Chinese and Indian security officials at a Himalayan border area. Photo: Pinterest

India was a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961. It saw the organization as a place for nations to go that did not wish to be embroiled in the Cold War. In recent years, however, this non-alignment has seemed to take a back seat to the nation asserting its interests in Asia as well as on the world stage. 

The recent border clash between Indian Army and Chinese People’s Liberation Army troops on their disputed border is not a new development. There was a scuffle in May that resulted in several injuries that occurred in the western Union Territory of Ladakh on May 5-6, and in Naku La in the state of Sikkim in the east on May 10.

The most recent escalation on June 15-16 resulted in a reported 20 deaths on the Indian side, with China not releasing any numbers. The Indian government has reported that spiked rods were used, since both nations have agreed that military weapons shall not be allowed in the border area.

There has been a history of border skirmishes between the two powers, with the most serious occurring in 1962, which resulted in about 2,000 fatalities total. This conflict was most likely related to China’s annexation of Tibet (Xizang) in 1959. 

The most recent skirmish in Ladakh has exposed the complicated tensions in a region where much was left unanswered concerning the Ladakh / Aksai Chin border at the time of Indian independence in 1947. The August 2019 action by India of breaking off Ladakh into a separate union territory and making Jammu and Kashmir a state of India has only added to tensions in the region.

With China on one side and Pakistan on the other, India finds itself in a diplomatically and militarily difficult situation. Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger once stated that a full-scale war between India and China would not be likely since neither side had anything major to gain. It would seem Pakistan would have the most to gain in any potential conflict in the region.

Pakistan and China have a long alliance, with China recently investing heavily in the nation’s ports and infrastructure. In addition, China has leased harbors in Sri Lanka and invested in Myanmar to the east as well. This has left India feeling a bit boxed in as of late and looking to secure international understandings regarding its security.

Its traditional ally Russia sold India an anti-aircraft missile system worth US$6 billion in 2018. The nation has also reached out to the US as a regional military partner to counter Chinese influence. Notwithstanding, the Americans realize the importance of India to its own goals in Asia.

In May 2018, the US Pacific Command was changed by the Pentagon to the Indo-Pacific Command. Though this change will not have a major impact on the structure of the relationship any time soon, it does serve to demonstrate the growing influence Washington sees India as having in Asia. However, it does not seem the US would become involved in any war in South Asia unless its forces came under direct assault from any of the actors involved.

If war between India and China is highly unlikely, as Kissinger predicted, then why, one might ask, would India seek an alliance with the US as well as a stronger one with Russia? Strengthening the alliance with Russia and increased naval exercises with the US in the Indian Ocean would serve to relieve some of the pressure China could exert in a future conflict India might have with Pakistan.

Moreover, in the onset of a war between Pakistan and India, China could make territorial gains in disputed border areas, with India being severely limited in its ability to counter these incursions. 

The wild card in any military engagements between India and its neighbors, Pakistan and China, is that all three nations are nuclear powers. While it is unlikely India and China would have a nuclear exchange, India and Pakistan nearly came to the brink during the Kargil Conflict of 1999.

It has not been China, but rather Pakistan that has been willing to raise the stakes in disputes with India. While attempting not to literally lose ground to Beijing in the border areas, it would serve Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi well to monitor the motives of Pakistan.  

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Ben Goodman

Ben Goodman is a college instructor in the US who holds BA and MA degrees, both in history. He spent more than a decade living and working in South Korea, Malaysia and Indonesia.