A Crisis Is Brewing Between India and China. But This Time There Is a Big Difference.
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It is not entirely clear what is happening along the Actual Control Line (LAC) that separates the China and India-controlled area along the Himalayas. However, the more credible voices in the Indian commentary claim that China performed a series of interventions along the undefined, controversial "line" in May and took control of around 60 square kilometers in the Ladakh region claimed by New Delhi, including a strategic one important region near an almost completed highway that serves as an important line of communication to its borders with China and Pakistan. And there are unconfirmed reports this morning of renewed clashes near the LAC that killed three Indian soldiers and maybe even captured dozens.
Assuming that these claims are true and that this is not a spontaneous border distance between China and India, one has to ask what Beijing's motives are. The first response, particularly from China observers in the United States, has been to link Beijing's steps along the LAK with a wider range of enforceable measures, including recent measures to further undermine Hong Kong's autonomy. They argue that Beijing is taking advantage of a leadership vacuum in Asia, while the United States is being hit by the coronavirus pandemic, signaling to its neighbors that it is emerging as the region's dominant power.
However, it may be a mistake to reflexively link Beijing's steps along the LAK with a broader policy of Chinese aggression. Indeed, there is evidence that China is partially responding to US-backed unilateral Indian measures that were taken last year.
Last August, the Indian government revoked the nominal autonomy of the wider Jammu and Kashmir region and annexed the controversial region, which was granted state status under the Indian constitution. New Delhi divided the former "state" into two separate areas: "Jammu and Kashmir" and "Ladakh", the latter being both the site of the recent Chinese incursions and the home of the area claimed by Beijing. Earlier this month, Chinese scholar Wang Shida, who wrote on the China Economic Net's state website, seemed to associate the annexation of Kashmir by India with recent LAC activity, difficulties in solving the China-India border problem. “As Wang noted, Beijing's official response to the Kashmiri move in New Delhi was indeed quite strong - although many observers seemed to interpret it as merely a symbolic measure to calm Islamabad's ally.
In fact, both New Delhi and Washington seem to have miscalculated how Beijing would react to Kashmir's annexation last year. While many U.S. analysts viewed New Delhi as an attempt to formalize the status quo, they ignored statements by Indian officials, including Home Secretary Amit Shah, that India would extend its writing to parts of Kashmir that were under the control of China and Pakistan stand. In addition, the United States, and in particular the State Department, has tacitly endorsed India's annexation of Kashmir, suggesting that the move could promote economic prosperity in the region and detract from Congress's control over the draconian blockade imposed by India in the region . And while President Donald Trump repeatedly offered to mediate between Kashmir between India and Pakistan, the bureaucracy, including Alice Wells, the then leading US diplomat for South Asia, tried to consistently water down this offer.
The United States has backed up India because it tried to provide facts locally in Kashmir. It is therefore not surprising that China is now trying to create its own local facts. Indeed, by endorsing New Delhi's unilateralism and attempting to support it as a regional hegemon, Washington could inadvertently facilitate Beijing's rise as a power in South Asia.
Pakistan is not the only regional state to fear Indian aggression. India imposed a blockade on Nepal in 2015, just a few months after the country was hit by a devastating earthquake. Since then, Nepal, which has long been dominated by India, has been in China's orbit.
In 2017 Nepal joined the Belt and Road Initiative and reduced its economic dependence on India. A growing partnership with China has made Nepal more determined to stand up to India. This month, the House of Commons of the Nepalese parliament approved a new official map that contains areas claimed by India after New Delhi inaugurated a road that leads through the area claimed by Kathmandu.
However, Washington continues to increase New Delhi's influence in the region, despite the apparent concern it is causing for smaller states in the region. India sees it as a place of regional economic integration. A power line project in Nepal funded by the United States was controversial because the political forces there are tied to an American strategy to support India and contain China.
Sri Lanka also has a complicated history with India. While Chinese lending has raised allegations of "debt trap diplomacy", political groups in Sri Lanka are still campaigning for Beijing as an alternative to New Delhi, which has interfered in Sri Lankan politics. India, for example, has trained and armed the Tamil Tigers terrorist group in Sri Lanka.
South Asian countries, including Pakistan, may regret China's economic acceptance as its trade deficits and credit balances increase. The United States is also making a strategic mistake by enabling India's worst instincts. US policymakers see India as a benevolent power in South Asia and its extraterritorial actions and unilateralism in recent decades have been exceptions to a policy of restraint. However, this view is not shared by many of India's neighbors who have a historical memory of Indian aggression. As a result, they turn to China to offset India.
Due to the good relations with India and Pakistan, the United States is able to offer both countries meaningful support for a negotiated solution to the Kashmir dispute. The unelected bureaucracy has not only hindered Trump's mediation offer, but also pushed US policy in a new direction by effectively advocating Indian revisionism. As a result, America not only missed a potentially historic opportunity to bring peace to the region and expand its soft power, it also inserted deeper into the China-India-Pakistan triangle, changed the shape of the regional order, and pushed it into a bipolar direction with Beijing and Islamabad on one side and New Delhi and to a certain extent even on the other side.
Indian officials often speak of a two-front war with China and Pakistan. And although such a scenario is currently unlikely, India's Hindu nationalist government, encouraged by the United States, risks becoming one in the coming years if it does not rethink its current regional policy. New Delhi would not be able to follow the path given the conventional power differences between it and Beijing and the growing synergies between China and Pakistan. India and the United States do not see themselves as allies. So it would be a mistake for New Delhi to count on Washington's support. China's LAC interventions offer both India and the United States an opportunity to assess the impact of their second-order policies in South Asia. This reassessment must start with cashmere.
Arif Rafiq (@arifcrafiq) is President of Vizier Consulting, LLC, a political risk consulting firm focused on the Middle East and South Asia.
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