June 26, 2020
June 25, 2020
The following article originally appeared in The Washington Examiner under the headline "India and China Peace Pacts Are Disintegrating" on June 25, 2020.
On June 16, reports trickled in from the remote mountainous region of Ladakh that Indian soldiers had died in violence the previous night along the disputed border with China. Many details are still uncertain, with the Indian and Chinese governments trading blame for the incident, but what is clear is that a fight broke out between Indian and Chinese troops in the isolated Galwan River Valley. It resulted in 20 Indian Army deaths, including that of a senior officer, along with dozens of injuries, some inflicted using sticks covered in nails or barbed wire. China’s People’s Liberation Army also suffered casualties, although the Chinese government has not released the number and names of those killed.
The victims represent the first violent deaths on the India-China border since 1975 and the most fatalities at that location since 1967.
The Galwan River clash also marks a significant turn in relations between India and China — and that, in turn, will have long-lasting implications for the rest of the world.
It’s worth briefly reviewing what that relationship is, exactly, and how it got that way. Although China and India both consider themselves ancient civilization-states, historical contacts between them were limited yet important — premodern trade, plus religious and cultural exchanges, notably the spread of Buddhism from its birthplace in India to China.
Political relations were shaped by the colonial period, when India became part of the British Empire and China experienced intervention and subjugation by a number of imperial powers. The British recognized Chinese suzerainty (but not sovereignty) over Tibet, partly to preempt the possibility of encroachment by the Russian Empire. A number of border agreements were concluded in this period between British India and the Qing dynasty, although they were often vague, incomplete, or subsequently contested.
The Communist Revolution of 1949 and the annexation of Tibet by the People’s Liberation Army in 1950, coming shortly after Indian independence in 1947, meant that for the first time, China and India were immediate neighbors. India was initially quick to establish diplomatic relations with the communist government in Beijing, and the two cooperated to establish an anti-colonial consensus among Asian and African countries. But it soon became apparent that there would be trouble on the border.
The term “border dispute” tends to evoke images of a limited standoff, but the India-China row is over territory larger than the state of Pennsylvania. It consists of three distinct sectors. Disputes in the middle sector are relatively small and include grazing grounds and passes that link India with Tibet. The eastern sector includes China’s claim to almost the entire Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, home to more people than Montana, which China calls “South Tibet.” That section includes the town of Tawang, birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama, and thus has particular significance for Tibetans, and by extension, for Chinese claims to Tibet.
The western sector is in the Indian union territory of Ladakh, which was, until last year, part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Here, the borders with Tibet were never clearly demarcated. This land resembles a high-altitude desert: impossibly rough terrain with steep ravines, glaciers, and peaks rising to over 20,000 feet. In the virtually treeless landscape, landslides and dust storms are frequent, and the altitude makes it difficult to breathe without proper acclimatization.
Nonetheless, this territory is strategically important for both China and India. China constructed a vital highway through an area claimed by India in the 1950s to connect the restive regions of Xinjiang and Tibet. Ladakh is important for India not only for its own sake, but for supplying Indian forces along the disputed Line of Control with Pakistan, meaning this area is considered crucial to Indian security and to the geopolitical balance of power across a large part of Asia.
In some ways, this faceoff is a long time coming. In the 1950s, a series of developments led to an escalation of tensions on the border. One was India’s realization that China was moving the goalposts and making more aggressive territorial claims. The status of Tibet was an added complication: In the 1950s, a revolt in eastern Tibet against communist China resulted in a brutal crackdown by Chinese forces, during which the Dalai Lama and some of his followers fled to India. Amid the catastrophe of Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” and inadequate Indian military preparation, a short but sharp border war broke out in late 1962. China decisively won, advancing over some territory in the western sector. In the east, China inflicted a humiliating defeat but withdrew before the onset of winter, believing it had taught India a lesson.
India-China relations remained strained for another 15 years. Violent skirmishes erupted in 1967 in Sikkim in the eastern sector. Negotiations eventually restarted following the resumption of full diplomatic relations, and for a brief period in the early 1980s, Beijing floated the possibility of resolving the boundary once and for all. That changed abruptly in 1985, when China once again made aggressive claims, a policy that has continued. Despite another standoff in the eastern sector in 1986-87, steps toward normalization began after 1988.
