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Culture Q&A

Nitin Gokhale

Borderland power plays

A geopolitical tussle for dominance is behind China’s recent aggression with neighboring India

Borderland power plays

Nitin Gokhale (Illustration by Bram Vanhaeren)

After a month of skirmishes over their disputed border, Indian and Chinese soldiers fought hand-to-hand and with rudimentary weapons on June 15 high in the Himalayan Mountains at Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh. The deadliest conflict between the two countries in 45 years, the clash—gunless due to a previous agreement—left 20 Indians dead along with an unknown number of Chinese casualties (Indian sources estimate 40 Chinese soldiers were severely injured or killed). In this edited interview, Nitin Gokhale, the founder of New Delhi–based Strategic News Global, describes the significance of this event within India-China relations and global geopolitics.

What’s happened to China-India relations since the Galwan Valley clash? There is a stalemate on the border because China has not complied with the terms of disengagement agreed upon by the representatives of India and China. Chinese soldiers are sitting on one part of Indian territory at Pangong Lake, and elsewhere they are deployed in large numbers. Meanwhile, India has limited Chinese investments in technology stocks and companies, banned 59 Chinese-origin apps on mobile phones, and restricted Chinese investments into the power sector and infrastructure sectors such as 5G. 

What was the impetus for China’s aggression along the border beginning in May of this year? China sent a message to India: Don’t get too close to the United States or other countries. It’s not in your interest to partner with the growing anti-China alliance. Chinese leaders also sent a message to their own people: Despite COVID-19, things are under control. China was also testing its forces in high-altitude areas and wanted to gauge how quickly India can deploy forces. 

How have you seen the Indian public’s view of China change since the clash? The Chinese have lost the trust of 1.3 billion Indians in one go. They overreached: Although Chinese and Indian troops have had standoffs and skirmishes at isolated pockets of the border over the past 20 years, it was never this blatant or this large. This has resulted in the Indian people losing confidence in China and now realizing that China is India’s largest challenge, not Pakistan.

Will this conflict draw India closer to the United States? India-U.S. relations have improved in the past 15 years. For the first time, the United States has made India a major defense partner—before that was only for NATO members and the Western alliance. India has also made it clear to the United States and the world it will not be a junior partner in the alliance. India will have strategic autonomy in policy and strategic decisions, but the United States knows it can count on India when the balloon goes up against China. 

Can you speak more about this anti-China alliance? The countries of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue [United States, India, Australia, and Japan] have come together economically, diplomatically, and militarily. Three other countries—South Korea, New Zealand, and Vietnam—have also joined the Quad countries to form the Economic Prosperity Network. That is an economic partnership but can turn into a military alliance going forward if China continues to show aggression against all countries, small and big. 

What do you think will happen next with the India-China border conflict? Neither India nor China wants a war or full-scale escalation of skirmishes: Both are developing countries, and both are dependent on their economy doing well for the well-being of their citizens. But if China continues to be aggressive, blatantly hegemonic, and expansionistic, then India has no choice but to act. India is the only country that can stand up to China in Asia. 

A mixed way forward? Tense engagement. The Indian policymakers will now apply the principle of “trust, but verify” or even “distrust, but verify” moving forward. China has undone the gains of 40 years of peace and tranquility on the border, which may take another 20 years to rebuild. Indian forces will not trust even the smallest Chinese gestures of peace on the border. In the long run, China has lost the opportunity to settle the border if it wanted to. If it doesn’t want to, then more tension. 

Recently your news organization, Strategic News Global, got in trouble with the Chinese Embassy over a video in which you compared Chinese President Xi ­Jinping’s rise to that of Adolf Hitler. The spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in Delhi said: “This is unacceptable, this crosses our red line. This is very sensitive, please delete the video.” No: We are a democratic country with a free press. I offered to let her write a protest note, which we would publish in full without editing. She said that decision is not in her hands and she would ask higher-ups. We waited a couple of days, and I asked my colleague to get in touch with her again. She sent a very aggressive note on WhatsApp that said there will be negative consequences if we don’t delete the video. So we created a discussion around the embassy’s reaction. The video continues to be on YouTube. 

What kind of negative consequences was she proposing? The serious consequences that I can think of are that we are cut off from briefings or engagement with the Chinese Embassy. And of course we will have to be careful not to travel to Hong Kong or mainland China. We’re not unduly worried. We have taken precautions. Maybe our site will come under cyberattacks. Maybe they will keep looking at what I and my colleagues do. But that’s part of the game: In India we are used to getting feedback or threats if we annoy people in power.