International relations, National security | Asia, East Asia, South Asia

29 September 2020

What happens to a state’s security policy when it faces frequent conflict? In the case of India and China, repeated standoffs could undermine trust into the future, Dokku Nagamalleswara Rao writes.

Recurring conflict can cause changes in policy behaviour, because in its attempts to deal with constant risk, the state is forced to think beyond its traditional approaches and change the way it conducts international relations.

A look at these behavioural changes can then allow a nuanced examination of the different strategies states use to cope with change and conflict. It is these exact kinds of behaviour changes that India has experienced throughout its conflicts with China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between the countries.

Since border talks initiated in the 1980s, military standoffs such as the Sumdorong Chu incident in 1986 and 1987, Depsang in 2013, Demchok and Chumar in 2014, Doklam in 2017, and Galwan in 2020 have been a recurring plot in India’s security story, and this has made the Indian side wary of whether talks guarantee a permanent solution.

Regular LAC standoffs and border talks have repeatedly led to simply more military talks. This means India has to work on a ‘trust but verify’ model, and has to monitor closely whether China keeps its commitment to disengage troops along the LAC.

More on this: India’s challenge to China

Since the clear purpose of existing confidence-building measures and diplomatic talks is to prevent possible conflict, failure of these arrangements to hold the peace will cause trust issues between the two countries. Trust issues will then cause India to further raise questions about the reliability of commitments, and potentially derail what has been achieved so far.

Repeated military provocations have influenced India to be less considerate about cooperation with China, and this may have something to do with India refusing to acknowledge the ‘One China’ policy, its restrictions on Huawei, its boycott of the Belt and Road Initiative, and its ban on 224 mobile apps, including 47 replica apps with links to China.

Indeed, one expert observed that the recent Galwan incident of 15 June has ‘reshaped Indian resolve’ in these areas, highlighting the way these conflicts are changing India’s behaviour and undermining trust.

To put an end to these developments, China and India need to discuss political questions openly. But discussions alone will not yield results, only action. Both countries need to seriously consider whether they take the path of caution and prevention instead of intimidation and insecurity, and this change of heart will come from within each state, not from diplomatic discussion between the two countries.

As to whether it is ‘the right time’ to settle political questions between India and China, neither New Delhi nor Beijing has definite answers, despite spending decades on border talks. If both countries are not ready for a tangible settlement, then they must get ready to adjust to new realities.

India has to prepare for tough competition in South Asia, whereas China has to bear the consequences of losing development partners and growing friction with the United States. Moreover, on China’s part it is clearly a failure of strategic calculus to perpetuate this issue and push India close to the United States.

With the mandate given to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi by the Indian Parliament and President Xi Jinping by the Communist Party of China, both only need the political will to get to the core of this issue. Failing to act could strain their future relationship, and harm regional and global cooperation. Ultimately, both leaders will need to decide whether they want to be political strongmen or mature statesmen.

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