The number of Sino-Indian border escalations in the past decade has outnumbered those that occurred in the five decades after the 1962 border war. These recent escalations shattered the stability that both sides had achieved through agreements signed in 1993, 1996, and 2005.
The unresolved border disputes, the rise of nationalist leaders in both countries, and the impact of international politics have all contributed to the tensions. These three factors did not operate simultaneously in the past, but have interplayed and reinforced each other in the recent period.
History informs us that more wars break out over contested territories than for political, ideological, or economic reasons. China and India inherited the world’s longest unmarked border. The strategic significance of the disputed border, the animosity that they developed over decades, militarization, and resultant nationalism together compound the border issues.
Meanwhile, other factors help incentivize escalation. These include the strategic value of the disputed territories, prior military confrontations between the contenders, incompatible regimes in the disputant countries (as different regime types pursue different objectives during negotiations), a perception that others’ actions will change the status quo, and the breakdown of established norms as happened after the Galwan incident.
While these conditions have the potential for conflict, escalation is not automatic. The escalations were triggered by the policies of new nationalist leaders in both countries and the impact of international politics.
Role of Leaders
In late 2012, Xi Jinping assumed power in China, and in 2014 Narendra Modi came to office in India. Both maverick leaders started their careers with strong power bases. Xi held three key positions from the start: secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), chairman of the Central Military Commission, and (after a lacuna of four months) president of China. In India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Modi won a landslide in the 2014 elections and gained additional seats in the 2019 elections.
This solid power base enabled the leaders to ambitiously pursue their national agendas of great power status. As a part of this goal, China and India accelerated military modernization, increased defense infrastructure, and made physical and legal changes to the Line of Actual Control (LAC). These developments, coupled with greater authority designated to local commanders, in a highly charged environment where internal media highlighted each development on the LAC, increased the prospect of clashes.
In parallel, China and India pursued competing interests (and projects), vied for status, and invoked external politics, albeit in different ways, that influenced the rivalry. For instance, Xi’s assertive policies and global ambitions strengthened the perception of the “China threat.” The Modi government revised India’s long-held non-alignment policy and moved to “multi-alignment,” allowing outsiders to affect the previously bilateral rivalry.
No country is better positioned than India to counter a rising China. India maintains a rough parity with China in size, population, market, military strength, and economy (if not currently, then in the mid-term future). India, with a 7,516 kilometer-long coastline and a large navy equipped with aircraft carriers, maintains a strong hold on the Indian Ocean. It is developing the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, close to the Malacca Strait, as strategic maritime centers. India maintains a strong maritime relationship with Indian Ocean states and has access to French and Japanese bases in Djibouti. This ability poses serious challenges to China, which has a critical dependence on the Indian Ocean. Cognizance of this reality led the Quad members to increase the inducement of India.
Impact of the Quad
International politics thus began to impact the Sino-Indian rivalry at different levels. The “China factor” strengthened India’s bilateral relations with the United States, Japan and Australia, among others. This support increased, corresponding to the deterioration of their bilateral ties with China.
The China factor emerged at the center of the India-U.S. partnership as their views dovetailed on China. The United States has made exceptional concessions to India in recent years. It amended domestic laws to pave the way for the India-U.S. nuclear deal, lobbied for India’s inclusion in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSP), backed New Delhi’s entry into key bodies and supported its bid in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Washington exempted India from sanctions over oil imports from Iran and Russia, and over the purchase of a $5.5 billion Russian missile (the U.S. penalized Turkey, a NATO ally, over a similar deal).
This dynamic has directly touched on the Sino-Indian border dispute. U.S. endorsed the Indian version of the border escalations and raised the LAC at international forums. At the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2022, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin accused Beijing of hardening its position along the LAC.
The China factor also transformed the India-Japan relationship from “low-key” during the 20th century into deepening strategic cooperation in the 2010s. In the context of their deepening relationship, New Delhi and Tokyo started supporting each other’s territorial disputes with China – for Japan, islands in the East China Sea and for India, the LAC. In early 2015, the Japanese foreign minister termed Arunachal Pradesh as part of India, and Beijing reacted angrily. Japan also made an investment of approximately $2 billion in India’s Northeast, part of which is disputed by China.
The China factor also strengthened India’s relations with Australia. Both sides decided to put aside their traditional friction points to forge a strong and comprehensive strategic partnership. As Australia’s relations with China further deteriorated due to trade disputes, China’s “economic coercion” and Australia’s demand for an independent inquiry into the origin of COVID-19, cooperation with India increased. The Australian defense minister stated in 2021 that every major Australian city was within range of Chinese missile attacks.
The China factor not only strengthened India’s ties with the United States, Japan, and Australia but also revived the Quad. India expanded the scale and scope of the Malabar Naval Exercises to include all three of its Quad partners as a strategic response to China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific. While the Quad remained far from an alliance, it did provide an additional platform for the members to coordinate their policies on China regularly.
Galwan as the Turning Point
Despite a natural tendency for territorial disputes to trigger conflicts between contenders, China and India maintained stability on their disputed borders from the late 1970s to the early 2010s for two reasons. First, the leadership of both countries was primarily concerned with domestic affairs and economic development. They pursued cautious foreign policies and showed restraint during border tensions. The advent of strong leaders in both countries, coupled with a shifting international environment, paved the way for confrontation. These factors interacted with each other in a mutually reinforcing way.
It is three years since the Galwan incident, and both sides are still unable to restore the pre-Galwan situation. Xi and Modi have not held a bilateral meeting since 2019. Moreover, the erosion of the hard-earned consensus on patrolling without arms, the rapid development of defense infrastructure on the disputed borders, the overall military modernization by both countries, a widening trust deficit, the return of border nationalism (especially in India), and the growing involvement of the Quad all together compounded the Sino-Indian relationship with the main thrust on the disputed border.
While pessimism is not desired, the trajectory looks negative. The leaders have played a crucial role, and this is unlikely to change. Xi has started an unprecedented third term, while Modi is hoping to continue in office after the Indian general elections in 2024. Given the continuity of leadership on both sides, it is unrealistic to expect a major breakthrough in the current impasse.
The impact of international politics will persist or increase. Most Western concerns stem from China’s growing power, which is unlikely to recede. To counter this, India will remain an attractive partner to the Quad in the Asia-Pacific. India, motivated in part by the Chinese threat and in part by the cognizance of the importance of external assistance to its quest for big power status, will likely play such a role. The nature and extent of India-Quad cooperation, however, will be determined by India.
The Sino-Indian rivalry has spanned beyond territorial disputes. Thus, even if the boundary issue is resolved – hypothetically speaking – it may help reduce some tension but would not completely eliminate it. Other aspects of the rivalry would continually affect the situation on the border, which would remain a key issue in bilateral ties. The nature of Sino-Indian relations will greatly impact Asia-Pacific politics.