The Indians, fast emerging as a bulwark against Chinese aggression, offer enormous opportunities in a deeper partnership

If China has been trying to push its advantage during the Covid-19 pandemic, maybe it should be more modest as it now faces a backlash from Western countries seeking to unravel Chinese involvement in their economies, infrastructure and communications. And more attention should be paid to India, a friendly democracy and leading Commonwealth nation whose population is at least as big as China’s and which is projected to become the world’s third largest economy by 2030. 

The calls for serious reappraisal of relations with China have been sparked by increased tensions over Taiwan, the imposition of new security laws on Hong Kong, more incidents in the South China Sea, and most recently, serious incursions in the contested Himalayan borderlands with India.

The fight that took place last month between Chinese and Indian troops in the Galwan River area of Ladakh cost 20 Indian lives and an unknown number of Chinese. In spite of periodic incidents over the years, it was the first fatal clash between China and India since 1975.

Three weeks later, on 5 July, after a “frank” exchange, Indian national security advisor Ajit Doval and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, agreed to calm the situation, not to “turn disagreement into dispute”, to ensure respect for the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto border, and for disengagement of troops.

India is highly sensitive to encirclement. On assuming power in 2014, Prime Minister Modi made a point of prioritising strong relations with neighbouring South Asian states such as Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar to try and head off growing Chinese influence.

China’s seizure of Tibet in 1950, previously an exclusive sphere of influence of the British Raj, expanded enormously the frontier between India and China opposite Ladakh in the Northwest, Himachal Pradesh in the central sector, and Arunachal Pradesh in the Northeast. It changed the strategic calculus. India long regarded Tibet as its northern rampart while Beijing saw it as its backdoor. Now it is its forward base. 

The Xinjiang –Tibet highway and its offshoots, cutting through the disputed Himalayan Aksai Chin region, was begun in 1951. This was followed by major development of military road systems on the Chinese side along the Himalayan rim, accelerating in recent years. The 1962 conflict, that ended with over 700 Chinese and 1,300 Indian dead, on terrain that included this same Galwan area, was a strategic shock to India that forced major improvements to her military capabilities and drew attention to the poor road links on the Indian side.

The Nehru-era fear that road improvements would merely assist an invader has been set aside and some dozens of upgraded road links have been created now that the response capabilities of the Indian Defence Forces have been massively enhanced. Perhaps the most sensitive of these has been the 140 mile, all-weather road connecting Leh, the Ladakh capital and greatly expanded military base, via Darbuk, with Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO), a key forward military post and airstrip near the China border. It runs just four miles from the scene of the latest incident.

On 3 July, Prime Minister Modi travelled to the Ladakh border region, to Nimo 22 miles from Leh, to show solidarity with the forward troops, reiterate his commitment to the territorial integrity of India and warn of the serious consequences of Chinese aggression which will require a diplomatic and military response.

The negotiations to bring about de-escalation seem to have ended up with a ‘buffer zone’ in territory previously regarded as Indian. This action has disturbed the status quo and given India cause for concern just when she has been seriously struck by Covid-19. While Modi has put a bold face on his relations with Xi Jinping, it’s certainly not the “Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai” (Indians and Chinese are brothers) of a previous era. 

As we have seen in the South China Sea and now in the Himalayas, China still takes note of the teachings of its 4th century BC military strategist, Sun Tzu, who advocated using “small steps forward” that are certain to improve your position while not overly alarming the enemy. 

India must itself judge the significance of China’s latest small step in the Himalayas, given all the complexities of its international relationships. Some take the view that India has no real strategic interest in the area under dispute and risks being drawn into conflict for no good reason beyond saving face. Others see this as a short-sighted analysis.

In the immediate area, there is the need to maintain tactical advantage, occupying dominant high ground and controlling key passes otherwise more territory will gradually be lost. Strategically, the disputed interface between India and China extends some 2,500 miles across the Himalayan rim, almost from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east. There are many potential access points and Chinese violations of the LAC have become more frequent, more violent and more coordinated.

Any concession of territory potentially begets another, rendering India more vulnerable. And the appearance of weakness on India’s part will influence the friendly alignment of vulnerable countries such as Bhutan and Nepal, undoing years of diplomatic investment and seriously undermining India’s regional security. 

India today is not the India of 1962, when she was politically na├»ve and militarily helpless. There are now some 200,000 acclimatised and well-equipped troops in the forward areas opposite China with artillery and armour support and backed by the very capable Indian Air Force. Narendra Modi is a strong Prime Minister, intensely protective of Indian sovereignty and deeply conscious of India’s place in the world. It makes no sense for China to try and push India too hard or to imagine that it has a free hand to do what it wants in the Himalayas.

At a time when the West is questioning its reliance on the economic relationship with China and when there is so much evidence of Chinese malpractice - industrial espionage, human rights abuse, cyber attack - far more attention now needs to be given to strengthening the relationship with India. The opportunities are enormous. The French have certainly seen this.

Britain, with all its ties of history, of people, and shared experience, should be even further in the forefront of substantive strategic partners - investing, cooperating ambitiously in research and manufacturing, helping to build effective alliances, developing Commonwealth capabilities, militarily present in the Indian Ocean, and working closely together in international forums such as the UN, where India will shortly take its seat as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. There are undoubted complications, but these can be worked through. 

As the West tries to rebalance its relationship with China, India should step forward. In this case she needs to make a step change in her economic development – in 1990, the GDPs of India and China were about the same. Now China’s economy is five times that of India, attributable in large part to the economic inputs that China got from the US, Europe and Japan. Some Western companies will re-shore their businesses but others, following the example of firms such as JCB, should perhaps turn to India. The vicious spat on the Galwan River should be noticed and could be the incentive to a deeper relationship.