Asia Pacific

Han and Hindu Nationalism Come Face to Face

If geography is destiny, then China and India seem fated to clash.
Atul Singh, Vikram Sood, Glenn L. Carle, China India border dispute, China news, India news, China under Xi Jinping, Modi’s India, China India relations, Chinese claims to Tiber,

Ladakh, India, May, 2020 © Omri Eliyahu / SHutterstock

July 09, 2020 11:33 EDT

As dusk fell on June 15, a bloody clash broke out between Chinese and Indian soldiers in the Galwan Valley on the northwest China-India border, where a tributary of the Indus flows westward from Aksai Chin to Ladakh. In line with China’s recent expansionist policy elsewhere, its military had been pushing forward into territory claimed by both nations, altering facts on the ground. In line with India’s status quo policy to maintain its territorial integrity, its troops moved against Chinese intrusion, and a clash ensued. It was a throwback to the past. No one used guns, grenades or bombs. Men fought hand to hand, with fence posts, clubs wrapped in barbed wire, rods studded with nails, knives and even bayonets.

The fight took place on craggy cliffs at icy Himalayan heights. At least 20 Indian soldiers died, including a colonel. China has not revealed its casualties, but reliable sources estimate them to be higher than India’s. Satellite images show that China had been building bunkers, tents and storage units for military hardware near the site of the clash. The Chinese struck the first blow at a time and place of their choosing. They were surprised by the ferocity of the Indian response. Clashes between troops of both countries have occurred regularly along the contested border, but this is the first deadly one for 45 years.

For thousands of years, empires based in China and India did not clash. The mighty Himalayas acted as an insurmountable barrier. The bitter cold and low oxygen levels of the highest mountains in the world were too high even for a Hannibal or a Napoleon. Chinese armies that conquered Tibet were already at the limits of their supply lines, and the Himalayas were more forbidding than the Great Wall of China even for the dreaded Mongol hordes. For the Indian armies, the fabled riches of spice-laden south India were more alluring than the barren, frosty peaks of the north. Hence, many independent Himalayan kingdoms survived until relatively recently. The Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan is the last of the Mohicans and still acts as a buffer state between two Asian giants.

Modi’s Fantasy Versus Xi’s Reality


Tensions between China and India are a recent phenomenon. Both are new postcolonial states. The former is heir to the expansionist Qing Empire and is a revisionist power. It seeks to rewrite the rigged rules of the game of the international order. European powers and the United States forced this order down Chinese gullets when it was going through decline, disorder and disgrace. India is the child of the British Empire that seeks to preserve the status quo. It no longer identifies with the Mughal Empire, Britain’s predecessor.

Hindu India now sees the Mughals as Muslim oppressors who smashed temples, killed spiritual leaders, made Farsi the language of their empire and looked to Central Asia or the Middle East for inspiration. Today, India’s official language is English. Its laws, political systems and bureaucratic structures are legacies of the British, not of earlier empires. It has inherited the British conflict with the Qing.

At its essence, tensions between the two Asian giants boil down to one simple fact: India seeks to preserve British boundaries, while China seeks to reassert Qing ones. To make sense of what is going on and what might happen next, we have no choice but to go back into the past.

String of Pearls

China and India share a 3,440-kilometer border. Each claims territory controlled by the other. This territorial rivalry has led to only one war, in distant 1962, when Jawaharlal Nehru was India’s prime minister, Zhou Enlai was Nehru’s Chinese counterpart, and Mao Zedong was the chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). India lost that war ignominiously.

Since then, India and China have been uncomfortable neighbors. In 1963, Pakistan ceded Shaksgam Valley to China and commenced a relationship that has strengthened over time. Starting from 1969, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger used Islamabad as a backdoor to Beijing. In July 1971, Kissinger made a secret trip to China while on a visit to Pakistan. Islamabad was receptive to American blandishments, while New Delhi started the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) at the height of the Cold War. Its Marxist-tinged view of Western imperialism clashed with the American Cold War view of international relations. Naturally, the US sided with Pakistan against India when the two countries fought later that year.

Things have come a long way since 1971. The Soviet Union has fallen. China has become the workshop of the world. Pakistan is perceived more as the hiding place for Osama bin Laden than an entryway to Beijing. In 1991, India began a political, economic and philosophical transformation. Until recently, it was progressively rejecting statism. In its own gradualist manner, India has become less fearful of American neocolonialism and evolved into a more confident world power. India and the US have now made up. Both increasingly fear the rise of the Middle Kingdom.

In fact, India has real fears of a two-front war. What happens if Pakistan and China gang up against it? There are also concerns about the “string of pearls” China has built around India — ports in the Indian Ocean in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. New Delhi fears that Beijing might use its string to garotte India. Then there is another tiny little matter: In remote Tibet, looming high above the Indian plains, lies the source of the Brahmaputra, the Indus and other important rivers. Chinese dams could pose an existential risk to hundreds of millions living downstream.

Just as India fears China, the Middle Kingdom fears an alliance of India, Japan, Australia and the US — the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD), also known as the Quad. The Chinese still face what then-president Hu Jintao termed “the Malacca Dilemma” in 2003. About 80% of their oil goes through the Strait of Malacca. A visit to this strait is shocking for a geostrategist: At any given time, dozens of ships are visible, funneling their way for 900 kilometers through a body of water that at its narrowest point is no more than 2 kilometers wide.

If geography is destiny, then China and India seem fated to clash. After all, how can two rising giants with competing strategic interests fail to clash? Graham Allison of the Harvard Kennedy School has popularized the term “the Thucydides Trap.” As per Allison’s argument, the probability of bloodshed runs high when a rising power confronts a ruling power. Allison posited that the US and China might be facing the Thucydides Trap. In the Asian context, China and India might be walking into the very same trap.

History Matters, Especially for Dragons and Elephants

If we were to view the world through Samuel Huntington’s prism, both China and India have laid claim over Tibet’s soul. After the Tibetan Empire collapsed by the 9th century, Lhasa frequently fell under Beijing’s yoke. Both the Mongol Yuan and the Manchu Qing dynasties exercised suzerainty over Tibet. However, Tibet has always been connected to India culturally. The founder of Tibetan Buddhism arrived from Nalanda, the legendary university of the fertile Gangetic plains. Nalanda no longer exists — the Turks sacked it. Buddhism is a religion practiced in certain regions and limited sections of Indian society. Yet Tibetan philosophy has more in common with its Indian counterpart than with the philosophies of Confucius, Mencius or Lao Tzu.

Indian philosophy might have found fertile ground in the barren Tibetan Plateau, but it was China that took charge of this territory. Often confused as a nation-state, the Middle Kingdom was, in more ways than one, an empire. In 1998, Nicola Di Cosmo published an iconic paper analyzing Qing colonial administration in Inner Asia. He concluded that “the modern notion of China as a timeless union of many ‘nationalities’” obscures “the tensions and internal contradictions inherent in the process of Chinese empire building.”

The Qing were Manchus. Like the Mongols, they were outsiders who seized control of Beijing in 1644. A peasant rebellion led by Li Zicheng gave these northern barbarians their chance. They purported to ride in to rescue the Ming and promptly took over. Like previous conquerors, the Qing made enormous efforts to assimilate into Chinese culture, retained Han officials who served the Ming and promoted Confucian values.

