The trajectory of the India-China crisis beginning at Pangong Tso lake on May 5 and the ensuing tragedy, the death of 20 Indian soldiers and Chinese casualties in the Galwan Valley on June 15 raises some important questions on the contours of the Asian Century largely pillared so far by China.

The idea of the Asian Century, of Asian resurgence and renaissance to counter the western narrative, global world order has been warmly welcomed in Asia. But in the last decade, the central pillar of the Asian rise has been China with the assumption that others such as India, Indonesia and members of Association of Southeast Asian Nations would eventually catch up.

While this is yet to occur, a Chinese-led, Chinese-dominated Asia is worrying, given the twists that the India-China border issue has taken and is taking.

Different perceptions

The India-China border issue is no longer mired in Nehru’s legal-historical approach. Since 1988, Rajiv Gandhi’s landmark visit to China and meeting with China’s affable and pragmatic patriarch Deng Xiaoping, the issue moved to the political plane, where it has since rested in peace.

Several political-institutional safeguards are in place, including the 1993 accord on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility; in 2013, the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement was signed, an agreement that both sides will not use force in a border stand-off, and in 2014, a Closer Developmental Partnership was forged when President Xi Jinping visited India.

The truth about the border is that perceptions on the Eastern, Middle and Western sector are markedly different in India and China, which explains why Indian media routinely cites 3,500 kms of border and China 2,000 kms. There are at least four claim lines in the Eastern sector. The late sinologist Mira Sinha-Bhattacharjea explained that in the eastern sector the McMahon Line, rounded off and rationalised according to the “highest watershed principle”, the customary line north of the Brahmaputra and the Line of Actual Control were the four claim lines.

Similarly, in the Western sector there are three varying claim lines. Thus “status quo” and “unilateral change in status quo” are relative terms.

A satellite image of Galwan Valley taken on June 16, 2, released by Planet Labs. Credit: Reuters

Information drought

In India, access to the information on the recent India-China altercations have been as always via “highly placed sources” or selective, monitored leaks of satellite pictures and information by such “highly placed sources”. China has largely maintained silence, as has the country’s official media indicating either a “Stealth War” or that China wants to keep the issue low-key, keep the doors open for diplomatic and political rapprochement and for managing domestic sentiment in case things go wrong (as this case clearly shows a need for China).

An official statement from China came before the Galwan Valley incident on June 15 via the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On June 6, spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that the border was stable. After the Galwan valley incident, spokesperson of the People’s Liberation Army, Western Theatre Command Zhang Shuili affirmed that the sovereignty over Galwan Valley vested with China.

China’s official media has not reported the Galwan Valley incident nor the casualties. A Chinese journalist based in Shanghai (who prefers to remain anonymous) said that the figure (35 Chinese casualties attributed to US journalist Paul Shinkman who cited US Intelligence) has not been picked up by Associated Press, the BBC or Reuters – because it is not any official figure – and China does not usually release any casualty figure on their side.

As for China’s regulated media, a search on Baidu (China’s Google) on India throws up articles on India’s aspirations for a Security Council seat or India-China economic and military gap but none on the current dynamics or casualties.

What irked China?

What drove the border confrontation was India’s growing proximity to the US. China was also irked by India necessitating foreign direct investment from any country that shares a land border with India to go through government scrutiny, and the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir. This move split the state into two Union Territories, creating implications for the new Ladakh Union Territory and its borders.

Strategically, the Chinese mindset does not accept ambivalence. This has happened in the past, where, despite diplomatic relations, Third World bonhomie and Nehru’s Fabian socialism, Mao decried non-alignment as nothing short of “sitting on a fence”. For China, what is important is clarity: “us or them”.

China did not refrain from making hard-choices as a “swing state”, choosing the US over former Soviet Union. India now sits at what international relations expert Mohan Malik has called the “geo-political sweet spot” of being a “swing state” between the US “pivot” in Asia and China. Indian Prime Minister Modi chose to take a balanced approach by being deferential to China by not inviting the Taiwan representative or Tibetan politician Lobsang Sangay to the inauguration ceremony of his second term in 2019, unlike in 2014, when both were.

