The China-India Border Crisis

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia, Council on Foreign Relations; @AyresAlyssa

Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science and Director, Security Studies Program, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Director, The India Project, and Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Brookings Institution

Chairman, Project 2049 Institute; Former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs (2017–2019)


Global Managing Director, Corporate Development, SOSV, LLC; Non-Executive Director, plc

Speakers discuss the recent China-India border skirmish, heightened tensions between both countries, the economic and military ramifications of the crisis, and geopolitical influence in South Asia.

HURD: Thank you very much. Good evening, everybody. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations virtual meeting on “The India-China Border Crisis.”

You are joined on your screen today by Alyssa Ayres, CFR’s senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia; Taylor Fravel, the director of the security study program at MIT; Tanvi Madan, the director of the India Project at the Bookings Institution; and Randy Schriver, who was, until December, the former assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs at the Department of Defense. Each of you have copies of their biographies in your reading packet for more background. My name is Joe Hurd. And I’m the global managing director for corporate development at SOSV, an early-stage venture fund with investments in both India and China. And I’m happy to be presiding over tonight’s discussion.

Just a couple of quick points before we start. So for today’s meeting, we’ll spend the first half-hour or so in directed conversation with our distinguished panel. And we will then open up to a quick Q&A session, as per Council custom. Since we have almost five hundred people registered for this virtual meeting, we will do our best to get to as many questions as possible during the Q&A session. And as mentioned at the top, I’d like to remind all of you that today’s meeting is on the record.

Let’s begin with you, Taylor. Last year you published a book on China’s military strategy since 1949. Just eight months ago, President Xi and Prime Minister Modi pledged at the July summit to take Indo-Chinese relations to greater heights in the next year. Can you spend two or three minutes giving us a brief overview of the standoff, and how this fits within China’s other territorial disputes? Help us understand, from China’s perspective, how did things change so quickly?

FRAVEL: Sure, great. Thanks very much, Joe. Wonderful to be here.

Let me make—I’ll try to make three quick points. First, just by way of background, I wanted to note that China and India have disputed 125,000 square kilometers along their border since the late 1950s. And this is generally divided into three sectors: The eastern sector, which is the largest, which is currently controlled by India. The middle sector, where control is divided and it’s the smallest. And then the western sector, where we have seen tensions in the last two months, which is under mostly Chinese control. And it’s important to note, in the western sector, it sort of featured prominently in the 1962 war between China and India on their border because of a road that connects Xinjiang into that, that runs through this area.

Moreover, all along this disputed border there is no agreed upon boundary. There’s something called the line of actual control, which more or less serves as a de factor boundary. But in at least twenty areas China and India do not view the line of active control as necessarily being in the same place, which has led to growing frictions in the past decade. And in particular we’ve seen incidents on the border in these areas, where sort of perceptions of the line of control differ, in 2013 and 2014, as well as a related standoff between China and India at their trijunction with Bhutan in 2017. So just to set the context there, a longstanding dispute. It’s large. It’s erupted in war in the past.

My second point is sort of, what has happened? So in early May in three areas along the line of actual control in the western sector, China moved up forces to its perception of the line of actual control. This led to sort of increased deployments on both sides as India moved to counter what China had done. And then in June, early June, an effort to sort of disengage. Unfortunately, in one of these three places, the Galwan Valley, the process of disengagement led to a violent clash on the evening of June 15, and twenty Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers died, and many more were wounded. This clash was noteworthy for several reasons. It was the first time that there had been any deaths on the border since 1975. And it was the largest clash between the two countries since 1967.

And so why now? How does this relate to other—China’s other territorial disputes? The thing I sort of—this would be third point, and this would have four subpoints. The first would be under Xi Jinping China’s adopted a much more strident approach to its outstanding territorial disputes, and to questions of sovereignty more generally. Notably, telling the defense secretary, Jim Mattis, in 2018, right, that China would not give up quote, “one inch” of territory inherited—or passed down to it by its ancestors. This is something that Xi said to Mattis when Mattis was in Beijing.

In addition, China has been sort of much more vigilant regarding sort of Indian activities on the border after a standoff between the two at this trijunction with Bhutan that I mentioned just a moment ago. It’s call Donglang. And here, China was extending a road, and India decided to move troops in across what was recognized to be sort of the international boundary of China by surprise. And I think led to sort of increased vigilance since then. Thirdly, last August India in parliament—the Indian government in parliament decided to bifurcate the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and created two separate federally administered Indian territories, one of which was Ladakh. And the boundaries of Ladakh include all of the western sector that is sort of partly disputed between China and India, which China controls as I mentioned.

So I think China viewed this as really a sort of hardening of Indian sort of resolve in the dispute, especially because of some of the statements that were made in parliament when the legislation was being debated, especially the home secretary Amit Shah talking about recovering the western sector, and that sort of—that they would sort of spend their lives for it, language like that. And then finally more immediately, India’s been upgrading its infrastructure in these disputed areas. China’s always had the advantage. And I think it sort of views India as sort of challenging its long-standing position there. And that is what sort of led to these deployments.

And so in many ways, and sort of my last point here before turning it back to you, would be this is emblematic of a broader and more strident approach to sovereignty that we’ve seen in the last six months in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, over Hong Kong with the national security law and, of course, with the longstanding dispute over Taiwan and the increased Chinese military activities there. So on the one hand, there’s some very specific factors to what’s happening on the border that I think led China to the actions that precipitated the clash. But on the other hand, it’s also part of a much broader emphasis that we see in China today, to sort of assert itself in sovereignty disputes. And thanks.