Remembering how they had taken over Beijing, the Qing recognized the threat of a Mongol-Tibetan alliance. They embarked on an empire-building project of territorial expansion, which “was accompanied by military occupation and a new administrative structure.” The empire of the Qing came to comprise thrice the size of the empire of the Ming. Its population grew from about 150 million to over 450 million.

Mongolia, Central Asia and Tibet were all annexed. In 1720, the Kangxi Emperor sent troops to Lhasa. The Lifan Yuan, the court for the outer provinces of Mongolia, Tibet, Qinghai and Xinjiang, sent two ambans, or frontier specialists, to Lhasa. The powers of the ambans gradually increased through the 18th century, but the Qing ruled Tibet with a light touch.

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Even as the Qing were expanding, the mighty Mughals were declining. Akbar died in 1605, and his successors did not prove as able. His grandson Shah Jahan took charge in 1628 and is famous for building the Taj Mahal, but it was paid for by oppressive taxation. The English traveler Peter Mundy observed “putrefying corpses of the victims of famine” and paints a sorry picture of the Mughal realm during his journey through the country.

In 1658, Shah Jahan’s fanatical son, Aurangzeb, killed his brothers and imprisoned his father. He smashed temples, persecuted non-Muslims and triggered widespread rebellion. Until today, Aurangzeb is one of the most hated names in Hindu and Sikh families with children told tales of his cruelty. The last of the mighty Mughals died in 1707, and the empire disintegrated. Just five decades later, Robert Clive won the historic 1757 Battle of Plassey. An expansionist British India replaced a crumbling Mughal India.

The Many Games and the Great Game

In Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim,” the eponymous hero of the novel becomes the chela, the Hindi word for disciple, of a Tibetan lama. Together, they wander through dusty plains and the invigorating Himalayas. Indeed, it is the lama who pays for Kim’s education. The former seeks enlightenment while the latter learns the art of espionage, a sine qua non to play a role in the Great Game. The spellbinding yarn of Kim has some basis in reality. Like the Ottomans and the Mughals, the Qing were declining precipitously by the 18th and 19th centuries. Internal disorder and external invasion threatened the dynasty. The Qing military had become pathetic and its mandarins useless. Corruption stalked the land, and the peasants were grossly overtaxed.

During this period, Warren Hastings, the first governor general of India, dispatched George Bogle to Tibet. The Scottish adventurer met the third Panchen Lama in 1775 and established friendly relations. He purportedly went on to marry a close relative of the lama. Bogle’s mission was not followed up by much. The British had the rest of India to conquer and consolidate. The 1857 uprising and transferring sovereignty from the British East India Company to Queen Victoria put Tibet off their agenda in the 19th century.

Even as the British kept themselves busy in India, they eyed China. The British thrashed the Middle Kingdom in the First Opium War of 1839-42. The war was fought on the principle of free trade. The British insisted that they have the right to export opium to China. Naturally, they grew poppy in India to make the opium. As spoils of victory, the Chinese ceded Hong Kong to Great Britain to serve as a comptoir to China. The British extracted a hefty indemnity as well. More importantly, they now had the legal right to export opium to the Middle Kingdom — perversely about the only “good” the Chinese seemed willing to buy from the “barbarian” British.

The Chinese capitulation to British arms demonstrated that the Qing emperor had no clothes. The Taiping Rebellion, with its fanatical local version of Christianity but fundamentally a manifestation of a China in utter disarray and decay, broke out in 1850 and lasted until 1864. Even as this revolt raged, China lost the Second Opium War of 1856-60. Both Britain and France teamed up to carve out the Chinese carcass.  

It was the era of mercantile imperialism, and the Europeans rivaled with each other even as they cooperated to divide up the hopelessly self-absorbed and utterly sclerotic but potentially lucrative Chinese empire. The Europeans wanted to expand the opium trade to the interior and, of course, more reparations. At home, European leaders justified much of their expansion to their own peoples by demanding freedom to preach Christianity. Sometimes, they were even sincere about advancing the word while planting the flag. In 1860, the two reigning European superpowers, Britain and France, achieved total victory in what The New York Times called a “dashing little campaign.”

Lord Elgin, the son of the man who took away the Elgin Marbles from Greece and later the viceroy of India, commanded an overwhelming British-French force that involved some Indian troops. When his messenger was killed by the Chinese, the great lord responded in a manner befitting none other than the great Genghis Khan. European troops torched the magnificent Summer Palace to the ground and engaged in an extraordinary orgy of loot. Patriotic Chinese still feel a burning sense of shame about this incident. Many still “resent and distrust” the West.

Barely had the dust settled on the ruins of the palace when the Dungan Revolt broke out in 1862. This time it was Muslims instead of Christians who struck out against Beijing. Riots broke out between the Hui minority and Han majority in many areas after Taiping rebels invaded the northwest province of Shensi. Ethnic cleansing became par for the course, and the rebellion lasted 15 years. What the scholar Wen-djang Chu wrote in 1958 stands true today: This revolt covered 3,191,680 square kilometers and is still “greatly underestimated.” The surge of Muslim revolts in the far west of China in fact was more responsible for the final collapse of the tottering Qing dynasty than the red-haired barbarians from the West.  

Ripe for the Picking

Like the Ottoman Empire, the Qing Empire was ripe for the picking. Internal revolt was the order of the day. Foreign powers sensed their chance. After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan joined the party. The First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 ended in calamity for China. Japan’s British-trained navy and Prussian-modeled army crushed the Qing forces, altering the balance of power in East Asia and whetting Japan’s appetite for empire. Now, the land of the rising sun was the rising Asian power.

Tibet increasingly enjoyed de facto independence after the First Opium War, as China struggled to stay afoot. This was also a time when Tibetans had to deal with invasion from the west, not the east. A new Sikh Empire emerged in the east. Its Dogra generals conquered Kashmir. Zorawar Singh Kahluria, the most dashing of the Dogras, led audacious campaigns in high altitude to conquer Buddhist Ladakh, a tributary of Tibet. 

Kahluria tried conquering western Tibet but in 1841 ended up with a lance in his chest. The Dogras avenged their general by winning the 1842 Battle of Chushul and then signed a treaty establishing the status quo ante bellum. The Sikh story did not last long — by 1849, the British crushed them. The new masters of India’s northwest gave Kashmir to the Dogras for having stabbed their Sikh overlords in the back. Notably, the Dogras still retained some territory in Tibet, especially in areas holy to the Hindus.

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The British seemed to reach the limits of their power of expansion to the north of India in the disastrous First Afghan War of 1839-42. The Afghans killed the entire British expeditionary force of 4,500 soldiers and 12,000 camp followers under General Elphinstone. Only one person survived. He was an army doctor who rode into Jalalabad to tell the sorry tale. Despite this disastrous British defeat, the Great Game continued without. Both Britain and Russia continued to expand their influence into Afghanistan. Eventually, the Second Anglo-Afghan War broke out in 1878. From the British point of view, it was an opportunity to avenge the rout of 1842 and contain Russian expansion.

