The Covid-19 pandemic has not only brought death and devastation to a sizable chunk of the world’s population, it has resonated in geopolitics as well. Because the virus originated from Wuhan in China, it put Beijing on the spot; while he was US president, Donald Trump even called it the “China virus,” to which Chinese leaders staunchly objected. In this interconnected world, the pandemic and its spread also played out in the bilateral relationship between two of the world’s largest countries — China, a communist regime, and India, the most populous democracy.
It played out, further, in the changing dynamics among nations, including India’s dealings with major powers. In this article I focus on how the pandemic exacerbated the trust deficit and security dilemma between India and China that manifested itself in the bloody clash on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) at Galwan on the India-China border in June 2020. The border escalation coincided with China’s belligerence in the South China Sea, Hong Kong and Taiwan, suggesting Chinese Communist Party attempts to whip up nationalism against the backdrop of China’s increasing estrangement from many countries, particularly the West and Japan. I also discuss how the clash has impelled India to a closer strategic embrace of the United States, much to China’s chagrin.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Mamallapuram, a historic town in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, in October 2019 for their second “informal meeting.” The photo opportunity saw an effusion of camaraderie between the two top leaders. Together they discussed events to be organized to commemorate the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between their nations in 2020. Xi invited Modi to visit China for another round of informal meetings. Then came the deluge — the spread of Covid-19 in January 2020. During the initial period of the outbreak, the two countries maintained a channel of communication that helped evacuate the Indian community stranded in Wuhan and other places in China. As a humanitarian gesture, India also dispatched masks and protective gear to China at a time when there was demand for such items in the country. Modi wrote to Xi, who in turn expressed his gratitude for India’s gesture at that critical time. Then there was an eerie silence and some disquiet and discordance.
Modi, a consummate communicator, spoke to almost all world leaders in the wake of the pandemic outbreak last year and continues to do so, but not to any top Chinese leaders, reflecting the estrangement in the relationship. Postings on Indian social media illustrate the peeve of the people. The mood was exemplified when the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs reiterated its earlier directive not to use the video conferencing software Zoom because of the suspicion that some of its encryption keys were routed through China-based servers. In yet another move, India reviewed its foreign direct investment policy in April last year to pre-empt opportunistic takeovers and acquisitions of Indian companies during the pandemic. The move was triggered by the People’s Bank of China increasing its share in India’s Housing Development Finance Corporation from 0.87 percent to 1.01 percent. The virus of a trust deficit seemed to be taking a toll on the relationship built up over years by successive leaders in the two countries.
It was against this backdrop of a fast-deteriorating relationship that there was escalation and deployment of troops and armaments at the India-China border by both countries. In a statement to Parliament in February of this year, India’s defense minister, Rajnath Singhi, stressed that there had been a noticeable build-up of troops and armaments by the Chinese side in the border area adjacent to Eastern Ladakh last year.1 In early May last year, the Chinese side had taken actions to hinder the normal, patrolling pattern of troops in the Galwan Valley, which resulted in the face-off between the two armies. Even as the situation was being addressed by ground commanders in mid-May, the Chinese made several attempts to transgress the LAC in other parts of the line’s western sector. These attempts were detected by the Indian army, which responded appropriately. Given the growing friction, the senior commanders of the two sides, in a meeting on June 6, 2020, agreed to respect and abide by the LAC and not undertake any activity to alter the status quo. However, in violation of this, the Chinese side created a violent face-off leading to the bloody clash between the two armies on June 15, in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed. There were casualties on the Chinese side as well, although the numbers were never fully revealed. Border intrusions by both armies into each other’s territories have taken place from time to time due to the undefined nature of the LAC, but this was the first clash in recent decades. Since the 1962 India-China border war, only on two previous occasions have the two armies clashed — in 1967 and again in 1975.