HURD: Thank you, Taylor. That was an excellent overview of the situation from the Chinese perspective.

Tanvi, let’s turn to you. You’re an expert in India’s relations with China and the United States. You just published a book by Brookings titled, Faithful Triangle: How China Shaped U.S.-India Relations During the Cold War. Can you walk us through the history of India’s relationship with China and what this means for India’s ambitions and ties with other countries, particularly the United States?

MADAN: Thanks, Joe. You know, as Taylor said, this is a long-running dispute. And what it’s done to the larger relationship over the last many decades is that essentially this boundary dispute has been the basic reason that India has seen China as a challenge pretty consistently since the late 1950s. And even as it has engaged with it in the last twenty-odd—twenty, thirty, forty years, you’ve seen that not just persist, but a larger set of now disputes get added to that, which has made this a fairly competitive relationship, though there are cooperative elements to it.

I think the Indians see the situation as not just different from the three other kind of boundary crises we’ve seen since 2012, this is the fourth one with China. They see it as different for a number of reasons. I can talk about them later. But they also see this as a watershed moment. You’ve heard them use the term “inflection point” potentially. Whether or not it will be one and how much of an inflection point it will be will depend on how this gets resolved, whether China actually moves back to the points in April that India wants them to. Where the Indians see this is unilateral attempts to change the status quo at the boundary and multiple points. They see this also as a sign that the architecture of agreements that the two sides have put together over especially the period between 1993 and 2012—over that twenty-year period the two countries put together a series of agreements and protocols at the boundary to ensure that the kind of clash that took place on June 15 would not take place.

So the India side sees those agreements, which laid the basis for the two sides to focus on engagement in the relationship, as insufficient. Some have gone further in India and called the Chinese steps a violation of the agreements and have also talked about trust being violated. This will have—this will have implications for the broader China-India relationship. The Indian government has said that publicly. We will see how much of—what that impact will be over the next, I think, few weeks and months. But what it has done, this incident, but also the boundary standoff dispute which has been happening since early May, it’s hardened views in the government, the strategic community, and the public that were already toughening because of COVID about China.

You see calls for a reassessment of China policy. And what this will do, I think, is reinforce and accelerate that competitive element of the relationship that I’ve talked about, and even make it much more adversarial than it was in the past. I think significantly they weaken arguments of those in government who were calling for India to do more with China and less with countries like the U.S. I think you’ve seen the impact of that in some of the policy changes that we’ve already seen announced from the Indian government that will affect Chinese economic and technology interests.

I think the crisis is also likely to affect U.S.-India relations. And recently India has seen the U.S. as useful, even crucial, to all three elements of its strategy to manage China. You’ve seen one of those elements being engaging China. And India finds that a good relationship with the U.S. has given it leverage and status with China. India thinks the U.S. is important for internal balancing. The U.S. has helped in enhancing the capabilities in a number of ways, some of which are actually seen on display during this crisis, with a lot of the military equipment that India’s acquired from the U.S. being used, particularly strategic airlift capability as well as reconnaissance aircraft. India also has seen the U.S. is crucial for external balancing. It sees the U.S. as critical—as a critical member of the network of partnerships in the region that can ensure that there is a regional and global balance of power that will help deter bad Chinese behavior.

So I mean, kind of in conclusion, I think, you know, India’s concerned about a rising China’s actions, which have been shared by the U.S., have been a key driver of the U.S.-India partnership over the last two decades. And this is not new. In the late ’50s and ’60s you even saw it, this kind of shared concern about China, as a cause for a very close U.S.-India alignment. And yes, India does algin against China. So it’s not surprising that you’re seeing once again calls in India for a closer alignment with the U.S., greater cooperation bilaterally, plurilaterally, and in international organizations. I do think though the nature and extent of that alignment will depend on how this crisis plays out, Washington’s responsiveness and the continued approach towards China, including into the next administration, and finally whether or not India itself can overcome the hesitations of history that continue to serve as a bit of a drag on the U.S.-India relationship.

HURD: Thanks, Tanvi.

Randy, in your most recent role at the Department of Defense you covered everything from India to California. Would you share some thoughts with us on the geopolitical competition, and in particular how the U.S. should be thinking about this clash and its implications, and how the world should understand China’s ambitions?

SCHRIVER: Great. Well, thanks, Joe. And great to be with you, and great to be with Alyssa, and Tanvi, and Taylor.

Well, look, I endorse—I think it was Rahm Emanuel, or at least he gets credit for it, don’t let a good crisis go to waste. And I think that’s very much the way the Pentagon is thinking right now, that although nobody would have asked for this crisis, and there are certainly risks associated anytime there’s a flareup of this nature, but this does present a real opportunity to further strengthen our defense ties, if not our overall relationship. And it’s important, as Tanvi pointed out, that this has been an upward trajectory for decades, across administrations, of both parties, and really accelerated in the Obama administration with the defense relationship, with the creation of the state us major defense partner.

Underlying a lot of that was growing strategic convergence in terms of how we viewed the strategic landscape, and how we viewed China. I think events like this really act as an accelerant. Whether or not it’s an inflection point, we’ll still see. It’s an accelerant in terms of we’ve been building this relationship out in a variety of ways, creating a two-plus-two process with our ministers of defense and state talking, on the defense side security assistance, more complex exercising, intelligence, and information sharing. So I think what we’ll see right away is that accelerant effect. And I think you’ll see it immediately in terms of information sharing and intelligence cooperation.

