Indian and Chinese forces are facing off by a glacial lake in the Himalayas that traverses their fluid frontier. The standoff at 14,000 feet (4,270 meters) is the most visible theater of conflict between the world’s two most populous nations, but it’s far from the only source of friction.
Despite the remote location, the military buildup at the un-demarcated border at Pangong Tso lake should not be seen in isolation, but set against the backdrop of Beijing’s deteriorating international relations during the coronavirus outbreak. Tensions are flaring as governments from the U.S. to Europe, Japan and Australia move to cut a dependence on China exposed by the pandemic, and India spies an economic opening that it’s seeking to exploit. But analysts of India-China relations say Prime Minister Narendra Modi risks stoking tensions with Beijing in siding too closely with Donald Trump at a time when the U.S. president is picking a fight with China.
“India has increasingly been seen as aligning with the U.S. and that can’t benefit India in the long term,” said Phunchok Stobdan, a former Indian diplomat and author of “The Great Game in the Buddhist Himalayas: India and China’s Quest for Strategic Dominance.”
“The Chinese have a saying: kill the chicken to scare the monkey,” said Stobdan. “That’s why smaller powers like India and Australia, who have aligned with the U.S., are witnessing a more aggressive China.”
The origins of the standoff that began May 5 remain unclear. India says it was surprised by China’s deployment of troops at three locations on its border including two in Ladakh, a region of strategic importance nestled between western Tibet and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir that was recently brought under federal control — a move that angered China. The government concedes the tensions may have been triggered by completion of a road and bridge in the Galwan sector of Ladakh, part of a border infrastructure program that Modi’s government says is intended to develop remote areas rather than aimed at any particular country.
While both sides continue to negotiate a compromise — military officials at the border are due to meet on June 6 — India holds that what it calls incursions were in areas never before disputed by the Chinese.
“China sees India’s infrastructure building along the Line of Actual Control, of which both sides have different interpretations, as overstepping and challenging the status quo, and therefore cannot be tolerated,” said Professor Sun Shihai, director of the China Center for South Asian Studies in Sichuan University.
India and China — which together account for a population in excess of 2.7 billion, or one third of the world’s people — are no strangers to animosity, and fought a war in 1962. But that was supposed to be behind them as economic and commercial realities took precedence: This year marks seven decades of India’s diplomatic ties with China, its second-biggest trading partner after the U.S.
Now both nations are marshaling extra troops and artillery to the Himalayan frontier even as Beijing and New Delhi try to lower the temperature. The developments have surprised observers lulled by healthy trade and bonhomie between the rivals following resolution of their last military incident, a monthslong border standoff in 2017. President Xi Jinping last visited Modi only in October.
Then in February, Trump arrived in India. Since March, India has stepped up participation in the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific group of nations, which includes Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Korea and Vietnam, with weekly calls to discuss issues such as pandemic preparations and “vital supply chains.” Modi and his Australian counterpart, Scott Morrison, upgraded their bilateral ties and signed a defense agreement on Thursday.
India’s recent approach marks a shift from the past few years, which saw Modi work on bilateral ties to push for more access to Chinese markets while trying to balance military tensions. It was a strategy evident at their bilateral summits in Wuhan, central China, in 2018, then last year in Mamallapuram, southern India.
Yet traditional mistrust and lack of trade reciprocity from China has hindered progress, according to a senior Indian government official who asked not to be named discussing foreign relations. India shunned a China-backed regional trade pact in 2019. And while India runs a $22 billion trade surplus with the U.S., its deficit with China last year was more than twice the size, at some $50 billion — more by far than with any other country.
“India generally feels that its stark trade deficit with China reflects Beijing not playing fair — not permitting India greater market access in areas of its strengths,” said Alyssa Ayres, Washington-based senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state.
Then came the coronavirus, which first emerged in Wuhan, with its devastating impact on health and economic wellbeing. As the Trump administration rounded on Beijing for its initial handling of the epidemic, the government in New Delhi made a bid to lure U.S. businesses to relocate to India from China, reaching out to more than 1,000 companies from medical equipment suppliers to auto part makers offering incentives to decamp.
With its toll from Covid-19 rising, India is pushing for a bigger share in global supply chains to shore up an economy battered by the outbreak and create much-needed jobs after 122 million people were left without work. Even so, Modi’s call to cut dependence on imports may come back to hurt India.
No one expects another shooting war. But the situation is sufficiently precipitous that Trump suggested U.S. mediation over the “raging border dispute,” an offer rejected by both parties. Trump and Modi talked by phone Tuesday.