Friction between India and China: Examining the Indian Approach

By – Vedika Tiwari and Shivam Shukla;

The ongoing belligerence between Russia and Ukraine epitomizes neighboring nations neglecting to engage in dialogue to solve disputes that have the potential to result in a militarized conflict. Hostility can arise from border issues, affiliation to certain military alliances/defense pacts, or any other historical disagreements. A similar case could be relevant in the Indian context as well.

India shares a boundary line of about 15,106.7 kilometers with nine neighbors, therefore making it imperative to maintain cordial ties with all the states to maintain peace and tranquility in South Asia. China and Pakistan are the two major players in the region with whom we share a border

Since we share borders with them, war remains a last resort. Apart from that, as war is never an option for any country because it will push the conflicting parties in humungous economic and strategic setbacks, regardless of who wins. Historically, Indo-China ties have been sporadic but have taken a bad turn in recent years due to border disputes.

Frictional Relationship 

The root cause of border dispute is an ill-defined 3,440-kilometer boundary that both the nations have claimed for years. The two nations engaged in conflict over border disagreement in 1962, resulting in a stalemate that continues to this day, making it one of the world’s oldest border disputes. The topography of this enormous border comprises rivers and lakes have brought soldiers face to face innumerable times, sparking a skirmish between the two regional powers. The two countries are also fighting to create infrastructure along the shared border, known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC). One of the primary causes of constant belligerence with Chinese forces in the region is India’s construction of a new route to a high-altitude air station. The recent conflict between Indian and Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley involved use of sticks and clubs. 

The boundary, or the LAC, is not delineated which leads to frequent border “transgressions.” The Ladakh area is exceptionally complex; with unusual geographical traits, this region is strategically very important for both the countries. Roger Llyod Kennion, an officer in the British Indian Army and travel writer, explaining the importance of this region has articulated that, “What Port Said is to the Suez Canal, Leh is to Central Asia.”. First, there’s Aksai-chin, a swath of land claimed by India but occupied by China. Beijing initiated the construction of a road across the area in 1956, connecting Tibet to Xinxiang, and has occupied it since 1962. Further, Pakistan ceded 5,180 square kilometers of Shaksgam valley to China in 1963. The Indian government has refused to recognize the China-Pakistan ‘Boundary Agreement’ of 1963 and has been heavily critical of its unlawful nature.

According to the geopolitical observers in India, New Delhi’s ambition to build infrastructure along the border areas has caused unrest in Beijing. Galwan River has become a flashpoint given its proximity to the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) that India has built along the Shyok River stretching up to Daulet Beg Oldi (DBO), the most remote and vulnerable terrain along the LAC. The Chinese military has been heavily critical of India’s apparent aggressiveness in the Galwan valley. China already controls the Aksai Chin area, which is east of Ladakh. The land claimed by India is strategically important for Beijing since it connects China’s Xinjiang province to western Tibet.

In the first week of August 2020, India accused China of instigating military tensions twice along the border. China denied both charges and on the contrary blamed India for the impasse. China, in return accused India of firing bullets at their troops in September 2020. In contrast, China has been accused of firing guns into the air by India. According to reports, Chinese forces have been observed engaging in “provocative military acts” in Ladakh to disrupt the status quo. In June 2020, twenty Indian soldiers were killed in clashes with Chinese forces. They have accused each other of igniting war by crossing the disputed border. According to Chinese military sources, China denied that their men breached the status quo.  Historically, there have been instances of both armies crossing the LAC but situations were dealt at the local military level, however, the magnitude of escalation during this build-up was one of the biggest and most violent. 

Simmering tensions carry the possibility of complete militarization, which can be disastrous given that both sides are equipped with nuclear weapons. There would also be some economic consequences as China is India’s largest trading partner. Following the tragic conflict, India-China tensions have reached an all-time high. Both countries’ foreign ministers agreed to a five-point framework  in Russia’s Moscow to manage the situation under the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination of India-China Border Affairs (WMCC). The diplomatic mechanism was established in 2012 for consultation and coordination on effective management of India-China border areas. Further, the joint body group is tasked with strengthening communication and cooperation between border security personnel from both sides. They are also responsible for assisting special representation on border discussions, a post now filled by our National Security Advisor (NSA), Ajit Doval. The 23rd meeting of the WMCC occurred on 18th November 2021. The Indian delegation was led by the Ministry of External Affairs’ Additional Secretary for East Asia. The Chinese delegation was headed by the Director General of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Boundary and Oceanic Department. China and India agreed on a five-point plan to de-escalate tensions along their disputed border areas. The agreement states that the two nations are in alignment as the current situation in the border areas is not beneficial for either side. Conformity was achieved following “frank and constructive” discussions in Moscow between Indian External Minister S Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang YI.