A lot of that has been done at the strategic level, but I think there’ll be more interest in doing it at the operational and tactical level. I think this will give a boost to wanting to exercise and train more together. My colleague at the Stimson Center, Sameer Lalwani just wrote an article and said: You know, this—there’s a possibility that this might actually diver resources internal to India away from the maritime areas and toward the land border. I think that’s something to keep an eye on, because quite frankly if this is a boost to the defense relationship we’re not only interested in a more secure line of actual control and more confidence on the India side that they can deal with incursions, we want something that’s much broader, more comprehensive, and promotes our regional, if not our international, goals for a free and open Indo-Pacific, which very much includes the Indian Ocean.

So our hope is that coming out of this we’re able to strengthen those areas of the relationship, do more in maritime security. That Indian Ocean area is so critical, and the Chinese ambitions have been made clear by their behavior and activities. So I think, you know, we’re dealing with a China that has different regional and global aspirations. They have a different view of what the security and political and diplomatic architecture should be. I think our convergence with India is very much based on a shared view that sovereignty is important, international law and norms are important, peaceful dispute resolution is important. So I think this does give us a little more momentum. Whether or not it’s an inflection point in the truest sense remains to be seen.

We have seen one recent development that is also encouraging, and a change of direction. And that’s India’s decision to include Australia in the Malabar exercise, which when you have Japan, the United States, Australia, and India exercising together, to the untrained eye that might look like a quad, which the Indians have studiously avoided for fear of, I guess, antagonizing the Chinese. We’ve done quad activities on the State Department side, development side. But there’s been a reluctance to move into the military side. So this is—this is a move that we’ve long wanted to see on the U.S. side.

So again, encouraging and, I think we’ll continue to get help from the Chinese because it’s not just their behavior. At the foundation, it’s ambitions and aspirations for a different security order. And I think that’ll continue to drive us together and see the problems in the same ways, if not the solutions themselves.

HURD: Randy, thanks a lot.

And so, Alyssa, we’ve heard a little bit about the historical implications. We’ve heard about the political and the geopolitical. Let’s talk about economic for a minute. And given India’s military response, in your decades covering India’s role in the world, given the two billion—sorry—given that trade has increased from $2 billion to over $90 billion worth of bilateral trade since the turn of the century, and given that India now imports more goods from China than any other country, talk to us about India’s economic restrictions and how those have been spent.

AYRES: Yeah. Thanks, Joe.

Following those three great presentations I feel like I’m pulling up the end of things here, but this is a really great discussion. I do think that the economic piece of this is pretty important to make sure we don’t forget, because although India has had a military response to the clash, it’s also had an economic response. And it’s the economic response that I think also has potential to really cascade out and affect American companies, affect companies from other countries as well.

Let me say just off the top that the step that I think has received the most significant international attention was India’s recent decision to ban fifty-nine Chinese apps. And India used the terms of its Information Technology Act to do that. Now, that wasn’t the only step that India took.

HURD: Including TikTok.

AYRES: Exactly. TikTok was the most well-known among them. But it wasn’t the only step that the Indian government took. Actually in April, before the fatal clash took place but during a period when there was still a standoff underway, the Indian government created a new policy to scrutinize inbound investment for a very specific category—investment from neighboring land-border countries. It is not as if there’s a huge amount of investment coming in from Bhutan. I mean, so this is a pretty specific target of focus, the way this new investment scrutiny policy was designed.

After the June 15 clash, the Indian government also told its state-owned telecoms companies that they shouldn’t be using Chinese equipment in their 4G infrastructure. I think the writing is on the wall. There hasn’t been a declared decision yet that’s been public, but there’s been press reports all over the place attributed to unnamed sources saying that, you know, you’re just not going to see Huawei in the 5G rollout. It’s just not going to happen.

On the App ban itself, I wanted to say a little bit about the terms under which the Indian government did this banning. I mentioned that it was under the terms of India’s Information Technology Act. The exact language that the Indian government used in their announcement of the ban was that these fifty-nine apps were, quote/unquote, “engaged in activities prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, security of state, and public order.” So to me, I actually think that this is now the fullest expression or, let’s say, a more full expression of what Prime Minister Modi referred to during his Houston speech back in September 2019, at the Howdy Modi rally, when he said that data is the new oil. Data is the new gold.

Now, obviously there’s been policy developments in India over the years regarding data, including issues like data localization. This isn’t an entirely new issue. There has been legislation in process for years, the most recent example of which is the 2019 personal data protection bill. But I think this response to the clash with China is really New Delhi’s bet that India now is the world’s most populous open internet economy, since China is walled off. Has a new kind of a heft that it can deploy.

A few years ago I wrote an essay about India’s negotiating stance in the International Cricket Council. I realize it’s probably not an area that all of our members are tracking, but it’s actually pretty interesting. But I took a look at India’s behavior within the Cricket Council because it is an organization which India is a global giant, because it generates—singularly generates a huge amount of the revenue. So it may be now what we’re seeing that consumer-facing digital economy is emerging as another similar arena, one where the kind of growth potential head gives India a new kind of heft that maybe it didn’t have eight years ago.

It’s also an arena that’s grown very quickly. And to me, I would also note, it’s actually quite striking that after India banned these fifty-nine apps, including TikTok, Secretary Pompeo said in an interview a few days later that this was a step that the United States was looking at. So I just wanted to—you know, India as a sort of standard-setter on kind of digital economy, data, and the linkages to national security—this is kind of a new arena. And I think this clash has brought that to the fore.