It is possible to pinpoint the factors that led to the violent border clash, which are like symptoms of a disease rather than the disease itself. The first factor (not necessarily in order of strategic significance) is India’s proactive and robust China policy under the Modi government, unlike the soft and benign policy of the previous government. China finds that tougher policy unpalatable. Modi articulated his approach to dealing with China in a media interview in 2016. He said:
We have ongoing dialogue with China and it should continue to happen. In a foreign policy, it’s not necessary to have similar views to have a conversation. Even when the views are contradictory, talks are the only way forward and problems should be resolved through dialogue. We don’t have one problem with China. We have a whole lot of problems pending with China. Slowly and steadily an effort is on to address these issues through talks and make them less cumbersome. I can say that China has been co-operating with India to search for solutions. On some issues it’s a question of principle for them. On some issues it’s a question of principle for us. On some issues they differ with us and there are issues on which we differ with them. There are some basic differences. But the most important thing is that we can speak to China eye-to-eye and put forth India’s interest in the most unambiguous manner. We are a government that takes care of India’s interest in the most unambiguous manner. We do not compromise on this.” (Emphasis added.)2
India’s rejection of Xi’s pet project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), illustrates Modi’s hardline approach, much to China’s discomfort. India regards the inclusion of the so-called China- Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) — which passes through the disputed Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir as a flagship BRI project — to be a reflection of China’s lack of understanding and appreciation of India’s concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity. Despite repeated overtures from China, India stuck to its stance on the BRI. Indeed, India was the first country to question the initiative’s modus operandi.
Another instance of India’s bold legislative initiative that created unease in China was the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution on Aug. 5, 2019. Article 370 had provided special status to the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. As a consequence of the abrogation of the article, the state was bifurcated into two union territories, Jammu and Kashmir plus Ladakh, to be administered directly from New Delhi. The constitution itself noted that Article 370 was only a temporary provision, however, and as such its abrogation by the Indian Parliament was nothing unusual. But China objected to the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories as “unlawful and void,’’ saying India’s decision to include some of China’s territory into its administrative jurisdiction “challenged” Beijing’s sovereignty. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told the media in Beijing: “China deplores and firmly opposes that India unilaterally changed its domestic laws and urged the Indian side to earnestly respect Chinese sovereignty, abide by our treaties and uphold peace and tranquility in the border areas and create favorable conditions for proper settlement of the boundary question.”3
The second factor that contributed to China’s displeasure was India’s attempts to fast-track infrastructure development across the LAC in response to China’s development of infrastructure at the border. This has the potential to ease the existing asymmetry in border infrastructure. A report by India’s Parliamentary Committee on Defence observed in February 2014 that the rise of China posed a serious strategic challenge to India. Several developments in China — such as the enhancement of military capabilities through its modernization program, development of infrastructure along the border with India (especially in Tibet), expansion of roads and railways opposite Arunachal Pradesh bordering China — are affecting the balance between the two countries. The earlier approach of the Indian government was that roads should not be laid near the border on the presumption that in the event of a war, it would help the adversary to move inside Indian territory. It is only in recent years that this approach has changed, and now there is a thrust to fast-track construction of roads at the border. Realizing the tardy progress on strategic border roads, the Indian government in January 2015, after Modi came to power, amended the Allocation of Business Rules of 1961 to include “all matters relating to Border Roads Development and Border Roads Organization in the list of business allocated to Ministry of Defence.” Ever since then, budget allocations for construction of border roads and the actual building of border roads have gained momentum.
