June 15, 2020 will go down in history as a day on which two nuclear powers — China and India — were on the brink of a fight over their disputed border. The Galwan clash came as a surprise to some, but historical scrutiny suggests that Sino-Indian confrontations on the border often happen during times of Chinese vulnerability, when Beijing’s aim is to undermine the consolidation of an anti-China coalition. As long as external pressure on China persists, a larger-scale conflict on the Sino-Indian border remains a possibility. The involved actors must tread carefully to avoid triggering a process that could lead to unwanted escalation.
After more than four decades of relative tranquillity on the India-China border, Chinese and Indian troops drew blood in the Galwan Valley, raising alarms about a potential war between the Asian juggernauts. The confrontation led to a flurry of analyses and explanations of China’s motives for the move. Despite all the efforts, China’s considerations remain elusive.
Taking a look at long-term patterns of Sino-Indian border crises could shed more light on the issue. Historically, external pressure played an important role in exacerbating China’s sense of vulnerability, often leading to violent border clashes in China’s neighborhood.
This pattern applies to the Sino-Indian border. In the early 1960s, Sino-U.S. and Sino-Soviet ties deteriorated and the superpowers sought to secure India’s allegiance in their ideological competition. At the same time, India was making advances in the disputed territory between China and India. Against this backdrop, Chinese leaders saw the emergence of anti-China coalition composed of the U.S., Soviet Union, and India. Beijing’s “self-defensive counterattack” against India in 1962 not only served the purpose of halting Indian advances on the border but also countered Soviet and U.S. efforts at containing China.
We see a similar scenario emerging now. In 2016, India and the United States inked a military logistics accord that facilitates the two sides’ coordinated operations. Chinese analysts concluded that India signed the agreement to counter China with the help of the U.S., while Washington wanted to use India to pressure China. In 2019, the U.S. promulgated the Indo-Pacific strategy, under which it boosts cooperation with Japan, Australia, and India to put pressure on China.
Among these circumstances, Chinese analysts interpreted the Galwan clash as an indicator of potential international collusion against China. One commentary argued that the United States encouraged India with the hope that the two Asian countries would fight with each other. From a different perspective, India’s moves on the border were inspired by the U.S. pressure on China and Beijing’s difficulties stemming from it. New Delhi — mistakenly — expected Beijing to compromise on the border in the face of India-U.S.-Australia-Japan collaboration against it, the view went. A scholarly analysis proposed that India possibly wanted to create a warlike atmosphere to generate support from the U.S. and its allies — and this move was probably inspired by the benefits India reaped from Soviet and U.S. support after its 1962 loss to China.
Against this backdrop, the Galwan clash adheres to the pattern of China’s anti-encirclement strategy of picking off antagonists one by one. The clash served this strategy in two ways. First, it possibly was a warning to New Delhi that ganging up against China entails negative consequences. Second, a conflict on the border could compel India to divert its resources from assisting the maritime Indo‑Pacific strategy toward building up its land-based capabilities in the disputed region.
The likelihood of further clashes depends on the actors involved. As far as Beijing is concerned, it might be tempting to lash out against India to demonstrate military might and deter other actors from challenging China. However, the Indian Army of 2020 is not the same as the one of 1962. India has not only significantly improved border defense since, but it is also a nuclear and naval power to reckon with. A fight with New Delhi today could entail higher costs than it did almost six decades ago.
On the other side of the Himalayas, it might be intuitive for India to move closer to the U.S., as Washington has a lot to offer in terms of strategic cooperation. However, India is ought to proceed carefully in its enhanced strategic partnership with states that China deems unfriendly, such as the U.S., Australia, and Japan. Beijing might see these moves as coordinated bullying and lash out against it with more assertiveness.
As a third actor, the United States has to walk a fine line between China and India. On the one hand, the border conflict provides the U.S. with an opportunity to draw closer to India and enhance strategic cooperation. Nevertheless, Washington should not overplay its hand. Enhancing strategic engagement with India could exacerbate China’s sense of vulnerability and invite further assertiveness from Beijing.
Daniel Balazs is a Ph.D. candidate at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His dissertation focuses on the Chinese perspective on the Sino-Indian border dispute. The views expressed are his own.