Now, the theater of the Great Game shifted to Tibet. Ngawang Dorjee, a Russian-born monk, was received by Tsar Nicholas II at St. Petersburg as Tibet’s special envoy in 1901. Naturally, this made the British nervous. In 1904, Colonel Francis Younghusband appeared at the gates of Lhasa with a significant body of troops on a so-called diplomatic mission, designed primarily to forestall Russian inroads to Britain’s sphere of interest extending north from India, Britain’s “crown jewel.” The 13th Dalai Lama, the predecessor to the current one, fled to Mongolia.

The British did not build upon their success in Lhasa. They did not want an international incident. Tensions in Europe were rising, and Britain was coming to view an alliance with Russia as desirable. Therefore, the British government ignored Younghusband’s Anglo-Tibetan Convention of 1904. Instead, they took the indemnity China offered on Tibet’s behalf and signed an Anglo-Chinese convention in 1906, recognizing Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. A year later, an Anglo-Russian agreement on Tibet affirmed the 1906 accord.

The European intervention in Tibet provoked a response. After nearly two centuries of ruling with a light touch, the Manchu Qing, even though it was on its last legs, decided to reassert control over Tibet. Ethnic Tibetan areas east of the Yangtze River were put under Beijing’s direct administrative control. They are now a part of Sichuan Province. In 1909-10, an army led by Zhao Erfeng arrived in Lhasa. 

The 13th Dalai Lama fled to exile again, this time to Darjeeling, a lovely hill station in British India. He developed a close friendship with Sir Charles Bell, the British political officer in the then Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim. It was here that the 13th Dalai Lama organized a military force to win back power. Destiny would smile on him soon. The 1911 Revolution led to the end of the Qing dynasty by 1912. The very next year, the 13th Dalai Lama expelled Chinese troops and officials from Lhasa. He also declared complete self-rule, and Tibet achieved de facto independence. It was to last nearly four decades.

Han Nationalism Replaces Manchu Empire

It is important to note that none of the Chinese leaders of the 1911 Revolution accepted Tibetan independence. Yuan Shikai, the man who took over from the Qing, claimed “the Five Races [Han, Tibetan, Manchu, Mongol, Muslim] deeply united into one family” were all part of “the Yellow Church.” Sun Yat-sen, the “father of the revolution,” called for “the creation of a strong Chinese state that would expel the Japanese from Manchuria, the Russians from Mongolia and the British from Tibet.”

Thanks to the 1911 Revolution, the Han were back in the emperor’s palanquin. The Manchus were out after a 268-year rule. It was time to restore China to its millennial greatness. Regaining control of Tibet became an article of faith. Luckily for the Tibetans, the Chinese disintegrated into yet another civil war and then had to deal with a brutal Japanese invasion. Tibetan elites ran the country the way they deemed fit.

However, Tibet was unable to gain formal independence. Unlike Sikkim or Bhutan, Tibet did not end up as an Indian protectorate. The British summoned Chinese and Tibetan representatives to Simla, the de facto capital of British India in 1913. After months of discussion, the Simla Convention was signed in July 1914 by Tibet and Britain. China refused to sign this agreement even though it acknowledged Chinese suzerainty over Tibet.

Like most British treaties, this one was rather advantageous to them. It obtained for British India a vast territory east of Bhutan that now forms the state of Arunachal Pradesh. Tibetans lost Tawang, a large Buddhist monastery they revere greatly. Only in 2008 did the Dalai Lama finally accept Tawang to be a part of India. In 1914, Britain was curiously willing to accept vast territory from Tibet without Chinese approval but was unwilling to recognize Tibet’s independence.

Such lack of formal recognition came to haunt Tibet, starting on October 1, 1949, when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was founded. Mao’s communists were good Chinese nationalists and wanted to reunify the disparate parts of China under a strong central government. The Red Army invaded Tibet’s eastern province in October 1950, posing as an army of liberation from Western imperialism. This was roughly as accurate as European claims about 90 years before that Christ must accompany the flag into China. In May 1951, the Dalai Lama signed the Seventeen Point Agreement with the Chinese. For the first time, an agreement formally recognized Chinese sovereignty over Tibet.

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Initially, the CCP followed the Soviet Union’s nationality system. As Melvyn Goldstein observed in 2004, the communists even “allowed the feudal system, with its serflike peasantry, to persist,” allowing the Dalai Lama to rule with relative autonomy. The CCP officials presented themselves to Tibetans as the “new Chinese,” who were in the country to develop, not exploit. As soon as it had consolidated its power, however, the CCP reverted to its guiding principles. In 1955-56, officials launched socialist land reform in the Kham and Amdo regions of Sichuan and Qinghai provinces. This effectively meant the abolition of private property. Bloody rebellion followed. Starting in 1957, Tibetan refugees streamed into Lhasa. By this time, the Cold War had been defining international relations for over a decade. The US had fought China in Korea from 1950 to 1953. It sensed an opportunity to create a problem for the Chinese.

The CIA began training and arming Tibetan guerrillas. Despite the fact that monasteries and feudal lords still controlled their estates and serfs in Tibet, an anti-Chinese uprising erupted in March 1959. The Chinese government crushed the Lhasa uprising. The Dalai Lama renounced the Seventeen Point Agreement and wearisomely fled Tibet yet again — to India, where he remains to this day.

This was a bad time for China. The Great Leap Forward resulted not in progress but in the Great Chinese Famine of 1959-61. As Cormac Ó Gráda wrote in 2015, it was “the greatest famine in recorded history.” Like Joseph Stalin’s first five-year plan of 1928-32, Mao’s forced collectivization resulted in cataclysm. Estimates vary widely but, as per modern demographic analyses, between 20 and 30 million died.

Han nationalism did not die, however. The more “revolutionary” CCP cadres blamed Mao’s moderation in Tibet for the Dalai Lama’s duplicity. They remembered how his predecessor had also fled to India and plotted to overthrow Chinese rule. They feared an encore. Emulating the Dalai Lama, the CCP abandoned the Seventeen Point Agreement, terminated traditional Tibetan government, confiscated monastic and aristocratic estates and closed down thousands of monasteries. Out went the gradualist policy of accommodation, in came domination by Han CCP apparatchiks promoting class warfare and proletarian solidarity. Under Mao, this was inevitable. Like the laws of physics, Maoist ideology has proven to be totalitarian, inexorable and inescapable over time.

A Historically Undefined Border

Just as the CCP is the inheritor of the Qing empire, India is the successor to British India, the jewel in the crown of the once-global British Empire. Neither the British nor the Qing came to an agreement over the border. Once the Qing fell, its successors rejected the Simla Convention of 1914, which the British and the Tibetans agreed upon.

The British themselves were never clear as to the border. To begin with, W.H. Johnson drew an expansive line in 1865 that included all of Aksai Chin in what was then the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. In 1873, the British drew a Foreign Office Line, which stands largely forgotten. In 1897, Major-General Sir John Charles Ardagh followed suit. In the light of China waning and Russia waxing, he proposed a boundary line along the crest of the Kunlun Mountains north of the Yarkand River. This line is now known as the Johnson-Ardagh Line.

