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Modi Versus Xi: The Battle of the Nationalist Strongmen

In India and China we have two nuclear-armed countries whose leaders are in no mood to back down.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese Prime Minister Xi Jinping (Wikipedia/Office of the Russian President)

With the world consumed by the coronavirus pandemic and backlash over the murder of George Floyd that has spread beyond American borders, a very significant altercation just occurred in the Himalayas between China and India. 

The two nuclear-armed countries came to blows in the high altitude climate of hotly contested Galwan Valley in Kashmir. Preliminary reports from news sources estimate that roughly 20 Indian Army troops and potentially 43 soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army died in the clash. The event holds the title for the most significant incident between Delhi and Beijing since the 1967 Nathu La and Cho La skirmishes

The dispute comes at a highly sensitive time in world affairs ongoing COVID-19 pandemic carries geopolitical implications that are significant but still unclear. The battle with Chinese forces along the Kashmiri Line of Control (LAC) could not have come at the worst time for Modi’s government. The coronavirus infection numbers are swelling throughout India despite strict lockdowns, damaging the country’s once-booming economy while posing a threat to Prime Minister’ Modi’s once secure tenure. 

The situation facing Communist Party leadership in Beijing is equally problematic, considering China is bearing international blame for the Coronavirus, the Hong Kong protests, and increasing tensions with the United States. The prospect of a protracted conflict between the two nuclear-armed emerging powers poses opportunities and serious risks for both.

Both the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China have many drivers pushing them towards conflict. Similar to how Beijing’s brand of post-Mao authoritarian market development collides with the United State’s historic liberal free-market democratic principles, directly to its south, the Chinese Communist Party confronts an ideological clash with India over its increasingly nationalistic Hindu-oriented version of democracy. 

Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping, like other contemporaries Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, Boris Johnson, etc., are leaders with a nationalistic bent. They view their respective countries as embodiments of either Han Chinese or Hindu civilization, where the center of the world revolves around their nations in the sense that they see them as the center of history. Chinese nationalistic thought has viewed China (not the west) as the key innovator and player in world history. 

While at the same time, they take a highly suspicious view of outsiders and other players in the region. Both Chinese and Indian nationalist thinkers also resent the decades of colonialism and outside foreign intervention. Nationalists in both countries apply these viewpoints to their ongoing disputes with other states in the region. These historical cleavages play into the People’s Republic’s territorial claims against other important regional nations like Vietnam and Japan.

For Xi Jinping, the increase in Sino-Indian tensions poses a complication for China’s post-COVID Asia-Pacific offensive. Beijing has used the global pandemic as a way to secure itself as the dominant player in Asia. However, in this developing crisis with a nuclear-armed neighbor in the south, Xi Jinping might have gotten more than he bargained for, with the potential for tensions to spiral out of control.

Despite the risks associated with confronting India, Xi cannot show China’s weakness for political reasons. Xi is facing increasing criticism from Chinese society as a whole for the party’s handling of the ongoing pandemic, where there are lingering doubts that the government has successfully suppressed the virus. Recently, a cluster of new infections was foundin a wet market in Beijing’s Fengtai District, far removed from the epicenter of COVID-19 in Wuhan. China’s economy contracted for the first time in nearly 30 years in the beginningquartersof 2020. Within some circles of the CCP there are even calls for Xi Jinping’s ouster as General Secretary.

These conflicts mean Xi has little choice but to continue to push Beijing’s territorial disputes with India. Any sign of weakness would amplify the problems he faces with the Chinese governmental body’s key stakeholders, while undermining the consolidation and cult of personality that Xi is attempting to build within the CCP. Barring a mediated discussion brokered by a third party state that allows him to save face, it is in his best political interest to press China’s territorial claims against India at this time. 

After the melee in the Himalayas, there is also pressure on Prime Minister Modi to show decisiveness given the domestic circumstances he is facing. For instance, the surging pandemic in India, which is impacting the religiously conservative Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) heartland in the south-central part of the subcontinent the hardest. The standoff at Galwan poses a political risk for him since he could look weak in the eyes of his party, government, and the Indian public at large if he de-escalates too soon. 

There is also an additional calculation for Prime Minister Modi relating to India’s geopolitical interests. By confronting Beijing, Modi might also see this as an opportunity to strengthen his relationship with the United States. While at the same time, Delhi needs to prevent China from outmaneuvering it through its regional initiatives with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, such as the Belt and Road Initiative. 

BJP Spokesman Krishna Rao remarkedin a recent article:

“China has realized the New India under the leadership of PM Narendra Modi understands both tactical and strategic moves of China and can effectively counter them. India’s denial to participate in ‘Bangladesh – China – India – Myanmar Corridor’ (BCIM) and the subsequent cancellation of this part of the BRI (Belt and Road) project has certainly upset China.” 

Modi’s advisors see this violent dispute as a way to stymie Beijing’s efforts to work with other adversaries like Pakistan to limit India’s potential.

The deepening Sino-Indian conflict will also inject more political risk into global economic relations as a whole, since all of the world’s largest economies now have some form of tension. This will further complicate the post-COVID economic recovery, which was already pointing to a breakdown in the globalized trade relations that have built up over the past 30 years. Given the ideological and domestic factors driving both Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping, it’s unlikely either man will back down now.

Kevin Brown holds an MSc. in International History from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). His work has been featured in Real Clear Defense and The National Interest.

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