A couple other thoughts. The digital economy is slightly different from the world of goods trade. India does remain relatively more protectionist than other economies, has not yet been able to benefit from new political pushes around the world to diversity supply chains. India does continue to use trade protectionism as part of its policy response. There’s a new push in the power sector to require inspections on any power equipment that will be imported from China. There’s press reports that India may hike tariffs on solar modules and solar cells. These are kind of singularly important in powering India’s important solar energy rollout. That’ll raise the cost of solar, obviously.

We’ve also seen press reports that India’s considering raising tariffs on about 300 additional goods, again, in response to the clash with China. But obviously the application of a tariff is going to affect those goods coming from anywhere. So I think that is going to create another round of tensions with the United States and other countries that care about exporting goods from their own countries. So let me just stop there, but I wanted to make sure that we did have a sense of how India’s responsiveness, economic and—you know, economic/strategic realm is going to have additional ripple effects.

HURD: Alyssa, that was great insight into the economic response. And just a question for the group: I noticed from the reading packet that the press coverage of the incident was handled quite differently in each of India and China, right? And would love some thoughts on how this has been covered by the press and popular opinion. And also, to the extent that the pandemic has had any impact on any of these issues and what’s transpired. Some thoughts on that would be helpful as well. Open to the group.

MADAN: I mean, I would say, you know, Taylor can talk a little bit about maybe the Chinese side of this, which is quite interesting and a departure from what we saw in the last crisis. But what we have seen on the Indian side, it is a free press. They are—this has been covered heavily. For India, and the Indian press, China looms large, even before this crisis, so it has been—and it has been a shock to people to have these kind of battle fatalities at the—at the China border. So it’s been covered quite heavily and there, you know, there are some government channels whose views and kind of opinions are shaped by government. And they’ve been—you can see where the government is trying to message through them. But it’s been covered very, very heavily.

Just on COVID, one of the things that’s quite interesting is we’re very focused on kind of the boundary standoff, but some of these trends, in terms of as Alyssa pointed out, whether it’s on trying to reduce economic dependence on China, whether it is on kind of a more anti-China sentiment amongst the Indian public, whether it’s the Indian willingness to work in the quad format—these quad-plus COVID groups, Indo-Pacific kind of counter-COVID groups that have been formed, which India has joined, these trends started because of COVID, with questioning in India about kind of the lack of transparency in China, and what it’s behavior suggested for what a kind of China rule order would look like.

So even before any of this happened the one tactical place, or operational place, rather, that COVID might have actually played a role—and I know Taylor has written about the strategic side, so I’ll let him speak to that. But on the operational side, they were the—this is the exercise season—military exercise season for both China and India on both sides of the line of actual control. The Indian exercise was postponed due to COVID. The Chinese exercise went ahead, a little delayed but went ahead. And so they actually had the troops that they moved from their kind of exercise to the border. And it took India time to do the matching deployment that they usually do in response. That has fed into the sense of betrayal in India about, you know, you took advantage of COVID to—when we were caught a little bit unawares.

FRAVEL: Let me just jump in on the Chinese side, and then I’ll turn it over to the others. But I think I can link sort of press coverage and the pandemic in the following way. So there was this sort of hypothesis that, you know, China’s increased assertiveness over sovereignty this spring is an effort to sort of deflect attention from the pandemic internally, or the economy, or so forth. And I think what was most striking about the Chinese press coverage of India, both leading up to the clash and then in sort of the weeks after the clash, was just how little press coverage there was by official media.

And so I tracked every day for a week kind of the Chinese news agency’s website to see where it would place coverage of India, and never got anything about the thirteenth story of the homepage, right? So they really downplayed it. And there was no effort on behalf of the Chinese government to sort of mobilize public opinion. Chinese social media, there was certainly more attention. But at the sort of level of state media, there really wasn’t.

And that was noteworthy, I think for two reasons. One, pretty good evidence that China wasn’t seeking to mobilize its own population with respect to the situation in India. And then secondly, I think because of the fatalities, which were almost certainly beyond what China expected to happen when they moved forward LAC, there was an effort I think to create some diplomatic flexibility, because I think if China had mobilized public opinion we would have—we would be even at a very different and much more tense situation now than would otherwise be the case. Thanks.

HURD: That’s great. Thank you.

Before we turn it over to members’ questions, I just had one additional question. And this is for Alyssa and Tanvi. Tanvi, you mentioned earlier in your remarks at the top about the regional balance of power. And I wanted to ask about Pakistan and Russia. India’s tensions with Pakistan are very well known. Russia is a military supplier to India. How are the Pakistanis reacting to this latest development, Alyssa?

AYRES: Well, sure. So the Pakistani foreign minister has been very clear that Pakistan supports China in its position on this clash, which is not a surprise. China and Pakistan are—have all-weather friendship deeper than the deepest oceans, lots of effusive words to describe the relationship that they have. It was actually pretty interesting, because the fatal clash on the night of June 15, China and Pakistan actually had a Cabinet-level foreign ministers meeting where they reaffirmed their relationship, and the public statements—the readout of that meeting included the fact that they exchanged viewed on the situation in Kashmir, Afghanistan, and South Asia.

I think from New Delhi’s perspective, they’re concerned that Pakistan may seek to take advantage of India facing a clash on one border. And in fact, during June India had demarched Pakistan on the issue of increase in cross-border attacks across the line of control over on the other border, the Kashmir side, with Pakistan. So in fact, India-Pakistan relations have deteriorated even further since then. India has expelled some Pakistani diplomats from India, accusing them of being spies. And India has drawn down its own personnel from its high commission in Islamabad. So the ties are not great. I mean, this is really not going well there at all. I think the real fear there is that there may be a kind of coordinated Beijing-Islamabad, Beijing-Rawalpindi decision to hem India in its own neighborhood by tying it down with conflicts at the same time on two different fronts.

