Hesitant Realism: China–India Border Tensions and Delhi’s Deepening Strategic Ties with Tokyo and Canberra

Date01 April 2021
Published date01 April 2021
Subject MatterResearch Articles
Research Article
Hesitant Realism:
China–India Border
Tensions and Delhi’s
Deepening Strategic Ties
with Tokyo and Canberra
Purnendra Jain1
The deadly conflict on the Ladakh border in June 2020 will force India to re-
evaluate its approach to foreign policy. This dangerous turn, despite decades of
mutual restraint, border talks, agreements and recent bonhomie between the
Indian and Chinese leaders, has intensified the strategically tense environment
of the Indo-Pacific region. China’s assertiveness in the South China and East
China seas and its technology and trade tensions with a number of neighbouring
Asian and Western nations have already raised political temperatures in global
politics. In that light, this article considers how the June 2020 border incident may
influence India’s strategic rethink, especially in relation to two key nations of the
Indo-Pacific, Japan and Australia. The article suggests that forcing a re-evaluation
of the strategic challenge posed by China, the June 2020 border confrontation
has inspired a more realist edge to India’s security thinking. India is continuing the
strategic autonomy with a multi-alignment approach it has favoured, but with a
keener sense of realpolitik it is pressing ahead to deepen its defence and strategic
alignments with like-minded nations in the Indo-Pacific region. This means that
India is not abandoning its relations with traditional partners such as Russia to
instead pursue a more formal alliance with one or a group of other powers.
Rather, India is further developing strategic partnerships with the United States
and its allies, while continuing strong relations with Russia and other long-standing
partners to ‘balance’ its national security position. This article identifies India’s
approach as ‘hesitant realism’, an explanatory term to explore India’s moves to
balance its external relations through growing ties with Japan and Australia—two
US allies that are key Indo-Pacific nations.
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
8(1) 77–97, 2021
© The Author(s) 2021
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/2347797021992529
1 Department of Asian Studies, School of Social Sciences, Faculty of Arts, The University of Adelaide,
Adelaide, Australia.
Corresponding author:
Purnendra Jain, Department of Asian Studies, School of Social Sciences, Faculty of Arts, The Univer-
sity of Adelaide, Adelaide 5005, Australia.
E-mail: purnendra.jain@adelaide.edu.au
78 Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 8(1)
India–China relations, border tensions, India–Australia relations, India–Japan
relations, hesitant realism, Indo-Pacific
India’s relations with its largest neighbour, the People’s Republic of China, are
passing through one of the worst periods in their bilateral history. The two Asian
giants are rising simultaneously alongside each other, in regional and global
contexts of disruption and uncertainty. For both nations, their relationship with
European colonial powers has forged a strong sense of victimhood (Chatterjee
Miller, 2014) and the desire to regain their glorious past as leading world powers.
Although they officially vouch to co-exist and cooperate, competition and rivalry
often trump mutual cooperation. Today, Asia’s two rising giants are dangerously
close to a serious military confrontation. In June 2020, the longstanding Sino–
Indian border dispute inflamed into a ‘mini war’ on the Ladakh border, with a
military standoff that became the first deadly border conflict in decades. Signs of
a swift peaceful resolution are not on the horizon; months of diplomatic efforts
have produced few results (as of January 2021).
Since India gained independence in 1947 and China formed a communist state
in 1949, a constant feature of their troubled relationship has revolved around their
border disputes in the Himalayan region. The two Asian neighbours fought a
major war on the Himalayan border in 1962, and since then both the eastern and
western sides of the borders have continued to suffer skirmishes, including a long
standoff in 2017 at the tri-junction of the India–Bhutan–China border. But the
June 2020 military impasse and mini war involving hand-to-hand combat, with at
least 20 Indian military officers killed and many more injured, shows no sign of
resolution, despite efforts to diffuse tensions through dialogue. India’s Chief
of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat has even raised the prospects of ‘military
options’ if talks fail. In parallel, provocative language and statements from the
Chinese side appear regularly from Communist Party spokespersons and Party-
led media outlets, including the threat to annihilate Indian troops (Global Times,
2020a, 2020b).
India–China border issues remain a major flashpoint in Asia, as both sides have
continued to accuse each other of aggression and provocation. Violent border
tensions last led to military killings in 1975. The decades of bilateral talks,
negotiations, agreements and summit diplomacy on border issues since then did
not end tensions or resolve disputes, but at least reduced the temperature for
armed conflict. The heightened tensions that reinflamed violence to the point of
military killing in June 2020 thus made this border clash the worst in 45 years. So,
what is India doing to at least maintain the pre-June 2020 status quo on the
borders, without triggering further military clashes and casualties? What options
does India have to best position itself to manage external relations, while it shares
borders with the powerful and ever more assertive China and with India’s nemesis
Pakistan that claims it is one of China’s few and closest partners?

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT