On the roof of the world, young soldiers from two nuclear-armed powers are killing each other with stones, rods and their fists. Details are murky. We know that 20 Indian soldiers died in a clash with the People’s Liberation Army on the “Line of Actual Control” in Ladakh that divides the two Asian giants; it’s unclear how many casualties China may have suffered. But one thing is certain: The few inches or feet China may gain in each such incident isn’t worth the ground it’s losing in the larger Sino-Indian relationship.
Exactly three years ago, in June 2017, the Indian and Chinese armies stared each other down in a similar confrontation at Doklam, in the eastern section of their long and disputed border. The trigger for both clashes may have been similar: road-building by one side or another. In the impassable and sparsely populated high Himalaya, the advantage goes to whichever military can lay down the roads needed to quickly reinforce sections of weakness. Both sides are now able to afford more border infrastructure — and thus there is a constant incentive to steal a march on the other.
Neither country wants the situation to escalate. While men died in the Galwan valley, no shots were apparently fired — a sign that an old agreement not to use “military capability”is being nominally respected. Indian officials in particular are mindful of the dangers of India’s noisy democracy and of the hyper-nationalism that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party rode to a stunning re-election victory last year. India and China went to war in 1962 precisely because Indian public opinion had boxed the government into an impossible position on the border dispute. Modi will want to avoid that, even if placating angry voters demands much of the trust and political capital he has built up.
China’s calculus is more complicated. India needs to be reminded of its place, but not so harshly that it seeks out the embrace of the United States. That’s proving an impossible balance to strike. From India’s point of view, China has been nothing but trouble. It remains the main international backer of the Pakistani military establishment, a perpetual threat to regional stability. It has pushed further into the Indian Ocean and subverted India’s relations with neighbors such as Nepal. And it constantly seeks to change facts on the ground along the long border.
Years of such behavior have worn down India’s cherished commitment to non-alignment — or “strategic autonomy,” as we are supposed to call it in the post-Cold War era. Finding a China dove these days is as difficult in Delhi as in Washington, D.C. Even before the latest flareup, a majority of Indian strategists saw Chinese assertiveness as India’s biggest foreign-policy challenge.
This has resulted in an unspoken but unmistakable swing toward the U.S., particularly in terms of defense cooperation; three-quarters of the respondents in that same survey viewed the U.S. as India’s most important partner. In recent years, India has signed various agreements that make military co-operation with the U.S. far easier — steps that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. This has happened even though the U.S. is currently run by an inept and unreliable president who thinks alliances are for the weak and who has berated India on even minor trade issues.
Despite multiple one-on-one summits with Modi, China’s Xi Jinping has played his hand extremely poorly when it comes to India. Perhaps he and other Chinese leaders don’t care. Across the Indo-Pacific, they have sought to buy or bully other nations into submission, from the Philippines to Australia. Given its awesome economic leverage, persistence and rapidly growing military power, China gets its own way more often than not.
Yet India is not just any other Asian nation. It is, in fact, the only regional power that the Chinese leadership should worry about in the long run.
While India may pose little threat to China today, one day it will. This is a country that is younger and hungrier than its neighbor to the north and that will, given its size and increasing ties to democratic partners such as the U.S., Japan and Australia, inevitably rival China in military capability. Today India may have to swallow its pride and accept China’s attempts to encircle it, nibble away at its sphere of influence and stage provocative border incursions. Yet the bitter aftertaste of such arrogance will linger, will it not?
One would think the Chinese leadership, which has made such a fetish of their nation’s supposed “century of humiliation,” would be wary of deliberately fostering the same resentments in a country that will one day be a formidable competitor. China’s leaders may feel that that the U.S. has mismanaged their nation’s emergence on the global stage. But they have no one else to blame for their inept handling of India’s rise.