HURD: Great.

Tanvi, Russia?

MADAN: The Russian angle is quite interesting in this. I think it reflects the kind of contradictions in India’s Russia relationship, especially recently. On the one hand, India is heavily dependent to this day on Russian military equipment, spare parts supply. They also think the Russians give them access to certain military technology that other countries don’t. And then kind of over time they hope that there’ll be a Sino-Russian split, and that Russia will go back to kind of being part of the balancing coalition against China. But they’re faced with the fact at the end of the day—and you saw the Indian defense minister go out to Russia, which many saw a sign of kind of strength in the relationship. But if somebody is really a friend that you trust, do you really need to actually have to go there to assure that they will actually supply you in the middle of a crisis?

And that kind of reflects what will rarely get talked about publicly because the Indian officials rarely criticize Russia publicly. But there are some kind of some strains in the relationship, not just because there’s been kind of iffy supply of spare parts and even military equipment delays, et cetera. But you’ve seen Russia and China gets much, much closer, to the extent that the Russians have not criticized the Chinese, which has been noticed in New Delhi. They have in fact said when they were asked about it that we respect Chinese sovereignty and we respect Indian sovereignty. And even though that’s better for India than a Russia that takes China’s side, a neutral Russia is not what India wants or likes.

And more broadly, they are concerned that Russia, which they’re so dependent on, has been getting closer and closer, as Xi and Putin have led both countries, to China particularly in the defense and technology cooperation space. But you’ve also seen them start to exercise much—defense exercises with other countries, military exercises with third countries like Iran, very kind of close to India’s AOR. And so you have seen this kind of element of concern creep into India’s relationship with Russia. And I think you can find people at least—they can’t reduce this dependence in the short term, but I think you will see them be a little more clear-eyed about that Russia relationship.

HURD: Thank you very much, Tanvi.

OK, let’s turn it over to the moderator to take questions from members. We have a couple hundred members on the line. Hopefully with thirty minutes remaining we can get a lot of good questions in. Over to you.

STAFF: Great.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question will come from Orville Schell.

Q: Greetings. Can you hear me alright?

Obviously, the dust-up in Aksai Chin is only one of several points of tension between India and China. And I’ve long wondered, a much larger piece of real estate that China claims in India is Arunachal Pradesh. And I’m wondering, when’s that going to light up? It seems to me that China is intent around the world in sort of exciting every excitable area it can. And I wonder, from an Indian perspective, what’s going on there?

MADAN: So one of the things—it’s a little harder to do in Arunachal. It’s just more settled on the Indian side. But we did see actually in May in Sikkim, which is kind of adjacent on the other side of Bhutan, a similar kind of standoff. Which it’s still not clear if that’s been entirely resolved. People stopped paying attention to it. But there was an incident in Sikkim. You did see India and China both increase their deployments across the entire boundary. And so I think you will see in Arunachal that there will be concern, and there is concern in India, that what does this suggest about—is every point at the boundary now to be contested? Are these agreements that were essentially in place to avoid these kind of incidents, and for them to escalate, are they—if they’re not working, then suddenly you have to be vigilant all across.

So I think you’ll see what you’ve seen on the kind of western sector, which is a buildup of—a continued buildup of infrastructure, with perhaps a greater sense of urgency. You’ve seen the Indian government also decide to fund more settlement of areas close to the border. And you’ll see—and the Modi government has been quite good about trying to kind of develop the northeast—India’s northeast a lot more. And I think you’ll see an acceleration of that and Arunachal Pradesh, because there will be concern that they will be—and that—and Arunachal is more sensitive because the Tibet question and the position of Tawang. So particularly in the—if you think about kind of the succession issues with the Dalai Lama, I think that is an area that they’re not going to take their kind of eye off the ball in.

FRAVEL: If I could just jump in here, Joe, real quick. I would just add, I think from the Chinese point of view, the western sector’s always been more important. And in the eastern sector, the Himalayas, generally speaking, provide a very good line of separation between the two. And so I don’t expect China to make a big play in the eastern sector by going forward. There is this issue, as Tanvi mentioned, of Tawang or Dawang (ph), which became more prominent after the country shifted from trying to negotiate a package deal for all sectors at once to negotiating each sector separately. And when they shifted to a sector-by-sector focus, China began to stress areas in the eastern sector it hasn’t stressed before. But generally speaking, most of the transgressions along the LAC are in the western sector. And that is where geography is somewhat more permissive. Granted, that we’re still talking about very high-altitude areas. Thanks.

STAFF: Our next question will be from Tara Hariharan.

Q: Thank you so much.

My question pertains to what the U.S.-India relationship is going to look like after the November elections here in the U.S. Because it’s very clear from a bipartisan view that the U.S. is hardening its stance versus China, but what might a Biden administration do, as regards India? Would it be more of a continuation of the Obama administration or a different sort of pivot to Asia? Thank you.

SCHRIVER: Well, I’m probably not one to speak on behalf of the Biden administration, if there is one, but I would point out there’s such strong bipartisan support in the United States for strengthening U.S.-India relations. It’s the one topic I never minded going to Capitol Hill and testifying on because Democrats, Republicans, everybody agreed and the questions were just, you know, what can we do to help? What can we do to support? Which you don’t always hear from friends in Congress.

