Tanvi Madan on India-China Border Skirmishes

Tanvi Madan is a senior fellow in the Project on International Order and Strategy in the Foreign Policy program, and director of The India Project at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. Madan’s work explores India’s role in the world and its foreign policy, focusing in particular on India's relations with China and the United States. She also researches the intersection between Indian energy policies and its foreign and security policies.
Nandeeni Patel CMC '21 interviewed Dr. Tanvi Madan on September 15, 2020.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Tanvi Madan.

The recent clashes on the western Himalayan border between China and India’s militaries have damaged the relationship between these two countries. The clashes have jeopardized the future of bilateral relations. What led to the flare up in tensions and the violence in June that led to the killing of Indian and Chinese soldiers?

The current military standoff has its origins before June. The standoff was initiated in late April or early May. The approximate cause for the standoff was that China’s People’s  Liberation Army (PLA) took actions to change the status quo at the Line of Actual Control (LAC). We don’t know the exact details, but we do know that the PLA acted at multiple points along the LAC. The PLA was reportedly doing one of two things. At places, the PLA was apparently hindering Indian patrols where they normally patrol. At other places, the PLA reportedly moved to establish a permanent presence in areas that both India and China claim.

It is still not clear what exactly happened on June 15th and what led up to the clash. Both sides have said that the other instigated the clash. There are a few things that we do know, one being that both India and China suffered casualties. To some extent though, we may never know the exact details of what initiated that clash in June.

Indian officials say China instigated the fight by trying to advance into territory that both countries claim, whereas Chinese officials say India instigated the standoff. BBC News has also reported that there has been a lot of fake news surrounding the border clash.How do we assess responsibility for these events given the limited information we have? 

Fake news is different from two countries having different versions of events.

Regarding assessing responsibility, one way is by analyzing available satellite imagery. The evidence shows that the PLA established a presence in areas that they were not in earlier; shows that there was a change in dispositions. We also know that after China moved into areas that both sides claim, India moved into different positions too. We know that both sides are deployed in large numbers, both near the LAC and what are called depth areas.

It is well-established that the PLA took the initial action in late April, early May. The real debate is about what motivated the Chinese side to take those initial steps. The PLA moved not at one point, but at multiple points along the LAC at a larger scale than they have recently. The Chinese side blames the Indian side for constructing infrastructure on the Indian side of the LAC. The Indian side would respond by saying that if the PLA had concerns about infrastructure building along the LAC, they should have discussed the issue at the negotiating table rather than unilaterally changing the territorial status quo. The Indian side would further argue that the infrastructure building was on its side of the LAC and was in response to infrastructure that China had built on the Chinese side of the LAC.

Several scholars have noted that China may be lashing out in response to a new road India built in Ladakh along the LAC. There seems to be a race to develop the area. Why is China feeling threatened by India’s development projects? Do you think India’s intentions were to provoke China after both countries’ 2019 summits for joint development projects?

The Chinese had gotten a head start on developing their side of the LAC. China had the funding and capacity to start earlier. They, for example, built roads and landing grounds. Early Chinese building in the difficult terrain made the area more accessible for Chinese troops.

For a while, India did not respond. But in the last ten-plus years, India has been playing catch-up to develop these areas to increase connectivity for both military and civilian populations. The frequency of face-offs was expected to increase because both sides would now bump up against each other more during their patrols.

Both sides have complaints about the other in terms of infrastructure. However, since 1993, both countries had signed agreements that differences would be sorted out through diplomatic mechanisms when there were problems in the area along the LAC. The 2019 summit, like the 2018 summit, had also led to a professed general agreement between China and India that they were not going to let their differences become disputes. The 2019 summit specifically addressed the need to increase connectivity and ties between both civil societies so that they could lay the groundwork for both countries to manage the border issue and potentially resolve it.