Then, in a series of unusual agreements between 1993 and 2013, the two maintained a peaceful posture on the disputed border. This opened pathways to cooperation on other matters, including trade. The two sides agreed that if Indian and Chinese patrols came into face-to-face contact, they would “exercise self-restraint,” not “threaten to use force,” and “enter into immediate consultations” to resolve the problem. In practice, this resulted in both Indian and Chinese military units patrolling some of the same ground, where their claims overlapped. Despite frequent run-ins between their patrols, there was rarely violence and never any that resulted in serious injury, let alone death.
But this period also saw the beginnings of a new kind of arms race as both sides attempted to improve infrastructure — roads, bridges, and airfields — near the Line of Actual Control, the vaguely defined, de facto boundary. China moved first and more quickly, driven by a combination of political will, more favorable terrain, and, eventually, greater resources. But India soon started to catch up. The run-ins between patrols became more frequent.
In 2013, the first major standoff between India and China in 26 years occurred on the remote Depsang Plains when China attempted to establish a permanent presence in disputed territory just as India prepared to open a high-altitude airfield at nearby Daulat Beg Oldi. This was resolved when India threatened to cancel the visit of the Chinese premier. But in 2014, as Chinese President Xi Jinping was in India, another flare-up occurred in Chumar, farther south. A more significant standoff occurred in 2017, involving China’s territorial dispute with Bhutan, an Indian ally. Indian forces intervened to stop Chinese road-building in disputed territory, resulting in a brief spike in tensions.
Earlier this year, as a critical Indian road to Daulat Beg Oldi came closer to completion, Chinese forces deployed in larger numbers at the LAC, and as Indian troops matched them, standoffs occurred at four points. One was the Galwan River Valley, an area that had witnessed fighting in 1962 but had not been a major source of friction since. To the south, by a picturesque lake called Pangong Tso, Chinese and Indian forces entered into a tussle in May. In between, near an area known as Hot Springs, two smaller buildups took place.
On June 6, senior military commanders from India and China met and agreed to a road map for phased disengagement by both militaries at the Galwan River and Hot Springs. It was as this disengagement was taking place that violence erupted on the night of June 15. The Indian government accuses China of not having adhered to the disengagement road map, while China claims Indian forces crossed the LAC.
The melee in the Galwan River Valley has a number of clear consequences. The first is that China has embarked upon a massive military buildup far out of proportion to any real military threat. While observers can speculate about Chinese motives, the intimidatory nature of its actions is evident. The second is that the clash calls into question protocols that had been carefully established between the two governments since 1993. Resuscitating any level of trust on the border will now be difficult since existing agreements proved unable to prevent deadly conflict. The third is that Indian public opinion toward China has become markedly more hostile, something China has sought to avoid in the past.
But the friction also has implications for the wider world, including the United States. They bring into focus similar concerns that India, the U.S., and others — including Japan, Australia, Taiwan, and allies in Southeast Asia — have when it comes to China’s growing assertiveness. Accelerated efforts by India and the U.S. to share intelligence and assessments, improve military cooperation, and build up defense capabilities would be a natural consequence.
Since 2005, New Delhi and Washington have concluded a defense framework agreement, a civilian nuclear deal, and military agreements on logistics, secure communications, and industrial security. U.S. secretaries of state and defense often hold regular strategic dialogues (called “2+2”) with their Indian counterparts. The American and Indian armies, air forces, and navies conduct regular exercises, including a new triservice amphibious exercise. India has also acquired seven major weapons platforms, including reconnaissance and transport aircraft, attack helicopters, and artillery, from the U.S. Such tangible forms of security cooperation may now intensify.
But despite healthy cooperation on security matters, Washington and New Delhi have sparred on other issues. India-China competition over the medium-term future will not be restricted to military affairs. Should Washington reach agreements with India on matters such as trade, investment, and immigration, it would go a long way toward preserving a favorable balance of power in Asia amid China’s continued assertiveness.
