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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Why the latest India-China border dispute poses a greater threat than before

Over the past year, International Relations began to trifurcate between the US-led West’s Golden Billion, what can nowadays be described as the Sino-Russo Entente, and the informally Indian-led Global South. A very complicated series of triangulation then began to more clearly take shape, whose origins predate the latest phase of the abovementioned systemic transition but were increasingly solidified by those dynamics.

China and India have decades-long border disputes that remain unresolved to this day, with each feeling very strongly about their respective but mutually incompatible claims. This impasse occasionally leads to tit-for-tat rhetorical escalations that have come to characterize their complex relations, but the strategic dynamics shaping the latest round thereof are arguably much more dangerous than usual. The present piece will therefore raise wider awareness of everything that’s different this time around.

For starters, the geography of the latest escalation concerns what India considers to be the state of Arunachal Pradesh that’s been under its control for decades but which China regards as South Tibet and only briefly controlled during those two’s 1962 war. This is unlike their standoff in the summer of 2017 over the sliver of territory near Bhutan that India calls Doklam but China calls Donglang. It’s also on the opposite side of the Himalayas from where lethal clashes occurred in the summer of 2020.

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A closer look at the Geography and strategic stakes

Back then, India and China fought over part of what the former considers to be the union territory of Ladakh but the latter regards as Aksai Chin, both of which used to be under the control of the erstwhile Princely State of Jammu & Kashmir. The greatest change to occur in the intervening two and a half years since then is the unprecedented acceleration of the global systemic transition to multipolarity brought about by the start of Russia’s special operation in Ukraine and the West’s reaction to it.

Over the past year, International Relations began to trifurcate between the US-led West’s Golden Billion, what can nowadays be described as the Sino-Russo Entente, and the informally Indian-led Global South. A very complicated series of triangulation then began to more clearly take shape, whose origins predate the latest phase of the abovementioned systemic transition but were increasingly solidified by those dynamics.

At present: Russia and China are teaming up to hasten the demise of the US’ unipolar hegemony; India and the US work together to check China in Asia; Russia and India comprehensively cooperate to preemptively avert Moscow’s potentially disproportionate dependence on China; China and India are competing for hearts and minds in the Global South; and Russia envisages the trilateral format between itself, India, and China (RIC) becoming the core of multipolar processes in Eurasia.

Economic Context

Amidst this impending trifurcation and its resultant triangulations, there’s also the rapidly evolving economic context to consider as well. The Trump Administration’s trade war with China destabilized globalization, after which COVID-19 lockdowns and related supply chain disruptions threw everything into chaos. Economic recovery was then prevented by the escalation of Russian-Western tensions last year after the latter’s unilateral sanctions catalyzed the food and fuel crises across the Global South.

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China’s growth remained very low, partially due to its strict zero-COVID policy, while India’s was estimated by the OECD to have been twice that of its northern neighbor. Both are now expected to comprise approximately half of the global growth over the next year according to a leading Chinese think tank’s latest report. India will also soon overtake China in population if it hasn’t done so already, and it’s increasingly becoming a leading so-called “reshoring” destination for Western businesses from China.

Uncomfortable Optics

The trifurcation of International Relations, resultant triangulations between key players, and the rapidly evolving economic context all contributed to strengthening each relevant party’s ideological and/or nationalist (patriotic) sentiments as they scramble to find their place in this emerging world order. This hardened China and India’s respective mutually incompatible claims vis-à-vis the other, the trend of which is also currently being influenced by two other significant factors.

India’s chairmanship of the G20 this year saw Delhi decide to host related events in those territories under its control that are claimed by others such as Arunachal Pradesh, which China reportedly skipped last month, in order to globally reaffirm its writ over them. At the same time, US pressure on China over the South China Sea and Taiwan intensified to the point where Washington even crossed some of Beijing’s “red lines”, which weren’t responded to in a way that deterred more transgressions.

For example, China only staged military drills around Taiwan after former Speaker Pelosi’s trip there last August and the island leader’s meeting with her successor McCarthy this month, while not doing anything (at least yet) to impede the US’ planned $19 billion worth of arms exports there. The US also once again illegally entered waters claimed by China around the Meiji (Mischief) Reef earlier this week too, obviously not having been deterred the last time that the People’s Republic simply protested this.

The optics of America continually crossing China’s “red lines” with impunity, irrespective of the strategic wisdom inherent in Beijing’s measured responses thus far that avoided the pitfalls of overreacting to these provocations, risk making the People’s Republic “lose face”. Combined with surging nationalist (patriotic) sentiments at home, some Chinese hardliners might be inclined to think that they could deflect from these uncomfortable optics by reasserting their claims over Arunachal Pradesh.

