A Watershed Moment In India-China Relations, Says MIT’s Vipin Narang

It’s when the Chinese say nothing is when I get worried. We don’t know what their objective is, publicly, says MIT’s Vipin Narang.
A file photo of an Indian Army truck crossing Chang la pass near Pangong Lake in Ladakh. (Photograph: AP/PTI)
A file photo of an Indian Army truck crossing Chang la pass near Pangong Lake in Ladakh. (Photograph: AP/PTI)

The highest levels of government in India and China publicly warned each other on Wednesday against any further provocation, following the “violent face-off” in the Galwan Valley on Monday night in which 20 Indian armymen were killed in action. The political mood over the next several days in both countries will be critical, says Professor Vipin Narang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program.

The worst-case scenario, Narang says, is domestic politics becoming a factor and “nationalism on both sides that can put a lot of pressure on each government to really escalate”, but adds that he’s optimistic that cooler heads will prevail as neither country wants to go to war.

For decades, India and China have expanded their economic engagement despite an unresolved border dispute “where it did not let the overall relationship become hostage to it. But once you have fatalities, then the border issue becomes more salient at home in both countries,” Narang said in an interview.“Both benefit from trade and you can have a trade relationship that isn’t held hostage to the security relationship.”

How and why did tensions get so acute that the loss of life had been as high as what’s been declared so far?

I want to start by saying that it’s a really tragic day both for India-China relations, the Indian Army, and the Indian nation. This is probably the single-worst day for the Indian Army in terms of sustaining fatalities and casualties since, I guess, the Kargil War. It’s a dark day for the Indian Army. The question is how did it get to this point.

It’s important to look at the broader context, where we don’t necessarily have a public understanding of the Chinese objectives. But it’s very clear that the scope, size, scale, and swathe of pressure that the Chinese were putting across the Line of Actual Control area—in each sector, western sector, central sector, eastern sector—was unprecedented and it seemed to have surprised the Indians at a strategic level. In the middle of this pandemic, why are the Chinese pressing on the Line of Actual Control? We have a lot of hypotheses, it could be about the border, about the road, about Article 370, about unilaterally settling the Line of Actual Control on Chinese terms… we don’t really know.

As a result of the Chinese build-up, then you have the Indian Army build up its force posture along the entire sector and there was a lot of friction between the People’s Liberation Army and the Indian Army for months now. We litigate a lot about the legalities and the rhetorical definition of ‘Indian territory’, whether Indian territory was ‘captured’, the reality is the Chinese are trying to change the ground status quo, and the Indian Army had positioned itself to prevent that from happening. There doesn’t seem to have been the level of disengagement that we were led to believe, it sounds like, from official sources. So the friction points over two months… it’s not inevitable certainly since no loss of life had occurred in the border area as long as half a century… tempers seem to have run high and there was a lot of back and forth at each side of probably erecting tents or infrastructure.

What happened on Monday night is what happens when you have constant friction over several months now with these forces positioned against each other in eyeball-to-eyeball face-off. 

When you have friction points like this and tempers run high after several months, inadvertent or advertent escalation like this is always a possibility. And it sounds like it got really out of hand if hundreds of forces were involved. So far, we have heard of 20 Indian fatalities and countless more injured, and we don’t know the PLA numbers and we probably never will know that definitively. There is a broader context and there’s the localised effect of a lot of friction that had been building up and tempers seem to have flared and the fracas got out of control. The stories that are coming out are grim and I don’t want to speculate about how things exactly happened because we don’t know the facts on the ground. At this point, the bigger issue is how do we get de-escalation between India and China because now is a critical moment.

You’d said a few weeks back that the de-escalation was going to be very fragile and prone to a flare-up. Is this what you were worried about? What made you say that at the time?

I think that always a possibility, right? The longer the forces are postured against each other, you’ve got the psychological stress of being postured against a primary adversary. Then the altitude, the conditions, those are terrible. It really wears on the forces and the longer they are positioned and postured there, the risk is that this kind of inadvertent escalation can get really serious. You’ve had stories about chopper activity, speed boats on the Pangong Tso, so it was set up for trouble. And, it wasn’t just at a single point, forces are arrayed against each other across the entire LAC.

The longer it went on, my concern was, it’s only a matter of time before something went wrong.

Now that we’ve had an incident of this scale, what scenarios do you see playing out from here?

I think that’s a really important question. I think this is a watershed moment in India-China relations. I think the best-case scenario is that both governments don’t want a war. I don’t think either India or China want that kind of real escalation. In that case scenario, this incident is a wake-up call for both sides. You cannot continue to have these kinds of a flare-ups every several years that can escalate like this. Maybe it’ll provide momentum to get real initiative to resolve the border issue once and for all. They’ll get the mechanisms to prevent that from happening again. That is the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is that now this has happened, domestic politics becomes a variable.

