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After a major breakthrough in February when Chinese and Indian troops withdrew from the north and south banks of the Pangong Tso in Ladakh, the disengagement process appears to have lost some steam in the past months. With talks at the Corps Commander level making little headway and tension persisting at other friction points in Gogra, Hot Springs, and Depsang Plains, a stalemate seems to have set in at the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Although all eyes are fixed on the military stalemate in the Himalayas, it is equally important to take note of the political stalemate that has developed between the two countries.

Change in China’s India Policy vs. Change in India’s China Policy

For India, the deadly clash that broke out between the Indian and Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley, resulting in casualties on both sides for first time in nearly 45 years, is undoubtedly an act of “unprovoked [Chinese] aggression” at the LAC, much in line with the recent episodes of Chinese power projection in the entire Indo-Pacific region. Indian strategists have mostly interpreted it as “a fundamental and consequential shift in [China’s] behaviour, a successful salami-slicing manoeuvre.” However, what is still somewhat unclear to New Delhi is what led China to readjust its India policy—that is, to violate all existing agreements regarding the maintenance of peace and tranquility at the LAC—with little regard for the future of the overall bilateral ties. 

There are conjectures galore within Indian strategic circles and beyond about possible Chinese motivations. Some argue that the conflict is the outcome of India’s 2019 decision to abrogate Article 370 in order to reorganize Jammu and Kashmir, while others state that this is the fallout of a construction arms race in the border areas, particularly India’s construction of the strategically significant Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie Road. Still others believe that this is a ploy by China to divert local and international attention away from the various controversies surrounding China’s role in exacerbating COVID-19 crisis across the world. However, the fact remains that no one in New Delhi can say for sure of what led China to seemingly recalibrate its India policy by suddenly upping the ante at the LAC.

Although all eyes are fixed on the military stalemate in the Himalayas, it is equally important to take note of the political stalemate that has developed between the two countries.

In fact, India’s External Affairs Minister (EAM) S. Jaishankar, has admitted on various occasions, “[India is] yet to receive credible explanation for change in China’s stance [towards India] and massing of troops in border areas … [and its] willingness to breach peace.” He further added, “[the] Chinese have to date given us five differing explanations” behind their policy change and noted that India is still trying to figure out not only China’s motivations, but also what the Chinese “posture signals, [its evolution], and its possible implications for future of ties.”

Meanwhile, the Chinese side has stressed what it perceives as a distinct shift in India’s China policy under Prime Minister Modi. As articulated by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi: “What had led to the situation last year at the China-India boundary was clear… There has been some wavering and back-pedaling in India’s China policy, and practical cooperation between the two countries has been affected.” It is important to note that in the recent past, particularly after the onset of the pandemic in early 2020, Chinese strategists have consistently flagged the issue of a perceived shift in India’s China policy, India’s strategic adjustment of major power diplomacy vis-á-vis China and the United States (marked by antagonistic competition towards China across the realms of ideology and economy), and the border issue. These strategists argue that the changes in India’s China policy are fueled by both internal developments, such as a conservative turn in Indian national politics, and external factors, such as the intensification of competition between the United States and China, which is in a way favorable to India’s rise. As summarized by Zhu Cuiping, one of China’s leading India experts and Deputy Director and Professor of the Indian Ocean Regional Research Center at Yunnan University of Finance and Economics, China needs to beware of India’s rising self-confidence and its toughening stance towards China; moreover, it should not rule out the possibility of a real-time conflict breaking out between the two countries in near future. In other words, for the Chinese side, the present border crisis is retaliation to what is perceived as a clear change in India’s China policy.

To Clarify or not to Clarify the LAC

Regardless of political affiliations or attitude towards China, there is near consensus in India that the best way to end the repeated stand-offs at the LAC and mitigate fluctuations in ties with China is to once and for all clarify the location of the LAC. The Indian strategic community has sought to build up pressure on China to resume the process of clarifying the LAC, which has been stalled since 2002. Since the Galwan clash, the dominant discourse in New Delhi is that “India and China should grasp the current situation as an opportunity to revive the stalled process of clarifying the LAC… the time to push for a settlement of the distracting, protracted border dispute is now.” It is widely believed in India that only a settlement will end the “shadow boxing” on the LAC, usher in a permanent “win-win” situation for both countries, and pave the way for regional cooperation beneficial to Asia and the world.

However, China remains elusive on the issue of clarifying the LAC. When confronted with the issue at a public event in New Delhi, the Chinese Ambassador to India Sun Weidong publicly ruled out the possibility of initiating the clarification process on grounds that “clarifying the LAC could ‘create new disputes’” and further hamper the process of “maintain[ing] peace and tranquility in the border areas.” Within Chinese strategic circles, clarification of the LAC is a complete non-starter. In fact, for the last few years, there has been much resentment among Chinese strategic circles over what is perceived as the Modi government’s unwillingness to “shelve the disputed border” and New Delhi’s consistent emphasis on China-India strategic cooperation based on proper settlement of the border dispute.

