Toward the end of last week, a Western analyst who specializes in East Asian strategic affairs messaged me to discuss the latest turn in the ongoing India-China military standoff in Ladakh, as we have periodically done over the last few months. But this time around, he noted something that has been on the minds of many since the crisis started early May: Despite the gravity of the situation, the world seems to be relatively blasé about it.
True, as the crisis has deepened — with clashes and deaths, and reports of firing on the Line of the Actual Control (which serves as the de facto though undefined border between the two countries) for the first time in more than 40 years – the international press has covered the standoff with increasing regularity. But the impression that the current crisis deserves far more attention than what it has received so far is unmistakable.
Consider this: You have India and China — Asia’s second and fourth most powerful militaries – in a standoff that will enter its fifth month in less than two weeks. Add to this the possibility that in event of a shooting war between the two, Pakistan, another top-10 regional military power, may also join in to open a new front against India — and all three countries are nuclear-armed. Top it off with the (much-repeated) facts that China and India together make up a third of the planet’s population and they are the second and fifth largest economies in the world, and you’d perhaps also wonder why the India-China crisis is not jumping off the screen for you.
I can think of four different reasons, each troubling in its own right.
The first has to do with how India’s strategic orientation is widely perceived, beyond the coterie of government officials, think tankers, and journalists in key Western capitals. When we think of wars India might fight, Pakistan – and Kashmir – immediately comes to mind. To be sure, this mental hyphenation has been reinforced by New Delhi’s own very public obsession with Pakistan and its material military posture. But Kashmir has always been a dispute involving three powers, though admittedly China had been, for a considerable period of time, relatively silent about it. It is a matter of no small irony that India’s most serious national security challenge since the 1999 Kargil conflict with Pakistan is in Ladakh – which formed part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir till August last year.
Which brings me to my second reason. While India has vocally sought the United States’ intercession and public support any time it has gotten into a scrap with Pakistan, it has – as Tanvi Madan and others have reminded us – preferred that the United States refrain from commenting on its difficulties with China, while counting on quiet help. (This was the delicately balanced apple cart that President Donald Trump’s rash statements about the ongoing standoff in May threatened to overturn.)
But even assuming that the relative silence of the U.S. government is strategic, and mindful of India’s preference, one can safely conjecture that, consequentially, the American public at large — insofar as it concerns itself with the larger world at a time of great political turmoil at home, not to mention a raging pandemic — has been unaware of the gravity of the unfolding situation. Beyond that is a matter of simple ignorance: how many are aware of the fact that almost the entire 3,488 kilometers border between India and China is disputed, the largest such in the world? (In contrast and ironically, a large fraction of the India-Pakistan border is settled, agreed on by both sides on map and ground.)
Could it be that India’s own confused, and therefore confusing, China policy, under the garb of a stated posture of strategic autonomy, has something to do with how the current standoff has not registered in the public consciousness?
Over the years, India has blown hot and cold when it comes to China, setting the border issue aside to pursue economic and political cooperation with its largest neighbor. A 2017 statistical analysis shows that between 2001 and 2015, the rest of the BRICS (China included) have closely tracked India’s voting pattern in the U.N., suggesting substantial political convergence in multilateral forums. For reasons that remain unclear, the Indian government continues to equate India’s cooperation with Russia and China with its three-way consultations with the U.S. and Japan. With this, and more, in the backdrop one can perhaps forgive why foreigners have, by and large, failed to grasp the simmering tensions between India and China that have now dramatically come to the fore.
Finally, there is that fundamental question of interests. Strip away the rhetoric of making common cause with like-minded democracies in the Asia-Pacific, of India as a “major defense partner,” or even the flattering Indo-Pacific nomenclature and ask: What exactly is at stake for the United States in the current standoff? Also ask: How would the United States react if a crisis like this was building up between China and Japan, or perhaps China and Australia – hypotheticals that are ultimately about the future of the U.S. as the Pacific hegemon? Put another way, if India tomorrow was to fold – and accept a new status quo in Ladakh – what would the United States, all said and done, stand to lose?
Sure, one certain corollary of the current standoff would be India’s military strengthening its continental focus, and concomitantly, not being able to do its part in terms of maritime burden-sharing (however the U.S. and its Asian allies imagine that to be). But it is an unoriginal observation that already before the current crisis India — beyond enthusiastically jumping into an array of consultative mechanisms – was faltering in meeting the United States’ expectations, leading to an “India fatigue” in Washington (if some close observers are to be trusted). If the current crisis ends up with New Delhi doubling down on its frontiers, could it exacerbate this fatigue, leading to a moment of reckoning in the U.S.-India relationship?
The current India-China standoff raises these uncomfortable questions – for India, the U.S., and the world. But they must be asked, and eventually answered.