Calling for a ‘Nixon-in-China moment’ in India–China relations implies a set of false analogies in the relationships between India, China and the United States today, and those between the United States, China and the Soviet Union that prevailed when Richard Nixon landed in Beijing in 1972.
An armed conflict will do little to resolve India’s security dilemma along the Himalayan border with China. The coronavirus and the economic downturn caused by currency demonetisation, when coupled with an expensive war, however, limited the latter might be, could lead to a serious downturn in an economy that is already bleeding.
China’s expansionism along Tibet’s southern border with India thus has a much more limited aim than the acquisition of territory of the conquest of India. It is intended to widen the buffer zone that surrounds Tibet. Trucks and trains may not stream across the India-China frontier, but people and yaks do. China wants to cut off all contact across the border, whether physical or even online.
Analysts say Modi’s aggressive tone fits the public mood and the policies of his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has given a freer rein to the army since taking power in 2014, but he will not risk an all out conflict with his larger and better armed neighbour.
If this crisis really precipitates an inflection point, analysts should observe a revised approach to the U.S.-India relationship where New Delhi undertakes to substantively balance China, Washington accommodates Indian constraints, and both demonstrate a tolerance for some difficult bargains and creative workarounds.
China’s territorial revisionism has been unrelenting. Under Mao Zedong, China more than doubled its size by annexing Tibet and Xinjiang, making it the world’s fourth- largest country in area. Under Xi Jinping, China’s expansionism increasingly threatens its neighbours, big and small. Xi’s regime has just opened a new territorial front against one of the world’s smallest countries, Bhutan, by disputing its eastern borders.
The relationship between the world’s two most-populous nations can be seen through five different prisms—history, immediate neighbourhood, larger external world, internal politics and trade—each of which is playing a role in deciding where ties are today and where they are likely to head in the future.