Barely was the ink dry on the map, when George Macartney, the consul general at the oasis city of Kashgar in Xinjiang proposed a revised boundary to the Qing in 1899. Lord Elgin, the sacker of the Summer Palace turned viceroy of India, took a fancy to Macartney’s idea. The new border was to run along the Karakoram Mountains, forming a natural boundary. British India and its allies would control the Indus River watershed, while the Chinese would be in charge of the Tarim River watershed. Colonel Sir Claude Maxwell MacDonald, Queen Victoria’s minister in China, authored a diplomatic note proposing the new border to the Chinese. This line is now known as the Macartney-MacDonald Line. Notably, the Qing court never responded to MacDonald’s note.

After the 1911 Revolution, the British reverted to using the Johnson-Ardagh Line as the border in official documents. However, they did not attempt to establish posts or exercise actual control over Aksai Chin. As if these lines were not confusing enough, the Simla Convention that led to an Anglo-Tibetan agreement forged a new boundary named after Lieutenant Colonel Sir Vincent Arthur Henry McMahon, a swashbuckling multilingual military man-turned-diplomat in charge of the British delegation. This line lay to the east of the Foreign Office Line and the west of the Johnson-Ardagh Line, which India claims as its rightful border on the northwest. Each of these lines matters because choosing one or the other as a reference point might make China or India gain or lose valuable strategic territory.

McMahon went on to serve in the Middle East as World War I raged. His career ended when the newly formed Soviet Union revealed the secret Anglo-French Sykes-Picot Agreement to carve up the Ottoman Empire. This revelation came when Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence — the famous Lawrence of Arabia — was promising independence to the Arabs to get them to fight the Turks, and McMahon himself was championing a pro-Arabist policy. His reputation was now tarnished. Therefore, the British quietly dropped references to the McMahon Line with Tibet, which now enjoyed de facto independence. Lhasa even controlled territories such as Tawang that the Simla Convention had deemed a part of India. 

Only in 1935 did the colonial British government resuscitate the McMahon Line. It feared renewed Chinese interest in Tibet. When Tibetan authorities arrested English botanist Francis Kingdon-Ward for entering the country illegally, the British made their move. In 1937, the Survey of India published a map showing the McMahon Line as the official boundary. As if on cue, Captain Gordon Lightfoot marched to Tawang in 1938 but met fierce Tibetan resistance. For the moment, Tawang remained in Tibetan hands. This changed during World War II. In 1944, James Philip Mills, a noted colonial administrator, took charge of the area south of Tawang.

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After India became independent in August 1947, Tibet protested British acquisitions. In October 1947, it demanded that India return Ladakh, Sikkim and Darjeeling. It did not. In October 1950, Chinese troops routed Tibetan forces at Chamdo. When India demurred, China brushed aside its protests. This led to a rift in the Indian government. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the deputy prime minister, wrote a letter to Nehru expressing anxiety over “the problem of Tibet.” Patel’s views mattered. He was a close associate and friend of Mahatma Gandhi. Under Patel’s leadership, India had assimilated the more than 500 princely states that comprised 40% of the area of pre-independence India and 22% of its population. It had earned the deputy prime minister the epithet of the “Iron Man of India.”

A month after the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) invaded Tibet, Nehru categorically declared, “Our maps show that the McMahon Line is our boundary and that is our boundary — map or no map.” With this parliamentary statement on November 20, 1950, the die was cast. In February 1951, Indian troops took over Tawang town and removed the Tibetan administration.

Line of Actual Control

Patel saw Chinese action against the Tibetans as “little short of perfidy.” Chinese officials had assured India they would settle the Tibetan question peacefully but had gone back on their word. Patel felt betrayed because India had been the first non-socialist country to recognize the new communist regime and was championing China’s entry into the United Nations. He worried about China as a threat to India’s borders and that it was encouraging communists within the country to foment a revolution. 

Even at that early stage, India was facing insurgency from armed communist groups, and many in its intelligentsia were seduced by the success of the communist revolutions first in the USSR and then in the PRC. Presciently, Patel warned against “Chinese irredentism and communist imperialism.” He took the view that the Middle Kingdom’s “ideological expansion concealed racial, national or historical claims. Patel recommended a “reconsideration of [India’s] retrenchment plans to the Army in the light of the new threat” as well no longer advocating Chinese entry into the United Nations.

Nehru disagreed with his older deputy. On November 18, two days before declaring the McMahon Line as the international boundary, the prime minister responded that India could not lose its “sense of perspective and world strategy and give way to unreasoning fears.” The idealistic, anglicized Kashmiri Brahmin and the realpolitik-oriented, earthy member of a Gujarati landowning caste seemed headed for a showdown over China. Patel’s death on December 15, 1950, averted this crisis. From now on, the Nehruvian view occupied the commanding heights of Indian foreign policy.

In 1954, India published maps showing Aksai Chin as part of the country, setting the Ardagh-Johnson Line as its northwest border with China and adding 37,244 square kilometers to its territory. The Middle Kingdom had never accepted this to be its border and claimed this territory as its own. In 1957, India was incensed to discover that China had built a road through Aksai Chin, connecting Xinjiang to Tibet. China National Highway 219 is a marvel of civil engineering. The Chinese began work on it in 1951 and completed it in 1957. Today, this 1,455-kilometer road runs from Yecheng in Xinjiang to Shiquanhe in Tibet and is known as the Sky Road because it goes through vertigo-inducing elevation of 5,248 meters above sea level. Right from the start, this road had a military purpose and increased India-China tensions.

To cool down these tensions, Zhou Enlai wrote to Nehru on September 8, 1959, about “the Sino-Indian boundary question.” He argued that the current boundary was a result of British imperialist aggression and was “therefore decidedly illegal.” Zhou declared that the Chinese government “absolutely [did] not recognize the so-called McMahon Line.” He complained that Indian troops were trespassing into Chinese territory and harboring Tibetan rebels. Instead, Zhou proposed maintaining “the long-existing status quo of the border” and resolving the issues step by step over time. This disputed border has come to be called the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

It is poorly defined. Indian and Chinese troops constantly patrol it and occasionally clash over what neither Beijing nor New Delhi accepts as a legitimate boundary. Writing on June 22, 2020, Lieutenant General P.J.S. Pannu observed that both India and China are still “defending a historically undefined border line.” Both sides still control the territory that the other claims. At stake are thousands of square kilometers of the Himalayas.  

Realpolitik Versus Romance

A simple question arises: Why was Nehru so naive about China and communism? In a magisterial piece, M.J. Akbar explains the basis of the Nehruvian view. India’s first prime minister was a passionate anti-imperialist who believed in the solidarity of the subjugated peoples. Very early, he saw India and China as two ancient civilizations emerging as modern nations and acting as harbingers of a more just world. Nehru romanticized not only China but also communism.

During a 1927 visit to the USSR, he was deeply impressed by Soviet economic policy, which became an exemplar for Nehruvian socialism. Notably, Nehru considered Vladimir Lenin to be the greatest man of action in the 20th century — and the most selfless. In contrast to Patel, Nehru was fascinated by communism and thus blind to its dangers.

