Sino–India dispute: how far can it go?

In September 11, both India and China optimistically agreed to reduce tensions, caused by China’s occupation of Indian lands, with a joint statement in Moscow made by the foreign ministers of respective parties on the need to achieve results through negotiations and military de-escalation. In actual fact, the recent Sino-India border clashes, which started between the two Asian nuclear armed rivals in May 2020, has till now led to deaths of 20+ Indian soldiers and some unknown number of Chinese counterparts. After heavy clashes in the Galwan Valley of the western Himalayas, two countries gathered military strengths in the respective bordering areas raising a cause of concern in the region and beyond.

But a crucial question remains on whether the joint declaration can end clashes or tensions can lead to a war between the countries — and beyond. It is unsurprising that conflicts between the countries, which share the world’s longest unmarked border of several thousand kilometers, are not new; both fought a large-scale war in 1962 through which China occupied some of Indian territories — especially from India ruled Jammu and Kashmir — that is now known as Aksai Chin. Infrequent small-scale clashes occurred for several times since then, although increased in the last decade, such as the 21-day stand-off in the Daulat Beg Oldie sector in eastern Ladakh in 2013, 16-day stand-off in the Chumar sector of Ladakh in 2014, and 73-day tense stand-off in the Doklam region of Bhutan.

Possibility of further conflicts exists because of not only history of conflicts between the powers but also other reasons including existence of ultra-nationalism, China’s assertive means of progression — regionally and globally — and rising geo-political competition between the two Asian powers and between China and some other countries including the USA. In fact, China continued economic development and improved military strengths since the 1970s almost silently, but superbly rising economic power with the 2013 BRI initiative, rendered as the new version of the historic Silk Road, made China forward moving with assertive foreign policy to gain more control in Asia and beyond. Most probably, China will continue assertive foreign policy, noticeably enhanced during the pandemic, for materializing its forward-moving national goals in economic, political and other terms.

On the contrary, India’s rising nationalism and increased efforts to exert greater regional control, coupled with the USA’s China containment policy and some other recent developments in the region can motivate India to continue its rivalry. The QUAD — consisting of the USA, India, Japan and Australia — and several bilateral defense agreements of India with the USA in 2016 and 2020 including the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement are to be specially noted here. These developments may not only motivate India to continue its efforts to becoming a regional hegemony in Asia but also compel China to deter these for its planned progression and regional and global hegemony. Indeed, China’s strengthening of military power in the South China Sea against the US navy presence and increased efforts to making military ties with countries neighbouring India clearly reflects such intention.

A significant mistake of anyone can, in my opinion, lead to a large-scale war between the countries with the further possibility of involvement of other powers at both sides — alternatively, India and its allied countries versus China and its allies — at the highest possible scenario. In that case, exchange of the most destructive weapons like nuclear, which can result in unprecedented devastation not only in the region but also beyond in terms of number of deaths, economic situations and some other terms, is not unlikely altogether. At the lowest possible scenario, on the other hand, small-scale conflicts may occur between India and China in the bordering areas, resulting in deaths of a small number of soldiers and, possibly, civilians of both sides, along with some other impacts.

But a large-scale war between the two giant Asian rivals is less probable, at least at this moment, even though its chance remains in the future. In fact, there are many deterrents from both sides that can cancel out such a possibility. Most of all, enormous economic impacts driven by the pandemic and the necessity of recovery from damages can put significant barriers; besides, both countries have more than 90 billion US dollars yearly bilateral trade that will be lost, given that any large-scale war occurs. Not less important is China and India are rising — the latter more rapidly though — in economic and other terms. No country, I think, may now take the risk of a massive war, a decisive setback to further progression of both.

In addition to deterrents between India and China, rising tensions in the South China Sea especially between china and the USA may serve as a major deterrent to any large-scale war between India and China, despite the fact that this simultaneously can provoke a large-scale war in the entire region and beyond if mishandled. While India may embrace South China Sea tension because of pressure it exerts upon its regional rival, China sees it as a challenge to its planned development. Additionally, China may not see war at two fronts — India and South China Sea — as beneficial and practical option. Consequently, China can be less interested in getting engaged with a large-scale war against India soon, unless it is significantly attacked by the latter, which now seems unwilling too.

Yet, small-scale Indo-China conflicts or border clashes may not be discarded in total. In fact, relations between the two countries are seriously hostile because of occupation of India’s land by China and many other reasons noted above that may not be mended significantly, even if both parties want. The Line of Actual Control between the countries is a potential hotbed of clashes owing to increased presence of military forces. Not less important is the fact that new form of cold-war which has in the mean time started between the USA and China — two global powers — may give less scope of improving confident relations between the two Asian rivals and avoiding tensions altogether in the days ahead.

It is undeniable that Indo-China war is undesired by reason of its potential catastrophic impacts, not only in the region but also beyond. Under such a context, both India and China has some roles to play to end every possibility of war with the resolution of bilateral problems on the basis of negotiations. Given that geo-politics is unavoidable, it is at least desired that all parties engaged with the rising South China Sea tensions avert any large-scale war in the region. In my opinion, the world may not be able to recover from losses if any massive war occurs between India and China, along with their allied countries.