[Analytics] India-China border dispute reveals fragility of ‘Asian NATO’

Indian soldiers guard a highway leading to the Ladakh region. Photo: DPA. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

Muhammad Zia ul Haq, the former president of Pakistan who aided the Afghani mujahideen against the invading Soviets, once said (referring to Afghanistan) that “The pot should be kept boiling, but should not boil over.” This quote is key to understanding the recent border dispute between China and India, as well as a proposal to set up an Asian version of NATO as part of the US’ Indo-Pacific Strategy. Jung E-gil specially for the Hankyoreh.

Zia ul Haq’s words were aimed at India, Pakistan’s old enemy. His point was that strife in Afghanistan creates fluidity in Kashmir, on the border of the three countries, straining India’s security.

India and Pakistan are still in conflict today; they’ve even fought over territorial control of Kashmir. A terrorist attack on the Indian city of Mumbai in November 2008 that involved something akin to urban warfare was carried out by a group of Islamist militants with the goal of liberating the Muslims of Kashmir. China has also been involved in the territorial dispute over Kashmir. China and India fought a war in 1962, and the two sides recently exchanged shots for the first time in 45 years during a physical scuffle on the border.

On Aug. 31, US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun went beyond the Quad — that is, the quadrilateral security dialogue between the US, Japan, India, and Australia, the four key players in the Indo-Pacific Strategy — by proposing the creation of a “Quad Plus,” a multilateral arrangement for security deliberations that would include South Korea and other countries. This prompted hand-wringing among Korean commentators worried that Seoul will be ostracized if it doesn’t preemptively announce its intention to join this Asian version of NATO.

India will ultimately decide whether Indo-Pacific Strategy will take shape

Ultimately, India will decide whether the Indo-Pacific Strategy or an Asian NATO take shape. The question is whether India will side with the US and other Western powers and definitely adopt an anti-Chinese position. The recent border conflict has prompted some to argue that India is likely to go along with an Asian NATO.

So why is China provoking India when a discussion is underway of forming an Asian NATO aimed at Beijing? From the Chinese perspective, the border conflict is a way of tripping up India. It’s comparable to Pakistan curbing India by using the Afghan conflict to increase its security burden.

On Nov. 1, 2019, amid a continuing territorial dispute over Kashmir, the Indian government stripped the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir of its special status of semi-independence, which had been conferred by the constitution, and brought the area under the direct control of India’s federal government. New Delhi’s move violated both a UN resolution that described Jammu and Kashmir as disputed territory and India’s bilateral arrangements with Pakistan and China. It also inflamed resentment among Muslims both in Pakistan and in Kashmir.

The history of Kashmir as the linchpin of Indian geopolitics

Kashmir and the rest of India’s northwestern border are the linchpin of Indian geopolitics. They were the launching point for all invasions of India — from the Aryans, who shaped the India of today, down through Alexander the Great, Timur, and the Mughals, who set up the subcontinent’s last dynastic empire. India’s northwestern border, therefore, is synonymous with Indian security. If China escalates its border conflict with China, it will be joined not only by Pakistan, but by the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan.

The border dispute in 1962 culminated in China abruptly commencing hostilities. As Indian troops were pushed back, then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru turned in desperation to the US, asking US President John F. Kennedy for help. Reluctant to return to conflict with China just nine years after the Korean War, the US dispatched Averell Harriman, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, to the scene. Upon Harriman’s arrival, China unilaterally ended hostilities and completely withdrew from the territory it had taken.

At the time, China was angry at India both for leaning toward the Soviet Union in the Sino-Soviet split and for meddling in the Tibet question by harboring the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan government in exile. For China, the conflict with India was merely a border dispute, but for India, it was a critical security crisis. Today’s border conflict is China’s way of asking India if joining the Indo-Pacific Strategy or an Asian NATO is really worth jeopardizing security on its northwestern border.

In fact, the term “Indo-Pacific” was coined by an Indian naval officer. The term was part of India’s “Act East” policy, an upgrade of the “Look East” policy it has pursued since the 2000s. India is seeking cooperation with the US in order to expand its influence in the Indian Ocean between India and the Malacca Strait.

As Walter Russell Mead, an American scholar of geopolitics, recently told the Wall Street Journal, Indian elites don’t think it’s in India’s interest to extend an anti-Chinese liberal international order into the Indo-Pacific, as the US desires. This can be seen as the balance of power beginning to blur.

According to Sameer Lalwani, director of the Stimson Center’s South Asia program, there’s “India fatigue” in Washington over the fact that US and India’s relationship vis-à-vis the Indo-Pacific Strategy is “all talk and no show.”

In the end, US talk about the Indo-Pacific Strategy or an Asian NATO is merely rhetoric aimed at further entangling its current allies. Considering that the Asian NATO is merely a cipher, why are some South Koreans so eager to be in the vanguard?

By Jung E-gil, senior staff writer

Share it

Exclusive: Beyond the Covid-19 world's coverage