The key to understanding Nehru’s benign view of China comes from his youth. As a student at Cambridge and a barrister in London, he had sought inspiration from thinkers of the Fabian Society. In an age of empires, he felt the pull of the left. In 1927, Nehru attended the International Congress against Colonial Oppression and Imperialism in Brussels. It rightly discussed Britain and presciently warned against American exploitation of Latin America. The conference designated three nations to lead the world out of oppression: China, Mexico and India. 

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Nehru was a member of the presiding committee and an inaugural speaker. It was a heady experience for this Harrow-educated dreamy-eyed idealist. For most anti-imperialists of the late 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries, communism was the obvious champion for colonized peoples. More importantly, Nehru made some Chinese friends in Brussels. One of them was Soong Ching-ling, the widow of Sun Yat-sen. Soon, Nehru became friends with Chiang Kai-shek, Sun Yat-sen’s successor. Nehru saw China as “India’s sister in ancient history” and closer relations between the two countries as a civilizational imperative. In 1937, he declared September 26 to be China Day. In opposition to Japan’s invasion of China, he called for the boycott of Japanese goods and for donations to support the Chinese war effort. He went on to visit China in August 1939 as Chiang Kai-shek’s guest.

When Nehru became the head of the interim government before independence in September 1946, the first conference he organized was not on national unity but on Asian relations. It was here that Indian romance would first crash against Chinese reality. When Nehru’s old friend Chiang Kai-shek learned that Tibetan delegates were attending, he threatened to pull China out of the conference. Nehru promised that Tibet’s status would not be raised and instructed Tibetan delegates to hold their tongues.

Nehru’s generosity to the Chinese soon turned excessive. In 1950, the US offered India China’s permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. In 1955, the Soviet Union made a similar offer. Nehru spurned both offers because he did not want a break between India and China. In the 1954 Sino-Indian Treaty on Tibet, Nehru agreed to withdraw Indian troops from the country. He also gave away postal, telegraph and telephone facilities that India had operated in Tibet. China gave India precious little in return.

In 1954, India and China signed the Panchsheel Treaty, which comprised five principles of peaceful coexistence. Zhou Enlai showed up in New Delhi to sign some form of peace treaty and to rally India against a potential American invasion of Vietnam. The slogan “Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai,” which means “Indians and Chinese are brothers,” was in the air. Nehru visited China later that year and was cheered in the streets. It did seem that India and China would lead an Asian resurgence together as per Nehru’s statesmanly vision. Everyone loves a parade.

Yet trouble was brewing. Noted historian Neville Maxwell records that neither side raised the boundary question. China did not bring it up because it wanted to avoid any discussion about Tibet. India assumed that the “boundary was well-known and beyond dispute, and there could be no question regarding it.” In 1954, its maps showed Aksai Chin as part of Indian territory. As mentioned above, the discovery of the road through Aksai Chin in 1957 and the Dalai Lama’s flight to India in 1959 hardened positions on both sides. India’s romance with China started souring. The first border clash occurred at Longju in August 1959. Nehru’s romance was dead, Patel’s realpolitik was back.

War and Peace

In 1959, Zhou proposed maintaining the status quo in his famous letter proposing the LAC. He followed up with a visit to India in 1960 with an offer: China would recognize India’s claim to the 84,000-square-kilometer area that now comprises Arunachal Pradesh despite its historical connections to Tibet if India accepted China’s claim to the 38,000-square-kilometer area of Aksai Chin. Nehru rejected Zhou’s offer.

In 1961, Nehru took two bold decisions. On November 2, 1961, he kicked off the so-called “forward policy.” Indian troops were to patrol as far forward as possible toward the international border recognized by India. The next month, he ordered troops to liberate Goa after years of diplomacy had failed. Portugal had conquered this coastal state in 1510 and held it for 451 years. Western powers such as the US and the UK condemned Indian action, but African and Asian countries supported it wholeheartedly. Nehru’s stock was flying high.

In 1962, Nehru continued with his foreign policy. Once inconvenient generals were replaced by pliant ones, he no longer met any opposition from the army high command. Indian troops set up forward posts on the China border, some even north of the McMahon Line. This riled Beijing, and by mid-summer tensions were running high. Domestic criticism of Nehru was rising by the day. Many accused him of being too conciliatory with China. So, Nehru put a key precondition to talks: India’s boundaries were non-negotiable. 

Yet even as Nehru took what he believed to be a hard line, every Indian forward post was being outmatched by more numerous Chinese garrisons. India’s position was increasingly untenable. China called India’s bluff. After a limited action on October 20, 1962, Chinese troops waited for a few days. Then, between November 15 and 19, they destroyed or broke up every organized Indian force in the disputed areas at key points across a front more than 3,000 kilometers wide. Then, Beijing announced a unilateral ceasefire on the same terms as Zhou had suggested in 1959.

The 1962 war is still a source of shame in India. Its troops were ill prepared and lost badly. Nehru made far too many blunders. He first viewed China romantically and gave it a carte blanche. Then, Nehru embarked on an ill-advised forward policy, with insufficient force that left Indian troops exceedingly vulnerable. Perhaps the biggest blunder of all was Nehru’s appointment of Vengalil Krishnan Krishna Menon as defense minister in 1957. 

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Energetic, eloquent and brilliant, Menon had made a name for himself in London and New York as a passionate advocate for India’s independence, Nehru’s policy of non-alignment and freedom for long-oppressed colonies. Like Nehru, Menon was a great champion of China and was convinced that India’s only threat came from Pakistan. This line of thinking proved to be disastrous. He sidelined outstanding officers like General Kodendera Subayya Thimayya and Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw. Menon shamelessly promoted sycophants like Pran Nath Thapar and Brij Mohan Kaul, both relatives of Nehru. Menon also weakened India’s defense production, which had been the best in Asia when the country won independence in 1947. After India’s defeat along the McMahon Line, Menon resigned but Nehru did not. Like Mao and unlike George Washington, this Harrow and Cambridge man would die on the throne.

Only five years after the 1962 war, Indian and Chinese troops clashed again at the passes of Nathu La and Cho La connecting Sikkim to Tibet. In 1967, India had increased the number of its mountain divisions, improved equipment and beaten Pakistan in 1965. Indian troops held the higher ground, and China had just embarked on the Cultural Revolution. As a result, China came off worse in this brief battle, bolstering Indian morale. In the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War, China sided with Pakistan. Its support for Pakistan was, and remains, an obvious way to put pressure on India. In 1975, India absorbed the Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim as an Indian state. Soon thereafter, the Chinese ambushed an Indian patrol, killing four soldiers. Those were the last soldiers on either side to die for 45 years — until the evening of June 15, 2020.  

Starting from 1978, relations between the two countries improved. That year, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then foreign minister and later prime minister, visited Beijing to reestablish diplomatic ties. China softened its stand on both Sikkim and Bhutan. Tensions flared in 1986 when Indian troops encountered Chinese occupation of Sumdorong Chu Valley. The following year, India created the new state of Arunachal Pradesh, angering Beijing in the process.

Tensions eased in 1988 when then-Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited China. The two sides established better relations, which improved further after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. In 1993, India and China signed a peace and tranquility border agreement. For the next two decades, India and China avoided any major confrontation. In 1996, both sides even agreed not to “conduct blast operations or hunt with guns or explosives within two kilometers from the Line of Actual Control.” Leaders visited each other’s countries, increased trade and signed mutual cooperation agreements. Yet despite 22 rounds of talks, they have failed to settle the boundary question. 

