Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the opening on October 3 of the Himalayan Highway Atal tunnel that will slash the time needed to rush troops to the Chinese border as tensions grow. Photo: Indian Press Information Bureau/AFP

Deal-makers from China and India seem to working in the spirit of the agreement reached by their foreign ministers in Moscow on September 10 with both sides wanting to do away with the historical burden of their border dispute.

Indian strategic analysts, international-affairs scholars and diplomats suggest China and India are making progress toward a deal.

One sign is that diplomats from both sides were included in the September 21 high-military-level talks. Talks this Monday were to include a senior Indian official in the Ministry of External Affairs, Naveen Srivastava.

Press Trust of India reported that the China Study Group (CSG) comprising Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, Chief of Defense Staff General Bipin Rawat and three service chiefs had finalized India’s strategy for the military talks.

It has been confirmed that a deal is being made that will involve a package of measures.

Statements by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday also matter. He said, “Indians are seeing 60,000 Chinese soldiers on their northern border.” One day earlier, he also said, “They [India] need the US to be their ally.”

The US national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, made a more crucial remark on the same day. He said, “Time to accept talks with China won’t help.”

Putting Indian analysts’ opinions and the US officials’ remarks together tells us that China and India are exchanging views on give and take to resolve the dispute.

A settlement has significant strategic importance because it will affect the Asia-Pacific region and global geopolitics. A deal would quickly recalibrate the global balance of power.

Despite Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi making one unsuccessful policy decision to another after he came to power in 2014, his popularity has not diminished domestically.

The economy has been nosediving since 2018. India’s federal government has not been able to compensate state governments for the goods and services tax for a year.

The Modi government has been criticized nationally and internationally for its crackdown on dissent and minorities. Indian society is deeply divided internally – the reason given by Amnesty International for its exit from India.

Despite Modi’s “Neighborhood First Policy,” India’s relations have reached a low point with South Asian countries except for Bhutan.

Along with the Covid-19 pandemic, the border dispute with China has created another crisis for India.

However, no leader in India has been able to challenge Modi, who has kept up the political magic that maintains his approval ratings.

Similarly, Chinese President Xi Jinping also wants to overcome China’s historical burdens. Hong Kong is moving toward stability. China has made clear its bottom line in Hong Kong.

China will end the Senkaku Islands dispute with Japan and the South China Sea dispute after adopting the final text of a “Code of Conduct” it is expected to complete next year.

China will not invade Taiwan less the island declares its independence.

So the most pressing remaining issue is the border dispute with India.

According to retired Indian Army Lieutenant-General Syed Ata Hasnain, China has deployed insufficient troops along the Indian border. Another retired lieutenant-general, H S Panag, writes, “The five-point agreement signed in Moscow has opened the way to settle the larger boundary dispute.”

This indicates China also wants to resolve the border dispute with India but is waiting on how India responds.

It is not as easy for Modi as for Xi. There are massive challenges ahead for Modi on both the domestic and foreign policy fronts. If he overcomes these challenges, Modi will prove his strongman image.

On the domestic front, Modi’s challenge is to convince the Indian people of the merits of any border deal makes.

India needs a strong government to resolve the Sino-Indian border dispute. In that sense, Modi is in a more comfortable position than any previous government. China also considers Modi a strong prime minister based on his strong majority in Parliament and popular support for resolving the border dispute.

India’s media are on Modi’s side, making public opinion easy to shape. If he can resolve the border issue with China, he will possibly win the 2024 general election by selling the deal.

Modi’s more formidable challenge to resolving the dispute with China is external.

He will face the challenge of withdrawing India from some of the agreements made with the US since 2016, probably due to the give and take between India and China. While resolving the border dispute, the Chinese “take” is crucial for India.

First, it is natural for China, which shares a 3,400-kilometer border with India, not to want India to have any strategic and military alliance with the US.

Second, India needs to invest in infrastructure to stimulate the pandemic-hit economy. China wants India to participate in the Belt and Road Initiative as it is or in any other name.

Third, China wants India to rejoin the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. India withdrew from RCEP at the eleventh hour in November last year. Beijing wants India to open up its market more for China.

Fourth, the package deal with China is likely to extend cooperation and partnership for the “green economy” that Beijing recently vowed to go for by 2060.

Fifth, India can “take” advantage of the settlement of border disputes by diverting scarce resources from defense to economic development.

India can benefit from relocating Chinese sunset-industry and low-cost manufacturing plants to India. That would help to create jobs, reduce poverty, and transform its economy rapidly, for which China can supply investment and technology.

India can use China’s goodwill and cooperation to settle its dispute with Pakistan. India thus can get rid of another historical burden.

However, the US will be deeply concerned with India’s give and take in the border-dispute settlement.

The US strategic standing in Asia determines its dominance in the future. Former president Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” and the current Trump administration’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy” aimed to maintain America’s strategic dominance in the Asia-Pacific region. That is why the US wants to contain China.

Suppose India abandons the nascent Indo-US partnership because of its border deal with China. In that case, the US will not have a reliable partner in the Indo-Pacific strategy. Consequently, the US eventually could lose influence in South Korea, Japan, and other Asian countries.

Besides, suppose the Eurasian partnership of Turkey, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and China becomes a reality. In that case, the US will also lose influence on the Eurasian landmass.

If such a situation develops, the US will be pushed out of the Indo-Pacific Rimland and the Eurasian heartland. That will be the real end of American domination globally.

Therefore the US will put as much pressure on India as possible. Pompeo’s and O’Brien’s recent remarks mentioned above should be seen as the United States’ warning to India.

The future of resolving the Indo-China border issue is determined by how Modi can withstand possible US pressure. India’s readiness to resist potential US sanctions also determines the outcome of the Sino-Indian border talks.

More important, it is a test case of how and to what extent a middle-power country, India, can maneuver an established superpower, the US, and a newly emerging superpower, China, to resolve the Sino-Indian border talks.

After all, a strongman leadership is tested in the time of crisis.

Bhim Bhurtel

Bhim Bhurtel teaches Development Economics and Global Political Economy in the Master's program at Nepal Open University. He was the executive director of the Nepal South Asia Center (2009-14), a Kathmandu-based South Asian development think-tank. Bhurtel can be reached at