Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) crossed the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and clashed with India forces in the Galwan Valley on June 15. This territorial transgression in the world’s loftiest Himalaya battleground represents a major escalation of tensions between the two most populous countries in the world after the October 2013 India-China border defense cooperation agreement failed to make certain that border patrols along the LAC do not escalate into armed conflict. As many as twenty Indian soldiers and possibly forty Chinese soldiers were killed in the same area that had been attacked by Mao Zedong in the summer of 1962.
China has moved artillery pieces, heavy vehicles and construction materials in key positions close to the LAC that separates one Indian union territory, Kashmiri Himalayan region of Ladakh, and four Indian states, from the Chinese-controlled Tibet Autonomous Region, while India has responded with a military build-up. Weekly talks continue behind the scenes.
The Chinese incursion not-so-unexpectedly took place after India had revoked Jammu and Kashmir autonomy in August 2019. Kashmir was then divided into two parts, Ladakh and the region of Jammu and Kashmir. Both regions declared “Union Territories” to be administered directly by Delhi.
Modi’s action in Kashmir, depicted by Pakistan as “a ten-month digital and physical lockdown,” has enraged both China and Pakistan, as well as Kashmiri and Pakistani jihadists. As both India and Pakistan lack water and energy sources, Pakistan fears that Indian administration of Jammu and Kashmir will permit Delhi to permanently control the upper riparian region of the Indus River and all of its tributaries, such as the Kabul River, which supplies up to 17 percent of Pakistan’s total water in the lower riparian region. At the same time, China has also been accused of acting as a hydro-hegemony in seeking to dam the major Asian river systems that originate in Tibet.
On the immediate tactical level, Beijing wants to prevent a premature demarcation of the LAC and fears that Delhi will assert its irredentist claims to Aksai Chin as part of the union territory of Ladakh. Beijing also seeks to counter Indian road development in the Sub-Sector North and in the Darbuk-Shyokh-Daulat Beg Oldi region that could possibly threaten Aksai Chin and China’s National Highway 219.
On a strategic level, Beijing wants to threaten Delhi so that it will move away from its increasingly close defense ties with the United States and give up any claims to support genuine autonomy for Tibet. Beijing hopes to preclude a potential U.S.-backed “encirclement”—in which Washington links India, Japan, Australia (countries of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) plus France, South Korea, Vietnam, among other states—and possibly Russia—“against” China. Beijing might also hope to force Delhi to focus its attention on Ladakh so it will find it more difficult to engage in both its Act East strategy to develop South and Southeast Asia and its Asia-Africa Growth Corridor with U.S.-backed Japan—that could potentially attempt to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the long term. In particular, Delhi fears that China's burgeoning geostrategic, military, economic and energy ties to Iran could undermine India's interests in Iran’s Chabahar port that Delhi has hoped could be used to counter China’s BRI investment in Pakistan’s Gwadar Port. China and Iran are expected to sign a major 25-year military and energy accord in mid-August 2020 that will permit both Russian and Chinese military deployments to Iranian bases.
Although India had helped to initiate the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1961, and although Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the virtual NAM summit for the first time in May 2020, U.S.-Indian defense ties have been growing stronger at least since the September 11, 2001, attacks. President Barack Obama’s 2013 “pivot to Asia” sought to draw India into a closer alliance with Japan and Australia in what the Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe called (with Hawaii) the “democratic security diamond.” The United States became India’s second-largest arms supplier in the period 2008–2017 after Russia. By November 2019, the United States and India engaged in “Tiger Triumph”—their first major joint tri-services land, sea, and air humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercises.
Common interests in cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and major acts of pan-Islamist terrorism, have also drawn France and India closer together. At least since the 2019 G-7 summit in Biarritz, French president Emmanuel Macron and Modi have sought greater bilateral cooperation involving maritime surveillance, nuclear energy, satellites and defense. The two also discussed future sales of additional Rafale fighter jets after India had purchased thirty-six French Rafale fighter jets at $8.5 billion in a controversial deal in 2016. The delivery of the Rafale has been delayed until at least July 2020 due to the coronavirus—an aircraft that will provide India with greater relative military autonomy vis-à-vis both Washington and Moscow.
