The latest build-up on the China-India border has come as a surprise to many, not just in New Delhi but all over the world. Why would China choose to antagonize India at this point in time? China’s relationship with the United States is on a downward spiral and Beijing is already drawing flak from the international community over the coronavirus crisis, facing new challenges in cross-strait relations and the South China Sea, and in the middle of an unprecedented social unrest, particularly in Hong Kong. What could be China’s motive or intentions behind triggering or intensifying the present crisis with India?
China’s top leadership has been tight-lipped about the development. Unlike during the Doklam stand-off of 2017, China’s state media too has been rather restrained in its coverage of the incident, with just a handful of articles, mostly parroting the official stance that India is illegally trespassing and constructing defense facilities across the border into Chinese territory in the Galwan Valley region, leaving Chinese border troops no other option but to make necessary moves in response. However, on the other hand, there have been some lively debates and discussions on the issue on China’s state-controlled internet, which does provide important cues about how China might be reading the situation.
In India, the current crisis at the border is mostly seen as a continuation of China’s post-pandemic “assertive foreign policy” across the world and also as a fallout of the overall souring of China-India ties in the recent past. Some suspect the simultaneous breaking out of a high-voltage drama between India and Nepal over Kalapani as a subplot to the broader China-India contradictions in Ladakh and Sikkim. However, in the Chinese articulation the India-Nepal border row seems to be the main plot, which has acted as a catalyst raising tensions along the disputed border between China and India.
In India, focus has been turned to the Durbuk- Shyok-Daulet Beg Oldi Road (DSBDBO) along the Galwan River — which runs more or less parallel to the LAC and improves India’s access to the Karakoram Highway — as the possible trigger point for the latest flare-up between China and India. But discussions on the Chinese internet indicate that China remains much more concerned about the newly constructed 80-kilometer stretch from Dharchula to Lipulekh (the gateway to Kailash-Mansarovar, a site for Hindu pilgrimage in Tibet), completed on April 17 and inaugurated on May 8 by Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh. That may have led Beijing to review the situation at the China-India borders.
In the Chinese assessment, India’s construction activity in the disputed areas with Nepal has affected China’s border security in Tibet. By building the 80 km stretch (76 km has been completed recently and the last 4 km of the road to Lipulekh Pass is expected to be completed by the year’s end) India has moved its frontier vis-a vis China, gaining direct access to the concrete highway in Purang county in Tibet, and has thereby changed the status quo in the region. China already has border defense roads in Purang county on the middle border and Cona county on the southern border with India and a Chinese airport in Purang is scheduled to be completed in 2021. Despite its preparedness on its side of the border, China is concerned that India still has much room for maneuver, using Nepal’s geographical advantage to challenge China’s dominant position in the region.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian has officially stated that the India-Nepal differences over Kalapani are an issue between India and Nepal and that the two neighbors should properly resolve the disputes through friendly consultations and refrain from “unilateral actions.” However, many in the Chinese strategic circles believe that China is not “completely unrelated” to the India-Nepal border dispute, and given Nepal’s strategic value to China, it cannot and should not “sit idle.” After all, “securing Nepal will mean securing China’s borders.” Therefore, even if China does not directly send troops to intervene between India and Nepal, it needs to get involved “passively” by building up pressure on New Delhi and thereby warning it to stay away from Nepal.
The Chinese strategic community lauded what they called “Nepal’s first powerful counterattack and the first military confrontation against India in years” and encouraged the Himalayan nation to keep up the “tough stance” and “fight back and be uncompromising on its core interests.” Many even interpreted the Nepali actions as a part of Kathmandu’s promise of “not letting any force use Nepali territory for anti-China activities,” which it reiterated during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s maiden visit to the Himalayan nation last October.
In the Chinese assessment, the main reason behind Nepal’s sudden enthusiasm and determination to resist India is “absolutely inextricably linked to China’s support,” which has not only helped Nepal over the years to reduce its dependence on India through highways, railways, electricity, and communication networks etc., but has now added strength to Nepal’s bargaining power vis-à-vis India by building up military pressure along the China-India border.
China’s renewed focus on Nepal comes in the face of the changing dynamics in South Asia’s security situation. It is generally understood in Chinese policy circles that by reorganizing the state of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019, India has broken the strategic balance in South Asia (between India and Pakistan) that existed over the past half century. China’s failure to get international support on the issue has further added on to its exasperation. Meanwhile, China’s threat perception vis-à-vis India has also been changing in recent years, particularly after the Doklam crisis, with some Chinese strategists now considering India as the “toughest regional competitor or the biggest threat in the region” to China’s rise. New Delhi is viewed as making use of the international situation (favorable for India and unfavorable for China) to make up for the gap in strength with China and seek benefits or concessions beyond its strength and capabilities.
It is true that China does not consider India to be its primary strategic competitor. However, some Chinese veterans are of the opinion that China has a history of adjusting its strategic direction and has more often than not benefitted from solving contradictions in a secondary direction first, rather than the contradictions in the primary direction.
Given the situation, China seems to be taking another look at its South Asia policy. First, the agenda is to set off a public opinion offensive against India at the international level, portraying India as “the biggest and the only destabilizing factor in South Asia,” “a country with wolf ambitions,” which is simultaneously provoking all the neighboring countries, irrespective of their sizes. The Chinese campaign in this regard projects India as an expansionist power in South Asia that has “dismembered Pakistan, annexed Sikkim, controls Bhutan, and is now trampling on the Nepali sovereignty. However, China will come to the rescue and ensure that Nepal does not become the next Sikkim.”
Second, China is tactically invoking Nepal’s history to suit its objectives in South Asia. In Chinese discussions there is recurrent emphasis on Nepal’s historical status as a “vassal state” to the Chinese empires for thousands of years, before it fell prey to British India in 1816 due to the weakness of the Qing Dynasty. There is repeated raking up of the Treaty of Sugauli, which is called a treaty of humiliation for the Nepali people, where it had to “cede one-third of its territory to British India,” thereby stoking the idea of Greater Nepal and Gorkha nationalism.
Third, a section of the Chinese strategic community also seems to be exploring the future possibility of a “prolonged guerrilla warfare,” a “prompt military action” on the India-Nepal border, or setting up a “Three Front” (China-Pakistan-Nepal) challenge to restrict India in the north.
To sum up, for India, the present crisis at the China-India border is indeed serious, and not just because it is unlikely a routine accidental border conflict or because of the unprecedented high levels of tension and physical violence at multiple locations of the disputed LAC, as already observed by eminent experts. The standoff also marks a critical turn in China’s strategic calculations in South Asia.
Antara Ghosal Singh is a Research Associate at the Delhi Policy Group (DPG). She is an alumna of Tsinghua University and Beijing Language and Culture University, China and National Central University, Taiwan.