A number of factors can be attributed to the border clashes. There is the perpetual issues of differing perception of the border. More significantly, India has ramped up infrastructure on its side, so the Chinese military is finding Indian soldiers in locations where they are not used to seeing Indian footprint. Indian Army’s patrolling is also more effective than in the past, forcing Chinese military to up the ante. The fact that more Chinese soldiers are now crossing over into the Indian side can also be the result of growing Chinese aggressiveness on territorial issues.
Flaring up of tensions between India and China in 2020 even at a time both the countries are grappling with containing the spread of Covid-19 cannot, but be linked to the larger approach the Communist Party of China (CPC) is following in its engagement with the outside world. Despite growing worldwide rancour about Beijing’s behaviour in the initial phases of the pandemic, the CPC is busy demonstrating its military prowess vis-a-vis its weaker neighbours on various territorial issues. And New Delhi’s evolving posture supporting the demand for an independent enquiry into the origins of coronavirus as well as reinstating Taiwan as an observer into the World Health Organisation means that the CPC would like to draw some red lines for India by upping the ante on the border question.
The US has reacted by challenging China on its behaviour with the outgoing Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Alice Wells, suggesting “there’s a method here to Chinese operation”. Arguing the need to resist China’s “constant aggression, the constant attempt to shift the norms, to shift what is the status quo,” she called for a strong pushback “whether it’s in the South China sea where we’ve done a group sail with India, or whether it’s in India’s own backyard, both, on land as well as in the Indian Ocean.” A new report submitted to the US Congress as mandated by the National Defense Authorization Act 2019, “United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China”, also makes this point by underlining that “Beijing contradicts its rhetoric and flouts its commitments to its neighbours by engaging in provocative and coercive military and paramilitary activities in the Yellow Sea, the East and South China Seas, the Taiwan Strait, and Sino-Indian border areas”.
For New Delhi, it has now become imperative to assess the implications of Chinese behaviour not simply by looking at the bilateral matrix but also by integrating China’s role as a global power into its calculations. The present border turmoil can be calmed down temporarily but so long as the CPC continues to face internal pressure to use the military instrumentality for injecting a sense of nationalism into the nation’s body politic, India will have no option but to continue to build up its deterrence capabilities by enhancing its internal strength and by developing more robust external partnerships.
The writer is professor of International Relations, Department of Defence Studies, King’s College London
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