June 12, 2020
India’s scepticism about China runs farther and deeper than many others, dating back to the late 1950s and especially the 1962 war. Despite a return to full diplomatic ties in the late 1970s, normalisation began with Rajiv Gandhi’s 1988 visit to China and the agreements of 1993. Commercial normalisation was only evident after about 2003. But the scepticism never truly disappeared.
The India-China relationship can be considered to have four main components. The boundary dispute and bilateral security competition is one. But regional security competition in India’s neighbourhood was always a second factor. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) today leverages China’s resources, but there were antecedents; Nepal settling its border with China in the 1960s, China’s sharing of nuclear technology with Pakistan in the 1970s, Bangladesh importing Chinese military hardware in the 1980s, and Chinese backing for the military junta in Myanmar in the 1990s.
Two other elements were previously considered dampeners of India-China competition. Economic relations grew after 2003 but Indian enthusiasm waned as Chinese market access proved limited and the trade deficit widened. The fourth aspect was global governance cooperation. While China and India found common cause at BRICS, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Beijing’s emphasis on international coalition-building was eventually surpassed by its own superpower ambitions.
India consequently began balancing even as it normalised ties with Beijing. China was a major driver of the India-US civil nuclear agreement, which enabled defence and technological relationships with the US and its allies (including Europe, Japan, and Australia). China’s overt opposition to India’s waiver at the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 2008 indicated its unease with that development. What approaches did India subsequently adopt?
First, efforts at internal balancing required a robust Indian economy, appropriate budgetary allocations for national security, and political will to deploy these tools. However, the Indian economy did not perform as dynamically as many had hoped after 2011. Nonetheless, India activated once-dormant airfields, raised army mountain divisions, reallocated air force assets eastwards, and began to improve border infrastructure.
Other tools came into play. Indian aid and concessional loans to the neighbours (especially Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and the Maldives) increased and naval deployments in the Indian and western Pacific Oceans picked up by late 2017, although capital budgetary allocations did not keep pace. India’s willingness to intervene to support Bhutan against Chinese road-building in Doklam was an important statement of intent. While these developments have been positive, it is debatable whether they have been sufficient given the widening resource gap with China.
India also attempted engagement with Beijing. The period between the global financial crisis of 2008 and the Chumar stand-off during Xi Jinping’s India visit in 2014 witnessed the most sustained engagement in recent years. This was motivated by several factors — an accelerated global economic rebalance, US attempts at engaging China under Barack Obama, and political dynamics within India. While this period also witnessed a hardening of India’s military position on the border, efforts at external balancing slowed down.
The latest period of engagement, which began in 2017, revealed that neither China nor India were able or willing to make major compromises. India continued to reject both the BRI and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The boundary question remained unanswered. Even on economic relations, China made only minor concessions on agricultural and pharmaceutical imports. Even in the absence of real changes, the rhetoric of engagement made sense in the aftermath of the Doklam crisis only because it bought both countries time.
Finally, external balancing involved a series of arrangements with partners that shared India’s concerns about China, with the intention of improving interoperability, facilitating intelligence and assessments, and boosting each other’s economic and defence capabilities. In the past few years, India has made progress in facilitating logistics support, increasing maritime awareness, upgrading military exercises, and regularising strategic dialogues with the US, Japan, Australia, Russia, France, South Korea, Southeast Asia, and others. This month’s India-Australia “virtual summit” is but the latest step in a larger progression.
India is not alone in having a domestic debate about managing China’s rise. A combination of approaches will remain in the policy mix of every country. But if one believes that India’s internal balancing has been inadequate and engagement requires some genuine compromises by Beijing, New Delhi must logically accelerate its efforts at external balancing to deal with a more powerful China.
Categories: Hindustan Times
When US President Donald Trump visited India in February 2020, he was riding high. The American economy looked healthy, unemployment was low, and the US Senate had just acquitted him of charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Just three months later, everything looked different. The global COVID-19 pandemic had resulted in over 100,000 deaths in the United States alone, unemployment had skyrocketed to record levels, and protests triggered by the killing of George Floyd, an African-American man, by Minneapolis police had erupted in over 100 American cities.
