India/China Clash and South Asia: Discordant Mindsets, Changing Dynamics and the Way Forward

India’s Galwan Debacle

Recently, in a gun-less fistfight (sort of) between India and China in the Galwan Valley, a stretch of land that divides China’s autonomous region of Tibet from India, 20 Indian soldiers were killed by the Chinese. India has claimed that there were casualties on the Chinese side as well which China has denied and so far, India has failed to provide proof to validate its claims.

Border dispute between India and China is decades long but the striking aspect of the recent fight is the deaths – first since 1967. In addition, another important feature of this this border brawl is that it has a geostrategic context – it has come at a time when anti-China rhetoric in the US especially by Mr. Trump has reached an all-time high and Mr. Trump counts on India, his new found friend, to do his anti-China bit on his behalf, which India has obliged diligently. It has since hyped its bellicosity towards China.

Although China claims that India threw the first punch in Galwan, looking at the number of casualties on the Indian side it is evident that China had the upper hand. However, exactly how the whole thing started remains a mystery. But that is beside the point.

Moot questions that must be asked are – what made China break its past protocols and go for a deadly clash against India at this point of time; did India provoke China so much that they had no option but to go for the extreme and teach India a lesson; or is it possible that China did it deliberately proactively to push through certain messages – to India, to the region and to the world at large?

On the other hand, looking at the incident from the India’s perspective, is it possible to speculate that buoyed by its recent close ties with US and its own brand of Hindutva bellicose nationalism, India decided to flex its muscle, perhaps a little too soon and too unprepared, that ended in a fiasco?

A recent report suggests that since the brawl, “Little else is known of the ongoing military or diplomatic talks as troops from the two countries stand face to face along at least four points on the disputed 3,500-kilometer Line of Actual Control or LAC…” However, what is clear is that “…the United States is taking a keen interest in events” and as tension between US and China escalates especially since COVID 19 (Mr. Trump blames China for the spread of the disease), his administration has publicly backed India and rebuked China. This has no doubt helped raising the morale of New Delhi and in turn gave US the perfect opportunity to ratchet up its own pressure on Beijing while commandeering India, as its Deputy Sheriff in the region.

However, and despite these posturing, China is undeterred. Latest satellite images reveal that far from dismantling their infrastructure which according to India have been built inside “Indian territory”, Chinese are fortifying their positions in the Himalayas, instead.

The Changing Dynamics in South Asia

Although the Galwan clash was between China and India, its convulsions are now being felt in the entire South Asia, a region which is made up of 8 countries and cover total area of 5.1 million km2 and comprises 11.71% of the Asian continent or 3.5% of the world’s land surface and in terms of population, it hosts about 1.9 billion people, about 39.49% of Asia’s and over 24% of the world’s population, who are ethnically, culturally and by religion, vastly divergent.

In South Asia, India is the largest country by area, population and by size of the economy and except Pakistan with whom it has decades-long on-going conflicts, India has played at least till to date, dominant role in shaping economic and political configurations of most of its smaller neighbours, often forcefully imposed without the consent of the latter.

Furthermore, people in some South Asian countries blame India for manipulating their election processes and installing puppet regimes to extract disproportionately excessive favours which in turn has spawned regimes that have since become virulently corrupt and authoritarian, revealing signs of fascism.

However, the rise of China and its burgeoning closer economic and security ties with smaller South Asian nations, has since triggered seismic changes in the region especially in terms of latter’s relationships with India which until recently were perceived to be unequal. Most of India’s smaller neighbours used to be intimidated and felt, with some justifications, marginalised by their big neighbour. They also argue that India never accorded them the sort of respect that they as sovereign independent states, deserve.

Thanks to China’s economic and security assistance to some of these smaller South Asian nations, a new dynamic in the South Asian power relations has emerged. Lately, these smaller South Asian nations have started to assert vis-à-vis India their sovereign identities, both overtly as well as covertly and these expressions of self-identity and assertions of sovereignty seem to have also become somewhat more evident since India’s Galwan goof-up, mainly because they are now convinced that India may not be as strong as it claims to be and thus buoyed by their economic and security ties with powerful China, these countries have started to challenge what they perceive, India’s unfair and unequal treatment of them, allegations that India denies.

