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Why are China and India not at war right now ?

Sticks and stones. These are not what comes to mind when thinking about a war, but indeed these are what have been used during conflicts between Indian and Chinese soldiers in May 2020, now known to be part of the Ladakh-Aksai Chin “skirmishes”. It is clear that everyone would be able to notice that every single border issue such as the Chinese-Indian ones would normally lead to escalation, both sides to get riled up, almost as if a war was about to occur. Yet, everyone is able to see that ‘escalation’ is not the right way to describe what is happening between the two Asian giants regarding their disagreement. 

Not only do their frontier disputes involve two India/China regions, what comes to a  surprise is the duration of the conflict which even predates the China-Taiwan, regularly considered as being the most important issue for the Communist Congress Party. This is related to colonial British, whose leaving at the mid XXth century led to redraw maps sometimes without any consideration regarding China, as Tibet was still independent in 1914, the year that a treaty defining Tibet/India border was signed by both making Arunachal Pradesh a part of India. Everyone is able to guess what China claims to be part of its territory today… 

According to Kanti Baipai, known to have written China and India, why they are not friends, two factors are key to understand the tensions : Two powerful countries automatically tend to be rivals and territorial issues only strengthen this previous rivalry “ . We can add that this is a view that perfectly fits in with the realist school, considering countries and state entities to be challenged by another and seeking to extend their power upon those of others. And everyone is able to guess that what happened in may 2020 can not be anything else than that, especially regarding the fact that purposefully making the soldiers unarmed did not avoid skirmishes to happen : more than 20 soldiers died in what has appeared to be a violent altercations opposing both armies. 

No president reacted to these conflicts, despite both India and China having nationalist leaders, additionally considering the fact that India is often described as a member of the “democracies club” unlike China, which goes to say that some other equivalent issues would turn into a war. It seems they want to keep their tightness for themselves and keep them quiet, kind of what Xi did as not coming to the G20 meeting in India, a month ago. He could also have added fuel to the fire by mentioning why he did not come, but it looks like it is not the aim that he wants to pursue. For instance, let us remember what happened when president of Taiwan Tsai Ing Wen came to the USA and visited the House of representative leader Mr Kevin McCarthy : 71 military aircrafts crossed the Taiwan Strait median line in 3 days and all that went with simulations that showed missiles going across the sea from China to Taiwan. And now let us remember what happened when Chinese soldiers got killed in sticks/stone disputes : almost nothing. Even though their sovereign soldiers had been murdered by Indian ones.


But back then to the 60’s and the British India-leaving, a short one month war opposed both China and India for the exact same reasons that they are in conflict right now. China previously invaded Aksai Chin and what was the equivalent of the topical Arunachal Pradesh and led to cause at least 1300 Indian soldiers death and more than 1600 reported as lost. This war is not known either as a war that caused several casualties and neither as a war that put in people's minds to consider China and India as big opponents. It did not start any historical rivalry contrary to the end of WW2 which made some to begin. Both US and USSR vague hopes on Europe used to be a starting point that made the relations between the two countries at the worst levels of tensions that can exist. Kanti Baipai highlights this specific contrary point in the book he has released. “China and India are not sworn enemies to each other, as the rivalry recently emerged : both countries do not have a war-history that lasted over several centuries. Sworn enemy status is often attributed to long periods of challenging and conflicts, even involving win ; loose and betrayal memories”. 

How should we interpret their current situation when considering their GDP and economic growth ? Are they not becoming challengers to each other and might start a rivalry ? Both of them seem to reach top levels of economic growth as they want to become the most powerful country and the biggest economy in the world. 

What is interesting to notice is that some of the explanations that can be found about their tightened relationship can also be a key to explain why China and India are not at war right now. The border between the two countries is located in some counties whose most of them are desert. The mountain's geography is steep a lot in these areas, which make the wishes of both weaker, therefore meaning that any strategic resources are available in these places, which would aggravate the claims of the two states. This is more about a symbolic storming of the highest land in the world. Look at China how they seem much more interested in the tiniest pacific islands that can exist and can hope to get. They even tried to build some. We talk of course about The Spratleys and The Paracels that are surrounded by hydrocarbure areas, that made them not only a way to push the Chinese maritim frontiers back but also to provide mainland China in ressources they think they need to have.  Everyone would be able to guess that it is nothing to compare with Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh, as Aksai Chin is absolutely not inhabited and Arunachal Pradesh is composed of less than 1.5 millions people, ranking itself as the less populated region in India, even more when thinking about the whole population of India, that overpassed 1 billard the past few years. 

This illustrates the overlap between realist and liberal theories. Even if China doesn't consider India as a friend, China would never suggest increasing the tensions with India but rather build a narrow relationship that goes along with the competition against the West : a competition that would pit the western countries against countries that have only one thing in common : not being among the first ones. Despite the fact that this occidental theory (mainly developed by western authors) is clearly derogatory to “extra-west” countries called as being part of “the rest”, it still perfectly emphasizes that powerful states such as India or China should be allies in order to challenge the most known developed countries like European Union countries or the United States. They are for instance both members of the BRICS alliance that gathers and attracts states that want to make the domination of the west not the strongest anymore. 

First priority : economic growth. This is what drives us to say, nationalist ambitions : secondly. Are China and India just not rich enough to engage each other in a war ? Indeed, they are not rich enough yet and have not therefore fallen down either, as perfectly known that economical falls often drive leaders to invade a country in order to focus on the nationalist talk again : follow my gaze… After Russia suffered from Covid and economical difficulties, Putin might have considered that the right time had come to invade Ukraine. Other examples much more known : Germany that after WW1 wanted to take its revenge on France and its allies for having seen its economic situation fall down because of the “diktat”. These are not what made those wars happen but are context that might be taken into account as reasons to explain how a country considers time is good or not to invade another. 

And the last fact remains that, since the creation of the QUAD military alliance, bringing together India, Australia, Japan and the USA, It might be impossible to even think about India starting a war without the USA giving the go-ahead beforehand. Kanti Baipai also says that India is not anymore a non-aligned country which has also not ceased to get closer to the USA as years passed. Leading a war against China would involve India being provided by the USA and even supported by them. And this is not what India is looking for : even though India does want to have real interest links with the USA, it has nothing to relate with the values. India would not fall in the trap of being part of the “western side” which would be the opportunity for the USA to avoid the rise of India and keep its economy at the lowest levels possible, and make India under its supremacy. 

Hopefully right now, everything leads to the possibility of a war between the two countries. But everyone would be able to guess that nothing is ever frozen. What would be the internal political context in India if the next leader would be significantly more nationalist than Modi and would overcome the Indian rules of the law, as a goal to apply the indou-supremacy policies that are advocated by its party and make the Indian voice stronger and more aggressive in the world. What would be the next CCP ambitions in 30 years after sadly Taiwan was taken by China ? No one would be able to guess…

Malo Lazé

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