The dramatic change in just three months illustrates the unpredictable nature of US politics at an unpredictable time for the world, including for India. It will be all the more reason to carefully observe the US presidential and Congressional elections scheduled for November 2020.
The last four years
Trump’s 2016 election victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton threw up a number of uncertainties for India. The first was how closed or open the US would be on matters of trade, immigration, investment, and technology. The second concerned what approach he would adopt to China: confrontation, competition, cooperation, or confusion. This matter was particularly important because it would have had implications for the wider region and the world at large. The third uncertainty was how he would approach the issue of terrorism, particularly with respect to Afghanistan and Pakistan. And the fourth was what priority he would give to international institutions, and what that would mean for Indian membership and activity.
The Trump administration’s overall approach and Indian engagement with Washington helped to ensure that these areas either witnessed intensified cooperation or that damage was mitigated. The Trump administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, driven largely by a more competitive relationship with China, benefited India in various ways, including in bilateral defence cooperation and higher degrees of strategic coordination. The Trump administration decreased barriers for India to receive sensitive technologies, building upon some of the work done in the last two years of the Obama administration. Coordination on multilateral cooperation and Afghanistan improved, although not without bumps on the road. Occasional difficulties did arise with respect to Pakistan, given Washington’s continued equities; on immigration, although radical reform was limited by logjams in the US Congress; and especially on trade, where India was singled out for its high tariffs. Nonetheless, despite squabbling on the terms of commerce, overall two-way trade between India and the US continued to rise throughout the Trump presidency while the trade deficit in India’s favour narrowed.
Two other complications arose subsequently. The first was the Trump administration’s hardening attitude to Iran, beginning with his unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear agreement concluded by his predecessor Barack Obama: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The renewal of US sanctions on Iran had implications for Indian energy security. The second complication involved attempts led by the US Congress to constrain Trump’s ability to engage with Russia. The resulting legislation, known as Countering American Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) threatened sanctions on countries for major defence agreements with Russia. India, as the largest foreign recipient of Russian defence exports, initially looked like a probable target. At the same time, Trump’s disregard for other countries’ internal affairs meant that the official US response to major changes in India — including the nullification of Article 370, which granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir, and the passage of a contested Citizenship Amendment Act — was relatively muted.
Essentially, Trump’s election had a significant impact on nine issues of importance for India. All will in some sense be at stake in November 2020. On the strategic side, this involved US policy towards China, Russia, Afghanistan/Pakistan, and Iran/Middle East. In terms of bilateral relations, the primary issues relate to trade, immigration, investment, technology, and values.
Republican vs Democratic priorities
A Joe Biden victory would provide relief to India in several areas. Not only would there be more structure and stability to a Biden administration, but the Trump administration’s obsession with redressing trade deficits, curtailing legal and illegal immigration, and isolating Iran will no longer factor prominently in US policy. Indeed, a second Trump administration will likely redouble its efforts to stem immigration, rebalance trade, and harden its stance on Iran, all of which would contribute further to Indian discomfort. Furthermore, a Democratic presidency will put one important but dormant area of cooperation — on climate change, green energy, and sustainability — back on the table with India.
By contrast, other issues might become more of a concern to the present government in New Delhi in the event of a Democratic win. Depending on who occupies key positions in the executive branch of government, we may see under a Joe Biden presidency a return to a more even-handed policy between India and Pakistan in South Asia, although not perhaps to the same degree as the 1990s and early 2000s. A Biden administration, with advocacy from the left wing of the Democratic Party, will also likely be more vocal in its criticism of India for such steps as nullifying Article 370 and CAA.