And as I said on the defense relationship, the track record from the late ‘90s through the current day is one of consistent investment, and improvement, and payoff, even if the scale and scope is sometimes not as quick as we’d like. But when I was in office I always credited the Obama administration and Secretary Carter—you know, some people called Secretary Carter the India desk officer at the Defense Department. He spent that much time on the relationship. And I mean that as a compliment. He really through his own efforts took the relationship to more heights.

So I think all that investment, no matter who wins, gives a foundation for whatever officials come in and whatever they want to do. But I think the other thing is the strategic landscape and the major drivers in how our interests are going to be impacted. And I don’t see China shifting gears—I mean, with a Biden administration, sure. They may want to change the tone and try to look for ways to rebuild cooperation on issues like climate change and maybe others. But at the core, their ambitions are at odds with what we hope to see, and I believe what the Indians hope to see. So I’m pretty bullish on the relationship, no matter who wins.

HURD: Great. Thanks, Randy.

STAFF: Our next question will be from Peter Galbraith.

Q: So Orville Schell asked the question I was going to ask but in a different way. I want to say that in my own history, this goes back a long way, I was a child in India when the ’62 war took place. And it was my father, over the objections of the State Department and Chiang Kai-shek, who recognized the McMahon Line as the U.S. ambassador at the time. But what happened is ’62 with regard to what was then known as NEFA, Northeast Frontier Agency, was that the Chinese took all of it, or almost all of it, and then withdrew. And so—and if the way you describe the clashes that are taking place—took place in June, it seems to have been a series of accidental events, rather than something that was part of a plan to further threaten India.

So I’m just wondering whether, to compare this to the South China Sea wouldn’t be a mistake, and whether the whole thing is rather overblown, which may be one reason why the Chinese media hasn’t played much on it, or the Russians say, well, we respect the sovereignty of both sides. I mean, would we be overreacting to it? And are the Indians overreacting?

FRAVEL: Well, let me start with the Chinese side and then turn it over to others on the group. I would say, certainly, you know, China has moved anywhere from one to eight kilometers forward, right, in these three areas. These are not big movements and the total amount of territory is not that large.

But, of course, because the line of actual control is not defined, the question is, of course, if you don’t sort of resist China here, are you going to face more incursions elsewhere? So I think there’s a broader strategic significance, at least within the context of the China-India border, that the Chinese movements raise, although I certainly agree it’s not at all like what we saw in 1962 and in many ways it’s somewhat different, perhaps, than the South China Sea, simply because being a land border one can more easily sort of take and hold territory than is the case at sea where you’re sort of moving ships—it’s a bit more fluid—or you’re building big islands. But, of course, you can’t move them there.

So, on the one hand, I think, you know, the territory—the amount of territory is small, but the strategic significance in the context of the China-India border may not be that small.

MADAN: (Inaudible)—

AYRES: Yeah. If I could just jump in for—sorry.

MADAN: Sorry. Go ahead.

AYRES: Just half a second and then over to you, Tanvi.

But just to note, India and China are supposed to be negotiating where the line of actual control is, and they’ve had twenty-two rounds of negotiations and no decision on this.

The Indian side believes that China is, you know, delaying and delaying reaching any sort of an agreement because having this ambiguity is favorable to a situation of, you know, ongoing transgressions, inching forward micromillimeters at a time. But it does suggest that there is no intention on the Chinese side of maintaining the status quo during a time during which these negotiations are supposed to be taking place.

So that is actually a quite worrisome framework if you’re sitting in New Delhi looking at your border to the north.

MADAN: I think just a couple of points. You know, as Taylor has mentioned, this is not like ’62. And I think people have been careful about not making that—also, just two very different countries, both who now have nuclear weapons, which acts as a certain deterrent that they did not have then.

But I think it is—what Alyssa said is crucial in the sense that what this is seen as, where the South China Sea comparison is being made to the extent that it can be made, is this idea that you can incrementally move forward unilaterally and acquire bits of territory incrementally so that it doesn’t kind of get the kind of response that a major move would make, and that you, essentially, establish your presence in a way that these agreements that the two countries have signed specifically say you are not supposed to either hinder each other’s patrols in these areas or establish a permanent presence.

And so what the Indians see this as is what in the India-China context is not called salami slicing but the Indians call it nibbling, nibbling away at territory, some of which is strategic because it would give, for example, China access to and lines of sight to very key Indian infrastructure that goes up right to near the Karakoram Pass.

STAFF: Our next question will come from Frank Klotz.

Q: Thank you very much. Tanvi just actually touched on the question which I wanted to ask but I’ll put it a different way and maybe others can respond.

India and China are both expanding and diversifying their respective nuclear arsenals. To what extent is India’s planning in the nuclear realm a function of its concern with China as opposed to Pakistan, and to what extent is China’s planning a function of its concern about India as opposed to the United States or, possibly, Russia?

And finally, to get to the point that Tanvi just made, how does the fact that both China and India are growing nuclear powers mitigate the risk of escalation a lower level conflict such as the border clash we are discussing today?

HURD: Who wants to take it?

SCHRIVER: Let’s start on the question of the strategic calculus on both sides as we understand it at the Defense Department, and that is that China is figuring much larger and is a significant driver in all of India’s strategic calculus to include its strategic weapons.

They can’t ignore Pakistan. They try to ignore Pakistan on virtually every other issue but on nuclear issues they really can’t. So they need to, you know, have that as part of their calculus as well. But China is the dominant factor and is growing in importance.

