Sunday

16th Jan 2022

Opinion

What should EU do when China and India lock horns?

  • Chinese president Xi Jinping - here to stay for quite some time (Photo: China Daily)

In mid-June, the two most populous nations of the planet came to blows on their disputed border, leading to deadly casualties.

Considering the economic and geopolitical importance of these states and the increasing intensity of their border confrontations, it is time for the EU to explore options of efficiently coping with these tense situations.

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As an external actor, the best Brussels can do is to find a way to simultaneously boost China-EU and India-EU ties instead of falling into the trap of moving closer to one of them while distancing itself from the other.

Sino-Indian tensions started on 5 May at the Pangong Tso lake - in the western sector of the two states' disputed border - when 250 Chinese and Indian soldiers fought and threw stones at each other.

Four days later, 150 soldiers confronted each other in the central sector at Nathu La. Soldiers on both sides sustained injuries.

With the purpose of de-escalation, Chinese and Indian Corps Commanders met on 6 June and the two governments published at least nine statements and comments claiming that "the situation was improving".

Contrary to these claims, a deadly clash occurred on 15 June, leaving 20 Indian soldiers dead in the Galwan Valley in the Western sector. To date, the Chinese side has not published the number of its casualties.

These confrontations by no means came out of the blue.

In 2013, a three-week standoff occurred when Chinese troops confronted India over building an observation post in the western sector.

In September 2014, troops were eyeball to eyeball again when China obstructed the Indian construction of a canal in the Western sector.

And In June 2017, India dispatched forces to the China-Bhutan border to stop the latter's road extension in the Doklam area. The two sides locked horns for more than 70 days on this occasion.

As the above cases show, the rise of China's Xi Jinping to the country's presidency in 2012 was followed by more intensifying Sino-Indian confrontations on the border.

Given that Xi is likely to stay president for a long time, it is prudent for the EU to explore ways of coping with the repercussions of Sino-Indian border confrontations.

EU role?

So, what can the EU do in such a thorny situation?

When it comes to China, it is imperative to get a grasp of the foreign-domestic policy interplay.

The Sino-Indian border imbroglio is an indicator of China's increasing isolation in the international system, as Beijing is also engaged in a vicious trade struggle with the US and saw a negative backlash to its activities in the South China Sea.

At the same time, Xi is going through tough times domestically amid the fiasco of his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, intra-party struggles, protests in Hong Kong, and the increasing schism with Taiwan.

These are times when Chinese leaders need friends and could become cooperative in economic matters.

As the Communist Party of China is scrambling to make good on its promise of establishing a "moderately prosperous society", economic cooperation might offer a way out of the dark tunnel paved by the pandemic and China's trade war with the US.

This is the origin of China's emphasis on consensus and cooperation related to the investment talks and Beijing's call to the EU to be a "stabiliser" against "unilateral bullies".

The implication is that China might be more inclined to make concessions on the longstanding economic deadlock on market access and level playing field for businesses.

China's tough spot also gives an opportunity for the EU to drive a hard bargain on other issues such as World Trade Organisation reform, climate change cooperation, and disinformation activities.

In the case of India, look at the implications of the border spat.

Indian sentiments toward China changed in the recent years, as Beijing increased its presence in South Asia, established an overseas naval presence in Djibouti, and became more assertive on the Sino-Indian border.

As a response, India boosted cooperation with like-minded states, such as Japan, Australia, and the US.

The deadly Galwan Valley clashes are likely to reinforce this trend, as India banned Chinese applications and clamped down on Chinese investments.

Opportunity

The EU could utilise the opportunity to bolster ties with Asia's juggernaut.

As both states face the imperative of decreasing economic reliance on Beijing, the time is ripe to make strides toward an EU-India free-trade accord.

In the process, however, the EU should not put all its eggs in one basket.

Boosting ties with one of the giants should not come at the price for deteriorating relations with the other.

Instead of taking sides, the EU can benefit the most from simultaneous engagement, so it makes sense to treat these ties in isolation rather than in a triangular fashion.

Author bio

Daniel Balazs is a Ph.D. candidate at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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