A violent border confrontation between Indian and China on 16th of June left 20 Indian soldiers and unknown number of Chinese soldiers dead. Immediately after the incident the border patrols on either sides retracted some two miles deep into their respective territories. The talks are still underway to further deescalate the situation. However, a surprising detail has surfaced: the confrontation didn’t witness any shots being fired. Reportedly both sides used rifle butts, fists, clubs and resorted to stone pelting. It is perplexing that two nations armed with nuclear warheads, with largest standing armies, capable fighter jets and bombers, modern artilleries, state of the art tanks, sophisticated cruise missiles, aircraft carriers and even wide range of ICBMs didn't muster strength to fire a shot. I wouldn’t wish to see India and China launch fire crackers at each other let alone ICBMs. However, given all the qualities of able fighters why do they choose not to use the resources they so heavily invest upon?
In a recently published article in the Indian print media The Hindu, the last shots fired between the Indian and the Chinese border patrol were dated to be 20th of October 1975. Four Indian soldiers were killed in that firing 45 years ago and though there has been regular skirmishes at the Indo-China border, it has never been transformed into a full-fledged war. The last time media reported an intense and a long standoff between the two army was in Doklam in 2017. The social media was rife with the video of Indian soldiers grabbing Chinese soldiers by the waist and shoving them to the opposite side. There was another video reportedly from Ladakh where a large number of soldiers were pelting stones at each other. The usual pattern starts with a brawl, escalates to a fist fight and ultimately both resort to pelting stones. In majority of the instances we fail to notice firearms carried by any sides. With more deadly weapons on hand one might be tempted to use it. Therefore it’s quite evident that the primary goal was to avoid escalation.
However, India also witnesses regular cross-border firing with its “sworn enemy” Pakistan. Reports of soldiers dying due to exploding mortar shell and sniper shots are not uncommon. So why does India which doesn’t shy away from busting Pakistani bunkers with a mortal shell remains committed to only a fist fight with China? Why does China and India seem prompt to diffuse the situation whereas same is not true with Pakistan and India?
We will first look at it from the vantage point of security dilemma. “A security dilemma is a situation where the actions taken by a state to increase its own security cause reactions from other states, which leads to a decrease rather than an increase in the state’s security” (Wivel A, 2011). China-India relation has been marred by lack of trust which has contributed to the uncertainty and each sees other as a potential aggressor fueled with expansionist desires. The disagreement on the demarcation of border has led both to ramp up their military infrastructure along the Himalayan Region. Though India and China fought a war in 1962 with China emerging victorious, the demarcation of boundaries is still an outstanding issue. Both are highly suspicious of each other’s activities which has ony fueled up the security dilemma.
As we discussed earlier, the core of the problem lies in inability to assure each other of their friendly intentions. In 2006, Evan Braden Montgomery in his paper titled “Breaking out of the Security Dilemma: Realism, Reassurance, and the Problem of Uncertainty” argues from a point of defensive realism that “a relative decrease in a state’s capability can increase its security by revealing its benign motives which will in turn reduce the adversary’s insecurity and decrease its need for aggressive policies”. However, that hasn’t been the case here. Instead, Both China and India have failed to contain their military expansion along the border which has further led to an increase in insecurities and call for more aggressive policies. When India detonated Nuclear weapon in 1998 for the second time, the leaked correspondence between India and the US had the Indian PM Vajpayee cite security threats from China as the primary reason for India to conduct the nuclear test (Rusko and Sasikumar, 2007). This further exacerbated the prevalent uncertainty between the two nations. Both are unable to guess each other’s true intention and therefore they have adopted aggressive policies along their border.
Notwithstanding the dilemma, they have also looked for a strong economic co-operation to foster each other’s growth and are vying for International support to their economy. As a matter of fact India and China granted each other the status of Most Favored nation in 1984. In a paper published in 2007, Rusko and Sashikumar are of the opinion that “Since they are in competition with other exporters and destination for investments, India and China realize they must reassure potential economic partners that security challenges will not disrupt the business environment”. I think this has been true to some extent. Therefore though insecurities are dominant factor in India-China relation, they are keen to mitigate its effect on the psyche of the foreign investors and other economic partners in order to maintain a regular flow of capital as well as transfer of technologies. This can only be achieved with gradual de-escalation at the site of possible confrontations. A war will not only cost them their resources but also prohibit potential economic partners in joining them. In this sense, China and India have become reluctant rivals.
As India and China aspired to become a dominant and vibrant economy, there was a pressing need to come up with a policy which will prevent a full-fledged war between the two nations. The crux of the issue lies in inefficacy of both sides to assure each other by making their benign intentions clear. As E.B Montgomery argues in 2006 that “Agreements that limit military capabilities will likely convey information about a state’s intention and for that reason, can be useful in reducing tensions and decreasing the probability of a conflict”. Given that, though India and China haven’t been able to wholeheartedly reduce their military footprints along the border, efforts have been made to ensure minimum escalation in case of any violent confrontation. It is along this line of thinking that in 1996, India and China signed an agreement whereby they agreed not to fire any shots at each other along the border. This agreement paved the way for creating scenes of violence in a way unheard of in any 21st century’s war between any two nations. That is why stone pelting and cudgeling was rampant. These Stone Age practices become more localized and chances that the confrontation will spread to a larger area diminishes. Interestingly, both managed to keep up to this particular promise till date but now India seems willing to change its approach. Reports have emerged that Indian leadership have now given free hands to soldiers to use firearms.
Irrespective of present development, one might be tempted to ask why India and Pakistan didn’t ever agree to do so. When we look at India-Pakistan case, things are a bit different. There are hardly any hidden intentions against each other. Both are aggressive towards each other at every front and their internal politics leave little chance for co-operation. Therefore in India and Pakistan’s case, the security dilemma doesn't exist. The 2019 incident where Indian and Pakistani fighter jets clashed over disputed territories speaks volume. India nor Pakistan wants to be seen as the one compromising, hence the chances that any minor incident might escalate to a full-fledged war is extremely high. Therefore, stone pelting and fist fight between Indian and Pakistani soldiers are a distant possibility.
Since India is a democracy, every time an unfavorable incident occurs, the government has to assure its citizens of their resolve to face any adversary. That explains why the Indian government is mulling over the use of firearms along the border with China. It also explains why we are seeing increase in military buildups at the border. It would be only natural if China follows the suit. Given this, the likelihood of escalation is palpable. Any minor breach will lead to both sides using weapons which covers larger area and each may overestimate their capabilities. Therefore, though stone pelting, cudgeling and fist fight have taken casualties, it is lesser of the two evils and it would be prudent for both sides to resolve their differences via diplomatic channels. As In 1978, Robert Jarvis in his paper titled “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma” argues in context of the First World War that “had both sides known the cost of the war they would have negotiated much more seriously”. And I believe India and China are quite aware of the costs involved.