The reverse is not necessarily true. I would say there is concern about India and, certainly, the tensions at a lower level will, ultimately, impact how they think about strategic weapons and deterrents. But for the most part, we understand that China’s major calculus is driven by the United States and, still, Russia more so than India.

But they don’t really have the luxury of focusing exclusively, given that they’ve, you know, spurred tensions in every direction to include countries on their periphery with nuclear weapons. So it’s part of the landscape they’ve helped to create and now have to deal with in their doctrine.

STAFF: Our next question will come from Kilaparti Ramakrishna.

Q: Thank you very much for taking my call. I think part of my question was already asked by Peter. The question that I have now, therefore, is I did not hear much about the Indo-Pacific as a new construct launched, essentially, by the United States. But how do you think that is going to play out in this context, if any?

SCHRIVER: Should I start that again? The—

HURD: Sure. Go ahead, Randy. Please.

SCHRIVER: Well, the Indo-Pacific is—the U.S. and this administration have adopted that branding. It’s not exactly a brand new concept and, in fact, the Japanese are quick to point out that Prime Minister Abe coined the phrase well before the U.S. administration.

But the hope is, on the United States’ part, again, that as we strengthen defense relations, as we strengthen overall relations, it’s with a purpose and that purpose is to affect security, affect stability, and preserve the free and open qualities of the entire Indo-Pacific.

Prime Minister Modi has shifted India away from a “look East” policy to an “act East” policy, and we’re starting to see that in some ways that are meaningful. India can be a contributor to security in the broader Indo-Pacific to include the Western Pacific through capacity-building efforts in the region, through their own activities, whether they be naval activities or other—development assistance and the like.

So our belief is there’s a foundation of shared values and if not an agreed-upon plan to operationalize the shared values. But we can create that and bring India into more activities at the pace and scope that India is comfortable with. So it is part of our Indo-Pacific vision. It’s in our strategic documents.

If you were to look at the Indo-Pacific strategy report that my office put out, a lot is devoted to India and how we can capitalize on her own “look East”—sorry, “act East” policy. So it’s very much part of the vision, which I think is further to the point why China is made uncomfortable by it. They see it as a way to broaden the participation and affecting security in the region and on China’s periphery, and that makes them uncomfortable.

AYRES: Could I just add two sentences? I mean, India sees itself as, and you hear people say this quite frequently, that the Indian Ocean is the only ocean in the world named after a country. So India sees this Indo—Indian Ocean part of the larger Indo-Pacific region as a space in which it should have natural primacy.

The Indian navy has been working over years to grow its capacity. It really is now serving as that first responder. We’ve seen, you know, numerous examples of India providing humanitarian response; Mozambique, most recently, rescuing citizens of other countries including from evacuations due to the coronavirus earlier this year.

But I would just add a note of caution that the extent to which the Indian economy has been slowing and that India has been facing some real budgetary stress, this has been immensely exacerbated by the coronavirus. And so you now see a kind of scenario in which there has already been, you know, anonymous sources quoted in the Indian press about issues facing budgetary cuts in the future. What will that mean for India’s ability to resource its ambitions in the maritime space? Add to that a clash on the land border with China and things just look a little bit different now than they might have looked three years ago.

HURD: That’s great. I’ve just been informed by Meaghan that we have four questions remaining and ten more minutes. So let’s see if we can get to all of them. Fingers crossed.

Meaghan, over to you.

STAFF: Sure. Our next question is from Gerard Francis.

Q: Hi. Thank you for the opportunity to ask a question, and this is more an extension of the Indo-Pacific question of the comments earlier.

As we look to the entire region, whether it’s India or Southeast Asia, certainly, the incidents of disputes between China and the countries around seems to be increasing. With Secretary Pompeo’s most recent comments on the legality of the claim over the South China Sea and with elections coming up in November, do we see heightened risks of some of this turning into, potentially, a serious clash during this time?

FRAVEL: Sure. Let me take a quick stab at that since lots of these involve China.

And my own view here is, you know, China’s claims, more or less—partial exception to South China Sea and historic rights in these outstanding sovereignty disputes have been more or less the same. But what has really changed is China’s willingness and then ability and capability to sort of assert its claims. And so you see China taking much more forceful positions, as we’ve talked about, in sort of all of its existing territorial disputes.

I think at the same time, though, China does not want to necessarily see these escalate into armed clashes like the one we saw with India, given the much sort of broader geopolitical sort of ramifications and aftershocks this will have, especially as China’s own relationship with the United States continues to deteriorate.

So I suspect we’ll see, on the one hand, China maintaining sort of a high relatively constant level of pressure to assert its claims. But I think it will also seek to avoid any escalation, especially probably leading up into the election, but even afterwards.

STAFF: Our next question will come from Arvin Bahl.

Q: Hi. Thank you very much for taking my question. I’m Arvin Bahl. I’m a term member at Council and the author of a book on the India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir.

One question we’ve tried to understand better is, let’s say we had a Congress government in Delhi. You know, would the relationship be different? Would the reaction to the Chinese activities be different? I mean, of course, the BJP always talks a much tougher line against China, but is there really a difference in terms of policy? I mean, what are the policy debates that you’re seeing going on in Delhi right now regarding how to contend with China? Let’s say China wants to be more aggressive in the use of military force to acquire land. Given the great superiority that they have, you know, what are India’s options in that regard?

