Flashpoints | Security | South Asia

The China-India Standoff and the Myth of a New Cold War

Chinese media are trying to cast the present crisis as a part of the “New Cold War” between the United States and China. Don’t be fooled.

By Sajid Farid Shapoo for
The China-India Standoff and the Myth of a New Cold War

In this Sept. 14, 2018, photo, Border Roads Organization workers rest near Pangong Lake in Ladakh region, India.

Credit: AP Photo/Manish Swarup

A recent report in Global Times, a state-owned Chinese daily, while commenting on the ongoing border standoff between China and India, advised India not to engage and get embroiled in the larger U.S.-China confrontation. Baked in the advice was also a subtle warning that becoming a U.S. front in the “New Cold War” could be detrimental for the Indian economy and its interests in the region. The report is revealing in many ways. It signals that a section of, if not all, Chinese policymakers see the present Sino-Indian standoff as an outcome of India’s willingness to toe the U.S. line on China, rather than one of many border disputes that have emerged between the two countries since the demarcation of territories after the Sino-Indian war in 1962. More importantly it reiterates the Chinese rhetoric of the heralding of a “New Cold War” era between the United States and China. While most Western experts do not see any merit in the hyperbole of the beginning of a new era of superpower competition, Chinese media, its policymakers, and scholars have audaciously attempted to craft the narrative of the advent of the “New Cold War.” Such a portrayal comes across as a brazen attempt to present the world with a fait accompli: China as an established superpower and an adversarial second pole in the global distribution of power. This discourse has another immediate implication. While the current standoff between India and China may be resolved with diplomatic efforts, the future of India-China peace, in the Chinese view, depends on India’s ability to pursue its China policy independently and not under the shadow of the growing U.S.-India alliance.

However, viewing the current Sino-Indian stand off as a part of global geopolitical gameplay would be an example of strategic myopia. It is not the first time that India and China have come face to face on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), that came to be the de facto border between the two countries after the 1962 Sino-Indian War. In last 50 years, both countries have squabbled over territorial demarcations all along the China- Indian border. There are over a dozen places in the Ladakh area, near the Bhutan-China border, and in Arunachal Pradesh where the two countries differ over the on-ground position of the LAC. The 2017 Doklam dispute, in the central sector, was one such dispute. The current crisis has seen Chinese troops build up at Galwan Nala and Pangong lake area in the Ladakh region and at the Nathu La pass near the Bhutan-China border. The simultaneous face off at three different places along the LAC appears not only well coordinated but also part of a plan that could not have been conceived at the local or sub-area level.

Some experts opine that India’s newfound assertiveness along the LAC in terms constructing feeder roads and supportive infrastructure may perhaps be seen as the trigger for the current standoff. The Chinese transgression may therefore be a bid to stop India from building permanent infrastructure, which could potentially give India a strategic advantage. This argument has baffled some security analysts in India as the troop build-up by China along the LAC started when the most of the Indian roads and feeder roads construction near those points was said to have reached near completion. The chances of China having missed this construction and being caught unaware are slim as China boasts fairly robust reconnaissance (both ground and space-based) capabilities. Moreover, the road and infrastructure development by both sides along the LAC to shore up their respective strategic positions has continued for many years; these have led to minor skirmishes but rarely triggered a major border transgression, that too at multiple points. As M. Taylor Fravel wrote, the scope, scale, and position of China’s build-up appears unprecedented. Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh acknowledged that a large number of Chinese troops have been stationed on the other side of Galwan Nala, and that Chinese fighters were making sorties within 30 km of their side of the LAC.

Another proffered explanation is that China is trying to signal its strength in a bid to restore its credibility and rebuild its image, both of which have taken a severe beating in the continuing fallout from the global pandemic. Many scholars and China watchers claim that the economic setbacks suffered by China due to COVID-19, along with its already shaky economy, may have prompted Beijing to resort to the latest transgression, with the twin goals of diverting the focus from domestic issues to an external enemy, and at the same time exhibiting China’s strength to the world audience. Some South Asian experts also allude to a conspiracy theory that sees the current standoff as a possible preemptive move by China to forestall India’s supposed intentions for a military adventure in the northern areas of Pakistan (Gilgit and Baltistan), through which the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passes.

