India’s China Challenge

Yadong, on the southern edge of Tibet, is where China meets India. Getting there takes you right across the roof of the world, a day-long drive from Lhasa. As I leave Lhasa and head south, towards India, the long and winding road traverses pristine lakes, many of which are sacred for Tibetans, their banks dotted with dozens of worshippers lying prostrate, yaks in tow. Our journey ends in the Chumbi Valley town of Yadong, a small, muddy and underwhelming frontier outpost that, in a sense, presents a perfect snapshot of the India-China relationship.

Yadong, on the Tibet side of Nathu La pass across the border from Sikkim, is the gateway between two behemoth economies. Yet this sleepy town is a sharp contrast to the booming border ports that dot China’s other frontiers, with Central Asia, Russia, and even, for that matter, Nepal. Yadong is still awaiting such grand plans. Time has stood still here, a legacy of a still unresolved history that hangs heavily. Elsewhere on China’s frontiers, history was marching on, with new chapters being written…

At the time, the thinking was those 72 days of the Doklam crisis was as low as the India-China relationship could go. The “Donglang incident”, as China called it, became a daily topic of conversation in Beijing taxi rides. Some Indian businessmen were hearing from Chinese partners that it was unofficially a time to not do business with India. Even China’s most beloved Indian filmstar, Aamir Khan, had to quietly put a film release put on hold.

In Beijing, the view among people I spoke to was that the timing of China’s muscle-flexing over the Doklam incident amid the most sweeping reforms of the military was no coincidence. The military’s massive transformation under Xi Jinping had pushed had created its own stresses and uncertainties. And in the past , such circumstances had driven the military to adopt a hardline posture. Perhaps the events that followed Doklam, helped by the optics from the “informal summits” in Wuhan and Chennai, lulled everyone into a false sense of security. After all, at the end of the day, the protocols and mechanisms in place worked.

Indeed, 2018 and 2019 marked the two most peaceful years on the border in recent memory. It seemed there was a consensus at the highest levels to keep the peace. In hindsight, there warning signs. The pressure was building..

Neither India nor China desires for conflict, and neither expects it.. The problem is, war rarely happens by design. The events of May 2020 unfolded even though there were compelling reasons for both sides to keep the peace. The summits at Wuhan and Chennai led us to think both Modi and Xi saw eye-to-eye on not holding the relationship hostage to the boundary question when economic ties were growing, particularly in terms of Chinese investment into India. At the same time, the PLA’s strategy of testing India across the Line of Actual Control had only continued, as did India’s infrastructure building in sensitive areas. If clarifying the LAC would be the obvious solution to all of these troubling trends, it seemed Beijing was in no mood to do so, preferring the ambiguity that marked its approach to many territorial and maritime disputes which gave it cover to change claims and keep its adversaries off-balance..

History will not solve the boundary dispute. We will still be debating historical claims for another 100 years. What will solve it dispute is a political decision taken by governments that come to the conclusion that benefits of settlement will outweigh the costs. The disputes that are hardest to solve are those where one party gains and the other loses. The irony of the India-China boundary dispute e which is routinely described in news reports with the adjectives vexed, intractable and complex e is that it is a dispute that was susceptible to a fair solution e one that still stares us in the face. If the recent boundary incidents have taught us anything, the costs of not settling are only escalating. And with devastating consequences. Depsang in 2013. Chumar in 2014. Doklam in 2017. Galwan in 2020. The list is growing. And the stand-offs are progressively getting harder to resolve…

(This is an excerpt from “India’s China Challenge: A Journey through China’s Rise and What It Means for India” by Ananth Krishnan. It is published by HarperCollins.)