As U.S., French and Japanese ties with India have strengthened, U.S. ties with Pakistan have declined significantly at least since Osama bin Laden was found hiding on Pakistani territory. This shift has led Pakistan to increasingly look to China to fill the gap by joining China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). As part of the BRI, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, combined with Chinese funding for the deep-water Gwadar Port, represent initiatives that Beijing could use for political, economic and military purposes from Delhi’s perspective. This important infrastructure project links Kashgar city (a free economic zone) located in China’s landlocked Xinjiang province with the Pakistan port of Gwadar. Concurrently, Pakistan also hopes to link the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union—if Pakistan-Russia relations continue to improve.
Both India and Pakistan are members of the Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) that includes Moscow. Yet as that organization is seen by Delhi as a security organization (against secessionism and “terrorism”), and not as a defense pact, India hopes to use the SCO in such a way as to assert its own interests in dialogue with China and Pakistan where possible. As India opposes strong Pakistan-China defense ties, Delhi has repeatedly asked that the BRI be designed with India’s participation as an equal partner.
Most crucially, as China-Pakistan political-economic and military ties have grown stronger, India decided, on November 4, 2019, against joining the sixteen-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade. With the potential to become the world’s largest trading bloc, particularly if India eventually joins, the RCEP (and BRI) represent major tools for China to counter American efforts to sanction the Chinese economy and help it to reduce its dependence upon U.S. trade and investment after President Donald Trump had dumped Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Obama’s TPP represented a political-economic alliance that was designed to draw China into a rules-based global economic order. Yet by dumping the TPP, the Trump administration has instigated a destabilizing economic free-for-all that has, for example, pressed China, South Korea and Japan to seek closer political-economic ties in the RCEP by 2020.
For its part, Delhi has not yet joined the RCEP and, in fear of Chinese competition, it has put restrictions on the ability of Chinese firms to purchase Indian companies during the contemporary global financial crisis and pandemic. And, in a recent development, the United States has just surpassed China as India’s second-largest overall trading partner in 2019, although China problematically remains India’s largest source of imports in sectors such as telecommunications and pharmaceuticals. In late June, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology banned fifty-nine Chinese-owned apps, stating that they were “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, security of state and public order.” On the other hand, Delhi did not support, in deference to Beijing, Taiwan’s observer status in the World Health Organization—an action that was strongly supported by the United States and its Allies given Taipei’s expertise in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, India intends to strengthen bilateral economic cooperation with Taipei through its Act East Policy.
The key question is how closer U.S., French and Japanese political-economic and defense ties with India—coupled with India’s clash with Russian-ally China over the LAC—will impact Russia. From Beijing’s perspective, there are some signs that the Trump administration, Macron and Abe, have all been attempting to forge a rapprochement with Moscow by trying to take advantage of the fact that Moscow and Beijing are not always on the same wavelength. Closer U.S.-European-Japanese-Russian ties to India would further exacerbate Beijing’s growing opposition to sanctions and geo-economic “encirclement.”
All this is taking place as Moscow is considering a strategic boost in relations with India as the tertius gaudens power that has sought to take advantage of U.S., European, Russian, Japanese and Chinese rivalries. For Moscow, the trick is how to upgrade strategic relations with India without alienating China and Pakistan, and for India to improve relations with Russia—but without alienating the United States.
On the one hand, Moscow is still India’s major arms supplier since the Cold War. And, at least in the past, Indian policymakers have been generally hesitant to purchase U.S. weapons with multiple strings attached. In October 2018, India purchased Russian S-400 missile systems for roughly $5 billion. Moscow has promised that these missile systems can provide defense against China’s significant IRBM force and both Chinese and Pakistani fighter jets. Here, it has been reported that Delhi has demanded that Moscow deliver the S-400s as rapidly as possible after the clash with China in June 2020. Then, in early July, Delhi approved new arms purchases worth a total of $5.55 billion that include Russian-made MiG-29 and Su-30MKI fighters.