- Aggressive rhetoric and retaliatory political measures between New Delhi and Beijing will persist over coming months
- Low-level skirmishes with Chinese military remain likely over coming months along border in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim
- In absence of grave provocations, New Delhi will prioritise stabilisation of border with Islamabad to avoid two-front challenge amid increased tensions with Beijing
- China releases a list of standardised geographical names for 11 places in Arunachal Pradesh state. It considers the Indian state to be part of “Zangan”, or the southern part of the Tibet Autonomous Region. (2 April)
- New Delhi rejects Beijing’s attempts to lay claim over areas in Arunachal Pradesh, saying the region “is, has been, and will always be” an integral part of India. (4 April)
- In an apparent response, the home minister visits Arunachal Pradesh to inaugurate an investment drive targeting border villages and infrastructure, drawing condemnation from Beijing. (9 April)
- The Indian Air Force and its American counterpart commence the Cope India bilateral exercise in Panagarh, Kalaikunda, and Agra. The drills include air mobility manoeuvres and fighter aircraft training. (10 April)
The renaming of places is likely retaliation for New Delhi’s decision to hold a G20 meeting in Arunachal Pradesh in March, but will not immediately increase the threat of open conflict. Beijing issued a similar list in 2017 following a visit by the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader, to the region. The move is also aimed at rejecting US-India defence cooperation, in the context of Cope India and a notable bilateral military exercise in November last year. This fits with longstanding Chinese perceptions that India intends to internationalise the conflict with the assistance of the US and forums like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.
The developments once again highlight the impediments to the resolution of the border dispute, including inflexibility in negotiating positions and Beijing’s perceptions of New Delhi’s pivot to the West. These continue to undermine the normalisation of ties, given New Delhi’s refusal to delineate the conflict and other aspects of the relationship. The aggressive rhetoric and retaliatory political actions by both countries will continue over the coming months, particularly around the Dalai Lama’s annual summer visit to the disputed Ladakh region. This is indicated by New Delhi’s response to the renaming and its increased inclination since July 2020 to directly counter provocations.
As previously assessed, small clashes between Indian and Chinese troops remain likely over the coming months along border areas in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. China has not withdrawn additional troops deployed in the region since last October, indicating a probable intent to pursue fresh brinkmanship in the near-to-medium term. These moves are likely to be triggered by efforts to test recently bolstered Indian defences. New Delhi deployed additional troops to the eastern border beginning in mid-2022. This is also indicated by independent assessments. In March, the head of the US’s Pacific Command said there is “potential for new Chinese offensives”.
The continued tensions with China also increase the threat of simultaneous confrontations along the Pakistan border. In the past, Islamabad and Beijing have jointly attempted to exploit New Delhi’s insecurities regarding this two-front challenge. For example, Pakistan moved 20,000 troops to the Gilgit-Baltistan region at the height of the dispute with China in July 2020, to increase pressure on the resource-constrained and overstretched Indian military. This indicates that, in the absence of a grave provocation by Islamabad, New Delhi will attempt to maintain relations with the former over the coming months.
However, this is unlikely to translate to concrete talks with Pakistan in the near term. Despite conciliatory statements by Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif in January, New Delhi will be disincentivised by the upcoming federal elections in 2024. The government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has greatly benefitted from portraying a hardline stance regarding ties with Pakistan during previous national and state polls since 2014. The government will also maintain caution given the absence of a clear reading of the Pakistan army chief’s perspective on rapprochement, as well as the continued political and economic flux in Pakistan.