Updated: May 22, 2021
Dr. Bibhu Routray and Dr. Harsh Pant share their analyses of India’s future actions in relation to China and the future of South Asian security
Dr. Bibhu Routray - Director of Mantraya.org, previously served as the Deputy Director in India's National Security Council in New Delhi.
Dr. Harsh Pant - Professor of International Relations in the Defense Studies Department in the India Institute at Kings College, London.
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Insights from the Podcast
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India favors Trump's hard-line on China
The return of great power competitions
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India's China Strategy
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Hi everyone and welcome to the Wikistrat Podcast. I'm joined today by Dr. Bibhu Routray, and Dr. Harsh Pant. Dr. Routray is the Director of Mantraya.org and previously served as the Deputy Director in India's National Security Council Secretary in New Delhi. Dr. Harsh is a Professor of International Relations in the Defense Studies Department in the India Institute at Kings College, London.
Thank you so much both of you for being here today, and for sharing your time. I want to dive right into it: could each of you give us a quick overview of the current iteration of the India-China conflict? What are the key factors that we need to understand? Thank you so much. Bibhu, can we start with you?
Well, at the moment, we are looking at a very sort of peculiar situation. Since August 2020, almost 50,000 troops on India side, and almost this same number of troops on the other side, facing one another with lots of arms and ammunition's weapons systems, so probably we're closest to the no war, no peace, kind of a situation.
While India thinks, actually both think that the situation can be brought under control, but there are different sorts of objectives. China probably wants to convert the LAC, the line of actual control, which it occupies now into probably the actual LOC. India wants China to go back, and restore the LAC as it was in April 2020. Negotiations have failed. Negotiations are still continuing, but more than what's happening between these Copeland fees, India is reaching out to its supporters, it allies, its fans, and hoping that they kind of pressure that can generate globally will force China to go back, but that also looks like a remote possibility, because over time, China’s position has become more belligerent, so that's the situation that India is standing at. Nobody knows how it's going to evolve, might be a long haul.
Thank you, Bibhu. Harsh, to you.
I think you know a lot of what has been said is actually the reality on the ground. What we are looking at is an incredibly dynamic situation across the LAC, and I think what has happened is that the line of actual control, which is the under-marketed border between India, and China, along which there has always been contestation because it is under-marketed as is, it is undefined. There are different perceptions of LAC, so it was always, the dispute was always there, but from the dispute, which was being handled diplomatically, the two countries are now in a situation where their armies militaries are facing off each other, and I think this is for the first time in several decades, that shots are being fired. It used to be compared to the LOC line of control with Pakistan.
The boundary with China used to be, it was claimed that it was extremely stable. It wasn't stable. There was no use of the weaponry along the border for the last several decades. That was the result of a lot of confidence, built confidence, building measures that have been in place, but what we are seeing since April is, there are two aspects, one, China's encroachment on India, but India clenching its territory, and the idea that China feels emboldened enough to encroach upon Indian territory, and then, demand that India come to the negotiating table. India has taken an equal hotline position saying that now, not only is the boundary issue at dispute, but also the larger dynamic of sign Indian relations are under a scanner. The old paradigm of Sino-Indian relations where the argument was that India and China can continue with their border negotiations, even as they keep on engaging with each other on trade, on culture, on people, to people contact and other aspects of political relationship, that paradigm no longer operates today.
India is making it very clear to the Chinese, that a boundary issue that this conflict is going to be the center issue around which the larger Sino-Indian relationship would evolve. If it does not resolve amicably, then there are going to be serious repercussions for signing a relationship, and India has, therefore, across the board used lots of leavers that it possibly thinks it has, including engaging with other like-minded countries, including banning Chinese apps, trying to wall off China from strategic sectors in the Indian economy, in India infrastructure, and I think that's an attempt to send a message to the Chinese. The situation is really serious, and to be frank, the situation is actually very serious across the LAC. So as I said, it is what it is at one point at one level of question of Chinese, that is Chinese power differential with India.
On the other hand, it is also a reflection of greater confidence within India that it can take on China, so in a sense on the ground, India is not simply seeding ground, and there's also gradually trying to maneuver militarily, so that right now in the occupies a number of strategic mountain tops in areas where Chinese have encroached upon Indian territory, so the situation along LOC remains very, very watertight because not only is China pushing from one side, but India is also responding in kind or at least not willing to take it lying down, so I think that's the larger frame around which this conflict has evolved over the last few months, since April with India demanding restoration of status quo, and as it existed in April and Chinese not willing to budge on the ground.
Thank you Harsh. You mentioned that these tensions have spilled into other areas, and into the economic sphere as well. Could you two give me your input on what are the biggest areas where this conflict is spilled over to, in terms of economic implications? W kind of economic implications does this conflict have for India, and China, and the region, and if so, what sectors are the most affected in this new competition. Bibhu, would you want to take this one?
