Pangong Lake
Pangong Lake in Ladakh, which is one of the disputed points between India and China. Photograph by Umer Asif for The Kashmir Walla

In the summer of 2o18, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and China’s President Xi Jinping met in the picturesque city of Wuhan, where the two countries agreed to a major rethinking of their bilateral relations following the 73 day long Doklam standoff. The Summit organized by China also meant to convince India to stay away from the United States and its vision for the Asia-Pacific region.

Just around the summit, the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece Global Times warned New Delhi that it should ponder whether to promote the rejuvenation of Asian civilizations or to fall into conflict and confrontation because of West’s conspiracy to drive a wedge between them.

Two years later, Beijing has become even more skeptical of New Delhi. The same Global Times wrote earlier this month that India was becoming America’s pawn which could have a devastating effect on the China-Indian relations. 

That China is convinced that India is well inside the American camp is evident from the recent incidents in Ladakh. Even as things have gone from bad to worse after the death of over 20 Indian soldiers in June 15 clashes, Beijing is still unwilling to budge unlike during the Doklam standoff where it was the first to blink. Instead, it has taken a more hardened stance by laying claim over entire of Galwan valley which hitherto was under India’s control.

Surprisingly, many experts believe that the current tensions with China will invariably push India closer to the U.S which would prove detrimental to Chinese interests. If that was indeed true, wouldn’t it have come up in Beijing’s strategic calculations?

Of course. However, China still went ahead with pricking India on the borders means it already views the India-U.S. alliance as inevitable, if not already in operation. Beijing’s skepticism of New Delhi is not unfounded either. In 2017, India joined the QUAD—perceived as a league of like-minded democracies to contain China.  Brainchild of Japan’s Shinzo Abe, the QUAD brings together the U.S., India, Japan, and Australia. 

Beijing has been critical of the QUAD which it sees as an anti- China axis in making. In the group’s last meet, the U.S. and India agreed to work together in support of “a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific”. The statement for all practical purposes was a tacit reference to China and its aggressive policies in the South China Sea. New Delhi and Washington have also signed several agreements which allow the two to use each other’s air and naval bases. 

Yet New Delhi maintains that its participation in the QUAD is not intended against China; to prove this point, it India has declined to invite Australia into the decades-old annual Malabar naval exercises which currently include the U.S. and Japan. 

But it is highly unlikely that this balancing act from India will find any takers in Beijing. The popular opinion in Beijing is that “if you are not with us, you are against us”, a popular Cold War era maxim which interestingly was used against India by U.S. for not allying with it against USSR. In a White Paper on its national defense strategy published last year, China without naming the QUAD warned that the new Asia-Pacific alliances in the region will add complexity to regional security.

Having touched the background so as why China is upping its ante on Indian borders, the larger question is what will China achieve out of this? The most plausible explanation to this is China wants to put a heavy price on India’s entente with the U.S. “China’s strategic goal seems to be to condition Indian decisions and make New Delhi think twice before taking any important decision against Chinese interests in the economic sphere, technology or elsewhere,” Bruno Macaes, a former Portuguese Secretary of State for European Affairs and author of Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order, told The Kashmir Walla.

This is also evident from a recent Global Times piece which advised India not to include U.S. factor in its handling of any problem in its relations with China. “Fundamentally speaking, India has little to gain from engaging in a US- China conflict over any topic, with more to lose, which is why the Modi government needs to face the new geopolitical development objectively and rationally, it said.

The intended psychology trap is not exclusive to India only. Recently, China also warned Australia of an economic boycott if Canberra went ahead with its proposal to demand an investigation into the origins of the novel coronavirus pandemic. “The pattern is very much evident. China is deliberately attacking the members of QUAD,” Dr. Satoru Nagao, visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute, told The Kashmir Walla. “The idea is to destroy the security co-operation of the grouping by raising the physical costs for it.”

In that scheme of things, India was China’s first target, said Dr. Nagao. “China does not have land borders with Japan, U.S. or Australia,” he said. “So India naturally becomes an obvious target. China is putting pressure on India to leave the QUAD.”

Does this mean India will abandon QUAD or limit its strategic relationship with U.S for the fear of antagonizing China? That is unlikely to happen considering there are still overarching strategic overlaps between India and other members of QUAD. 

But what the current stand-off will do is that it will deter New Delhi to cross a certain threshold by raising the risk of kinetic conflict with China. As a result, New Delhi would always hesitate to commit any thing substantial to US or QUAD with relation to China. 

In large measure, it will now be Beijing which will decide the scope of Indian relations with the United States in future. This is, perhaps, what China achieved out of the border standoff.

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