In addition, he sought to ally with the US whilst speed dating other Western powers. In effect, Modi was “Acting East” and in tandem “Acting West” as a geo-strategic hedging policy.

BJP supporters in Kargil protest against China on June 17, a day after 20 Indian soldiers were killed in an Indo-China border clash. Credit: PTI

Dangerous precipice

The Chinese have probably chosen to interpret Modi’s balanced approach as trying to have his cake and eat it. For China, Modi has been hovering on a dangerous precipice talking about an “18th-century expansionist mindset” ( in Japan, 2014) to signing the Delhi Declaration of Friendship (with the US in 2015). India has signed agreements with the US – the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement in 2016, the Communications Compatibility and Security Arrangement in 2018 – and is on the brink of signing the final agreement Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation. And then came the Namaste Trump in February, which culminated in a $3 billion defence deal.

Modi clarified that India does not see the “Indo-Pacific Region as a strategy or as a club of limited members” and resisted elevating the Quadrilateral Dialogue with United States, Japan, and Australia to higher-level representatives (now at the level of joint/assistant secretary). But India reaped the benefits of being the biggest borrower from the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank which is currently financing ten projects in India on infrastructure and energy.

However, as China sees it, the trend lines were clear: India is increasingly choosing to hitch the band-wagon with the US. The recent May 2020 US Strategic Approach to China distinguishes between a “competitive approach” with some (clear who this is) and a “cooperative engagement” with multiple partners including India.

A warning

Thus, the border fracas was not borne out of cartographic anxiety nor aggravated by India stepping up connectivity in the border areas but rather posited as China’s warning to temper India’s Great Power aspirations. The decision of Nepal’s parliament, which passed a constitutional amendment showing disputed areas between India and Nepal such as Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura (approximately 400 sq km) as belonging to Nepal, can be partly explained by the third-party factor. China views this as the inevitable geo-political task and a right of a rising power, according to the same anonymous source in China.

The initial border altercations was supposed to be a warning from China. But the Galwan Valley incident was more likely an accident that happened on the spur of the moment due to the hot-headedness of soldiers on the ground.

Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping during dinner at the Shore Temple complex in Mamallapuram in October 201. Credit MEA via Twitter

What is China’s thinking?

China’s primary security concern is the US followed by the Northeast Asian peninsula and South China Sea. India is not China’s primary security concern, nor are China’s deterrence capabilities India-centric. India is secondary in imagination and security concerns.

For the Chinese people, India has never been a frame of reference in the manner Korea and Japan are.

China’s official media has downplayed the issue; Weibo (China’s Twitter) has music stars and reality show stars trending, not the India-China conflict. The Chinese elite and middle class who have heard the news could only do this from Western media via VPN (which helps jump the Chinese “firewall” and access Gmail, Facebook and The BBC) or from the radio (Monocle Radio).

The Chinese Century

In recent years China has affirmed the universal appeal of the “China dream”, of what iconic historian Wang Gungwu has said “a modern vision of tianxia” (All-Under-Heaven) under the rubric of a “community of shared destiny”. Tianxia connotes that China can be a moral and economic power.

But China’s recent “wolf-warrior” abrasive diplomacy has undone many of its past gains. The fact that China’s Belt and Road Initiative passes through disputed territory smashes China’s moral compass to question India’s Darbuk Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie road. Instead of gains, China arm-twisting India on the border is likely to have the opposite effect. China’s actions may provoke and hasten India to step out of the gray zone.

In fact, China’s actions may well have paved India’s road to the US – which without firing a shot, throwing a stone, wielding a punch; without a single casualty and without expending any energy –
is the biggest winner.

Anurag Viswanath is the Singapore-based author of “Finding India in China” (2015) and an Adjunct Member of the Institute of Chinese Studies. Views expressed are personal.