India’s China problem

How would this building conflict get resolved?

Shahid Javed Burki June 22, 2020
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and has served as vice president of the World Bank

India has problems with all the neighbours with which it shares borders on its northwest and northeast. These include Pakistan, China, Nepal, and Bhutan. The only neighbours it works well with are Bangladesh and Myanmar. Problems with China and Pakistan have begun to overlap. The United States — in particular Donald Trump’s America — resents China’s rise which is now not only the world’s second largest economy, destined to overtake the US in a decade or two, but has also acquired serious military muscle which it has begun to flex. For instance, in recent weeks it sent out its navy to challenge boats from Vietnam and Malaysia and had one of its aircraft carriers sail twice through the Strait of Taiwan.

Some analysts have begun to call America’s sensitivity towards China’s rise as the “Thucydides trap”, named after a Greek sage who predicted it centuries ago. This is the conflict between a rising power and the one that is the most dominant at that time. The Greek thinker applied his thesis to the growing conflict between Sparta and Athens in which the former replaced the latter after a war. Sparta became the region’s dominant power after defeating Athens. Such adjustments usually involve wars.

The term Thucydides trap was coined by Graham Allison, a Harvard University political scientist who, after studying more than a dozen such conflicts in world history, wrote a book on the subject. His book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides Trap? excited a lot of interest among policy circles in Washington. He predicted that the growing conflicts between the US and China could lead to a military conflict, most likely a limited one of the type that reportedly occurred between India and China on June 15, in which New Delhi admitted to the loss of 20 soldiers. Ajai Shukla, an Indian defence analyst and former Indian army officer who has written extensively about the recent tensions with China, was quoted as saying that his country’s leadership faces a serious crisis. “The government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi prides itself on toughness in matters of national security. After dozens of Indian soldiers were killed last year by a terrorist group based in Pakistan, the government launched a retaliatory cross-border airstrike. Now India must decide how it will respond to the clash with China,” said Shukla.

It did not help India’s relations with China when Amit Shah, Prime Minisiter Modi’s deputy, told the Indian parliament after the Prime Minister and his political party had won a resounding victory in the elections held in the spring of 2019 that India was determined to take back Aksai Chin which China now considered its territory as well as all of Kashmir. To achieve these territorial goals India would sacrifice life, he said.

Shah was not the only one who was critical of China. Indian analysts are of the view that China’s actions were another sign of its aggressive intentions in the region. There is a “new edge” to China’s attitude, said Nirupama Rao, a former Indian ambassador to China. “This assertiveness, this readiness to throw away internationally accepted behaviour to advance their claims and interests, it’s worrisome for so many countries.”

Some of India’s external problems have their roots in domestic politics. This is certainly the case with the unsettled nature of the Kashmir border. The Kashmiri citizens have not accepted India’s occupation of their state and have been engaged for decades in confronting the Indian security forces in their region. The same is the case, albeit to a lesser extent, with what are sometimes referred to as the “seven sisters” in India’s northeast. These are the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Megahalaya, Mizram, Nagaland, and Tripura. Their total population is 46 million. I got a good impression of how the people in that area viewed India when I attended a meeting arranged in 2010 by the Institute of South Asian Studies based in Singapore. My participation was agreed to with some hesitation by the authorities in New Delhi. The meeting was held in the Indian capital and the discussion centred around the reasons for the relative backwardness of the Northeast.

There were about a dozen participants from the states in the northeast who emphasised that they needed resources to develop the area. When I suggested that this is the kind of thing the World Bank was good at doing and they should get New Delhi to approach the institution for help. There was no response to my suggestion even when I repeated it. During the coffee break I was approached by a young woman who spoke excellent English. When I commented on that she said that she was educated in a local convent school. “You must be Christian,” I said. “No, she said I am an animist.” She then asked me if had noticed that there was no response to the idea that the officials in the northeast could approach the World Bank for assistance. The reason, she said, was that New Delhi wants to keep foreigners out of the area.

According to newspaper reports, “Chinese troops have crossed several kilometres into the territory that India claims at multiple points in Ladakh. In particular they have occupied an area in the Galwan River valley that overlooks a strategically crucial road for India.” Monday night’s (June 15, 2020) deadly clashes took place in the Galwan valley, the Indian army said. Most of the lengthy frontier between China and India is not marked physically or delineated on any maps recognised by the two countries. Instead, the Chinese and Indian armies send patrols up to what they claim is the Line of Actual Control and then retreat. Altercations have taken place but seldom on the scale such as the one on June 15.

How would this building conflict get resolved? It has happened before; India realises that Beijing is not likely to back down even if Washington encourages New Delhi to confront Beijing. There was a clear warning from the Chinese given by Hu Xinjin, the editor of the newspaper Global Times, who often speaks for official China. “I want to tell Indians: do not misjudge China’s restraint as weakness, and never be arrogant before China,” he wrote in his newspaper. “China does not want conflict with India, but it is never afraid of conflict.”

In June, Chinese military staged a drill that moved thousands of paratroopers within hours from the central Hubei province to a remote Himalayan mountain range. The exercise, which was publicised by the People’s Liberation Army, was designed to send a message that China was able to rapidly deploy reinforcements to the Indian border and fight in low-temperatures and low-oxygen conditions. China-India tension is not a Thucydides trap but may become a component of it if Washington encourages New Delhi to become its surrogate.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 22nd, 2020.

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