Image: Suzy Hazelwood (Pexels)
The following serves as an introduction to the dynamic situation unfolding along the Chinese-Indian border and the surrounding region. As such, this article will engage with relations between India and China, the pressure being experienced by Nepal and Bhutan, the impact of Russia’s influence, the growing relationship between the USA and India, and finally, the Pakistan-China relationship as a threat to India.
China and India have a long history together, one that has not necessarily been friendly. The underlying tensions between these two nuclear powers manifested as open hostility during the June 15th 2020 Galwan Valley engagement around the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that left 20 Indian soldiers dead. One can only imagine the brutality of the engagement, considering that it was fought using only improvised medieval weapons such as metal rods with welded on nails. The lack of firearms on the Sino-Indian border is a result of the 1993 peace talks that produced the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas. The purpose of the bilateral agreement was to ensure that no firearms or explosives may be used within two kilometres of the LAC, with the last border incident involving firearms in 1975 in the Arunachal Pradesh region.
There are a rising number of points along China’s Southern and Western borders where their military has been active and infrastructure development projects have been occurring, this includes not only the border that China shares with India, but also the borders shared with Nepal and Bhutan. China’s focus on developing relationships with these nations is aligned with the Belt and Road initiative and places an ever increasing pressure on the relationships between India and these respective nations.
Nepal & Bhutan
India’s move to revoke the constitutional autonomy that the Kashmir region enjoyed at the end of 2019 – thereby splitting the region into Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh – also resulted in them redrawing borders to include territories disputed by Nepal as their own. The most significant of these territories being the coveted Lipulekh Pass, coveted due to the strategic value of the pass as it connects the Indian state of Uttarakhand with the Tibet region of China. Nepal’s foreign minister, Pradeep Gyawali, cited the 1816 Sugauli treaty as evidence of the disputed territories belonging to Nepal, as such, Nepal’s response was to also publish a new map that includes the disputed region – to the ire of India.
One might think that Nepal is biting off more than they can chew, however, China’s backing changes the situation. The foundation of the positive relationship between the two states can be traced to the 2016 transit trade treaty with China, a treaty that was able to happen due to the strong support that Nepal’s Prime Minister, KP Sharma Oli, has experienced from Xi Jinping and by that extension the Communist Party of China (CPC). The purpose of the treaty was twofold, to improve the relationship between China and Nepal, and more importantly to ensure that Nepal is less dependent on India. The former point was reiterated by Xi Jinping this month, with the leader of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) pushing for even deeper levels of cooperation between the strategic partners. The latter point has been demonstrated by the fact that trade between Nepal and India is now the lowest it has been since the five-month long blockade of Nepal in 2015.
Regarding Bhutan, until this year the disputes concerning the Sino-Bhutanese border were limited to the western and central sectors only, however, China has now furthered their claim to include the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in the east of Bhutan. The reason behind the new claim being the Doklam Plateau due to its strategic location at the intersection between India, Bhutan and Tibet, an area that currently allows India the strategic advantage of being able to control the Chumbi Valley. This area has been at the center of tensions between India and China before. Looking back at the 2017 standoff between Indian and Chinese troops that lasted 73 days and was triggered by China’s construction of a road into Doklam.
Russia & USA
Then there is Russia, who is both a member of BRICS and the Russia-India-China (RIC) trilateral group, and who has been a source of uncharacteristic calm amid the rising tensions. Not only did Russia play a key role in de-escalating tensions following the June 15th engagement, the nation has also been key is facilitating dialogue between China and India. Russia has been able to play this role for two reasons; firstly, because China is Russia’s biggest trading partner and the most significant Asian Investor in Russia, as well as, China recognising that Russia is both a source of raw materials and an ever growing market for Chinese exports. Secondly, looking in the other direction, India and Russia’s relationship has spanned over seven decades and is grounded by their arms trade, with nearly 70% of India’s military supplies coming from Russia. As such, not only does India have strong ties with Russia, they also recognise that Russia’s relationship with China places them in the unique position of being able to influence China’s hard stance and approach to the border issues.
Although Russia has sold over $35 billion worth of military equipment to India since 2000, since 2010 the US has risen to be the second largest provider of military equipment to India. The attractiveness of the alternative partner was demonstrated by Modi’s pledge to Trump to buy US helicopters and other military equipment to the value of $3 billion. The building up and deepening of the relationship between the US and India forms part of the former’s efforts to destabilise both the Sino-Indian and Russian-Indian relationships, thereby attempting to counter the flow of Chinese influence in region as well as to capture a larger segment of the multi-billion dollar arms trade.
However, the final factor to consider is that of Pakistan. To say that tensions between India and Pakistan are high would be a bit of an understatement, from the first India-Pakistan war over the Kashmir region in 1947, the border between India and Pakistan has been a source of perpetual instability and malcontent for both nuclear powers. Consequently, the ever deepening ties between China and Pakistan is viewed as an escalating threat by India. This relationship is grounded by both the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) infrastructure project and China’s continuous support in terms of military supplies and expertise, going so far as to assist with Pakistan’s nuclear program. The former allowing China to reduce its dependency on the Indian controlled Malacca Straits. China’s military support is of higher significance to India, as an escalation in tensions resulting in conflict means that India could potentially end up fighting a war on two fronts against highly professional and well equipped opponents with respective nuclear capabilities.
In conclusion, I would argue that is a case of when, not if, this region will witness an escalation in conflict, between China’s highly aggressive expansionary behaviour in the last decade and multiplicity of actors involved, with not all their interests being overt or aligned with other major actors. Battle-lines are being drawn and old debts are being called in. The real question is then: what will be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back?
By Henry-Dillon Peens
Henry-Dillon Peens is an honours philosophy, politics, and economics student at the University of Pretoria, with his research focusing on the intersection between technology and intelligence. Henry is one of the permanent writers at The Art of Politics.