In the aftermath of skirmishes between Chinese and Indian troops at the Galwan valley border, tensions are brewing across the entire region. There have been casualties on both sides, putting a strain on diplomatic relations. Conflicts between these two Asian behemoths have often resulted in region-wide geopolitical repercussions; the latest clash is no exception.
To get a clearer picture of the gravity of the situation, The Business Standard's Masum Billah spoke to Dr Imtiaz Ahmed, professor of International Relations at the University of Dhaka.
A relatively peaceful area over the last few decades, the Galwan valley along the Indo-China border has suddenly turned into a hotbed of conflict. Why do you think the situation escalated so quickly?
We need to see the conflict along the India-China border from several perspectives. One of them is domestic politics. Just two days back, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a discussion with 20 political parties that no border intrusion had occurred and the Chinese had not taken any military post.
The whole affair then turned out to be an issue of India's domestic politics. We now see Congress leader Rahul Gandhi raising questions about whether Modi gave in to Chinese aggression. He said that if no intrusion had occurred, why did the Indian soldiers die?
At the same time, we also find BJP leader Amit Shah harshly attacking Rahul Gandhi for the questions he raised. With an aggressive tone, Shah vowed to punish China. He bragged that like Israel and the US avenging any attack, India too would do the same under Modi.
However, these two different views from the ruling and opposition parties show that the problem of domestic politics is at play amid this crisis. In light of this, on June 16, Pranab Mehta wrote in the Indian Express that "the Republic of India is facing a leadership crisis". Mehta is a renowned scholar in regional geopolitics. When he sees that India is facing a leadership crisis, this needs to be explored further.
In this aspect, we need to explore a few other things. One of them is the economic structure of India, which we have seen stumbling even before the coronavirus pandemic. Indian Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee had warned that the Indian economy was doing "very badly".
Whereas the country's economic growth was above 8 percent in the 2016-17 fiscal year, in FY2019-20, GDP growth has come down to 5 percent. So, we get the picture that the Indian economy was ailing even before the pandemic surged.
And when the coronavirus did surge in India, a wave of criticism began to float against the ruling BJP government. Although the World Health Organization (WHO) had been warning about Covid-19 since the beginning of the year, the Indian government did not pay heed to it, just like US President Donald Trump.
Despite having enough time to prepare since January, they finally began to do so hastily in March. The lockdown, imposed quickly in March, did not spare time to decide the future of Delhi's 300,000 street children and the 18 million more all over the country.
Moreover, the lockdown led to unprecedented reverse migration. Thousands of migrant workers had to travel miles on foot to get back to their homes as a result of a hasty decision to lock the nation down.
So, do you believe the latest escalations at Galwan valley played a role in shifting away peoples' attention from the coronavirus pandemic and economic grievances?
Generally, we notice when such issues happen at home, governments try to shift public attention to a different area as a cover up.
Right when the BJP government's popularity is faltering, thanks to Covid-19 mismanagement and the economic crisis, this conflict at the border regarding which Modi says the Chinese soldiers did not intrude, questions can be raised – were it the Indian soldiers who intruded then, as the Chinese are saying?
To understand this, we have to remember that when the BJP government abrogated the Special Status of Jammu and Kashmir, it was evident that it would create a problem not only with Pakistan but also with China. Because all of that happened in Ladakh and especially at Galwan valley, which is located in Aksai Chin and is claimed by the Chinese.
This has always been a disputed area. But when India abrogated the Special Status, China complained and brought the issue to India's notice.
What are the international geopolitical implications of the latest conflicts?
Here lies an interesting connection between domestic politics and international geopolitics. We know that the Indian premier maintains good relations with US President Donald Trump, who is seeking re-election this November.
We have come to know through various sources that Donald Trump is trying to get support from multiple countries, including China, so that they help him win this election in multiple ways. In the last election, we saw the "Russia factor" in the US election.
As a result of this conflict at the Sino-Indian border, Donald Trump will now be able to show his countrymen that China is indeed a problem. He may have an added advantage in the upcoming US election because, as we know, Donald Trump is quickly losing public support at home.
On the other hand, China too will show its people that despite the economic woes at home, they are encountering enemies on several fronts, including the United States and India. So, they need to remain alert and endure the hardship since the Chinese economy is also not doing as well as before.
Most of the countries around the world are suffering from economic crises because of the coronavirus pandemic. Now they are focusing on how to manage things in the post-pandemic era.
A race has begun targeting the post-pandemic world. The country that will recover from coronavirus first and get back to production will have more capacity to capture various markets in the future.
That is why we have seen Donald Trump so desperate to reopen economic activities despite so many people dying of Covid-19. He indeed needs such measures since he has elections to win in November, which will be very difficult if the economy is at crisis.