China’s reluctance to address the border row is supported by the argument that differences between China and India at the bilateral, regional, and international levels are not solely caused by the border dispute, but that both China and India consider themselves to be emerging powers, albeit at different stages. As per the Chinese assessment, even if China agrees to the settlement of the border dispute, China-India competition will continue unabated at various levels, only China will have one less card in hand, a crucial one, against India. For instance, Liu Zongyi, Secretary-General of the Centre for China and South Asia Studies of the Shanghai Institute of International Studies, argues that, if the LAC is determined and the border is delineated, next India will turn the gun towards Pakistan, establish its dominance over South Asia, and subsequently concentrate its entire strategic focus and main resources on the Indian Ocean, preventing China from entering the Indian Ocean, and controlling China’s lifeline. 

Some believe that the disputed border is a point of leverage for China given India is the only Quad country that shares a border with China. Therefore, from the political, economic, and strategic perspectives, China seems to be in no rush to resolve the border issue. Rather, in a sharp contrast to the “end of shadowboxing” narrative emanating from New Delhi, China’s leading South Asia experts have been hinting at a “continuous struggle, a long term see-saw between forces” at the LAC, for at least the next 4-5 years.

Any long-term and substantial breakthrough at the LAC can only result from genuine reconciliation between the two sides’ conflicting positions on LAC clarification, the impact of border clashes on bilateral ties, and their respective perception of antagonistic policy changes by the other side.

Delinking vs. Re-linking of the Border Dispute with Overall Bilateral Ties

The other major point of contradiction between New Delhi and Beijing is related to the position of the border dispute within their overall bilateral ties. Following the Galwan clash India took a series of punitive measures against China, beyond the realm of military, by banning popular Chinese apps, restricting Chinese investments and, most recently, excluding Huawei from India’s 5G trials. The goal was to convey to Beijing that peace and tranquility on the border is “absolutely essential” for good relations. Since last year, India’s EAM S. Jaishankar has reiterated the Indian stance multiple times through various platforms; “the bottom line for the relationship is clear: peace and tranquility must prevail on the border if the progress made in the last three decades is not to be jeopardized.” Cooperation between India and China, he stressed, has advanced steadily in the last three decades on grounds that peace and tranquility was maintained and that the LAC was both observed and respected by both sides. But now that there is a crisis at the LAC, it cannot be business as usual. “One cannot have friction, bloodshed, and intimidation on the borders and then say let’s have a good relationship in other domains,” Jaishankar has stated, while also emphasizing that “the border and the future of [China-India] ties cannot be separated.” 

However, in China, India’s stance is interpreted as a part of what is often referred to as India’s adventurist policy” under the Modi government, where India is not only building pressure on Beijing to urgently resolve the border issue but also placing the border issue as a necessary precondition for the positive development of overall China-India relations. As observed by Lou Chunhao, Deputy Director and Associate Researcher, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, bilateral relations could be normalized and improved in 1988, when India finally agreed to decouple the border issue from the rest of the relationship. Since then, successive leaderships in both countries have tried to downplay the boundary issue for the sake of overall advancement of China-India ties. However, the present Indian government is trying to re-link the border dispute with the progress in bilateral relations, which not only violates the bilateral consensus to not allow differences to rise into disputes, but can also create insurmountable obstacles to the long-term development of bilateral ties.

Accordingly, be it the first face-to-face meeting in Moscow after the violent clashes last year or during the more recent telephonic conversation with his Indian counterpart, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has insisted that the boundary dispute must be taken seriously, but should not assume the entirety of China-India relations. Instead, he argues that the border issue “should be put at a proper place in the overall bilateral relations” and that China and India should proceed towards developing “enabling conditions for a better relationship and greater practical cooperation between the two.” The Chinese Ambassador to India has, to little success, also made multiple attempts in the past year to convince the Indian strategic community of the Chinese stance regarding the need to delink the episodes of border clashes from the rest of the relationship .

To conclude, one can argue that behind the ongoing military stalemate at the LAC lies a stifling stalemate in both countries’ political stances towards the other. Any long-term and substantial breakthrough at the LAC can only result from genuine reconciliation between the two sides’ conflicting positions on LAC clarification, the impact of border clashes on bilateral ties, and their respective perception of antagonistic policy changes by the other side. Taken together, the possibility of such grand reconciliation between China and India in the current international situation looks rather grim at the moment.  

Editor’s Note: This article appeared as part of our four-part series on the one-year anniversary of the 2020 Sino-Indian border standoff in Ladakh. In this series, contributors discuss the impact of the standoff and clashes in Galwan on China and India’s strategic priorities, threat perceptions, and bilateral relationship in the years ahead.

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Image 1: Indi Tourists via Flickr

Image 2: Lintao Zhang via Getty Images

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