Well, India started the work of banning Chinese apps. It also took a large number of steps to prevent Chinese companies from taking over stakes in Indian companies; this banned import of Chinese items. It's ensured that the E-commerce sites report the country of origin, so if it's Chinese or is always in the product, almost 90% of the things that are being sold by computers, and washing machines, all stuff like plastic items, you name it, they have it, they come on from China. Now the E-commerce sites are now obligated, under obligation to sort of share the country of origin, and then becomes in this choice that will allow them or not, and they also pose as a beneficiary company, due to the COVID pandemic and relocating, so in the hopes that it can also become an attractive destination for those kinds of companies.
So on a larger scale, India is trying to access a point of power, and hoping that even if you can't hurt China militarily, probably there is no parity between the two sides, India is always in a position to hurt the Chinese economy, and that shows that source breeding the actions, on banning of the apps, or the loops that are directed mostly at the Chinese companies. So taking it into a larger frame, to ensure that it's just not a military fight a law, it can be from other sources of pressure to concede to India's demands.
Thank you, and Harsh, do you agree with this?
Yes. I think, the larger issue here is how India will navigate its relationship with China at the time when the border conflict, as I pointed out earlier, increasingly is going to be the central pivot around which this relationship is possibly going to war, and that's a message that they're sending out that India is willing to bear some costs for it. The whole idea that you can continue to trade with China, that you can continue to engage China on technology, technology issues, for example, until last year, but we had the situation where Chinese companies, what allowed to take part in the 5G trials in India. That was the indication that India gave. Now today, I think the situation has completely changed.
And now the idea there is that there's a larger revaluation of India's China policy that is going on, and all the funds that are available to India, India would like to use them. India would like to use all the leverage that it has. The economy is certainly one area where it feels that it has some leverage. It may not have a lot of leverage, but certainly some leverage. If you are one of the biggest markets in the world at a time when markets in the west are collapsing, and certainly India can leverage that to its advantage. Now that's what it's trying to do. That's the signal it's sending, that if you keep on pushing on the border issue unilaterally, then it will have repercussions on the wider relationship. It will have repercussions on economic ties, and India may become more hardline in its approach to economic questions, or adopt a better line that you can continue to trade with China.
China is still India’s largest trading partner. Those sorts of things I think have been subsumed by the larger reality on the ground, or patient reality on the ground, so there is a lot of disenchantment with China that is now visible. That is visible at multiple levels, that is visible, certainly at the level, the street level where people feel very anxious about the border situation. It is also very palpable in the strategic policymaking level, where policymakers are trying to see what leverage they have, and the economy certainly becomes a sort of those areas where they can do something, or at least visibly do something about it. Whether it will have an impact on Chinese thinking that remains to be seen, and there is no evidence that what India has done over the last few months, has had an impact on Chinese thinking, or that they are in any way, buckling under some pressure that looks India, India is doing this, let's give in to some of India's demands. In fact, their position seems to become even more hardened.
So, I think it's a typical negotiation happening between two powers through the use of whatever instrumentality that available to them, so on the one hand, you are trying to operationalize it on the ground with the defense forces trying to model what around each other. On the other hand, you are trying to show to the Chinese that look, you have economic areas where India can try to put some pressure. There that is going to be a technology dimension as increasingly India is trying to work with, or at least it's underscoring its resolve to work with like-minded countries when it comes to 5g technology and other cutting-edge strategic emerging technologies. There is also the dimension of how do you look at global supply chains, the global side, supply chain resilience project with Japan, and Australia that India is initiating is part of that attempt.
So clearly at a broader level, India is trying to make the case to the Chinese, that India is not alone at a time when other countries are also doing the same thing. Other countries are also trying to reevaluate their economic ties with India, and I think that's a strategy to position itself as a country that perhaps can also leverage the wider global climate against China to its advantage.
What sort of predictions do you have for the immediate future and the relationship between India, China and the regional security? If you could identify what you think is either the biggest factor, or one significant player that people are not currently aware of, that we should going forward. Thank you. Bibhu, do you want to take this one?
I shared in the beginning, that same dynamic thing is changing almost every week, so a prediction will not be in order, but let me try to answer this slightly differently. Now say if you perceive in the U.S foreign policy towards China, India is certainly at some kind of a weaker ground in the sense that this thing has come up at a time, which couldn't have been worse for India. India is really under this COVID-19 pandemic. Its state of the economy is not that fine. Its domestic peace and stability frankly is not doing fine. Its neighborhood policy is in shambles, and it's not being able to generate the kind of support it thought it bought against China. If it thought that it can get firm commitments from nations around the world that they would stand in favor of India, that hasn't happened.
Countries have been very subtle in their responses. They have been sort of talking about diplomatic as tolerances, talking about both countries, and then China using the diplomatic levels to negotiate and resolve it peacefully. Countries have sold weapons systems, arms, and immunities into India, but that doesn't really count as support to India visibly. What India is trying to leverage most on this thing is it's growing alliance or great partnership with the United States.