National Renaissance

In recent years, confrontations between Chinese and Indian troops have been on the rise. Scuffles, fistfights and stone-throwing often break out between patrolling platoons. Both sides have embarked on infrastructure projects such as roads, tunnels and bunkers along the poorly defined LAC. Each side views the other’s steps as threatening the “correlation of forces” and capabilities. Both sides refuse to accept the other’s measures. This has led to three major confrontations: at Depsang in northern Ladakh in 2013, at Chumar in eastern Ladakh in 2014 and at Doklam on the China-Bhutan border in 2017. Now, in 2020, Indian and Chinese tensions are at their highest since 1962. Two questions arise: Why, and why now?

China has become more assertive globally since Xi Jinping took charge in 2012. Xi has consolidated power and launched a personality cult reminiscent of Mao. Indeed, he is the son of a Maoist and has dethroned Deng Xiaoping’s more moderate acolytes from the CCP throne. Xi had the rubber stamp congress in Beijing remove term limits for the numerous positions he occupies. He is modernizing the military and adopting a more muscular foreign policy. In 2013, Xi launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and has invested billions into projects in numerous countries. China is becoming a great power once again. However, for the first time in history, China is seeking to assert its power beyond its traditional borders. 

In 2018, former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd gave a lecture at West Point on understanding China’s rise under Xi Jinping. Rudd is a career diplomat, speaks Mandarin and studies China closely. He made a very important point: Xi looks closely at the past for inspiration. Since the very day Xi came to power, he has declared China’s national mission to be guojia fuxing — a national renaissance. This red engineer, an alumnus of the fabled Tsinghua University, has concentrated enormous power in his hands and in his party. The CCP now plays a bigger role in daily life, business and even the military than at any time since perhaps the death of the Great Helmsman in 1976. Xi has “cleaned up” the government and, in the process, eliminated all his political opponents. 

Is China’s Belt and Road Initiative Strategic Genius, Arrogant Overreach or Something Else?


Superficially, Xi may appear to be a technocrat. Importantly, however, Xi’s father was aligned with the “left” revolutionary wing of the CCP. This leftist faction opposed the economic and political reforms implemented by Deng Xiaoping and his allies. Xi’s views on the role of the state and the supremacy of the CCP are far closer to his father’s and to Mao’s than to any of his post-Mao predecessors. Additionally, there is the weight of China’s history and culture, despite the CCP’s often murderous efforts to stamp it out. Xi’s views on the role of the state, harmony, and social and personal hierarchy are closer to those of a mandarin or an emperor in the Forbidden City than to reformists like Deng.

For 40 years following the death of Chairman Mao, all Chinese leaders have moved away from the cult of personality. But, in a touch of hubris, Xi has formally enshrined Xi Jinping Thought in the constitution. Xi is now chairman of everything and the great atheist god of China. In this brave new China, blasphemy does not go unpunished. Those who post seemingly innocuous photos online comparing Xi to Winnie the Pooh find themselves in jail for “creating a negative social impact.” After decades of incremental liberalization, Xi has turned back the clock. He has destroyed any alternative power or authority to that of the CCP. It seems that Xi and the CCP fear that their communist state lacks legitimacy. Also, like all previous Confucian leaders, they believe that the exercise of power by the masses would disturb the harmony of the state and could destroy it.

The solution, again as with all totalitarian states, is to identify the legitimacy of the regime with that of the nation. Chinese nationalism is now arguably the essential component of CCP ideology. Confucius has been incongruously married to Marx to legitimize a strong, modern, authoritarian hierarchical state. Xi’s CCP subjects people to constant propaganda and consummate censorship.

In Xi’s and the CCP’s version of the world, China is “encircled” by revanchist imperial powers. Chinese greatness and strength will return by rectifying all the wrongs to China’s borders, and that government and society suffered during the century of humiliation. China has always been the Middle Kingdom, the center of the world, and has to resume its rightful place in it. To do so, China cannot be passive. It must extend its direct influence beyond its borders. This will win Xi the support of China’s population, affirm the leadership of the CCP and assure the stability and increasing strength of his country so that in the coming decade or two China assumes its rightful place as the world’s greatest power.   

Emperor Xi

Yet something is not quite right in the realm of Emperor Xi. The domestic security apparatus has a larger budget and employs more people than the PLA. Like the Qing, the CCP worries deeply about separatism, disorder and downfall because it seized and continues to maintain power through the barrel of a gun. It remembers the lesson of 1989, when on the night of June 3, tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, crushing student protests and massacring some 10,000 pro-democracy protesters to preserve communist rule. In contrast, German and Soviet communists capitulated on November 9, 1989, when millions flocked to the Berlin Wall.

The specter of communist collapse and Soviet disintegration haunts the CCP to this day. Rudd tells us that the CCP’s top two priorities are to continue its stranglehold on power and maintain the unity of the motherland.

Under Xi, the CCP has tightened screws on Tibet, Xinjiang and, most recently, Hong Kong. Human Rights Watch tells us that “new regulations in Tibet now criminalize even traditional forms of social action, including community mediation by religious figures.” In Xinjiang, over 1 million people have been detained in China’s infamous “reeducation camps.” They are mainly Uighurs. Under Chinese communism, reeducation is merely a sick totalitarian euphemism for the destruction of Muslim Uighur culture that is seen as a threat to the unity of China. 

Xi’s CCP has been forcibly “Han-icizing” the entire Uighur population, which simply put is a policy of cultural genocide. As per a recent report by China scholar Adrian Zenz, the Chinese authorities have been forcibly sterilizing Uighur women or fitting them with contraceptive devices. Zenz also calls China’s coercive birth control a “demographic campaign of genocide” against the Uighurs.

For quite some time, China’s security services have been kidnapping book store owners, journalists, students and other dissenters from Hong Kong. Selling books or sponsoring gatherings or making speeches that the CCP considers threatening to its primacy brings swift and severe retribution. Beijing has passed a security law giving it new powers over Hong Kong. In the name of national security, the CCP can now curb free speech, the right to protest and undermine Hong Kong’s largely independent judiciary. Hong Kong’s autonomous status no longer exists. Winnie the Pooh is no more safe in Hong Kong now than in what used to be called mainland China.  

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Even as China tightens the screws at home, it is now acting more aggressively abroad. There is a new nationalism in and an excessive prickliness to Xi’s China. The Middle Kingdom now squabbles more with its neighbors. A new “wolf warrior” diplomacy has emerged. It is building artificial islands and air bases in the South China Sea. It is making all sorts of territorial claims and alienating its neighbors. China now challenges more openly and aggressively the legitimacy of international agreements, boundaries or conventions when they do not serve its national objectives. Beijing denounces them as unjust impositions by an imperialist West. International rules were made without China’s fair input and, therefore, are invalid. Thus, woe to states with border or maritime disputes with China and to any state that dares challenge a position that the CCP takes on Chinese domestic issues such as Hong Kong’s civil rights or international issues such as the sovereignty of the South China Sea. To be fair, China has resolved some border disputes peacefully, but that was in the pre-Xi era.

