India and China: Will the elephant and the dragon clash in the Himalayas?

Spat on a hot tin roof

In June 2020, peace and tranquillity at ‘Roof of the world’ were shattered in a fatal clash between Indian and Chinese forces at Galwan valley situated in the contentious India China Border in the Himalayas.  

The border skirmishes and standoffs are not rare or unheard between any two neighbours with unresolved boundary issues. However, when the two nuclear-armed giants comprising over a third of humanity, a fifth of the world GDP, and a sixth of world military expenditure brawl fatally at altitudes of over 4000 meters in thin air and freezing temperatures, the rest of the world is bound to take notice.

‘Brothers in arms’ to ‘Storm over Tibet’

India and China currently share over 3488 kms of land border. However, they were not neighbours until Chinese PLA army occupied Tibet in 1950. China dates its claim over Tibet to the 13th century, but before modern times, neither China nor India had ever been in full knowledge or control of the present-day disputed high altitude territories. They essentially were buffered from each other by the Himalayas, Karakoram, and giant plateau of Tibet.  

The newly independent India in 1947 treated Tibet as a de facto independent country.  However, in 1950, when China gained control of Tibet, India did little to protest the annexation. It instead acquiesced to the Chinese claim on Tibet, seemingly occupied with the challenges following its partition, keeping the rest of its constituents together and running a newly independent country with enormous social and economic challenges.

In the early 1950s, when there were no established road networks between China and Tibet to sustain the presence of Chinese forces gaining control of Tibet, India even provided through its territory, logistic access to food and other supplies to the Chinese armed forces as they developed roads and logistic infrastructure in Tibet. Ironically, these roads and tracks must have been utilised a decade later, in 1962, by the Chinese to wage war against India.  

It may be reasonable to assume that India in the early 1950s looked upon China as a potential ally. Both countries shared similar Imperialistic exploitation and were besieged with similar challenges of building a new country/society and feeding a large population.

India was the first country outside the socialist block to recognise the communist Chinese government, and advocated its right for UN seat and is believed to have even let go offer of permanent UN Security Council seat at the cost of China. India also acted as a mediator between China and the US during the Korean War.  The slogan ‘Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai ‘(Indians and Chinese are brothers) was coined and became popular in India.

Surprisingly, both countries evaded concrete discussions on settling border issues during the early 1950s till it became contentious later in the decade.  India granting asylum to the 14th Dalai Lama and his followers along with permission to establish a government-in-exile and stalemate in boundary resolution accompanied with increasing military fracas at the frontiers led to China finally invading the disputed territory in October 1962, timing it well with the Cuban missile crisis keeping the US and USSR distracted and unwilling to intervene.

War and Peace

China emerged victorious in the 1962 encounter making territorial gains and retaining de facto control of the disputed Aksai Chin region in the Western sector but in November 1962 declared a unilateral ceasefire, retreating to the Line of actual control as of 1959. China probably sensed the possibility of support to India from other powers and the likely difficulties of advancing further in mountainous Indian territory.

Barring the 1967 ‘Nathu La and Cho La’ clash in Sikkim, both sides exercised military restraint for the next 50 years without any significant bloodshed while continuing dialogue to resolve the long-standing issues but have failed to make any progress.

The events in the last few years are reminiscent of the 1950s as

  • new leaderships emerge both in China and India in 2013 and 2014,
  • several meetings, visits, dialogue between top leadership and business investments take place
  • mixed signaling on Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh( claimed as South Tibet by China)
  • uptake in the number of skirmishes at the border
  • China makes military advances in the western sector leading to the deadly Galwan Clash in June 2020, when the rest of the world is occupied with the Covid 19 pandemic.

However, this time, both countries have become nuclear powers with the largest armies, top economies, and global ambitions. 

The Present and clear danger

The Galwan clash was hand-to-hand combat that left 25 dead and several casualties.   The conflict broke the relative calm in over 50 years for the two nations, which went to war in 1962 and clashed fatally again in 1967 at Nathu La on their eastern border but largely remained tranquil except a few minor tensions in 1975, 1986, 1987, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017.

The likelihood of Galwan like China-India tussle remains high, not just because of over half a century of disagreements and mistrust regarding the boundary, status of Tibet, and military presence near the border but also the emergence of contemporary disputes and rivalries such as water resources, trade, partnerships, and regional/global ambitions.

Measuring the Giants

The economic power gap between the two nations was not as significant as now, with India even having a higher GDP per capita till 1990. China’s economy took upspin in the 1980’s after opening up its economy in 1978 and has grown at a phenomenal rate since then. India also opened up its economy in the 1990s, but its trajectory, though commendable, has not been equally spectacular.

In 2020, China’s GDP stood at 14.722 Trillion USD  making it the second-largest economy globally and over five times bigger than India, which slipped a notch to the sixth largest economy at 2.708 Trillion USD.

Military Expenditure of India and China over the years
Source: http://www.sipri.org

China and India occupy  2nd and 3rd spot in largest military expenditure (over 10 percent of global spend) and figure among top arms importers. However, China spends 3-4 times more than India and has also developed indigenous arms manufacturing capabilities which India lacks.

Mexican standoff

There is no argument that China stands ahead in terms of relative power economically and militarily compared to India. However, the high altitude mountainous geography has the potential to alter the equations and needs to be critically assessed in case of war-like engagement.

In their article, “How India and China measure up against each other on the border” , Lieutenant General (Rtd.) Jiti Bajwa and Bidanda Chengappa highlighted that high altitude mountain warfare favours the defensive forces, and force potential ratio of atleast nine times is required by the offensive army compared to those defending.

In the back of envelope calculation, Kanti Bajpai, in his book “ India Versus China” estimated that China may be seven times as powerful as India in terms of comprehensive national power, which considers the measure of their economy, military and soft power. He acknowledges the role of geography and naval distance in moderating the military superiority of China and therefore assigns a moderated factor of 1.2 to China’s military advantage. However, he points out, to the amusement of many, that China scores over India in terms of soft power by a factor of 1.2, which in 21st century is also a critical determinant while evaluating national power.

Over 7 decades of unresolved boundary disputes and mistrust have led to lost chances of cooperating and partnering on economic and developmental challenges for Asian giants and has borne further disagreements and rivalries around water, trade, regional influences, and global partnerships.

India being the lesser power, will try to catch up the gap economically, militarily, through alliances, partnerships, and improve infrastructure around the border, which is bound to alert China, responding in equal measure to maintain its superiority and power gap, thus forming a vicious circle of mutual provocations. Its easy to understand and similar to reprisals of cautioned US on reducing power gap between itself and China or how US and USSR retaliated during the cold war.

Whatever the circumstances and provocation, going to war will have enormous cost for either country. Most will agree that the US, which was economically, militarily, and influentially miles ahead of Afghanistan and Iraq, entailed higher than anticipated costs with almost no or little benefit when it took on the two nations as its war on terror.

Guided by mistrust and not to be caught complacent, both countries will inevitably invest in building deterrents, developing cyber warfare competencies, and forging partnerships to counterbalance threats from each other. However, it is in the countries’ best interests for their leadership and military to continue the dialogue and restraint. In their collective history of over half a century, barring a few incidents, it has essentially ensured peace in the mountains.

As far as I am concerned, as afar as my government is concerned, we shall negotiate to the bitter end. Any other approach is anti-Gandhian and against our fundamental principles. I want members [of Parliament] to realize that the only alternative to negotiation is war”

-J.L. Nehru, in 1959 on India – China border dispute

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