Chinese actions have produced exactly the opposite effect. Indian public opinion, which was already negative about China, has now become even more anti-Chinese. Those in India who have spoken today about maintaining equidistance between China and the United States find it difficult to maintain that position. And New Delhi has become freer to make both strategic and economic political decisions that are directed against China. From reducing China’s trade dependency in key strategic sectors, to isolating critical sectors from entering the Chinese market, to increasing global support for the Indo-Pacific, India has responded across domains.
Neither of these options is free for India. But China’s actions have made India ready today to meet those costs. India’s military and diplomatic responses to Chinese aggression have made it clear that New Delhi is neither devoid of options nor reluctant to make choices. Now China has to decide whether it wants a permanent enemy in India or in a neighboring country to do business with. Regardless of the decision Beijing makes, it will determine the strategic landscape of the Indo-Pacific.