As a result, projects that were dormant not only got a new lease on life but were completed expeditiously. The completion and opening of the all-weather 255-kilometer strategic Darbuk-Syyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) road at the border after two decades of gestation was a matter of consternation for China. The road connects Leh, the Ladakh capital, with Daulat Beg Oldie, which has the world’s highest airstrip. It was built during the Sino-India war of 1962, but was defunct until 2008 when the Indian Air Force revived it as one of its many “advanced landing grounds” (ALGs) along the LAC with the landing of a Russian built AN-32 transport plane. In August 2013, the Indian Air Force created history by landing a Lockheed Martin C-130J transport aircraft there, doing away with the need to send helicopters to drop supplies at the border. The DSDBO highway provides the Indian military access to the section of the Tibet-Xinjiang highway that passes through Aksi Chin, the eastern side of Jammu and Kashmir that China occupied in the 1950s. The highway’s opening presumably rattled China, which led to the intrusion into nearby Depsang in 2013 by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).4
Yet one more strategic project that has caused some discomfort to China was the opening of the Atal Tunnel in October last year amid the border standoff between the two armies. The nine-kilometer tunnel built by India’s Border Road Organisation is located at the breathtaking altitude of 3,000 meters above sea level and is named after former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. China’s displeasure was reflected in an article in Global Times, a mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party. Scoffing at the tunnel’s inauguration, it said:
The tunnel will be of great help to Indian troops and their provision of supplies in peacetime; however, it has no benefit in wartime, especially if military conflict breaks out. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army has the means to make this tunnel unserviceable. It is better for China and India to coexist peacefully with each other. India should restrain itself and refrain from provocation as no passage exists that can enhance India’s combat capability. After all, there is a certain gap in combat effectiveness between China and India, especially in terms of India’s systemic combat capability. India is far from reaching China’s level.5
Further straining the relationship between the two countries is Beijing’s perception that India is aligning itself with the US to counter China. Although like most bilateral relations, India-US relations have their own imperatives, the China factor is discernible in the narrative of the triangular relations. After the India-China border war of 1962, security and defense co-operation between India and the US has been increasing by leaps and bounds. China’s belligerence has brought fresh impetus to relations between the two democracies.
Then-US defense secretary Ashton Carter was instrumental in giving a boost to the Defense Trade Technology Initiative (DTTI), launched in 2012. A landmark development in security co-operation between the two countries was the signing of the new Framework Agreement for the India-US defense relationship in June 2015. The two countries also signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in August 2016 after 12 years of protracted talks. LEMOA is a tweaked version of the standard logistics co-operation agreement that the US military has with dozens of countries; it enables naval ships and aircraft of both countries to dock or land in each other’s bases for refueling and other similar purposes.
The renaming of the US Pacific Command to the Indo-Pacific Command on June 1, 2018, was yet another strategic gesture by the US to co-opt India in the Asia-Pacific against the backdrop of China’s belligerent behavior. In September 2018, the defense relationship received another major boost at the first 2+2 Dialogue in New Delhi, where the “foundational” Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement was signed. This enables the Indian military to get a better picture of the Indian Ocean region, which is seeing increased Chinese activity.
The second round of the 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue took place in Washington on Dec. 19, 2019. During the meeting, the two sides announced important progress under the DTTI, including the finalization of a statement of intent to co-develop several projects and welcomed the finalization of the standard operating procedure for setting forth implementation guidelines for projects under DTTI and the Industry-to-Industry Framework. The two sides also signed the Industrial Security Annex that will facilitate the exchange of classified military information.
The third session of the 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue took place on Oct. 27 last year in New Delhi amid the on-going standoff at the India-China border. The major highlight was the signing of the Basic Exchange and Co-operation Agreement (BECA). The two sides welcomed enhanced maritime information sharing and maritime domain awareness between their navies and affirmed their commitment to build upon existing defense information sharing at the joint service and service-to-service levels and explore potential new areas of mutually beneficial co-operation. A joint statement did not allude to the elephant in the room; but Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, was critical of China at the 2+2 dialogue, and later at the press briefing he said: “This morning, we visited the National War Memorial to honor the brave men and women of the armed forces who have sacrificed for the world’s largest democracy, including 20 that were killed by the PLA forces in the Galwan Valley in June. The United States will stand with the people of India as they confront threats to their sovereignty and their liberty.” In response, the Chinese embassy in New Delhi issued a “solemn statement” against Pompeo and US Defense Secretary Mike Esper for “openly attacking China and the Communist Party of China during their visit to India.”6
The two countries entered into a contract in December 2016 for India to procure 145 US-made M77 Ultra-Light Howitzers. It was agreed that the first 25 howitzers would be given off the shelf, while the remaining 120 would be assembled in India. Defense co-operation received further impetus during President Trump’s visit to India in February 2020. During the visit, the India-US relationship was elevated to a Global Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, and Modi hailed this as the defining partnership of the 21st century. The reference to China was evident when Trump in his address contrasted India’s democracy with “a nation that seeks power through coercion, intimidation and aggression.” During the visit, Trump announced a defense deal worth more than US$3 billion, under which India will buy US military equipment including MH-60R Seahawk naval and AH64E Apache helicopters. Because China’s presence in the Indian Ocean is on the rise, these helicopters will help strengthen the Indian Navy, which lacks helicopters with similar capabilities. It is significant that after the outbreak of Covid-19, the Trump administration notified the US Congress on April 14 of its determination to sell Harpoon air-launched missiles and lightweight torpedoes worth US$155 million to India.
