India and China have backed away from their mountaintop showdown, but they’re still on a dangerous path

India China Pangong Lake cricket
Children play cricket by Pangong Lake, near the India-China border in Ladakh, India, July 22, 2011.

  • On February 11, India and China began withdrawing from their positions on Pangong Lake after nine months of tense military confrontation.
  • The successful disengagement lowers the risk of another clash, do not guarantee peace or even an improvement in Sino-Indian ties.
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Along the waters of Pangong Lake, high up in the Himalayas, there was a slackening of shoulders and a collective sigh of relief on February 11.

After nine months of tense military confrontation, which included the first deadly clash in decades between Indian and Chinese troops along their disputed border, the two sides began withdrawing from their positions on the southern and northern banks of the lake as part of a phased, synchronized military disengagement.

By mitigating the risk of another skirmish or accident, the move has brought Beijing and New Delhi back from the brink in their border standoff. The successful disengagement was followed up on February 20 with a 10th round of meetings between the Indian and Chinese commanders in the region.

Five days later, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar spoke by phone with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, affirming the disengagement as “a significant first step,” according to an Indian Foreign Ministry spokesperson. The two sides also unveiled plans to establish a diplomatic hotline to aid in future crisis management.

China India Galway Himalayas border clash
A still image of a mid-June 2020 clash between Chinese troops, foreground and Indian soldiers, right and background, along the Line of Actual Control in the Galwan Valley, in the Himalayas, released by China on February 20, 2021.

While positive, these de-escalatory steps do not guarantee peace, much less a return to conciliatory Sino-Indian ties.

“This is a tactical withdrawal, and it is temporary on both sides,” cautioned Shivshankar Menon, a former Indian national security adviser, in an interview with The Wire, an Indian news outlet. A political agreement on how to resolve the larger border dispute is still lacking, and there is little trust left to speak of between New Delhi and Beijing, making the path ahead perilous.

The two rivals continue to blame one another for the deadly brawl last June in the Galwan Valley, offering conflicting accounts of what precipitated it. Press reports indicate that starting last April, Chinese troops moved into territory previously patrolled by India and began constructing fortifications, which led to the standoff.

But both sides maintained that it was the other advancing beyond their agreed-upon patrol areas that led to the clash. At the time, India said that 20 of its soldiers were killed in the hand-to-hand combat, while China belatedly announced last month that four of its soldiers had died.

Now, Indian officials are emphasizing the need to verify that all agreements are being “observed in letter and spirit,” as Gen. Manoj Naravane, India’s army chief, put it in recent public remarks. Both militaries will be watching closely to ensure the other does not renege on their commitments.

Synchronized pullbacks are fragile; it is worth remembering that the Galwan Valley clash occurred in the midst of a failed effort at disengagement. Even if it sticks, the Pangong Lake withdrawal is merely the start of a complex process.

Naravane has admitted there is still “a long way to go,” and that both sides must now focus on de-escalation and troop withdrawal from other areas along the Line of Actual Control, the de facto demarcation that separates Indian- and Chinese-controlled territory.

Troops have not drawn back from the other flashpoints along the border in the eastern Ladakh region, including Gogra, Hot Springs, Demchok and the Depsang Plains. Both militaries still have more troops near the Line of Actual Control than they did prior to last spring.

India army convoy Kashmir Ladakh
An Indian army convoy on a highway leading to Ladakh, June 18, 2020.

India is also concerned about Chinese activity in the disputed eastern sector of the border, on the other side of the Tibetan plateau from Ladakh, around the Indian states of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. Here, China has significantly upgraded its military presence and infrastructure over the past year.

Keeping the border quiet will be especially difficult after the norms governing the border forces came undone last spring. The old rule book may no longer hold.

In the wake of last month’s disengagement, Chinese officials and state media have called for a reset in the bilateral relationship. Wang, for example, said over the weekend that the two sides must “expand and enhance cooperation to create enabling conditions for the settlement of the [border] issue.”

But this will be nearly impossible given Beijing’s role in initiating the standoff last spring. China’s actions since, and its belligerent statements during the disengagement process itself, have ensured that the border dispute will remain charged.

China’s announcement on February 19, revealing for the first time that some of its soldiers had been killed in the Galwan clash, came in the form of a highly nationalistic video. It hailed the slain soldiers as heroes, while redoubling Beijing’s allegations that India had been the aggressor.

The video roiled anti-Indian sentiment in China and raised eyebrows in India at a sensitive moment, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government having to assure Parliament that it had not ceded any territory to China.

By publicly confirming that four Chinese soldiers had lost their lives in the clash – as opposed to India’s 20 – Beijing was declaring a sort of political victory over India. This public relations blitz, just as the two militaries were finishing their joint withdrawal, made Beijing’s talk of reconciliation ring hollow.

Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

China’s aggressive moves in other domains have complicated matters further.

Chinese state-sponsored hackers reportedly conducted cyberattacks on India’s power grid and other critical infrastructure last year, just as Indian and Chinese soldiers faced off along the border, according to The New York Times. One such attack last October was responsible for 20 million people in Mumbai losing power.

While Indian authorities were already aware that China was behind the attacks, the report hardened anti-Chinese sentiment among many Indians and added pressure on the government to demonstrate that it was being tough in the face of Chinese aggression. The increasingly hostile public mood in both countries will make it harder for each government to compromise in the coming weeks and months.

The cyberattacks were also consequential in crystallizing Indian suspicions about China. Increasingly, policymakers and strategic experts in New Delhi see China not as an irritant neighbor but an outright rival bent on constraining India’s rise.

They view Beijing as actively encroaching on India’s sphere of influence in South Asia – from Nepal to Sri Lanka to the Indian Ocean – and blocking its ambitions for permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council and entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an organization that seeks to control the export of nuclear materials, equipment and technology to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

FILE PHOTO: A man walks inside a conference room used for meetings between military commanders of China and India, at the Indian side of the Indo-China border at Bumla, in the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, November 11, 2009. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/File Photo
A conference room used for meetings between Chinese and India military commanders in Arunachal Pradesh, November 11, 2009.

Beyond the border dispute, India has sought out ways to push back more broadly against its rival. It has countered China’s global vaccine diplomacy with its own, shipping millions of free COVID-19 vaccines to other developing countries. It is also enhancing security cooperation with Washington to blunt China’s rise.

Ultimately, though, New Delhi’s options are limited. Beijing’s superior military and economic capabilities make a broader confrontation unwise for India. For example, New Delhi’s efforts at economic warfare, banning Chinese social media apps and canceling China-backed infrastructure projects, have had only limited success.

Despite those measures, China displaced the United States to become India’s largest trading partner in 2020. Attempting to decouple more fully with Beijing will not only be difficult, it could also do lasting damage to India’s own economy.

With no political solution to the border issue on the horizon, the military disengagement merely provides temporary relief for a chronic problem. As the border remains tense, Sino-Indian competition will increasingly play out in other arenas as well.

This leaves the relationship between the two nuclear-armed neighbors in a tenuous place, constrained by a range of conflicting interests, a lack of trust and increasingly adverse public attitudes.

Anubhav Gupta is associate director of the Asia Society Policy Institute. Follow him on Twitter at @AndyGupta21.

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