Under the shadow of the war in Ukraine, India and China live in ‘armed stalemate’ | last second

Disputed territories in the Himalayan region.
Art Editor – O Globo

Disputed territories in the Himalayan region.

China and India have a lot in common: four millennia of history, the world’s largest populations, a Buddhist tradition rooted in culture, high-tech centers and a 3,400-kilometer border. In recent years, some of these points of contact have turned into rivalry, especially the border. Differences were heightened after a clash in 2020 that left both sides dead. Since then, there have been 16 rounds of negotiations to resolve the dispute, with no visible sign of progress. Historical differences have resurfaced and revived the risk of war, now under the magnifying lens of China’s rise as a global power and geopolitical competition in Asia.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine added an additional element of complexity to this scenario, creating new dilemmas. Both Beijing and New Delhi maintain close relations with Moscow, albeit with different goals and backgrounds. There are similarities in the stance that both adopted in relation to the war, in a kind of “pro-Russian neutrality”, as it is called by some observers, but with marked differences.

China’s partnership with Russia is mainly linked to the aim of countering US influence. In the case of India, ties with Moscow have solid pillars since the days of the Soviet Union. Military dependence ties the country together in the partnership, as 70% of the Indian arsenal is of Russian origin. The eventual weakening of Russia after the war in Ukraine causes anxiety in Delhi that Moscow will become dependent on Beijing and more susceptible to Chinese pressure to reduce cooperation with India, says Manoj Kewalramani, director of the Indonesia Research Programme. of the Takshashila Institute, Bangalore Study Centre.

singular position

In the dynamics of growing antagonism between the West and the Moscow-Beijing axis, India occupies a unique position, with close relations with both Washington and Moscow. To a large extent, it is a continuation of the non-alignment policy adopted in the Cold War, called by the current Indian government of “strategic autonomy”. What New Delhi’s link with Moscow and Washington has in common is its shield against China. Overland, Russian defense systems. At sea, the defense alliance with the United States.

Officially, Beijing maintains the discourse that there is room for a relationship with “mutual benefits”. At the same time, it projects its economic and military superiority with initiatives that trouble India in the so-called “new silk road”. In India, however, there is less ambiguity: China is seen as the number one strategic challenge. In the midst of tensions around Taiwan, friction on the Sino-Indian border reminds us that there is another trigger in the region at risk of detonating a war.

Humiliation in the Himalayas

It wouldn’t be the first. In 1962 the countries clashed over the Himalayan border dispute, which ended in a humiliating defeat for India. The discord begins as a colonial legacy, along the line demarcated by the British Empire in 1914, and emerges as a focus of dispute when the newly founded People’s Republic of China effectively incorporates Tibet in 1951, creating one of the borders with India. most extensive unmarked areas in the world. The ice would only be broken in 1988 with Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China, the first by an Indian prime minister to the country in 34 years.

A period of relative normalization followed, supported by the tacit understanding that the border dispute would take a back seat. But that changed after the violent incidents in June 2020, which left 20 Indians and four Chinese people dead in clashes with sticks and stones – by mutual agreement, the use of firearms was prohibited at the border. Both sides traded accusations of inciting the worst escalation in decades by violating agreements to build infrastructure in disputed areas and rally troops.

The diplomatic action served to reduce the risks of immediate shock, creating zones of separation between the troops. But the historical memory of animosity came back with a vengeance, and the prevention mechanisms that had been in place before the incident were shaken. The picture is “bleak”, summarizes Srikanth Kondapalli, an expert on China’s foreign and defense policy at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. According to him, today the risk of a new war can be described as the highest since 1962, judging by the high number of troops in the disputed area.

“There is no official information, but the estimate is that China has 70,000 soldiers and India, 120,000. This is a larger mobilization than in 1962, when China had 28,000 and India 10,000,” says Kondapalli. The current situation is one of an armed stalemate.

One of the obstacles to detente cited by Indians is China’s hierarchical view of regional order. With an economy five times its size and three times its military budget, Beijing understands that India should accept a role as a “second-class power,” says Manoj Joshi, author of “Understanding the India-China Border: The Persistent Threat of War.” high in the Himalayas”.

change in balance

More than the cause of an eventual conflict, the border dispute is therefore a symptom of the changes in the balance of forces in the Indo-Pacific, driven by the rise of China. For Joshi, Beijing is in no hurry to resolve the dispute because it serves to contain India.

“China uses the border to unbalance India. The dispute forces India to divert resources and distract its attention from other areas, such as the Indo-Pacific,” he says.

The Chinese government insists that the border remains “relatively stable” and that bilateral relations should not be held hostage to the dispute. But India rejects this argument, saying that normalization will only be possible when there is a solution. China’s partnership with rival Pakistan and the advance of Beijing’s “new silk road” add to unrest in India, which fears being surrounded by hostile economic and military initiatives. Hence India’s accession to the Quad, a defense alliance with the US, Japan and Australia, which China sees as a direct threat.

‘War on two fronts’

The Indian press began to issue warning signals for the old fear of a “war on two fronts” including Pakistan, a country with which India has already fought four wars. Meanwhile, the double front is a real challenge in the diplomatic arena. So far the country has been able to maintain its balance under the “new cold war”, running on its own lane to preserve relations with the West without losing the advantages of the partnership with Moscow, such as low-cost weapons and oil.

Wang Dehua, an expert at the Shanghai Center for International Studies, considers that the argument of power asymmetry as an obstacle to an understanding between China and India is nothing more than “propaganda” by the West to inflate the rivalry between the two countries. Both have comparative advantages in areas like technology, says Wang. In his opinion, New Delhi should join the “new silk road” to benefit from infrastructure projects, and it is up to China to ensure that the partnership with Pakistan does not pose risks to India’s security.

For Indian analysts, the Chinese speech that it is possible to maintain a relationship of mutual benefits without an acceptable solution at the border is disconnected from reality and reveals Beijing’s lack of interest in taking into account the concerns in the neighboring country. According to Manoj Kewalramani, until 2017 India did not see China as a serious security threat. That’s when a border incident occurred and the Chinese government began an aggressive campaign, including warnings that it is capable of “teaching a lesson” to India, as in 1962.

“It was a strategic mistake by China. An entire generation of Indians who had come to view China favorably was lost,” he says.

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