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China Is Losing India

  • Tanvi Madan
  • July, 2020
  • 209
  • Snapshot

A clash in the Himalayas will push New Delhi toward Washington

At a seaside summit in southern India in October 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to take relations between their two countries to “greater heights” in the next year. The Asian neighbors-which together contain over a third of the world’s population-promised to work more closely in 2020, the 70th anniversary of formal ties between the two nations. Officials outlined 70 joint activities, ranging from trade and military delegations to academic studies of ancient civilizational links, all intended to strengthen Sino-Indian cooperation.

But instead of deeper ties, 2020 has highlighted the growing rivalry between China and India. Since early May, Chinese and Indian troops have been facing off at multiple points on the remote, rugged, and often disputed border between the two nations. The situation escalated on June 15 when Chinese and Indian soldiers clashed in the Galwan Valley. At least 20 Indian soldiers died in the skirmish, along with an unknown number of Chinese troops (China has yet to disclose any casualty figures). According to the Indian government, China precipitated the fighting by seeking to change the status quo on the boundary, advancing into or hindering Indian patrols in territory that both countries claim. Chinese officials, meanwhile, blamed India for instigating the violent face-off.

The border dispute between China and India caused a full-fledged war in 1962, and it has been a constant source of friction since then. Still, last week’s violence is a serious escalation. The skirmish resulted in the first fatalities along the Sino-Indian boundary in 45 years. It also demonstrated that despite New Delhi’s and Beijing’s cooperative efforts, their relationship is a fundamentally-and increasingly-competitive one that can spill over into conflict. This bloody clash in the Himalayas, in other words, could have wider implications for geopolitics in Asia.


Over the last two decades, China and India have deepened their diplomatic relations. They have strengthened their economic ties; held meetings at the highest levels; and participated together in regional institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and multilateral organizations such as the BRICS grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. China is India’s second-largest trading partner, and Chinese investment in India has grown from a negligible amount a few years ago to around $26 billion of current and planned investment today, including in the technology sector. Recent years have also seen a greater number of Indians traveling to study in China and more Chinese tourists visiting India.

But these signs of greater cooperation cannot mask the growing competition between the two countries. Over the last decade, the long-running boundary dispute has flared up at Depsang in 2013 and at Chumar in 2014, with the two militaries also involved in a 73-day standoff at Doklam in 2017. In each case, India accused China of trying to unilaterally change the territorial status quo by advancing troops and establishing a permanent presence in positions they were not supposed to occupy. Other unresolved issues continue to bedevil the bilateral relationship, including the presence of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan refugees in India (which rankles China), China’s control of the waters of the Brahmaputra River (a source of concern for India), and what New Delhi sees as an unbalanced economic relationship.

Moreover, New Delhi feels increasingly encircled. Not only has Beijing strengthened its close ties with India’s longtime rival Pakistan but China has also expanded its presence in other South Asian countries, including Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, as well as in the wider Indian Ocean region. For its part, Beijing has looked askance at India’s growing closeness not just to the United States but also to Australia, Japan, and some Southeast Asian countries. Chinese officials worry about India joining U.S.-led efforts to balance against China.

At the level of global institutions, Indian officials believe that China seeks to stymie India’s ambitions on the international stage by blocking its membership in organizations such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the United Nations Security Council. China, in turn, worries that greater Indian coordination with the United States in multilateral institutions such as the Financial Action Task Force, the United Nations, and the World Intellectual Property Organization will threaten Chinese interests.


Increased friction along the disputed border was, to some extent, expected. Over the last decade, India has built up infrastructure-including roads and bridges...

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