Sino-Indian relations have taken a dive recently, with the ongoing dispute over Kashmir again sparking conflict between two of the world’s emerging powers. A little over a year after India passed the Jammu and Kashmir Re-Organization Act, it says it has “thwarted” a Chinese attempt to agitate the status quo, on August 31st, over the “Line of Actual Control.” The two countries have established a five-point plan to de-escalate tension in the region, with the hope that it will restore some form of peace in the long term. However, the recent clash comes only two months after a deadly standoff in June that reportedly left twenty Indian soldiers dead and several more wounded. Whether the five-point plan can actually restore peace will remain to be seen. However, given the rift between the two countries, the tension is unlikely to ease soon.
While the recent stand-off may seem minute in comparison to the world’s other geopolitical conflicts, China and India have been rivals since the 1950s. Although India was the first non-Communist Asian nation to establish relations with the People’s Republic, the relationship never went beyond memorandums of understanding and sporadic cultural exchanges. In fact, the two nations have been scuffling over territory since the 1950s, including one skirmish which became a month-long war in October of 1952. In 2017, the Doklam region saw an entirely separate conflict over China’s construction of roadways in disputed territory. (The territory actually fell within Bhutan’s border, but India backed Bhutan’s claim.)
In the past sixty years, Sino-Indian tension has centered mainly on the ongoing dispute over Kashmir, making the very recent developments in Ladakh merely the next chapter in an ongoing saga. The Line of Actual Control and its associated five-point plan for resolution indicate that India and China’s relationship is at an inflection point. The region causing this ongoing conflict is small, but not insignificant. Ladakh could form a tourist hotspot as a gateway to the Himalayas once international travel returns, with pristine landscapes that will prove a luxury in COVID-19’s aftermath. However, the region also has one of the world’s largest glacier-fed natural irrigation systems, which would prove useful to remote communities in the northeast. Add to this the fact that the region is also prime real estate for the development of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and one begins to see why the two nations are willing to risk war over a small, remote piece of land like Kashmir.
Religion also plays an important role in this decision. The regions have high Hindu populations, which are close to both China and Pakistan. The Indian Parliament passed a controversial law in 2019 which granted citizenship to refugees from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, but specifically excluded Muslims. The way China treats religious minorities like the Uyghur population of Xinjiang no doubt gives India some cause for trepidation, considering that the Kashmir region is predominately Hindu, and ceding control of it to China would set a precedent for something similar to Xinjiang.
The introduction of the Re-Organization Act in August 2019 is proof that India is taking an assertive stance towards its northern border with China. If the past few months can guarantee anything, it is that India and China are far from resolving this longstanding issue. Article 370 was once the guarantor of Kashmir’s quasi-independence, giving its regions some degree of autonomy over their governmental structure and policy. However, Narendra Modhi featured Article 370’s revocation as part of his 2019 election promise to give the federal government more control over Ladakh and Kashmir. With the article revoked in August, the region now falls under the federal government’s jurisdiction.
Economic reform was central to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election bid. However, in the wake of COVID-19 and a declining economy, it appears that he has managed to build popularity over time by taking an assertive approach to foreign policy. Modi has built India’s bilateral relations with diplomatic visits to Bhutan, Japan, Myanmar, Australia, and even the United States. However, China has long been a favored enemy. Modi expressed his discontent with China’s aggression on the border as early as his successful 2014 election campaign.
India’s perception of China has clearly served Modi well in both his election campaigns and his popularity levels. A comprehensive opinion poll run by Pew Research in 2014 revealed that 72% of Indians have concerns over Chinese territorial claims. Only an approximate 31% have a favourable view of China. Add this to Modhi’s increasingly high popularity levels and the picture is clear – India is taking an assertive approach to foreign policy as a guise for poor economic performance. Having said that, however, China does pose a very real threat to India. Tibet, Hong Kong, and Taiwan are recent examples as to how.
The Sino-Indian relationship is reminiscent of that of the United States and the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. That decades-long stand-off didn’t end until 1991, with the Soviet-initiated dissolution of the U.S.S.R. – a feat five years in the making, and one that really began with 1986’s Chernobyl disaster. In many respects, the current COVID-19 pandemic is worse than Chernobyl. While some nuclear fallout spread throughout Europe, the events in Chernobyl were quite localized compared to the coronavirus’s 918,000 deaths worldwide. Whether or not this pandemic is enough to destabilize trust between nation-states, as the Chernobyl disaster did, remains to be seen.
Either way, it will take more than a pandemic to completely undermine the Chinese system, because China has learned from history. India must, therefore, approach its relationship with China with due caution like so many other nations are starting to do. For peace to last in Kashmir, there must first be de-escalation, and both sides are the furthest they have ever been from such a thing.