Already locked in rivalry with the US, it was not ideal for Beijing to alienate New Delhi, but the China-India border row has had that effect. Xi Jinping’s stated wish for China to make friends rather than enemies could apply to its increasingly US-friendly neighbour

by Shi Jiangtao

Few could have expected a year ago that China’s relations with India, which were improving after a 2017 border row, would soon dip to their lowest in decades. But another stand-off in the Himalayas, in Ladakh, has yet to be resolved after 13 months, and it is clear that last June’s clash in which 20 Indian and at least four Chinese soldiers were killed was a turning point, particularly in how New Delhi perceives Beijing.

Before the clash, both sides rejoiced about the “heart-to-heart” friendship between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who were planning a third summit in two years. As China fixated on a new cold war with the United States, most China-watchers argued it would be nightmarish for Beijing to alienate New Delhi. But a year later, that’s exactly what has happened.

Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said last month that “profoundly disturbed” ties were at a crossroads, reasoning that “if you disturb the peace and tranquillity, if you have bloodshed … if there is intimidation, if there is continuing friction on the border then obviously it is going to tell on the relationship”. Distrust of China in India hit a record high, with Indian officials and scholars talking openly about China’s strategic threat and close alignment with Pakistan.

In a January survey by India Today, despite the devastating coronavirus crisis, nearly 60 per cent of Indians backed their government on the border dispute, and 82 per cent supported its ban on Chinese goods and mobile apps. More consequentially, Modi has ditched New Delhi’s traditional policy of ambiguity on its alignment with Washington and emerged as a pillar in the US’ alliance-based approach to confronting China. India’s embracing of the “Quad”, the China-focused four-nation bloc at the heart of the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy, is widely seen as tilting the balance of power against Beijing in the long run.

According to Shi Yinhong, a veteran US expert in Beijing, the US gaining support from maritime partners such as India looks set to intensify its feud with Beijing, accelerating the emergence of a bipolar world order.

In response to Beijing labelling the Quad an “Indo-Pacific NATO”, Jaishankar shot back, saying “arguments of the Cold War cannot be used to deny other countries their right to maximise their options”. He said the US-led grouping with Japan, Australia and India had “brought together countries with a growing degree of comfort with each other”.

For India, according to Tanvi Madan of US research group the Brookings Institution, China is a rising superpower that needs to be managed and the Quad provides a “useful collaborative platform given its capabilities gap with China, and its recognition that it alone cannot tackle its China challenge”.

Although countries such as India and Japan have geopolitical calculations in turning against China, there is no denying that their fears about China’s rise and Beijing’s hardline policies at home and abroad have become a driver in binding them with Washington.

Against this backdrop, it was commendable for Xi to call last week for efforts to “make friends” rather than enemies and put a positive spin on China’s actions to be seen as a “credible, lovable and respectable” power.

If Beijing is serious about not pushing New Delhi further away or even turning India into a permanent enemy, it should begin by setting aside grievances on the border issue and ending the stand-off.