Published: Sept. 15, 2020

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The China India Border Conflict, The Great Game and a Sino – Indian Split by Dylan Yachyshen

In desolate mountains and deserts of Central and South Asia, regional powers embark upon infrastructure initiatives and reconnaissance to solidify their position amidst blurry borders. Discovered by a rival power, tensions augment, and soldiers of each side endeavor riskier moves towards the opposing encampment, even impaling each other with spiked clubs and medieval weapons. Luckily, diplomatic overtures resolve the crisis, and the conflict returns to its purgatory. This anecdote describes not the recent, 2020 Chinese – Indian border clash at the Galwan Valley, but defense of Herat, Afghanistan, led by British agent Eldred Pottinger against the Russian - Persian siege in 1837. Like Pottinger helped defend Herat in 1837, the U.S must offer India support in 2020. While keeping the door open for diplomatic overtures from China, the US must increase arms sales and diplomatic overtures to India, fomenting a Sino – Indian split and balancing China’s aggressive posturing throughout the region. 


In 1914, the disputed British-drawn McMahon line delineated the northeastern province of Arunachal Pradesh as Indian, without consultation of the Chinese. In 1950, China seized Tibet and Northern Ladakh, now called Aksai Chin. Twelve years later, China pushed across the McMahon Line and established the “Line of Control”, also taking areas in Northwest India. A second war followed in 1967, in which India retaliated and established the “Line of Actual Control (LAC).” With India and China recognizing different borders in unforgiving terrain, many skirmishes have occurred in years since, the most recent developing after a Chinese encampment. This latest skirmish, perceived as encroaching on the LAC, caused the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and 30 Chinese in hand to hand combat at the Galwan Valley.

Great Game 

In the 19th Century, Britain and Russia struggled for imperial influence in Central Asia and South Asia, driven by the British fear of a Russian invasion of India. Young officers risked their lives to reconnoiter isolated cities and mountain ranges, stalemating until the 1850s, when a change of British strategy to the doctrine of “Masterly Inactivity” saw Russia conquer the four Central Asian Khanates, build roads in the Pamir mountains and initiate the Trans Caspian railway project. As tensions rose between the two powers, when Britain backed down under Masterly Inactivity, Russian infrastructure development consolidated its sphere of influence in Central Asia. The Great Game proves prescient for the current China – India border clashes. 

21st Century Clashes 

Current Activity 

China has drawn on the Great Game playbook in attempting to use infrastructure development and aggression to subdue India’s budding prowess as a South Asian juggernaut. Notably, China has embarked on the 87 billion USD Chinese – Pakistani Economic Corridor (CPEC), aiming to upgrade India’s rival’s infrastructure, and has undertaken military infrastructure development in the Aksai Chin region. Two key motivations underlie China’s militarization of the region. First, the LAC hinders Chinese – Pakistani connectivity, with Ladakh obstructing a potentially enlarged Pakistani – Chinese border. Second, the Aksai Chin region of China is home to the road connecting Tibet and Xianjing, an strategic route for China. China’s power grabs in Central and South Asia follow the pattern of Tsarist Russia’s during the Great Game. Consequently, China hopes that expansionist infrastructure and heightened militarization curb the perceived Indian threat. 

Indian Actions Threatening China’s Sphere of Influence 

In 2019, India’s revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy and the construction of the DS – DBO road, to connect its regional military base to the disputed border, threatened China’s position in the region. First, Indian action around the LAC inhibits CPEC by diminishing China’s chances at regional connectivity with Pakistan. A recent paper by the Indian government acknowledges that Indian troop presence “is preventing a military and territorial link up between China and Pakistan...China sees it as a security risk to CPEC and all the related investments.” India’s own attempts at facilitating infrastructure development through the DS – DBO road serve to counter expansive Chinese infrastructure, just as Britain to Russia during the Great Game. 

India’s Connect Central Asia Policy also menaces Chinese sway in Central Asian energy markets. By aiming to increase political, economic, security and cultural connections between India and Central Asia, such as the Turkmenistan – Afghanistan – Pakistan – India (TAPI) pipeline, India provides Central Asia a means to circumvent China’s economic stranglehold in the region. Likewise, during the Great Game, the British understood that access to Central Asia markets would inhibit a Russian sphere of influence, just as India’s initiatives would inhibit China’s. Indian initiatives at leadership in the region, coupled with the U. S’s stated desire to see India as a ‘net exporter of security’ has daunting implications for sustained Chinese power in South Asia. However, India must learn lessons from British failures during the Great Game, and, while remaining open to diplomatic action with China, must not back down from further Chinese expansionist provocations. Here’s where the U.S can help. 

Sino – Indian Split 

Amidst renewed competition of international proportions, a moment reminiscent of the Sino – Soviet split presents itself for the United States. In 1971, Henry Kissinger flew to China and returned with a framework for improved U.S China relations that helped divorce China from the Soviet Union, heralding a new era in cold war politics. In 2020, the U.S must seize the opportunity for strengthening relations with India to balance China’s predatory advances and diminish Russian influence in the state. Despite the machinations of foreign policy polemicists and the 2020 election cycle, the U.S is not yet in a new Cold War with China. However, a budding 21st century great power competition can still learn from previous iterations. India aligns closer with Russia and, for fleeting moments, China, than with the U.S. Specifically, Russia has exported 36 billion USD of armaments to India in the 2000s. Affirming the U.S desire to see India as a net exporter of security, Washington can extend more offers of military cooperation to India, from a source with no aims on Central Asia. U.S – India collaboration in the arms sector will help the U.S balance Chinese power in South Asia, allow India to assume a larger role in Afghanistan, pending the U. S’s withdrawal, and conditions on arms deals could help disabuse India of illiberal sentiments scourging the subcontinent. 

The U.S can also leverage its security influence in Afghanistan to ensure the integrity of TAPI, demonstrating its resolve to work with India on facilitating regional connectivity. Through new tools, such as the Development Finance Corporation, the U.S can encourage other projects that ameliorate Indian – Central Asian connectivity and circumvent the region’s dependence on China. Increasing these activities in the context of an Indian – China dispute will bring an India, equipped with U.S arms, closer to the United States. A U.S friendly, sovereign India, that can balance Chinese power in the region, will prove critical in a potential 21st century Great Power Competition between the U.S and China. 

As seen in the Great Game, British weakness saw Tsarist Russia conquer all four Central Asian Khanates and use infrastructure to consolidate its control over Central Asia. As a Chinese annexation of its supposed border area is not out of the question, the U.S must preemptively facilitate infrastructure development with and offer arms deals to India, learning lessons from the British during the Great Game and not backing down. The U.S must seize the opportunity to promote a Sino – Indian split and bring India closer liberal democracies instead of the illiberal powers subsuming the region.