The Indians are now saying that the Chinese are going against the spirit of the 2019 summit where both countries established a consensus to focus on the cooperative side of the relationship, and against the previous boundary agreements. The Chinese are saying that they want to get back to the broader relationship, and thus far have not focused on the Indian’s demand to return to the status quo ante first.

After the initial violence in June, there was an economic boycott against Chinese products in India. Looking forward, do you think New Delhi will be able to separate the economic and political relationship it shares with Beijing?

The economic and political relationship that Beijing and New Delhi share cannot be separated.

In an effort to resolve matters between India and China, both countries are emphasizing different things. The Chinese side has said that they do not want differences at the border to affect the broader relationship. The Indian side, on the contrary, has said that the two countries signed agreements in the 1990s to not change the status quo and those agreements were the foundation of the two countries having a broader—including--economic relationship. For India, peace and tranquility at the boundary is a prerequisite to progress in the broader relationship.

Peace and tranquility at the border will be essential to continue a broader relationship. India has already adopted several policy measures affecting economic ties, telecommunication ties, and even public diplomacy where several restrictions have been imposed on China.

What are the larger implications of the border skirmish on South Asian politics? Historically, smaller states like Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have never had to explicitly ally themselves with India or China. Do you think that is about to change?

Most of the smaller states won’t explicitly ally themselves with India or China. Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have independent ties with India and China. They want to benefit from both relationships while not getting caught in the middle of India-China competition. They hope to gain from India and China’s competitive relationship by eliciting benefits from both Delhi and Beijing.

We are seeing Delhi and Beijing competing for more influence in these states, as well as others in the South Asian neighborhood. When looking at the neighborhood, there are these smaller states above, and then there are Bhutan and Pakistan. Bhutan is the closest India comes to having an ally because Delhi has certain security obligations to Bhutan. Pakistan is China’s strongest partner in the region. These two countries have picked a side, but we should not expect other smaller countries to do the same.

In an article on this topic in Foreign Affairs, you noted that Indian officials may have to “reinforce relations with other regional and global powers to balance against a more assertive China.” Which countries do you think India will rely on?How will that affect the global balance of powers?

India will not rely on countries per se because it tends to think of external powers as unreliable.

India tries to tackle the China challenge in two ways. One is to manage the China relationship. Second, is to balance against China. This happens through internal balancing, where India strengthens its own capabilities, and external balancing, where India maintains a set of partnerships with different countries that can help ensure a favorable balance of power in the region to deter China.

India will partner with smaller countries, but in terms of middle and major countries, India will likely partner with Australia, America, Japan, and France. With respect to countries who are not American allies, there is Russia. Russia is useful to India because it provides India military equipment. There is simultaneously though a fear of the Russia-China relationship getting closer.

India will likely have multiple, diverse partnerships so that it does not have depend on any one country. The idea for India is to be a part of strong coalitions that can balance China and shape China’s behavior in different realms.

Do you think there is a real opportunity here for Russia and America to get involved?

America and Russia may get involved to support either India or China, but there will be no real mediator primarily because India and China have rejected mediation.

Russia and America are seeing the India-China conflict from different angles. America would benefit from India being more clear-eyed about the threat that China poses. Russia might like to see a limited amount of China-India competition because they can portray themselves as useful to both sides.  Neither side, however, has an interest in seeing the India-China conflict escalating beyond a point.

America and Russia are also involved in different ways. America is providing India with information, military equipment, and diplomatic support. Russia is a source for military equipment for India, but is also a close partner for China as well. Russia has given a platform to India and China to bilaterally resolve their differences and engage in dialogue at a political level. Russia might try to broker meetings and President Trump might offer American mediation, but, barring an escalation, nothing more will come of that.

Nandeeni Patel CMC '21Student Journalist

[[File:The Union Home Minister, Shri Rajnath Singh calling on the Chinese Premier, Mr. Li Keqiang, in Beijing, China on November 19, 2015.jpg|thumb|The Union Home Minister, Shri Rajnath Singh calling on the Chinese Premier, Mr. Li Keqiang, in Beijing, China on November 19, 2015]]

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