This is not healthy – neither for South Asia as a whole nor for India. Including India continued intra-regional tensions are bound to weaken the region the region as a whole and therefore, steps must be taken to resolve discords through mutually respectful dialogues and as the big guy in the block, onus is on India to take the first step to invest in trust-building.

Sadly, India seems to be doing the opposite. The current mood in New Delhi [is] “…slightly belligerent and there is a growing consensus that the government should respond forcefully” against China and tackle the rising resentments against it, decisively. There is a rising belief that much of the bellicosity is also fuelled by the posturing of US, that purportedly supports India against China and this is not unexpected.

Presently, US is worried that the new kid in the block, the rising China may be altering the status quo of hegemonic world order which it and its colonial European allies have had cobbled up in the aftermath of the WWII. Therefore, it is vigorously trying to mobilise as many allies it can garner to help maintaining its economic and political hold on the world where China is the spoiler that needs be driven out at any cost.

In this mission, the US, an egoistic marauding world power has found its right buddy in India’s right wing sectarian nationalist government even though the writings on the wall seems to convey an uncomfortable truth – the inverse relationship of China’s rise and US’ decline as the world power is a fact which is unstoppable. Besides, COVID 19 has shown that US is a country which is so degenerate and so dysfunctional that it cannot even look after its own people, let alone others.

In this emerging scenario of shifting grounds and dwindling capacities of US, its ally, India needs to ask itself – do I rely on a dying hegemon which is thousands of miles away and has a history of changing its allies far more frequently than a snake drops its skin or do I forge an equitable and amicable relationship with a country which is on the rise and is next door?

Discordant Mindsets and the Way Forward

These are the issues that were recently discussed at an international webinar, “In the shadow of Dragon: Globalization and Fractured Future of South Asia”. The webinar was organized by the Centre for Governance Studies, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

The panellists at the webinar – geostrategic experts, political scientists etc. – were drawn from South Asia and beyond.

Discussions at the webinar were notable more for divergence than convergence of opinions and given the tenuous power relations and entrenched mindsets that currently prevail in the South Asian countries, this did not come as a surprise.

A reality check may help in resolving these confusions. For example, China is not thousands of miles away, it is in the region and is on the rise and thus it is hardly a rocket science to appreciate that closer ties with China can only accrue mutual benefits to all, in the region. Happily, and except for India, most South Asian countries have already done their maths and figured this out, they are tapping on the new asset in the neighbourhood and benefitting from it. India also gained from its trade relations with China but its bellicose nationalism and its desire to act as a regional boss by riding on the back of a superpower, is blurring its vision and endangering its long-term interests somewhat.

Furthermore, China’s rise seems to have offered some of the smaller South Asian nations the much-needed opportunity to remove intra-regional inequities, balance relationships and induce mutual respect which may have also laid the foundation for lasting peace, stability and prosperity in the region including India.

Security is another on-going concern of most South Asian countries and two of its larger nations, India and Pakistan, have been at loggerheads since long, hiking security measures against each other, at a considerable cost to their respective economies. This is both unnecessary and avoidable.

It is time that South Asian nations promote their security collectively, not from each other but with each other.

Finally, if China wishes to be trusted and respected as a leader it would do well to acknowledge that neither economic nor military power bestow upon a nation that hallowed position. After all, USA is still the richest and militarily the most powerful nation on earth and yet, it lost its leadership position mainly because of its moral lapses – both within and outside.

Judging from media reports, China’s moral image does not appear that stellar either. Lately, there have been allegations that its economic dealings with cash-starved developing countries have come at a cost to these countries, reportedly these are lop-sided and unfair. Secondly, its human rights records against its minorities are reported to be dismal.

Indeed, these allegations do little to inspire confidence in China.

Therefore, for China to qualify as a global leader and respected, it must go beyond the economic and address these allegations transparently, accountably and responsibly – more precisely, it must make its overseas economic dealings just and equitable and within the country, treat its minority fairly and with dignity.