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Chinese & Indian Strategic Motivations

Supplementary motivations could be to: signal to India that it’s hosting of G20 events in Arunachal Pradesh is unacceptable; keep Delhi’s rise in check per a Global South variation of the “Thucydides Trap”; deter it from expanding military-strategic ties with the US; take advantage of America being distracted with “containing” Russia ahead of Kiev’s upcoming counteroffensive; and exploit thawing ties with Europe after Macron’s trip to muscle-flex with the expectation that no EU sanctions will follow.

There’s also the contentious issue of the Indian-based Dalai Lama’s succession, which will have to be addressed sooner than later considering his advanced age. The Tawang Monastery is the largest in India and the second largest one in the world, and it just so happens to be located in Arunachal Pradesh, thus bestowing it with outsized symbolic significance. This location will likely play a role in the controversial succession process and predictably resultant further exacerbation of Sino-Indo tensions at that time.

From India’s perspective, its strategists might have concluded that the reassertion of sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh is so crucial at this particular point in time because the G20 presents a historic opportunity to show global support for its claims; standing up to China sends positive signals to the Golden Billion and some Global South states; and the maximum attention given to Arunachal Pradesh could deter Beijing from cross-border action to stop Delhi’s frontier highway there.

That last-mentioned factor is very important since some believe that the then-impending completion of a similar project in Ladakh pushed the People’s Republic to undertake kinetic action there in summer of 2020 so as to preempt the entrenchment of India’s military sovereignty in that region. A related motivation might also be at play in influencing the calculations of Chinese hardliners nowadays with respect to Arunachal Pradesh, which adds another dimension to the latest escalations’ timing.

Assessing Russia’s Strategic Perspective

Seen from the stance of Russia’s grand strategic interests, deteriorating Sino-Indo ties represent a serious threat to those three’s shared vision of a multipolar future due to the risk that a conflict could break out between them by miscalculation and thus hamstring their cooperation in BRICS and the SCO. That’s not to mention the scenario of the US attempting to exploit another round of potentially lethal clashes in order to divide and rule them, despite it remaining unlikely that Delhi would bite the bait.

The Kremlin considers its top two partners’ tensions to be strictly bilateral, hence why it won’t intrude by offering to mediate unless both of them request it to do so, though there’s also no denying that the strategic dynamics identified in this analysis are shaped by more than just the Sino-Indo interplay. This makes everything much more dangerous than usual, which explains Moscow’s growing concern over their recent escalation even if it won’t openly signal such due to how diplomatically sensitive it is.

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For that reason, the best-case scenario from Russia’s perspective would be if they both request its discrete mediatory efforts so that Moscow could stand a chance of replicating Beijing’s role in brokering the game-changing Iranian-Saudi rapprochement from last month with its top two Asian partners. Even if the resultant outcome isn’t that dramatic, the Kremlin would feel a lot calmer if they reached some sort of pragmatic compromise solution for at the very least prevent any further escalations.

Speculating On Russia’s Potential Mediatory Role

The present strategic dynamics shaping their latest tensions go beyond the ambit of bilateral relations as was explained, thus justifying the well-intended suggestion that a reliable and trusted third party be requested to help them more effectively manage everything before it spirals out of control. Russia is the only country capable of playing this role, to which end its experts, policymakers, and strategists would do their utmost to brainstorm a creative and fair proposal for sustainably de-escalating these tensions.

It’s premature to predict exactly what this could entail since they haven’t even been requested by both to do so and might ultimately never be, but it might be worth considering whether the status quo could be frozen in parallel with exploring special travel privileges for locals in each side’s disputed zones. If paired with mutual disengagement measures, this could simultaneously achieve some of each side’s political, humanitarian, and military goals in a respectable way that doesn’t lead to anyone “losing face”.

To be absolutely clear so as not to have the preceding paragraph misunderstood by innocent readers or spun by self-interested propagandists, it’s purely a well-intended suggestion aimed at stimulating creative brainstorming processes and doesn’t reflect Russia’s official policy nor the informal views of its expert community. It’s just a proposal from the perspective of Russia’s grand strategic interests as informed by its diplomatic traditions and with that country’s relations with its two top partners in mind.

The latest Sino-Indo tensions are more dangerous than usual since the strategic dynamics that are shaping them involve larger trends that are beyond the ambit of their bilateral ties. If everything doesn’t soon de-escalate, irrespective of whether or not Russia plays a role in that process, then events could quickly spiral out of control to the point of another border standoff or even lethal clashes like in the summer of 2020. That worst-case scenario would be a setback for multipolarity and thus a major benefit for the US.


Andrew Korybko is a Moscow-based American political analyst, radio host, and regular contributor to several online outlets. He specializes in Russian affairs and geopolitics, specifically the US strategy in Eurasia. The article has been republished and the views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.