India’s approach and the Way Forward

China chose war over de-escalation due to a rising sense of vulnerability and confidence. Both countries declare they have no intention of escalating tensions; nonetheless, the future course of action will be determined by positive engagements towards co-prosperity.

India and China completed the withdrawal of troops and weapons from the North and South banks of the Pangong Tso lake after protracted talks at various political, diplomatic, and military levels. However, India has insisted that a resolution of border disputes is imperative for an overall improvement in bilateral ties. Mistrust and claiming border superiority resulted in the Galwan clash that has dented Indo-China relations like witnessed never before. While China is adamant about disengaging from remaining sites of tension, New Delhi has strengthened its stance against Beijing. India did not reply positively to a letter from Premier Xi to Prime Minister Modi about working together to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. Moreover, China’s telecom businesses have also been prohibited from joining the 5G network by India.

Despite border hostility, both nations are aware of the benefits of engagement and cooperation. Although China requires India’s growing market, India wants to avoid a tensed relationship with its neighbor. Despite India’s efforts to lessen its reliance on China’s economy through supply chains, the two economies have become increasingly interconnected over time. Given previous events, the two countries must participate in comprehensive dialogue in order to repair their relationship and rebuild future participation at various levels. There is a little chance of reinstating pre-Galwan ties between Beijing and New Delhi anytime soon, however, there is scope for building a pragmatic relationship since the two countries are members of multilateral groupings such as BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and they also share a platform within ASEAN. New Delhi and Beijing’s ties will morph the future of the groupings and will have an impact on the region at large and with other countries around the world. Therefore, reciprocity and mutual sensitivity remains pertinent in the volume and degree of engagement. Both countries are capable of settling their differences through high-level negotiations, similarly in a recently concluded Chinese Foreign minister. Wang Yi, visited New Delhi in March 2022, the minister attempted to mend bilateral ties following the act in the Eastern Ladakh in May and June 2020. Although, the Minister’s visit was not warmly greeted by the authorities in New Delhi and his presence was not announced publicly due to Wang Yi’s speech during the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit in Pakistan in March 2022 which has added fuel to the fire as he showed solidarity with ‘Islamic nations’ and their ‘desires’ on Kashmir. As Kashmir issue brewed during Yi’s Islamabad visit, New Delhi not only rebuked China, but also canceled plans it had made to welcome the Minister. 

India’s approach is pragmatic in nature; to further counter the Chinese advances towards Indian sensitivities to its sovereignty, New Delhi could opt to use the Beijing’s sensitivity to the one-China policy, the Tibet issue and the Hong Kong region to try to change Beijing’s narrative. This would allow India to signal to China that it has strategic options and that China would be wise not to escalate the pertaining hostile situations. Likewise, India’s leverage in the Indo-Pacific and stems from its strong democratic credentials, the dynamism of its economy, its leadership role in multilateral institutions, as well as the strategic advantage of its maritime geography is an asset that few other countries have which must be used much more effectively to counterbalance China’s entry into India’s strategic space and the natural sphere of influence, these assets must be used much more effectively to counterbalance China’s ingress. The events in the Galwan Valley should also act as a wake-up call to India’s Asian allies and partners, to provide a clearer picture of Chinese assertive behavior in Asian subcontinent.

Diplomatically, India might use its clout by restating its position on the two countries’ inked accords. Furthermore, because the fifteen rounds of discussions between the two nations have not yielded the intended outcomes, it is critical to reaffirm political level conversations at the ministerial level, as well as the spirits of the informal summits of Wuhan and Mahamallapuram, in order to propagate harmony. To achieve peace in its immediate area, India’s strategy must be to reduce tensions. Indian approach must keep in mind the diplomatic, strategic and political levers New Delhi can pull to dial down the brewing tensions. Nonetheless, a new strategy is required to reach an agreement on overlapping border claims. At a time when the two neighbors are dealing with comparable concerns, India should devise a framework to build a more strong strategy to reach a détente.

Vedika Tiwari is currently pursuing her BA.LLB from Baba Saheb Ambedkar College of Law at Nagpur, India. She is also an active member in Students’s committee of Moot court association.

Shivam Shukla is currently pursuing (B.A.LLB.) law from RTMNU’s Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar College of Law at Nagpur, India.

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