Perhaps increasing economic pressures also contribute to China’s new nationalism. China’s phenomenal growth has been centered on global integration and strong exports. The Middle Kingdom became the workshop of the world because of three key factors. First, China’s leaders have allowed the Chinese to engage in de facto private enterprise and investment. Second, the state invested heavily in public infrastructure in the form of telecommunications, broadband, road, rail, port, power generation, transmission and distribution. Third, small enterprises took to low-wage, labor-intensive manufacturing.   

This Chinese model can no longer drive economic growth as it once did. When Deng Xiaoping embraced market economics in 1979, wages were low. Today, China has become a higher wage economy with numerous low-wage rivals and has a declining, aging workforce that peaked in 2011. By 2018, it had shrunk by 2.8%. Besides, the country has now reached economic and scientific maturity in many sectors. Its high catch-up growth rates are bound to slow down.

In manufacturing, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Indonesia are emerging as new rivals. They have lower wages than China, making them more competitive for labor-intensive industries. Also, a new form of smart manufacturing is emerging in Europe and the US, threatening Chinese dominance. High-quality products are increasingly manufactured through a combination of research, robotics, new materials, additive manufacturing and cheap computing. A new economy based on interdisciplinary collaboration, international talent and cutting-edge technologies has emerged.

In geopolitical terms, China threatens the US, and the ruling superpower is determined to stay top dog. President Barack Obama negotiated a gargantuan trade deal in the form of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). He sought to create a free-trade regime to strengthen the economic system that has underpinned international economic relations since 1945. Pointedly, the Middle Kingdom was not part of the TPP because the trade deal was meant to counterbalance China’s rise and to pressure China to adhere to and embrace these hard-won free trade, free market norms. Obama’s Asia Pivot was also designed to check China.

Unlike Obama’s collaborative, multilateral effort, Donald Trump has opted for a bar fight by unleashing a full-fledged trade war on Beijing. He is following mercantilist and isolationist policies. Trump has steadily withdrawn the US from the Pacific, weakening its post-World War II role as global hegemon. Nonetheless, Trump has directly, if in a ham-fisted way, called China out on decades of intellectual property theft and unbalanced domestic market protectionism. It is increasingly clear that the US-China trade war has rattled the CCP leadership. As if these pressures were not enough, there are persistent fears that China’s gigantic debt bubble might burst. This could cause huge numbers of bankruptcies, a crash of the renminbi, a fall in growth rates and a potentially destabilizing surge in unemployment.

Ratcheting Up Pressure

Xi might appear serene, but he must be deeply worried about the stresses and creaks in his realm. With many nations, internal tensions have often led to external aggression. This phenomenon might be contributing to China’s aggressive actions against India. There are six other proximate reasons why China might be ratcheting up the pressure on India’s borders.

First, China has been touchy about Tibet, Aksai Chin and its border with India since the days of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. In 1962, it taught India a lesson after it refused to back down on its forward policy and turned down its boundary deal. Last year, India ended the special status for Jammu and Kashmir. New Delhi also carved out a brand new union territory of Ladakh. Official maps show Pakistani-held Gilgit and Baltistan as well as China-held Aksai Chin to be a part of Ladakh. In 1954, Mao’s China was not pleased with India’s maps. In 2019, Xi’s China is similarly displeased.

Furthermore, India has built the world’s highest airfield at Daulat Beg Oldi, a spectacular feat of effort and engineering. Once this was an old campsite on the base of the strategic Karakoram Pass that leads to the Tarim Basin in southern Xinjiang. It lies on the fabled Silk Route where travelers rested on their long journeys from Beijing to Constantinople. Located at 5,065 meters above sea level, this airfield is close to Siachen Glacier, where Indian and Pakistani troops face off. After 20 years of work, engineers also have built the 255-kilometer Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie road that offers India far better access to the LAC.

India has been belatedly building its border infrastructure to match its Chinese counterpart. Naturally, the CCP wants to preserve its advantage. Ma Jiali, an India analyst at the China Reform Forum, a think tank affiliated with the CCP’s elite Central Party School, blames the June 15 clash on India’s “forward-moving posture” in the disputed area. He claims India’s infrastructure development triggered a Chinese response.

What Lies Behind India’s Bold Bet on Kashmir?


Second, Pakistan was incensed by India’s fait accompli in Jammu and Kashmir but wishes to avoid a full-out war in response. For decades, China has maintained close relations with Pakistan, which it uses as a lever to pressure India. China’s increasing pressure on India along the border is a way to help Pakistan meddle in Kashmir, and both China and Pakistan want to make India pay some price for its unilateral action.  

Third, China is always touchy about Taiwan. Under Xi, Beijing has been increasing pressure on Taipei and on all other nations to hew to China’s claims to Taiwan. In May, two Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) members of parliament virtually attended Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s swearing-in ceremony. This was an affront to the CCP’s “One China” policy. 

Fourth, India opposed the BRI last year on the grounds of territorial sovereignty. The Doklam confrontation in 2017 occurred when India did not attend the first BRI summit earlier that year. In 2019, not only did India categorically oppose BRI, but it also won American support for its stance.

Fifth, India has questioned China’s suppression of information and China’s influence on the World Health Organization (WHO) in the global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Indian health minister is now the chairman of the WHO’s executive board. So, India’s stand and comments on the pandemic gall China.

Sixth, India has made noises about attracting manufacturing away from China in the post-COVID-19 world. It has made a big deal about a higher trust factor. It is a democracy with a free press. It has a multidecade experience of peaceful transfer of power through the ballot box, and foreign investment has lower long-term risk. China is particularly sensitive to this argument.

Why Is the Asian Teapot Boiling Again?

On the Indian side, New Delhi has grown tired of Beijing undercutting it repeatedly. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has met Xi 18 times. He has visited China five times, more than any other prime minister in the past. Modi has personally invested in a good relationship with Xi. Now, critics are painting him to be another Nehru. China’s actions have inflamed Indian public opinion. Modi has no option but to stand up to the Middle Kingdom.

India also sees China’s behavior on the LAC as yet another betrayal. Over the years, the Chinese have been developing their infrastructure on the Tibetan Plateau as well as the LAC, expanding their operations and following salami-slicing tactics to claim more territory. In the words of Ashley Tellis, the Chinese have been “singularly mischievous” not only by gobbling up strategic territory on the LAC but also reneging on their commitment to exchange maps that define each country’s positions. Since last year, China has also belligerently backed Pakistan in international forums against India’s policy in Kashmir — an issue as sensitive for India as Tibet is for China.

There is another matter that irks Indians. All sorts of Chinese goods flood the Indian market, from active pharmaceutical ingredients to cell phones. As a result, China had a significant trade surplus of over $58 billion with India in 2018, accounting for 16% of China’s 2018 overall trade surplus. Only the US and the EU account for greater shares of China’s trade surplus. Indians feel they have contributed to making China richer only to be maltreated again. All these events have occurred at a time when the Indian government has adopted more clearly nationalistic policies than at any time since India won its independence. 