Besides this, there are some domestic budget issues which are also in consideration. Many allege that the security forces – despite having the lions' share of government budgets – could not do anything to prevent this crisis. The public health sector, on the other hand, does not receive the necessary budget to cope with such large-scale pandemics.
In such considerations, questions may arise about cutting the military budget and investing them in the health sector instead. These questions, however, could be avoided if conflicts – like that at the border of China and India – are at play. We need to understand that many such stakeholders are at play who are willing to ensure that their budgets are not cut, rather increased.
What are the consequences of such conflicts? What changes could we see in India, China or in this region in the aftermath of the Galwan skirmish? Could Indo-China relations worsen further?
Firstly, India lost some of its troops, but they have turned the Line of Actual Control (LAC) into a Line of Actual Border (LAB). Negotiations and peaceful dialogues could have more political costs, but thanks to one such incident, the LAC is now the LAB.
As a result, the Modi government now has the opportunity to create a structure of solidarity at home; an anti-China sentiment– that we call hyper-nationalism – at home.
Actually, despite such conflicts between the countries at play, we need to remember that even last week, the Delhi-Meerut Rapid Rail Transit System was awarded to a Chinese firm.
We also need to remember that India and China have vast economic relations. One can even claim that China is a unitary economic regime in India which cannot be altered overnight.
Since 2018, we also have noticed that Indian students are going to China for higher education en masse in comparison to Britain. So, it is understandable that a change is at work in the Indo-China relationship.
Considering that, I do not believe the last incident in Galwan valley will turn into a significant conflict in the future. There is no doubt that both China and India will try to find a diplomatic solution to this crisis soon.
Instead, this conflict resulted in turning the LAC into the LAB, and it has shifted public attention from coronavirus mismanagement and the economic crisis to hyper-nationalist solidarity. Especially if we look at the Indian media, we find the reflection of this nationalistic tendency.
Do you think the latest skirmishes could benefit the BJP government at home instead?
The national election is far away. But there are states where elections are going to be held soon. We can wait to see the reflections of the latest incidents in those elections.
Besides, the BJP is trying hard to capture West Bengal. In the last national election, however, we saw how the Pulwama attack benefitted the BJP government. They won the polls in a landslide victory. Now, after the latest conflict at the border, it is worth observing if the BJP becomes stronger.
Personally, I believe the BJP has already benefitted from the latest incident as it has come out of the crisis the party had been enduring due to the pandemic and the economic crisis.
How do you evaluate South Asian geopolitics in light of the Galwan conflicts?
As far as the Chinese motivations of such moves at Galwan valley are concerned, I believe India's movement at the Nepal border has also encouraged China to take it the hard way.
In last May, India built an 80km road on a disputed area in Uttarakhand, which is also claimed by Nepal. Nepal claimed that India had built the road on Nepal's territory without any discussion with them. But despite such objections, Rajnath Singh launched the road in May.
As a reaction of that Indian move, Nepal redrew their maps including three disputed territories as their lands. Finally, last week, the Nepalese parliament adopted the new map unanimously.
Many are claiming that such a move from Nepal is derived from the courage it has through friendship with China. But there is no doubt that the Indian step to build roads in disputed lands and abrogation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir played a role in their actions at the China-India border.
We have noticed that the BJP government could not build good relations with any of the South Asian countries, including Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka or the Maldives. Even with Bangladesh, our grievances over the Teesta water could not be resolved yet as years have passed since the BJP took power.
The relationship that the Congress government of India was capable of developing with Bangladesh at large, the BJP government could not do so. Besides, controversial citizenship laws at play in Assam has created a pressure on Bangladesh even though they are repeatedly claiming that this was India's internal issue. But when around 2 million people become stateless, what happens to them?
Unlike Congress, the BJP could not stick to the path of forging strong relations with the people of Bangladesh, thanks to policies of national communalism at home. Even on the Rohingya crisis, we have seen India siding with China and Myanmar instead of Bangladesh.
Due to the BJP's failure in establishing proper relations with India's South Asian neighbours, there is a vacuum which China is trying to fill. Against this backdrop, what economic opportunities could these countries avail from China? The same applies to India, if you would like to add any.
I am not sure that would be the right way to put it. India's economic relationship with China is also very strong. India's largest single-country trading regime is China. Moreover, China's economy is much bigger than India's, and so it is quite natural that China would be able to invest more in different South Asian countries, and this is independent of India's relations with its neighbours.
Bangladesh has good relations with both China and India. What should be the appropriate diplomatic stance regarding this conflict?
If we consider what should be the stance of Bangladesh, I believe we have our guideline in our primary foreign policy strategy –friendship to all and malice towards none.
We have always followed this. We have stable financial relations with all countries, including Japan, the United States, China and India.
In such a structure, Bangladesh will hope that China and India find peace through dialogue and negotiation.
Bangladesh should not involve itself in supporting any particular entity. Since we have good relations with all countries, we should keep maintaining that.