Peter Frankopan is professor of global history at Oxford University and author of The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World. Speaking to Srijana Mitra Das, the eminent scholar and China analyst discussed China’s possible message in the Galwan clash – and how this tension could escalate further:
Q. Why is the Ladakh area of such interest to the Chinese? Is this about water and minerals?
A. Water and minerals are important – but Ladakh is not the most accessible part of the world to extract resources from. The fact that China disputes the frontier in Ladakh provides an excuse, and an opportunity, to put pressure on India. This seems particularly important in a world that is changing fast. This is about a wider, more complex local, regional and global puzzle.
Q. How has Covid-19 impacted China’s global BRI investments?
A. Even before Covid-19, investments were being curtailed, partly because of liquidity issues, partly because of the viability of some high-profile projects, but also because of mismatched expectations and outcomes, both on China’s side and the BRI countries.
But the BRI’s narrative has remained consistent. China conspicuously tries to show that it supports multilateral engagement – in contrast to the US under Donald Trump. However, many BRI countries are anxious about a lopsided relationship with Beijing, and not only via investments.
Q. So, is there a message in China’s actions in Ladakh, especially regarding America?
A. Yes. There is a warning to India, first of all, not to align too closely with the US. India, for various reasons, has been reluctant to fully commit to the US as its primary strategic partner. Part of the messaging here is presumably to focus minds in Delhi that there can and will be repercussions if relations with the US intensify. So, there’s a lot at stake here – and some important decisions to be made about India’s long-term future.
If India is vocal, robust and tough in its responses, it will mean closer alignment with the US – something
’s been keen on for some time. Ironically, this tension gives Delhi a stronger hand in shaping that alignment. But, if India chooses a different path, then the 21st century may look rather different.
Q. How do you see the India-China clash now playing out?
A. There are two options – either Prime Minister Modi will seek an accommodation with Beijing that allows him and President Xi to announce that they can deliver peace and demonstrates that two Asian superpowers can work together, even on thorny matters. Or there will be a deterioration of an already fractious relationship.
The two leaders have shown earlier that they are willing to put differences to one side, as was the case following
. But, as this latest incident shows, there is always scope to re-open wounds and do the same thing again – which means risks never go away fully and degrades the political capital for reaching an agreement.