You have nationalism on both sides that can put a lot of pressure on each government to really escalate.

The next several days will be critical to see which direction it goes. I think I'm mildly and cautiously optimistic that cooler heads will prevail because at the end of the day, neither India nor China want to war with each other over this.

Would the severity of this event also mark a longer-term shift in attitudes on how the countries see each other?

At the end of the day, India and China are rivals and not friends. They have to coexist because they share a border, that’s just the geographical reality. There are points of engagement, there are points of dispute. The border has been one of those issues where it did not let the overall relationship become hostage to it. But once you have fatalities, then the border issue becomes more salient at home in both countries and it becomes a point of friction that needs to be resolved. Obviously, when you have professional military that are engaging with each other and there’s a loss of life, there needs to be a resolution so that it doesn’t happen again.

So, as long as the border issues are not resolved, and nobody gets to the bottom of what China is seeking with this kind of pressure across the entire LAC, then there can be no resolution. The fact that there hasn’t been any public Chinese statement of what their objectives are, actually does concern me. Because during Doklam, if you recall, they were very voluble. You had the Global Times and state organs that ere very clear about what their position was, and the standoff kind of took its own life because of how vocal the Chinese were. The Chinese officially have said very little in this dispute, and that concerns me more.

It is when the Chinese say nothing is when I get worried. We don’t know what their objective is, publicly.

Privately, maybe the government officials do, but getting to the bottom of what it is that provoked it on both sides… it's possible that the Indians are doing the same to the Chinese and we don't hear a lot about it because the Chinese are quiet about it, but, whatever it is… this is a kind of persistent friction across the entire LAC was not sustainable if India and China are to essentially coexist as neighbours going forward. So, there needs to be a resolution one way or another.

Either you say, we’re not going to let this become an issue and we go back to the status quo as it was, and the status quo actually becomes the de facto, that the Line of Actual Control becomes the de facto boundary between the two countries, even if it's not delimited or demarcated.

Or you say we resolve it for once and for all and establish a mechanism to draw a border that is final, where the territorial demarcation for both sides is clear. But there are a lot of pieces of territory, Aksai Chin for example, that is going to be very difficult to resolve.

So, either way, this is a turning point in the relationship and then, there needs to be some mechanism to figure out which direction they’re going to go now.

In the other ways in this relationship manifests itself, what repercussions do you see on the economic front—on trade and investment between the countries? India has already changed its foreign direct investments rules to purportedly safeguard entities, whose balance sheets have been weakened by the coronavirus pandemic and the resultant lockdown, from potential hostile takeovers coming from countries like China. How do you see that part of the relationship altered by this?

I don’t want to make any speculation on that because wrapped up in all of this is the fact that there’s a pandemic going on. There are a lot of areas of convergence economically between India and China but also a lot of friction points as well. So, I don’t want to speculate about the long-term. The reality is that they are neighbours and they have a relatively and increasingly robust trading relationship. Over time, the weight of each other’s economy, provide incentives to not fight.

Both benefit from trade and you can have a trade relationship that isn’t held hostage to the security relationship.

Except, that there’s going to be security competition between the two, but I think all that of is predetermined. Because the government has been so quiet about this dispute as it exists now but also what its objectives are, there are options on the economic front, but it remains to be seen whether the government will decide to exercise them.

Was it unsustainable that the only neighbour India has a substantial economic and financial relationship with, is the one that it simultaneously has had so many unresolved geopolitical issues with as well?

That’s just the reality of the Chinese economy. The Chinese economy was at one point fastest-growing economy in the world and is the largest economy in Asia by far. So, it’s impossible to run an economy without trade with China and that’s just the structural reality.

After the pandemic, there is going to be some reckoning as to whether we want to outsource so much economic dependence to China. The United States is having to question, India will have this question. But these are longer-term issues that that aren’t necessarily related to the [situation right now]. The border issue can and has been kept separate. The relationship, in general, has not been held hostage to the border dispute. Now, with the loss of life, the question is whether that will persist in the short term, and in the long term. In the long term, I'm optimistic in the sense that these are Asia’s giants and they have to coexist and there will be a security competition between them, there’ll be economic competition between them.

The pandemic provides an opportunity, for example, for Indian pharmaceuticals, for manufacturing, and for a lot of industries that can help in the global supply chain. It’s a good opportunity to take advantage of that. I’ve always seen it as independent of the borders.


Opinion Editor, BQ Prime...more
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