India and China Assess Ties as Border Dispute Raises Tensions Ahead of High-Level Visits
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s upcoming visit to India next Monday has been overshadowed by recent tensions over the two countries’ border dispute in the Ladakh region, which had flared up since late April. In this post, we examine the evolution of Indian and Chinese views on this crisis and the future of their bilateral relationship.
In the past few weeks, Indian media and politics have seen a deluge of commentary on this border dispute and India’s relationship with China. During the initial confusion when it was reported that Chinese troops had set up camp in Ladakh on April 15, many called for a stern Indian response , while others urged restraint .
With the withdrawal of troops on May 6 and the visit of Indian external affairs minister Salman Khurshid to Beijing on May 9, the stand-off was temporarily relieved. Commentary then focused on explaining China’s motives and assessing the Indian government’s handling of the crisis.
- According to Ananth Krishnan, journalist for The Hindu, Indian analysts have attributed Chinese actions in Ladakh to one of four factors : 1) a general trend of growing Chinese assertiveness; 2) Chinese President Xi Jinping’s need to consolidate support from the military; 3) China’s anxieties over India’s recent build-up of infrastructure at the border; and 4) moves by local PLA commanders.
- Many speculated on what prompted the Chinese to with draw troops. Some analysts, such as Manoj Joshi at the Observer Research Foundation, praised the government’s “patient diplomacy” and “symmetrical non-threatening military response by Indian forces.”
- Others wondered whether there was a quid pro quo , such as the removal of Indian fortifications along the border. Various papers called for greater transparency. “Given the trust deficit that plagues the Government’s relationship with the people, there will bespeculation that the UPA regime buckled to unjust demands from the Chinese in a bid to end a row it could not handle,” wrote The Pioneer, known for its hyper-nationalist editorials.” Aneditorial in The Indian Express issued a similar call.
Looking ahead to Li Keqiang’s visit, there is much contemplation of future India-China ties, reflecting a wide range of opinion. In the short-term, some commentaries lament the loss of face and fiercely advocate retaliatory measures, including in areas of trade. In the longer-term, some are advocating greater caution in dealing with China, strengthened military capabilities, and closer ties with other countries in the region.
- “A rising China, conscious of the shifting balance of power, has become more assertive in its territorial disputes with all neighbours,” wrote the Indian Express. “On the face of it, the prospects for the expansion of economic and political bilateral cooperation look good. But without Chinese flexibility on settling the boundary dispute, Delhi might fall flat on its face , if it tries to construct an ambitious cooperative agenda with Beijing.”
- “The writing is on the wall. The PLA is determined to push its frontiers and intrude into Indian domains,” wrote leading expert Srikanth Kondapalli of Jawaharlal Nehru University on China’s latest defense white paper. “India needs to tilt the emerging contest in the Indian Ocean in its favour by enhancing conventional and strategic deterrence capabilities .”
- In a series of editorials, the Times of India argued for a final settlement of the border , pressing China for a river water sharing treaty , and strengthening of strategic ties with the US, Japan, Vietnam and other countries concerned about China`s expanding core interests.
In contrast to the Indian press, the Chinese media was noticeably more subdued on the border dispute. According to The Hindu, journalists at Chinese media outlets were told to downplay the incident . From the commentaries that were available, initially the Indian media was blamed for hyping the incident.
- “[Indian media’s] nonsense will influence mainstream society,” opined a Global Timeseditorial. “Some Indian officials caution that China should pay no heed to the radical voices among some Indian media which sensationalize news. But their malicious impact is so real that it cannot be ignored….Indian media have continuously created trouble for the Sino-Indian relationship .”
As the crisis toned down, the focus turned to touting the importance of China-India ties and extending an olive branch .
- “The grand strategy of China is to avoid troubled relations with its neighbors ,” commented Han Hua of Peiking University.” “Given current rows with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands, there is no reason to start another row.”
Moreover, commentaries pointed to the West and Indian domestic politics for exacerbating problems in Sino-Indian relations:
- Western media hype the competition between China and India , trying to provoke the bilateral relationship, argued Mu Yongpeng in the People’s Daily.
- “With the US ‘rebalancing’ toward the Asia-Pacific, the Sino-Indian relationship is seeing subtle changes these days,” wrote Liu Zongyi of the Shanghai Institute for International Studies in the Global Times. “Within India, the so-called China threat is a trick by Indian political figures to fool their people and Western countries . By making waves about China, Indian politicians can avoid domestic problems, bolster up national morale, and raise votes. And on the international level, India can obtain advanced weaponry and technologies from Western countries.”