Both these arguments, however, fall more in the realm of speculation and hypotheticals with no evidence of such moves on the ground. Such views also do not seem to reflect the narrative prevalent in the Chinese domestic space. China has avoided escalating the current border issue by toning down the nationalistic rhetoric and also by not taking a firm stand on the issue. This could be a useful strategy to avoid any audience costs in case of having to back down to the pre-crisis position. Even an authoritarian regime like China has been seen to be sensitive to domestic audience costs. During the Doklam crisis, many Chinese felt that that China had lost the war of perceptions as it was domestically seen as having backed down from its stated position to end the crisis. Additionally, Chinese leadership does not believe that the pandemic has dented its international position. In fact, many within the CCP see the current global crisis, particularly the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the U.S. economy, as an opportunity to stake claim to its great power status, ushering in an end to U.S. primacy and a transition toward a bipolar world.

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Chinese belligerence should in fact be seen more through the context of its emerging self-narrative of China as the second pole in the new bipolar world. Leader Xi Jinping sees the time as ripe for replacing the “rising China” narrative with the rhetoric of China having arrived as a global superpower. The “third revolution” of Xi Jinping, as identified by scholar Elizabeth Economy, is predicated on upending the Deng era adage of “hide your strength and bide your time.” For Xi, China must now claim its position in the global distribution of power. The current border standoff is thus being projected more in terms of global geopolitics. China is trying to portray the crisis as part of superpower gameplay in the so called “New Cold War.” Both Chinese national media and its experts see U.S. support as one of the main drivers behind India’s firmness and aggression in dealing with its border issues with China. By asking India not to get played by the United States, China attempts to convey that its real competition is with the U.S. and not India. This backdoor attempt to gain entry into the superpower club, by harping on the narrative of “New Cold War” is apparently working. Many Western scholars have also fallen prey to this rhetoric and have started seeing it as a real thing.

India, on its part, has received considerable support from the United States during both the 2017 Doklam standoff and the current crisis. The growing voices in the West that the U.S. should forge a deep strategic alliance, both economic and defense oriented, with India also gels with the emerging view of India being a natural ally of the United States and thus a bulwark against China in Asia. While this may come as a big boost to India’s position in the region, New Delhi must tread this path cautiously. The “New Cold War,” if it ever becomes a reality, would be completely different from the Cold War of the twentieth century. The U.S. no longer enjoys the same hegemonic status as it did decades ago. Its position as the leader of the liberal international order has long been eroded. Its European partners no longer see the United States as a dependable ally. Suffice to say that the Cold War doubts over U.S. extended deterrence are far more pertinent today. It may thus not be advisable for India to put all its eggs in one basket. India must, as it is trying to, handle its bilateral issues with China in an independent manner without falling prey to the Chinese narrative.

Handling the current standoff as purely a bilateral issue without linking it to the so called “New Cold War” would not only be strategically beneficial for India but also undermine Chinese efforts to craft the superpower gameplay narrative and thus its bid to elevate itself to the position of a new pole in the international distribution of power. China’s backdoor machinations of claiming superpower status are predicated on its ability to be accepted first as a regional hegemon. Its lingering disputes with most of its neighbors would make it difficult for regional states to accept or accord such a status to China. India by playing on its own strengths would deny China the strategic space it is trying to grab by casting the present crisis as a part of the “New Cold War” between the United States and China. Instead, it should solely be seen and handled purely as a bilateral dispute between the two neighbors.

Sajid Farid Shapoo is a highly decorated Indian Police Service officer (two star general) and is currently a PhD scholar at the Princeton University. He also holds a Masters in International Affairs from Columbia University and regularly writes on geopolitical and security related issues.