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Over the last few years, India has been going through a democratic version of a political revolution. After decades of dominance, the Congress Party led by the Nehru family lost power in 2014 and was replaced by the Hindu nationalist BJP. It believes Hindus have been soft for centuries, and numerous invaders have taken advantage of them. The BJP disdains the Congress for being soft on national security. It has promised to end decades if not centuries of national diffidence. Modi, who styles himself as a strongman, has claimed to have a 56-inch chest. His willingness to use military force against Pakistan has made him wildly popular and contributed to his resounding reelection in 2019. Modi has brilliantly tapped into a new mood of nationalism. Hindu India no longer wants to roll over when invading armies appear. To maintain its winning brand, the BJP must appear strong, so it wants to fight back. Hence, a call to boycott Chinese goods has proved immensely popular. 

Partly in response to public sentiment, the Indian government has restricted Chinese investment, and Indian Railways has canceled its contract with a Chinese company. It has banned 59 Chinese apps, including TikTok, Helo and WeChat. Global Times estimates the total number of active users of the 59 Chinese apps in India to be over 800 million, with TikTok alone claiming an estimated 120 million. This ban is a big blow, and a bigger one may be about to come. India might soon bar Chinese 5G equipment and join the US in checking Huawei’s global ambitions. China cannot be too pleased.

Some say that India’s trade war on China was long overdue. Chinese firms had access to cheaper capital, government subsidies and other unfair advantages, dumping its cheap goods on India. While India opened its market for goods where China has an advantage, the Middle Kingdom never reciprocated for services where its southern neighbor is a better choice. The trade war will cut India’s trade deficit, force it to focus on manufacturing instead of the opiate of cheap Chinese goods and perhaps emerge with more robust domestic industries.

This argument has some merit but overlooks the pain, even if only short term, that the Indian consumer will experience as a result of higher prices of everyday goods such as cell phones and nail cutters. Furthermore, it ignores the fact that Chinese investment in Indian startups grew from $381 million in 2016 to $4.6 billion in 2019. India is short on capital, and cutting off a growing source of capital will hurt. Yet China will suffer too because it is the country running a trade surplus and, if China keeps turning the screw militarily, India will keep responding economically.

What Happens Next: Trade War, War or Peace?

Many believe that the two nuclear-armed neighbors could not possibly go to war. The threat of uncontrollable escalation is appalling. Others think that India is no match to China. India’s GDP is just under $3 trillion and China’s has crossed $13 trillion. India’s per capita GDP is a little more than $2,000, while China’s is a bit under $10,000. When it comes to defense, India’s budget this year is about $57 billion while China’s is almost $179 billion. In a long war, Chinese economic might, industrial production and defense superiority would guarantee victory.

The Belfer Center of the Harvard Kennedy School and the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) make a different argument. India has an advantage in the air because of superior aircraft, better bases and greater combat experience. Chinese air bases are at high altitudes in Tibet and Xinjiang. Their fighters can only carry half their fuel and design payload. Furthermore, geographic and weather conditions are difficult. Indian jets can take off from bases at lower altitudes in better conditions.

Many soldiers and intelligence professionals in Israel, the UK and the US have a similar view to the Belfer Center and CNAS. So do Indian military men who are confident that 2020 is not 1962. India has fought low-intensity conflict for decades. Its infantry is battle-tested, seasoned and hardened. Its officers lead from the front in keeping with their British colonial tradition. With their rural roots, Indian soldiers are tough, hardy and brave. India’s all-volunteer army is professional and well trained, which does not suffer from political interference. Also, modern wars between sophisticated militaries may be of higher intensity but shorter duration than past wars, given changes in the technology of weapons and doctrine. That may give India an edge.

In contrast, the PLA suffers from politicization. Loyalty to the CCP is often more important than mastery of warcraft. Many soldiers are conscripts and have little combat experience. Their performance under pressure and the ability to take casualties is untested. Furthermore, conscription and corruption often damage morale. Officers in the PLA tend not to lead from the front.

The last time China experienced conflict was in Vietnam. In 1979, David gave Goliath a bloody nose. When it comes to 1962, however, there is an argument to be made that China was David. At that time, it had just experienced a terrible famine. India was faring better economically, and its top officers had been trained by the British. Like the 1979 Vietnamese forces, the PLA of 1962 was battle-tested. It had the experience of the Long March, combat with the Japanese, the conquest of Tibet and war in Korea. The fervor of the revolution still ran strong in 1962 and Chinese soldiers were willing to die. That fervor has abated in 2020.

It is on sea where India commands the most advantage. Its navy has been the most professional of India’s three armed forces. Its size is small and the scale of its operations is limited. However, it has one major geographical advantage. The Strait of Malacca lies within striking distance. It is here that India could cause China most pain, severely disrupting its energy supplies. To escalate the decades-old border dispute to the Malacca Straits, however, would have powerful national and global repercussions, and is hard to imagine. Yet Mars is known for his fury, not his judgment.  

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China’s aggression on the border demonstrates a staggering lack of understanding of its southern neighbor. This is a classic error in diplomacy. The BJP, India’s ruling party, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), its parent organization, have constantly viewed Pakistan as India’s mortal foe. Buried deep in their consciousness is the memory of Islamic invaders sacking temples, seizing women and imposing jizya, the infamous poll tax that Hindus paid their Muslim rulers until the 18th century. The BJP and the RSS have never seen China as a foe. Culturally, they see the Middle Kingdom as a kindred civilization and would prefer trade over war with it. Some even dream of adopting China’s Xinjiang policy in Kashmir. The CCP has been unwise in alienating, instead of cultivating, the BJP and the RSS.   

The CCP might have overestimated India’s internal weaknesses. Protests are common in India’s rambunctious democracy. Demonstrations against a new citizenship law continued for months. Riots broke out in New Delhi during Donald Trump’s visit. COVID-19 is spreading fast as the economy continues to shrink. With 50% of the population under 25, protests could have erupted against the government. Instead, an enemy at the gates has unified a nation and given its people purpose.

From COVID-19 to border transgressions, many Indians now blame China for everything, and a significant number of nationalists want to go to war with it. Ominously, the government has permitted ground commanders to use firearms in “rare” cases. The 1996 agreement not to use firearms or explosives at the LAC stands suspended. 

On July 3, Narendra Modi has given a rousing speech to troops on the border. He has declared an end to the era of Chinese expansionism, vowed not to cede an inch of territory and saluted “Mother India” as well as the mothers of valiant soldiers. Using a Sanskrit phrase, “Veer Bhogya Vasundhara,” which literally means “the brave enjoy the earth,” Modi evoked Lord Krishna and declared India was ready for war.

Despite rising nationalism and angry public sentiment, both countries know that war would be expensive. They would lose blood and treasure. Both have lost face during the recent border tensions. The Chinese have gobbled up territory Indians believe to be theirs. In response, the Indians have given the Chinese a bloody nose in a brutal brawl. Since 1962, tensions have never been higher. Han and Hindu nationalism have come face to face. Yet peace is still possible. It would involve a quid pro quo of the sort Zhou proposed to Nehru in 1960 in closed rooms over endless cups of tea.

*[This article was updated on July 10, 2020, to amend a reference to India’s GDP figure.]

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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