In the wake of COVID-19 can India maintain an effective defence against China?

8th June 2020

Tensions appear to be growing between India and China as the latter builds up troops along their border and there are reports of fighting breaking out at border controls between the two nations. These two nations have the largest populations in the world with around 1.38 billion and 1.44 billion people respectively.1 They are currently in disagreement again about a long-running dispute over certain areas along their border in the Himalayas. India and China share a border over two thousand, one hundred miles long with overlapping territorial claims along the Indian-administered Kashmir.2

The main area of contention is in Ladakh in the North-West of India with several locations reporting stand-offs between the nations. Border controls between the two countries have also recently witnessed physical ‘brawls’ near the Nathu La sector in Sikkim. As soldiers face off to each other both sides maintain a bullet has still not been fired in four decades.3 However, both sides are quick to blame each other when an infringement occurs, which has become more frequent, as they look to retain land and the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that is not defined as it runs through rivers, lakes and snow-capped mountains.

India has recently built a road along the LAC, which the Chinese claim is in their territory. There are other areas that India claim but China controls, where large areas of land were taken by China in the Aksai Chin area east of Ladakh. However, it is this latest building of infrastructure by India that has led to a build-up of Chinese forces.4 India has claimed China used subterfuge to increase its military presence in the area of Ladakh by carrying out military war games and then using their troops to aid in border disputes over the building of the Indian road.5 Chinese troops were very quick to bring in vehicles to support their border patrols and try to occupy Indian territory around the road.

China has invested around £48 billion in Pakistan’s infrastructure as part of its Belt and Road initiative. Beijing wants to create an economic corridor to Pakistan and sees connection to the southern Pakistani port of Gwadar as key to its operational goals.6 This has meant China increasing the traffic of building materials and expansion of their own roads in the area, to the worry of India, as it is making them far more mobile with their primary rival and frequent antagonist. However, with cases of corruption and funding shortages, China has grown increasingly frustrated with Pakistan’s mismanagement of the project. Very little is happening in actually realising China’s ambition to reduce oil and gas delivery via sea around South Asia by creating an overland route through Pakistan to their western border. Western governments are concerned over a possible ulterior motive of China collecting ports around the world to service their navy, as they have just built their first military base on the Horn of Africa, in Djibouti. China has also invested in building a massively oversized airport in Gwadar to connect to the port, though it is not known why they think there will be much demand given it is not generally allowed for foreigners to visit due to safety concerns.7

Alarmingly, the Chinese President Xi Jinping recently addressed the People’s Liberation Army and asked it to prepare for war. He has said: “it is necessary to explore ways of training and preparing for war because epidemic control efforts have been normalised.”8 The President is confident that they have now tackled the COVID-19 pandemic after testing almost the entire population of Wuhan. China claims to have tested ten million people in the city and only three hundred positive cases have been found, with authorities widely praising their abilities to control the virus amidst global scrutiny of their efforts.9  The Chinese premier now sees it as imperative they appear strong in the presence of what they see as misplaced global condemnation, primarily from the United States (US), over its apparent mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Official figures put China as having only just over 84,000 confirmed cases and 4,600 deaths, compared to India’s 246,000 confirmed cases and almost 7,000 deaths. The US has over 1.9 million confirmed cases and over 109,000 deaths so far.10

The Indian economy has been devastated by COVID-19 and at least one major cyclone. They have only just started coming out of a severe lockdown amid growing food shortages. Economists have predicted the country will now go into recession as businesses have been severely affected, production levels are down and demand is weak for certain goods, especially in the retail sector.11 There are severe labour shortages due to the effect of transport closures and, while the lockdowns have been easing, the current level of infections in India is still high, with a worry they will now start to rise again. The Indian central bank has announced a stimulus package of £212 billion but this equates to less than 1% of GDP and their economists calculate this will not be enough help to stop bankruptcies and spur growth.

The devastation of Cyclone Amphan has also added to their troubles and is feared to have cost the economy around $1.5 billion. As well as causing problems of housing and keeping people safe, social distancing in some areas has become impossible, with millions of people displaced.12 With heavy monsoons predicted soon, India will have to be proactive to cope with more disasters, especially in the more mountainous regions that suffer landslides and flash floods with villages and towns cut off for weeks.13 Food, health and communication all become seriously hampered. Even cities like Mumbai, struggling to currently cope with COVID-19 can sustain flooding bad enough to close hospitals. If areas are cut off due to floods it is not yet known how the hospitals will be able to cope with increased patients, the threat of other diseases and reduced stocks of PPE, with supplies cut off due to floods.

India had been keen to capitalise on China’s current negative press surrounding COVID-19 and their ongoing trade war with the US by offering themselves as a viable business alternative for global manufacturing. Some companies are looking to move their manufacturing out of China following a wave of criticism over their handling of the pandemic and India are very keen to take on any business as a result.9 They have reached out to one thousand American multinationals, offering large amounts of land and the prospect of a vast workforce. However, China offers integrated infrastructure such as ports and highways, with already well established global supply chains.14 Any move to India in the short term will probably be confined to companies that already have businesses there, with Vietnam, Bangladesh, South Korea and Taiwan all offering better alternatives temporarily. India’s building safety record and poor labour laws have put off companies from settling there in the past, so they will have to improve standards before reputable companies see them as a viable alternative.

India also has a long-running dispute with China over its withholding of hydrological data. The Brahmaputra is one of India’s main water sources but originates in Chinese held Tibet. China has built hydropower dams on the river and India, worried that China may aim to divert water, have asked for hydrological data to act as proof, which has been refused so far by China.15 Freshwater supplies are becoming an ever more contentious issue in the region due to the sheer size of populations in the surrounding countries, and frequent disruptive weather patterns.

As can be seen there is the potential for a complicated international diplomatic situation but the Indian External Affairs Ministry is confident they can resolve the situation saying: “The two sides have established mechanisms both at the military and diplomatic levels to resolve situations that arise in border areas peacefully through dialogue and continue to remain engaged through these channels.”16 India is a close ally of the United Kingdom and has strong business links with the US, while China has a massive investment in the west and is a vital exporter of goods across the globe. US President Donald Trump has already offered his support in mediating any issues between the countries as a result of the recent border dispute.

The long border between the two nations in such inhospitable terrain makes it difficult to accurately denote a line. Both sides seem to be trying to take advantage of the confusion that arises as a result and this could lead to further territorial disputes with an escalation of hostilities in the near future. Increasing global competition between the countries, combined with such close proximity will also fuel antagonism. India sees itself as an emerging ‘superpower’ but the current financial crisis now looks to weaken the country still further after a debilitating wave of COVID-19 and this could provide the opportunity Beijing has been looking for to expand China’s territories on its western border.