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India-China border clashes: The Tiger and the Dragon grapple

I had been planning to write up my annual end of year predictions, however the news filtering through of the latest Sino-Indian border clashes on December 9th in the Tawang sector of Arunachal Pradesh made me rethink. While the clashes appear to have included melee weapons rather than firearms, this may not always be the case. The tense Chinese-Indian relationship is the pivot around which the 21st century will revolve, arguably more than the Chinese -US relationship. It deserves to be explored in much more depth.

While there are historic similarities between China and India, there are also important differences. India has mostly not been united for most of the past few thousand years, excepting certain Empires such as the Mauryas and Marathas, while China has been a unitary state for most of its modern history. However, this is set against a crucial backdrop, which is extremely violent Chinese civil wars, which are known for killing millions. China under every regime has fought hard to stave off an extremely violent collapse, and the dictatorial tendencies of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) make it even more vulnerable to such violent armed rebellions. India’s rise as an economic superpower is not welcome news in Beijing. Above all, it could lead to ordinary Chinese potentially questioning why if India can be both democratic and economically successful, China cannot also be both. China has long sought to play down the impact of India as a challenger, seeking to equate it with the unstable Pakistan. However, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has demonstrated a robustness of economic growth that simply cannot be ignored.

The spectre of business moving from China to India in the aftermath of the coronavirus global pandemic, which many people across the world blame on China, must be galling for China’s leadership. India may yet steal China’s crown as the world’s centre of manufacturing in the decades to come. This presents a geoeconomic challenge which Beijing simply cannot ignore. Behemoths of the global electronics world such as Apple and Samsung have announced plans to move their operations to India. This could create economic growth multiplier effects worth hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars. The resulting economic growth would also give India vast budgets to enable it to better compete with China across strategically vital realms from naval warfare to critical new technological areas such as hypersonic missiles and stealth fighters. All of this will sharply reduce the space for China to attempt to try to subdue India.

Another geopolitical bone of contention lies in Tibet. China firmly asserts that Tibet is a historic part of it and is suspicious of Indian intentions over Tibet. Culturally, Tibetans are much closer to Indians, even though they are arguably ethnically closer to the Chinese. The fact that the Dalai Lama, the leader of the Tibetan people, successfully evaded Chinese surveillance to escape to India in 1959 has long rankled in Beijing. This is complicated by the issue of the Tawang area, in India’s Arunachal Pradesh state, where it is believed by some Tibetans that the Dalai Lama will eventually reincarnate after he passes on. Naturally, the CCP cannot allow this to happen – it seeks to control the succession of the Dalai Lama to try to tighten its grip on Tibet. China may try to announce its own Dalai Lama, after the death of the current one. Having control of Tawang would make it easier to do this, therefore Chinese moves to encroach on Tawang and Arunachal Pradesh may actually have nothing to do with India but may be part of a Chinese attempt to keep control of its own borders. Nonetheless, a future Chinese-Indian armed clash over Tawang cannot be ruled out.

Lastly, Beijing is deeply suspicious of growing Indian ties with the United States. It perceives the informal ‘Quad’ partnership of India, Japan, the US and Australia as being aimed at hemming it in. A secondary aim of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) incursions into Indian territory would be to keep India distracted from a naval build-up in the Indian Ocean, where key Chinese energy and food supply lines go through, forcing Delhi to focus instead on its land border with China. This would be negative for the US as well, as its Indian partner would be too distracted by land tussles with China to effectively dominate the Indian Ocean to China’s detriment. At least, that is the theory. In reality, India continues to accelerate its naval build-up including with American built systems such as the Boeing P-8I Poseidon, which pose a high level of threat to Chinese submarines and warships. It is likely as India’s defence budget grows over the next decade that it will be able to pay attention to both land and sea, but it will be a difficult balancing act.

It is clear that India’s rise is causing considerable strategic discomfort in China, which has long seen itself as the natural hegemon of Asia, the so-called ‘Middle Kingdom’. Japan is ageing with a shrinking population, Russia is focused on a confrontation with NATO in Ukraine while South Korea is still locked in a tussle with the North Korea. India is the standout geopolitical candidate to contest China’s rise most effectively, especially as a democracy that has repeatedly given PM Modi a vast democratic mandate. The rapidly growing Indian economy, Chinese apprehension over Tibet and the rise of the Quad are all critical drivers behind China’s aggressive new stance against India. How Delhi responds will likely decide the course of the 21st century.


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