China and India are the two emerging superpowers of the 21st century. Together they account for roughly 40% of the world’s population. So any conflict between these two nuclear-armed neighbours would have global implications.
A battle between the two countries’ militaries, fought without guns, has left at least 20 Indians dead and an unknown number of Chinese casualties. In its immediate aftermath, the governments in Beijing and New Delhi both seemed keen to avoid escalation of their conflict, which took place in disputed territory in the Himalayas.
If the diplomats can step in, then India and China should be able to disengage and restore a tense, but peaceful, stand-off. But a peaceful resolution to the current crisis — while both desirable and likely — cannot be taken for granted. Both President Xi Jinping of China and Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, are nationalists who will be under pressure not to lose face. Mr Xi likes to boast of the “great rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation”. Mr Modi won re-election last year after a jingoistic campaign. There is also no obvious compromise to be had, allowing the two sides to climb down easily.
China, which has a more modern military and an economy four times the size of India’s, may feel it can impose a favourable settlement, or prevail in any further conflict, if it came to that. Over the long run, however, it is China that probably has more to lose from a rise in antagonism with India.
For the past two decades, the Chinese government has sought to manage its emergence as a superpower, using the slogan “peaceful rise”. The strategy was to smooth its entry on to the world stage by convincing its neighbours and other foreign powers that China’s rise could be a “win-win” situation. In an era dominated by trade, economics and globalisation, Beijing’s argument was that there was no reason for other nations to fear China.
The Trump era has seen the US move towards a much more antagonistic relationship with China. Japan has long feared the rise of China and in recent months, Australian-Chinese relations have also sharply deteriorated. But India has tried to resist this trend towards increasing rivalry. Last October, Mr Xi and Mr Modi held an informal summit at which, according to China, the two countries agreed “to promote exchanges and mutual learnings between civilisations”. Mr Modi spoke of a “new era of co-operation between our two countries”.
Such happy talk is now in danger of being consigned to the history books. After this week’s clashes, attitudes in both countries may well harden. For India, in particular, this feels like a defining moment. From now on, the China hawks in Delhi will be in the ascendancy. That will have economic as well as strategic implications.
After trying to build closer economic ties with Mr Xi’s China, the risk is the Modi government will now go into reverse, seeking to lessen any dependence on Beijing. India is also likely to deepen strategic and military co-operation, based around the so-called quad — the US, Japan, Australia and India.
For some strategists in Beijing, this will look dangerously like the “encirclement” of China by hostile powers. But China has stoked Indian fears of encirclement, by building much closer ties with Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Nepal.
In a different political era it would be possible to imagine the US or the UN playing some sort of mediating role between India and China. These days that is all but inconceivable. It is up to Mr Xi and Mr Modi to find a way to draw back from the brink.
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