On other issues — such as investment flows and technology sharing — the consequences of the 2020 presidential elections for India will be less clear-cut. Of these, US policy on China will be by far the most consequential. Trump triggered a trade war that caught Beijing by surprise. Beyond trade, his administration has taken other aggressive steps towards decoupling the US and Chinese economies, including steps on students and technology. At the same time, his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and defunding of the World Health Organisation have been criticised as counter-productive. Democrats have also criticized his administration for cutting spending in areas, such as scientific research and development, that would enable the US to better compete with China. While the bipartisan consensus on China as a competitor has grown in the US, there remain differences between the parties as to how best to compete. Furthermore, constituencies outside the national security, human rights, and intelligence communities — such as those tasked with the economy or the environment — are still likely to advocate engagement and cooperation with Beijing.
Consequently, either a Trump or a Biden electoral victory in November will present the Indian government with both opportunities and difficulties. Despite a good rapport with Trump, who was favourably impressed by his visit to India, difficulties on immigration should be anticipated in the event of his reelection. While Biden will provide greater clarity and bring stability to US policy, a return to more traditional approaches to certain issues with respect to India is possible.
Prediction is premature
Predicting a US presidential election more than three months out is unwise. It is almost certain that Biden will win the popular vote, given Trump’s approval ratings and the fact that Democratic candidates have done so in six of the past seven presidential elections. Winning the Electoral College, which is what really counts, is another matter. The US presidency will be decided by no more than 17 of the 50 US states, and perhaps as few as seven. Trump will hope to retain traditionally Republican strongholds such as Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina; win swing states such as Florida and Ohio; and surprise in at least one of the traditionally Democratic states that he won in 2016: Pennsylvania, Michigan, or Wisconsin.
Traditionally, incumbent presidents have had an edge in what are otherwise level contests between Republican and Democratic nominees, but the past three elections have thrown up uncertainty. In 2008, Republican John McCain was leading comfortably in polls in August, before the financial crisis of September benefited Democrat Barack Obama. In 2012, Obama enjoyed a comfortable lead that Republican Mitt Romney narrowed following a strong performance in their first debate. In 2016, the polls indicated a Hillary Clinton victory until election day in November. These recent trends suggest that anticipating the outcome of the presidential race before the two parties hold their conventions later this year would be premature.
Don’t forget Congress
Finally, amid the attention focused on presidency, it is often forgotten that the US Congress is also witnessing elections in November. All seats in the House of Representatives are being contested, as they are every two years, with Democrats expected to retain control of that chamber.
The contest for the Senate will, however, be significant. Should Democrats win six of seven closely contested races (Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, and Georgia) they would claim a majority in the upper house of the US Congress. This will give the Democrats an opportunity to define the legislative agenda (given control of both chambers), block Trump’s nominations for Supreme Court justices (should he be reelected), and put pressure on Trump in the event of another Congressional investigation into presidential wrongdoing.
For India, the Congressional relationship will remain important given the ability of the US legislature to facilitate or veto important policy. Traditionally, Congress has played a moderating role for India. When relations with the US were frosty, as during the 1980s or after the 1998 nuclear tests, India found advocates for the relationship in Congress. At the same time, when relations were more amicable, Congress often struck a more skeptical note, as when George W. Bush offered a civilian nuclear agreement to India. Regardless, this year’s Congressional elections — particularly the finely-balanced Senate — will matter almost as much for Indian interests as the presidential election.
June 4, 2020
The following essay appeared in a collection published by the Council on Foreign Relations (Discussion Paper Series on Managing Global Disorder No. 1) in June 2020. The full text can be accessed here.
The international order has changed radically over the past three decades in ways that are clearly discernible but not easily conceivable. This shift is evidenced by the lack of a commonly recognized term to characterize the emerging international order, beyond the increasingly inappropriate post–Cold War, which describes what the order is not. Without question, the prevailing international order has been under considerable strain, and the novel coronavirus has stretched it almost to a breaking point. Governance of the global commons is being undermined, rival economic institutions are being created, and international security institutions are increasingly anachronistic. The risk of great power conflict has increased as deterrence, interdependence, and socialization have given way to low-risk offensive weapons, changing cost-benefit calculations, and rising nationalism. Domestic political constraints in the United States, the nature of China’s rise, and the role of other actors (Europe, India, Japan, and Russia) mean that the emerging international system could quite possibly reflect elements of unipolarity, bipolarity, and multipolarity simultaneously.