Since last summer’s military confrontation in Ladakh, ties between Asian giants India and China have hit rock bottom. The relation remains in deep freeze, despite several rounds of talks between military commanders on the ground as well as diplomatic exchanges. Two high level meetings between foreign minister Subramanyam Jaishankar and his counter-part Wang Yi have led to no dramatic breakthrough. Many believe Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping have to meet to break the stalemate. As of now nothing is on the cards, though there is a buzz about Vladimir Putin a good friend to India and an allay of China trying to get such a meeting organized.
The People's Liberation Army continues to occupy positions in some locations on India’s side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). New Delhi insists that the two armies go back to the positions they occupied in April 2020, before the PLA crossed the LAC and transgressed at several points into Ladakh. The Chinese are reluctant to vacate from certain positions.
Will the New Year see any change in the current testy ties between Asia’s two largest powers? China at the moment is in no mood to relent. This has less to do with the Ladakh confrontation and more to do with India joining the quad (US, India, Australia and India group) and aligning with the US and its Western allies in the Indo-Pacific. China see’s both the Quad which is not a military alliance and the AUKUS (Australia, U.K and the US) which is, as US attempts at containing China’s growing military, economic and political power in Asia.
The language India’s foreign minister Subramanyam Jaishankar uses in his numerous addresses to international audiences is very much in line with the US take on the Indo-Pacific. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been much more circumspect. He has not targeted China in any of his speeches. Nor has President Xi Jinping, though his foreign minister has spoken out and blamed India several times.
China at the moment is fighting on several fronts and the ongoing confrontation with India on the border is not of overriding concern to Beijing as it is to India. China ‘s deteriorating relations with the US is the primary focus for President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party of China. After being wooed by the US in the early 1970s after president Richard Nixon pathbreaking visit to Beijing in 1972,( mainly to counter Russia during the Cold War) Sino-American ties had blossomed to the advantage of both sides. But with China leap-frogging its way to being the world number two now, Washington is drawing in the shutters against Beijing, knowing well that China is set to challenge US super power status in future. According to American analyst Richard D.Wolf, the US had since the last 100-years faced such a economic and political challenge that it does from any country. Even at the height of the Cold War the Soviet Union may have had the nuclear muscle but certainly not the economic clout that China has today. It is not that the US leadership suddenly woke up to this. Obama’s pivot to Asia was part of this. Trump continued this but in his own aggressive style and made his anti-China policy acceptable to his supporters. Joe Biden is continuing the same policy. Unlike Trump, the Biden administration has repaired its ties with NATO and its Western allies. So America’s European allies are falling in line with the Biden’s China doctrine.
In this scheme of things India has a role and is being enticed by Washington to come into the Western alliance. The overture to India was first made by President George Bush, when he offered to bring India out of its nuclear isolation. Since that time, successive US presidents having been wooing India as a counter weight against China. The US hopes to use India a large Asian country to balance China’s might in the region. This is much like how China was used to cut Russia down to size in the past. So India, which has its own concerns about China’s aggressive moves on its border is being drawn into America’s containment strategy of China in the Indo-Pacific. While it is good to have a Super Power like the US on your side, does getting into the South China uSea imbroglio help India’s cause is a question many critics ask. The US has much to offer India, including its cutting-edge technology, New Delhi can have close relations with the US without getting into a tangle with China.
Moreover, India’s problem with China is its land border, where the PLA is systematically getting into territory claimed by India by crossing the LAC both in Arunachal and Ladakh. Neither the US nor any of its Western allies will come to India’s aid in case of a border war. Unlike Australia, Japan, UK and the NATO allies, India does not have a defence pact with US. India has to fight its own war and handle the border issue bilaterally with China.
Perhaps it would have suited New Delhi’s interests better to concentrate on working out its boundary dispute with China which is at the heart of the dispute. Despite several round of talks by special representatives of both countries, there has been no breakthrough. Substantial progress has been made but it is has stopped at a crucial point where a decision on land exchange has to be done. There will have to be give and take in settling a dispute which has remained unresolved since independence. Exchange of territory is a political hot potato, and no Prime Minister has an appetite for that. With the kind of majority Modi has in parliament and the adulation he inspires among ordinary Indians, he is perhaps the only Prime Minister who can sell a peace-deal with China to the country. The question is will he take that risk.
For India and China, 2022 will be more of the same, with both nations keeping troops battle-ready. While it is unlikely that another India-China border war is on the cards, New Delhi cannot afford to let its guard down. President Putin may try to get Modi and Xi to break the ice, but is President Xi Jinping agree to talk at the moment. Xi should know that his aggressive posture in Ladakh has worked to the advantage of the US. His belligerence has driven India into America’s arms. If he wants a more neutral India in Asia, he and PM Modi need to take a call to reduce tension and give the political direction for resolving the boundary dispute which has plagued ties between India and China.