“The Chinese ‘dragon’ and the Indian ‘elephant’ must not fight each other, but dance with each other.” Those were the words of Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in March of 2018. If the two Asian economic powerhouses joined hands, he said, “one plus one will equal not only two, but also eleven,” referring to how powerful their partnership would be.
However, relations between Asia’s goliaths have only worsened since 2018, particularly concerning the Sino-Indian border. Both countries have devoted many resources to upgrading military hardware and building roads, rail links, and airfields along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the demarcation that separates Chinese-controlled territory from Indian-controlled territory, in an attempt to out-build the other.
The ill-defined 2,100-mile long border has been disputed since at least 1914, when Tibetan and British representatives signed a treaty establishing the McMahon Line, a border that China refused to recognize. Since then, these tensions have only escalated, culminating in a violent clash in the Galwan Valley in June that resulted in the death of twenty Indian soldiers and an undisclosed number of Chinese fatalities.
Meetings in August and September between Chinese and Indian foreign ministers offered some hope for a diplomatic solution to rising tensions between the two neighbors. The joint press statement issued on September 10, after India’s foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar met with minister Wang Yi at the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, suggested the possibility of de-escalation. Meeting in Moscow, the five-point statement calls for dialogue and disengagement to ease tensions.
In a news report on Friday, China’s state media announced that China and India were about to implement a border disengagement plan, which required India to first withdraw its soldiers from parts of eastern Ladakh. There has been no formal response from India to this claim, although India has been clear that it will not be the first to withdraw. After the last round of negotiations, Indian officials have confirmed that the two countries were considering a proposal involving the withdrawal of troops and military equipment from the Pangong Tso sector, which would be part of a broader disengagement plan for Ladakh. However, since the two countries have reached agreements on de-escalation in the past, most notably nine days before the deadly clash on June 15, these might once again turn out to be empty promises.
While the Sino-Indian border has long been a subject of competing claims and hostility, the timing of the recent violent altercation suggests ulterior motives. China’s aggressiveness in Asia is undeniable. In the few months before its worst border clash with India in this decade, China pressured Taiwan in the Taiwan Strait, intensified standoffs with Malaysia and Vietnam, and threatened a consumer boycott against Australia. However, the bloody border flare-up in June may not have been an act of revisionist aggression by China but rather an act of diversionary aggression by both countries.
India and China have both had their fair share of internal turmoil this year. COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the neighboring countries, and dissidence of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s and CCP’s handling of the pandemic have been on the rise. According to India’s National Statistical Office, the nation’s economy shrank by 23.9% in the first quarter, the largest decrease since the government began publishing quarterly GDP figures in 1996. However, the nationwide lockdown announced in late March, to which this decline can be attributed, has not proved effective. India, with over 8.9 million cases and 131,000 deaths, surpassed Brazil in September to become the country with the second highest number of COVID-19 cases.
China’s economy underwent a steep 6.8% slump at the start of the year but returned to growth in the second quarter (GDP rose 3.2%). However, consumer confidence remains low, reflected by the fifth straight month of declining retail sales in June. Asian markets and the Chinese yuan fell in the second quarter as well, revealing the damaging effects of the pandemic combined with increased tensions with the US. Furthermore, the Hong Kong protests and the Uyghur ‘reeducation’ camps in China have received widespread international backlash.
Could the recent border escalation have been intended to divert public attention away from the rising criticism, both domestic and international, of Xi Jin Ping and Narendra Modi?
In the 2000 years preceding the Sino-Indian War of 1962, India and China shared strong religious, cultural, and economic ties. Buddhism was spread from India to China along the Silk Road in 67 BCE. Similarly, trade along the Southern Silk Road, linking the cities of Xi An in China and Pataliputra in India by the second century BC, played a vital role in the growth of both countries. The goodwill between India and China carried on after the birth of the two modern countries. India was the second non-communist country to formally recognize the People’s Republic of China in 1950. Five years later, amidst mounting tensions between the Eastern and Western Blocs, India supported China’s attendance at the Bandung Conference — the birthplace of the Non-Aligned Movement, a self-proclaimed neutral bloc made up of developing countries.
While the Dragon and the Elephant are unlikely to return to a friendly relationship in the near future, cooperation will still be necessary and, in fact, has occurred in notable ways. In 2015, China and India, alongside other developing countries, partnered to argue for the continuation of the Doha Round on the WTO’s agenda and in the process combatted unfair trade policies espoused by the West. In the 2019-20 financial year, China constituted over 5% of India’s total exports and more than 14% of its imports, making India the seventh largest export recipient of Chinese products. Chinese foreign direct investment into India in 2018-19 and 2019 amounted to $8 billion and $4.14 billion, respectively. Furthermore, although India declined to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) last year, the world’s largest free trade bloc, the door remains open for it to rejoin the agreement. Cooperation is not black-and-white, and each neighbor will continue to rely on the other selectively to increase domestic growth. However, whether or not their relationship will be effective and mutually beneficial is up for strict evaluation.