And then really quickly on Kashmir, just want to see how you think that plays out there, I mean, you know, in the long term, I mean, it’s hard to know what’s going to happen, but you, obviously, can’t keep a population under lockdown without—you know, without any kind of freedom for a long time. I mean, is—you know, the BJP has wanted to get rid of Article 370 for a long time. You know, does this lead to a bigger explosion in terms of violence, or is there a way to integrate the state now that people from outside can move in? I’m just trying to get a sense of how you see things playing out in Kashmir in the long term.

MADAN: So I can tackle the kind of policy debate part. The Indian government’s—foreign policy, generally, is an area where you do see consistency in certain elements, and particularly in the China and U.S. relationships. And those three elements I’ve mentioned—kind of engaging China but then also competing with it through kind of internal and external balancing—this has kind of been the policy of the last few governments, just like the building of the relationship with the U.S. has been the policy of the last few governments. Even when there are crises like the—you saw this in 2013 when there was a Congress Party-led government—the kind of—the way India deals with this is pretty standard, that it does—you know, it does kind of move forces, try to show resolve, and try to get with the goal of the restoration of the status quo ante when such moves takes place.

So you can see some tactical differences, et cetera, but I think broadly the approach is the same. And what you’ve seen currently is—and it has been remarkable, the consensus. I haven’t seen this kind of consensus among the China hands in India, but particularly the ones who have, you know, kind of been in government, that have all called for a reassessment of China policy and said the current policy is not working. You’ve heard kind of the national security adviser under the Congress government, Shivshankar Menon, say this will become a more adversarial relationship, and support the government’s moves on the economic side, and talk about this as being a different moment.

And so I think you will see, as the—perhaps as the crisis eases you’ll see some of the differences come back. But the way I’ve always seen this is there are no panda huggers in the Indian government. The spectrum is from panda shruggers to panda sluggers. And what you’ll see is more kind of moving towards kind of—you know, you’ve seen that tougher approach, and the (poor ?) folks nearer the panda slugger side of the spectrum will win more internal debates. And it’s not on a partisan basis; you’ll find some very strange bedfellows—whether right and left, actually, for example—who support protectionism against China in a very odd way. But I guess that’s true in many countries on protectionism.

AYRES: So we only have a couple minutes so I’ll offer less than two minutes of a response on the Kashmir question, which I think is very important. Obviously, we’re coming up on almost one year since the Indian government abrogated Article 370 and did so with a very significant security crackdown in—particularly, in the valley, and this is simply not sustainable.

You can’t—I mean, the Indian government did this with a very clear explanation that it was doing so, A, to improve the security situation, B, provide greater opportunity for economic development in the area. There really has not been the kind of economic development push that you’d like to see and I think the world is quite concerned to see many of these detentions continue, including that of former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti.

So I’m not—you know, I can’t predict the future but it doesn’t seem to augur well to keep people who have done nothing wrong and our politicians in some form of a detention, whether it’s a home arrest, house arrest, or detained somewhere else. So that is a real issue of concern, absolutely.

HURD: OK. We have two minutes to go.

Meaghan, do we have time for one more question? We can tuck it in?

STAFF: We do. We do.


STAFF: Our last question will come from Joseph Bower.

Q: Hi. Just quickly, then.

Energy hasn’t been mentioned. Essentially, China has a pipeline of ships that are coming from the Middle East around India, up through the straits, past those islands that they built after conversations with the U.S. Navy failed. How is that going to play out? We’ve left energy out of the entire discussion, both China’s energy and India’s energy. Any comments?

MADAN: Sure. I mean, this is one place where, actually, India and China are both some of the largest importers of energy in the world. Both of them have wanted to see energy security. In fact, there was a period in which the U.S. was encouraging not just India but China to do more in terms of maritime security and, you know, it was part of kind of the Gulf of Aden patrols.

One area that this does play in, so both sides, they like—they want to see, broadly, stability in the Middle East. They don’t want to get involved, but that region is very important to them. Where it plays in is this means for India that the Indian Ocean has become a really significant kind of area for the Chinese, and that has implications for India. That also, though, you know, if you think about it from where India can have leverage, where it does have certain advantages, kind of a homecourt advantage in the Indian Ocean, that it does not—that China does not.

But I think energy is partly why you have seen India embrace this idea of the Indo-Pacific, which they had been reluctant to do because they have realized that what China does in the Pacific will not necessarily stay in the Pacific. And so they do have concerns that some of the behaviors that they’re seeing, you know, kind of closer to China’s shores in terms of not respecting certain rules of the road or rules of the sea, so to speak, that that will actually play out in some ways in the Indian Ocean. They’ve also, obviously, worried about China’s growing influence in a lot of their neighboring countries but, particularly, in the Indian Ocean as well, a large part of which, you know, was partly because China does have very real energy security interests that it’s had at play, and so it’s seeking this larger role.

HURD: Listen, we’ve gone one minute over time. and we know the Council likes to be very punctual in their start and stops. So I wanted to take this opportunity on behalf of over two hundred and fifty members who joined us today, Tanvi, Taylor, Randy, Alyssa, thank you so much for a wonderful engaging informative conversation about “The China-India Border Crisis.”

Thank you, everybody.

AYRES: Thank you.

MADAN: Thank you.

HURD: All right. Have a good night.


Top Stories on CFR


Israel’s forces have moved to control the northern Gaza Strip but face challenges in tracking Hamas fighters into tunnels. Meanwhile, the costs for Palestinian civilians are intensifying pressure on Israeli leaders.

United States

As violence escalates in Israel’s struggle with Hamas, the potential for hate-based violence in the United States grows, too. American leaders need to step in to defuse tensions.


The country’s massive economic problems will be a vexing challenge for whoever becomes president.