On a superficial level, it might seem like aggression is on the rise among the two most powerful nations in Asia. However, a deeper analysis of the India-China relationship tells a slightly different story.

Sino-Indian ties have survived bigger lows since the 1962 border conflict; the situation had gone from bad to worse once in 1998 and then during the Kargil war. However, given the current developments, It may come as a surprise to many that the territorial aspect of India-China conflict isn’t its biggest problem.

This can be discerned from the fact that post the Border Defense Co-operation Agreement, things have been relatively smooth on the border. Keeping in line with the terms of agreement, both nations have peacefully patrolled disputed regions such as the Galwan valley and Pangong Tso Lake. If, by coincidence patrols are conducted at the same time, a crossfire might occur, as it did in the recent incident. This is not new but a frequent occurrence in disputed regions.

In the above context, the Galwan Valley clash of 2020 provides an opportunity for us to look at the larger effect of the ongoing Sino-Indian tussle on India's common folk.

Looking beyond the territorial conflict

An extremely rich tapestry of interactions between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, when these two great civilizations and proud empires were humbled and bled white by Western imperialist forces, suggests that both wound up finding different answers to the same question. Initially their relationship had been quite cordial, but several factors led to it becoming the complex, uncertain and rocky affair it is today.

This can be compared to the Chinese Yin and Yang – on one end, India and China have continuously built economic ties, deepened multinational relations and seen a remarkable increase in trade, while on the other end there is a visible mistrust between the two nations. India, over time, has become one of the largest importers of Chinese goods and ultimately its reliable trade partner, but on the other hand, the market for India’s primary goods in China is extremely limited, which has led to a trade surplus in the Chinese favour. One failure of Indian foreign policy is that Indian pharmacy and IT sectors gain limited and restricted access to the huge Chinese market, which has continuously been hindered by China itself.

However, India has remained an open market and China has already entered deep into it. It is also an accepted fact that common public reaction to any border incident will be to boycott goods from ‘enemy’ countries, something people on social media have been rallying for recently. While at the onset it looks fruitful and a possible plan of action, in reality, many Chinese companies have invested heavily in India and thus a majority of the workforce getting affected remains to be Indian.

India's options

Although India snubbed China's Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor project, its only real option is to rise above the competition.

Since the mid-1990s, market competition has yielded massive growth for both these nations, and yet, India somehow lags far behind. Initiatives like Make in India are only the beginning, and if more concrete measures aren’t taken, India will lose internally.

In the South-East Asian region, which is the larger problem at hand, China has throughout the last 20 years built strong relations with countries that are in close proximity with India. In more recent times, China has begun to exert its control over the Indian Ocean region as well. The US consultancy firm Booz Allen Hamilton had predicted this in 2005 and called it the String of Pearls. The String of Pearls theory is the Chinese policy to increase co-operation with nations surrounding India, such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal and Maldives among others. By failing to recognize the situation in its bud, India has already lost the first bout. The obvious aim of this initiative is to dominate the entire trade and resources in the Indian Ocean region.

The bigger concerns

It is no shocker that Chinese State-owned companies have already made substantial investments for offshore oil and gas exploration in many countries like Iran (South Pars and North Pars), Bangladesh (Barakpuria), Myanmar (off Rakhine coast and in Gulf of Martaban) and Sri Lanka (Puttalam-to-Hambantota coastal belt, Gulf of Mannar and Palk Strait). The establishment of such fields and resources help the Chinese reinforce their dominance in the Indian Ocean region and also provide a legitimate rationale for Chinese Navy influence along the shores of India, which pose a much bigger security concern.

The next concern for India is the implementation of the Malacca Dilemma. China perceives control of shipping lines by respective countries as a greater threat than the conventional ones of piracy and terrorism, and has thus continuously strengthened its relationship with such nations through the Belt and Road Initiative and other economic agreements. While on the surface it seems harmless, it allows China to exert a certain amount of control over the said lines, which once again is very disadvantageous to India considering the proximity of such action.

The biggest threat of them all is the increase in offshore military bases, which China is building in co-operation with countries such as Pakistan, Myanmar, Djibouti, Bangladesh and Maldives among others. SIGNIT stations and naval bases in some of these regions have already begun functioning. India thus lags far behind in the scenario, which at the end of the day poses a multifaceted economic, military and political threat to India’s position.

Way forward

India’s geo-political strategy will need to focus on strengthening ties with Indian Ocean Region littorals in all dimensions—political, economic, military and even cultural. A greater emphasis will need to be laid on developing ties with countries in the northern Indian Ocean and island states.

Arms sales and various forms of assistance to littoral states for policing their maritime zones, disaster relief, diving and training will attenuate China’s rising influence in the region. Besides, this will also build their capacity in terms of ensuring their security, making the regional environment more stable, with attendant longer-term dividends for India. Most importantly, India will need to mitigate its vulnerabilities. It would need to fill the presently gaping voids in its military/maritime capabilities, as well as nurture its economy, market and produce to stand a chance in the long run.

Till now, India's policy concerning China has always been about territory, and China has long exploited this as an advantage. India had pursued the strategy put forth by Jawaharlal Nehru, one of “accommodation and partnership” and tried to ease the PRC into its nonaligned bloc, while at the same time maintaining what it thought was a sufficient military force to deter its neighbour.

Sadly, both elements of this strategy failed. The recent changes have not dispelled persistent concerns on both sides about the other’s intentions. In China, these doubts are muted but surface occasionally in the nationalist press. In India, they are more obvious. The view that China is an encircling ‘enemy’, as the then Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes declared in 1998, persists among some observers for whom a compromise with China smacks of ‘appeasement’. And even among those better disposed to India’s northern neighbour, the belief that an ‘insurance policy’ is needed for India in the event of a diplomatic failure is widespread, underpinning moves for closer strategic ties with the United States, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Southeast Asia.

India should, like in Vajpayee's times, openly call China out. She must take a more realist and consequentialist stance.

A good start would be the implementation of the notion of ‘Primat der Aussenpolitik’, or primacy of foreign policy for intensely lobbying South East Asian countries and others surrounding the Indian Ocean Region. With a change in stance from erstwhile 'Look East' to the current 'Act East', the incumbent dispensation has initiated action on this front. At the same time, more stringent limitations on Chinese goods, limiting their market exploitability and increasing stronger trade with allies such as Israel will help.

Furthermore, I believe that the international system creates aspects of State behaviour that are inescapable, regardless of regime type, and thus it is impossible to maintain an entirely non-aligned stance. While the line of the policy itself is a little difficult to change, an increase in overt alliances with Japan, USA, Australia will support our progress. India lacks a ‘unifying strategic vision’ in economic and foreign policy, leading its politicians and diplomats to fall back on pragmatism and inherited traditions of thought, as said by David Malone.

Thus, India as a nation should aim to establish itself in Asia, while at the same time allow the tiger to dominate the dragon.