The failure of the latest round of talks between India and China on resolving their 17-month border standoff is a grim portent for the Asian region.
In recent months, the differences between the two neighbours have been accentuated to an extent where it is becoming difficult to contemplate the consequences of the ballooning rivalry.
On Sunday, the 13th round of Commander-level talks between the armies of the two countries was unable to arrive at an understanding on mutual disengagement at a patrolling point called Hot Springs in the sensitive Ladakh region, located at the intersection between India, China and Pakistan.
Since April-May 2020, tensions have been high following alleged transgressions by China on areas that India claims as its territory in at least five patrolling points along the unmarked border between the two countries in Ladakh. In June that year, the situation degenerated after a hand-to-hand combat between Chinese and Indian troops in the Galway valley led to the killing of 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers were killed.
The fighting setback relations between the two countries by several years. It brought back memories of the India-China war in 1962 that led to a freeze in relations until 1978, when ties resumed between the two. A decade later, the then-Congress government of Rajiv Gandhi further normalised relations between the two and safeguards were built to prevent any conflagration on the border.
The peace largely held except for a couple of minor skirmishes with the latest being the Galwan valley clash. After that India moved to restrict a number of Chinese apps in India, besides imposing restrictions on companies from China engaged in trade with India.
After a period of anger, some thaw in relations occurred with China and India mutually disengaging from the Galwan valley, Pangong Tso (lake) and the Gogra point.
It was widely expected that the latest talks too would yield some positive result. But, it seems the relationship has again regressed.
In the last few weeks, there have been reports in the Indian media of brief transgressions by Chinese troops in the northern state of Uttarakhand and in the Tawang area of the east Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh (which China claims is the southern part of its Tibetan province).
The question is what has changed negatively since the withdrawal of Chinese troops from the Gogra point two months ago. An unexpected event in the neighbourhood – the withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan – has likely added fuel to the already tense relationship between New Delhi and Beijing.
With the Taliban returning to power in Afghanistan and the exit of the US from that war-torn country, overnight the political balance of power in the region has shifted – to the disadvantage of India and in favour of its long-time rival Pakistan. China too has leveraged the situation to its advantage.
If one were to focus on India-China ties in the context of Sunday’s failed talks, it is clear that the two countries have been drawn away from each other by global power politics. India, which is now tied closely with US strategic interests, is forced to play ball with Washington much to the irritation of Beijing.
The Quad group comprising the US, Japan, Australia and India is a red rag for China which sees in it an attempt by its global rivals to stymie and corner it in the Asia-Pacific region. And, on top of that is the latest US-led military formation – the AUKUS (Australia, UK and the US) – with the stated aim of challenging China in its neighbourhood.
While China cannot do much about the US, it has tried to take on Japan (by threatening to occupy islands in the Pacific that Japan considers part of its territory), disrupt trade with Australia and aggressively browbeat India along the 3,500 km largely unmarked mutual border.
The India-China border is unmarked as the dispute has festered for the last seven decades since India got independence from the British in 1947 and China turned Communist in 1949.
The British-engineered boundary lines between pre-independent India and China were not recognised by Beijing which questioned London’s locus standi. Once India and China were free to draw a boundary it did not succeed, triggering the 1962 war. Since then, the boundary has remained a tense work in progress which has proved to be the main obstacle for friendly relations between the two.
Political rivals, trade buddies
Any hopes of a boundary settlement between India and China have receded in recent times as the two have moved away from each other in their global preferences. While India has chosen to tie up with the US and its allies, China is a firm friend of New Delhi’s rival, Pakistan.
The deep mistrust between India and China was visible at the boundary talks on Sunday with both countries refusing to budge from their positions and unwilling to give any quarter to the other.
India said it had made “constructive proposals” that China was not “agreeable” to. Beijing was unable to give any “forward-looking proposal” as an alternative, said officials in New Delhi.
Chinese officials were quoted as saying that India insisted on “unreasonable and unrealistic demands, adding difficulties to the negotiations". The officials claimed that China was making all attempts to keep the situation cool and ease tensions on the border and that demonstrated Beijing’s sincerity.
The irony is that despite the boundary tensions and political rivalry on the global stage between the two, India’s trade with China spiralled by a whopping 62.7 percent in the first half of 2021.
According to reports, the increase was the most by any country trading with China in that period. Chinese imports from India too climbed sharply, by nearly 70 percent in the range of $15 billion in that period.
The contradictory signals in ties between the two countries are confounding, to say the least. But a silver lining is that the huge trade volume could prevent the border tensions from boiling over into a war, or even a limited conflict.
At the same time, letting the boundary dispute fester could lead to unpredictable consequences, something that a conflict-hit world can do without.
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