After Democrat Joe Biden’s assumption of the US presidency in January, there were some uncertainties with regard to the continuance of the strong strategic partnership between India and the US. But soon the leadership of the two countries reached out to each other, dispelling those doubts. Modi had phone conversations with Biden as recently as April 26 in the wake of India’s ravaging by the second wave of the pandemic. The two leaders had earlier also met virtually at the first ever “Quad” summit meeting on March 12 along with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. The thrust of the summit meeting was a reiteration of the imperatives of an “open and free” Indo-Pacific, a euphemistic reference to China’s belligerence, in addition to talks about co-operation in the fight against the pandemic. What prompted the alacrity of the Quad summit was China’s assertive behavior in Hong Kong and Taiwan and also at the India-China border. It also suggests Washington’s continued commitment under the Biden administration to India and the challenges it faces from China. Beijing reacted very cautiously to the Quad’s posturing, which is typical of its diplomatic reaction to the grouping. It said it hoped the Quad would be “conducive” to regional peace and stability “rather than the opposite.” This is conciliatory language aimed at not foreclosing the option of engagement with members of the Quad, including the US and India. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was, however, acerbic. He described the Quad as “building small circles in the name of multilateralism, which was in fact group politics.”7
After protracted talks at various levels — political, diplomatic and military — India and China completed the withdrawal of troops and weapons from the north and south banks of Pangong Lake in northern Ladakh in February. India, however, has been insisting that a resolution of outstanding issues is essential for an improvement in overall ties between the two countries. The 11th round of talks at corps commander level concluded on April 9 without any forward movement over remaining friction points in the LAC. The trust deficit and the security dilemma that culminated in the bloody clash at Galwan have dented the relationship between the two countries as never before. While China is unrelenting with regard to the disengagement from remaining friction points, India has hardened its attitude toward China. India did not respond favorably to a letter from Xi to Modi regarding co-operation to fight the pandemic together. New Delhi also barred Chinese telecom companies from participating in 5G trials in India.
The two countries, however, realize the imperatives of engagement. While China needs India’s burgeoning market, India would like to avoid a frosty relationship with its mighty northern neighbor. Over the years, the two economies have been intertwined; even though of late India has been trying to insulate itself from dependence on the Chinese economy in terms of supply chains in two strategic areas — pharmaceuticals and telecoms equipment. In light of recent developments, the two countries have to adopt a minimalist approach to engagement in order to repair the relationship and recalibrate their future engagement at various levels. As far as the US is concerned, India has already forged a sort of non-NATO strategic and defense co-operation with the US and in the days to come economic engagement is going to increase. In the immediate future, it is difficult to expect any kind of pre-Galwan bonhomie between Xi and Modi, although there will be some modicum of a working relationship because the two countries are members of multilateral groupings such as the five BRICS economies and the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, and they also enjoy a common platform with ASEAN. The future leadership of Xi in China also will have a bearing on the India-China relationship, as with other countries of the world. Reciprocity and mutual sensitivity will determine the level and degree of engagement.