Could Xi Jinping and Modi finally be frenemies? India and China ease tensions in Ladakh

  • China and India have a long history of disputes in the Himalayan region 
  • Recent disengagement points to a friendlier relationship between the two leaders
  • Ultimately, the actions of Xi Jinping and Modi cannot immediately be ruled as benevolent: both are butting heads to uphold sovereignty in the region. 
Xi with Modi in Ahmedabad in 2014.
Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi

Why are Xi Jinping and Modi frenemies? 

Answer: new disengagement talks could end the violent battle at the Himalayan border 

The ongoing territorial dispute between China and India dates back to the 1962 Sino-Indian war, in which the two countries fought over the Himalayan regions. India unilaterally claimed the region of Ladakh in 2019, separating it from the disputed Kashmir. In 2020 a continuous set of brawls arising from China encroaching on Indian territory has led to both leaders competing to build infrastructure along the border. 

The two countries had previously agreed to fight on the border without firearms, but 2020 was a particularly violent year for both Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi. A clash in the Galway Valley, which left at least 20 Indian and 45 Chinese troops dead was fought solely with sticks and clubs, and the first fatal battle between the two sides since 1975. The violence has escalated with both leaders accusing each other of using warning shots in September 2020. With China and India’s willingness to use brute military force in the region in 2020, the future for the battle to gain control of the border only suggested an escalation in violent disputes. 

However, in February 2021, the leaders unveiled plans to pull back troops from the frontlines in order to ease the situation on the border. With both nuclear powers offsetting the other suggesting a ruling out of further violent military operations, the disengagement is in hope that a settlement can be reached through diplomatic talks. Could this be the start of a more amicable relationship, easing the tensions between these two regional powers?

What does Xi Jinping want?

Answer: To alleviate the tensions in the region in order to further his own agenda.

It is important to consider Xi Jinping’s staunch allyship with Pakistan. The region of Kashmir  is at the root of most conflict between India and Pakistan. They both control areas of Kashmir, which remains a disputed area, bordering Ladakh. Both Pakistan and China have a vested interest in claiming territory from Modi, Xi Jinping views an alliance with Pakistan as a way to further isolate his opponent. Although Xi Jinping’s actions in the region are attributed to Chinese security, a ping-ponging of Indian hostility between the two leaders only antagonises the ongoing regional disputes. 

China’s history has built up a stark nationalism that carries the country in its navigation of foreign affairs. Thus, it is in Xi Jinping’s best interests as leader of the communist nation to recover such territory. The leader is seen not only employing his own nationalistic tendencies but also a vouch to retain popularity in China. Even in a disengagement strategy, Xi Jinping vies to bolster China’s agenda in the geo-political sphere, an attempt at portraying China as a peaceful world power. 

What does Modi want?

Answer: Indian domination in the region still remains his key ambition in growing peace talks.

Modi’s intentions root back to the origins of the state of Kashmir. As a Muslim-majority, Kashmiri’s have suffered as a product of Modi’s longing to return the region to a Hindu-led  state. Modi is thus alternatively heavily driven by religious factors; both an element of fear that Kashmir could side with Pakistan due to common Muslim values and a desire to retain Kashmir rule as Hindu. 

Further, 2019 saw India repeal Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which in effect, removed the guarantee of quasi-autonomy in the Indian-administered Kashmir. They further cracked down in the region with decisions to cut off the internet and arrest local politicians. Splitting the regions of Jammu and Kashmir into two cemented the Indian control of the region. Like his opponent, Modi is driven to expand his geo-political power. He is an established populist leader. Thus, defending Indian land is inherent to Modi’s ideological drive, particularly against rising influences of China who is siding with India’s rival, Pakistan

In 2020, following increases in violent attacks from both militaries on the border, Modi visited Ladakh to announce that the “age of expansionism is over”. Though his quote proves ironic considering Modi’s expansion of Indian power in the region just the previous year, this served as a warning of his continuous resistance against Xi Jinping’s attempts to expand Chinese power in the region. 

What is Xi Jinping doing?

Answer: an unwillingness to initiate the disengagement plans indicate Xi Jinping will uphold the best interests of China.
Source: AlJazeera- Mohammed Haddad, Saif Khalid

Seemingly, the disengagement process is mutually beneficial for both leaders, who are employing a very similar disengagement process. However, particular attention should be paid to the regions in which the leaders are vying for disengagement in. It is the south bank of Pangong Tso that is most crucial to the strategic advancements of Modi, where Indian troops were able to outwit their Chinese counterparts by occupying certain peaks. Whereas Modi has insisted that the disengagement process should include the entire region at issue, Xi Jinping has been particular in demanding that India first pull its troops back from the south bank in an attempt to dismantle Modi’s power in the region. This implies that India’s upper hand in the south bank and the bloody stand-off of June 2020 has not shaken Xi Jinping, what matters to him most is the border and he was able to manipulate disengagement talks.

It appears thus, that relations between the two leaders as of 2020 has become a personal battle, whereby Xi Jinping has played into and exploited Modi’s weaknesses. Domination over India has been said to captivate Xi’s appetite. In moving forward in the peace talks, a compliance from Modi may only motivate Xi Jinping to gain further psychological advantage. The Chinese leader’s response indicates that withdrawal does not equate to defeat; the leader will continue to act with the intention of gaining control of the land he believes he owns. The Xi-Modi relationship is a considerably long way from repair. 

In the last decade, the world has watched China grow into a competing global hegemon whilst simultaneously facing attacks on their approach to human rights. Ironically, Xi Jinping has been seen making digs at Modi on the basis of India’s mistreatment of Muslims to divert attention away from China’s human rights abuses. Further, the ongoing battle against India in the Ladakh region serves as a distraction apt from losing power in the global sphere. 

What does this mean for you? 

Answer: the disengagement process, if successful at all could be lengthy and have major implications on the world stage. 

Indeed, it is difficult to take the disengagement as merely a benevolent act by the two leaders, particularly with Xi Jinping dominating the strategy discussion. The disengagement plans could indicate the exhaustion of both leaders and a desire to bring the battle to an end, but the likelihood of a diplomatic approach finally resolving the disputes in the region is low. This is not the first attempt at a disengagement, and a return of brute force along the border could stall the peace process even further. 

Undoubtedly, both leaders are driven by a desire to gain territorial power, in the region in China’s case, and to consolidate regional power in India’s case. As such, it is unlikely that either of them will back down in negotiations. Neither are very trusting of their opponent and are unwilling to make the first step to reduce their military numbers. This could prove a lengthy and unpredictable resolution to the battle. 

The ongoing disputes will have major implications in the geo-political sphere. The West is vying for economic and military ties with India in preparing for another US v China Cold War, whilst China’s allegiance to Pakistan will continuously antagonise their own relationship with India. But for China, the turn to a more peaceful approach, unlike that of the interventionism of the US, could bolster their international image and make room for alliances with countries in the region and Africa. 

It appears thus, that rising regional tensions will continue between the two leaders but under a new peaceful facade. Rather than through violent brawls along the border, both will seek to appease their own geo-political agenda through negotiating in the disengagement processes, a ploy to grapple with the changing international political trends.