In spite of President Trump's unpredictability, sometimes he plays the India hoax card. Sometimes he accuses India of a lot of things. If Trump loses the election, India loses a lot of leverage based on this time in their hopes that if it's only a weaker ground now, because of all these factors, many of these factors also are capable to China, which will keep China in check. What I mean by that is if the COVID-19 pandemic is calling India back, it's also holding China back to an extent. China is under enormous pressure from a lot of the countries, so in the hopes that these things will produce a stalemate, if not the dilution to the color, so that is my take for the coming months. So while we're looking at the winter and both armies are prepared to stay put at the border, whether the stones and the winter, they know this it causes.
So beyond the winter, the U.S. will have a Trump back in the seat, or we'll have a new president. If that happens, if Trump goes, India loses a lot of leverage, and that will be to my reading to be to China's advantage.
Thank you. That's a really interesting point. Harsh, what parting insight can you give on a factor player that we need to be aware of?
Well I think, the relationship between China and India is a structurally a competitive one, so I don't think that inherent competition will change, or that competitive rivalry will change, that it will remain a relationship that will remain very, very contested, and as India has also risen. India has also become more assertive in shifting its foreign policy and articulating its worldview. It's very natural that you will have that contestation getting sharpened, so long as China was the big country, China was the big party, that India was relatively neat, India was not responding to the challenge. It was fine. You know, China would shape that narrative. I think India today thinks that's in a position that it can articulate a worldview, which is more assertive, more in sync with what it feels to be its global priority. I think that this means that you will have a relationship with China that is going to get increasingly contested, even with all the problems that COVID-19 is bringing to the fall.
Now COVID-19 poses enormous challenges to India. It also poses enormous challenges to China, and in some ways, the last few months have been extremely damaging for China's global profile, so I think what one should not underestimate is that how you almost see a railing around the world against China, and the kind of, the changing discourse in the West, the changing discourse and the Indo-Pacific by major powers, countries like Australia, Japan, and some of the Southeast Asian landscape that is in sync with the larger reality that India is not alone in this larger struggle with China. I think what one needs to look at or calculate, or think about is possible that the relationship between China and India, two of the major Asian powers will become very contested, and it would shape the larger Indo-Pacific landscape very, very significantly, and I think countries will now have to decide how the global, and regional balance of poverty merges.
We are already seeing discussions about the future of multi-literalism the future of technology evolution. When United States says that countries like India should be invited to G7, when even the United Kingdom calls for a coalition of democracies to develop 5G, the indications that very clear that the world is trying to figure out a response to China's rise, and to China's regulation. How that shapes up, how that maps up maps itself. Again, it's still not clear at this point, but I think the challenge, the threat, there is a certain clarity about it, and I think there is a certain clarity in the Indian context as well, that I don't think going forward, India will retain. They would often India had refrained from making certain choices in the last few years, and yet a refrain from making certain choices because it taught them that by not making those choices, India might be assuaging Chinese concerns, and that might make China more amenable to India's concerns when that has not happened.
So what this modern crisis has done is that it has clarified Indian responses. In some ways, I think going forward, you would see greater coordination with like-minded countries; like for example, we are talking of making the court becoming more effective, the multi-lateral relationship between Japan, U.S, India, and Australia. We are going to look at later heart power coordination, greater military exercises between major powers in the region like-minded countries in the region, and I think that's the trajectory that India would like to pursue. That said, I think given the challenge that it faces from China today, and given the border crisis, that clarity in Indian response perhaps is something that we need to look at even before COVID-19, even before this crisis.
Those who look at Indian foreign policy could make it out that India was pursuing a certain trajectory vis-a-vis China with a certain caution, because of the capability differential, but certainly, the trajectory was very clear that India was trying to balance China, and India has always tried to balance China. Given the limitations I think going forward, it would be more overbalancing, and that is something that I think not only India should be prepared for, but I think at the very least, the region should be prepared for it, because that would have consequences for the way regional security architectures develop, regional security doctrines evolve, and the countries who might find themselves in the middle of this conversation might also have to take or have to make certain choices, so I think in that sense, India's response is forcing a certain clarity, not only in India, but India own role in the Indo-Pacific discourse, Indo-Pacific calculus, but also forcing other countries to make those choices very clear.
And I think that is quite visible now from I'm from the West. That is quite visible now from countries like Australia and Japan, and it will be interesting to see how the larger landscape of ASEAN countries, for example, treats this question going forward, given their own challenge with China, but certainly what India is trying to do is to, is to help or strive to get to a position where it can offer an alternative to regional states, to smaller states at the same time, fight its own battles with China. I think that India will have to fight itself out, or they will have to fight its own battles, it's in conflict with China. It's something that India will have to contend with because I don't think we live in a warrior bred country that is going to take overtly open positions against China, especially when it comes to bilateral modern issues.
India has also not taken such positions vis-a-vis other countries, so I think what we are looking at is a landscape that India will certainly try to make its policy positions, and its operational provisions clearer, vis-a-vis China, at the same time trying to leverage, and those countries, those organizations, and those geographies where perhaps there is an opportunity for India to leverage a growing discontent vis-a-vis China, and I think that's perhaps it's going to be the trajectory of Indian foreign policy, and perhaps also the regional security architecture.