Pauline Darrieus is a second year History and International Relations student at KCL. Her interests include civilizational conflicts, strategy and intelligence.
How did the COVID crisis impact India-China relations? Should we be concerned by recent developments in the Sino-Indian relationship?
Starting in April 2021, India was hit much harder by its second wave of COVID-19 than by its first one in 2020. Hence, India finds itself at odds with most countries, which suffered the worst stages of the pandemic between March and December 2020 and are now seemingly getting out of the rut thanks to slow but steady vaccination campaigns. Against this backdrop, India failed to acknowledge or even appreciate Beijing’s vaccination offer to South Asian countries in April. Given India’s extreme vulnerability, it is at first sight impossible to understand why its political leaders would refuse the help offered by China – especially at a time when the US seems reluctant to aid its Indian ally.
Recent Sino-Indian conflicts
To understand the stakes of the interactions between China and India, let us zoom out to take into account the events of the last twelve months. A year ago, in June 2020, a violent clash took place between Chinese and Indian troops in the Galwan Valley, near the much-contested Himalayan border. Twenty Indian casualties were reported, while the Chinese government held back from any declaration. The only thing both parties seem to agree on is blaming the other. There is an element of continuity in these geopolitical skirmishes around the Sino-Indian borders, as India repeatedly accuses China of occupying 38,000 sq km of its territory. As a result, many violent conflicts have been fought ; while no agreement has ever been reached.
The millennium-old rivalry between China and India is best understood when looking at the geography of the region. Robert D. Kaplan’s theory of the predominant influence of geography, history, and culture, helps students of geopolitics discard a deterministic viewpoint and understand countries according to fundamental and very old features of a nation and its population. With this in mind, the territorial instability of India should be understood according to two determining factors. Firstly, modern India and its current borders are fairly new, dating back only to 1947 and its independence from the British Empire. Secondly, as opposed to Europe, the whole Indian sub-continent – which encompasses India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal – has no clear-cut geographical demarcations. As a result, the Indian sub-continent has always been a historically fragmented and fluid region. In this particular case study, all of these fragmentations were used – look only at Nepal and Bhutan – to form a buffer zone between the long-standing regional rivals. Yet so far, a source of optimism can be found in the fact that neither country has the military capacity to take the risk of launching an open conflict.
From territorial rivalries to cyber warfare
However, just because there is no open military conflict between the two rivals, this does not mean that there is no other, more insidious, war going on between the two. In October 2020, India’s financial hub, Mumbai, experienced a power outage – which was analysed by a US-based internet security company, Recorded Future – as ‘a message from Beijing about what might happen if India pushed its border claims too vigorously’. This proves two points. First of all, cyber warfare is an increasingly widespread means to political ends, that can be used as a direct response to traditional geopolitical matters, and is not limited to superpowers like the US anymore. Secondly, although cyber attacks are less visible to the public, as they cause less obvious human and material damage ; and are less talked about – out of a natural interest to keep one’s vulnerabilities quiet – they represent just as serious of a threat to a nation’s integrity and might end in no lesser destruction and chaos than traditional wars.
In the realm of cyber security there remain major discrepancies between China and India. The former is all too aware of the risks posed by cyber warfare, even giving it a greater political significance than most Western democracies, and allocating an important budget for both its offensive and defensive cyber capabilities. Meanwhile, Indian security experts advocate the boosting of national cyber capabilities, and the creation of a credible cyber army, capable of protecting the sovereign interests of the country. Beyond an asymmetry of cyber capabilities, the baffling number of Chinese cyber-attacks points towards a political strategy that specifically threatens India’s cyber infrastructure. In June 2020, hackers based in China attempted 40,000 cyber-attacks on India’s banking and technology sector within only 5 days. These attacks were meant to cause issues such as denial of service, hijacking of Internet protocol and phishing, whereby attackers send a fraudulent message to trick a victim into revealing sensitive information. The Chinese government has denied any allegations of the Indian administration against them. India’s allegations are hindered by the fact that it is usually very hard to distinguish completely independent hackers from the ones, who, if not state-controlled, are at least known from the government and not halted in their malicious endeavour.
What do cyber-attacks have to do with the Indian COVID crisis?
What is the real risk of these cyber attacks and what is their political significance? So far, the threat of an attack has been more often instrumentalized to pressure an opponent than followed through. It has mostly been used by China as an important element of diplomatic posturing , especially to pressure India in border dispute talks. Nonetheless, it also carries greater and longer-term significance as the cyber realm will continue gaining weight on the international scene, as an increasingly common way to influence and threaten foreign powers and establish asymmetric power dynamics. Thus, cyber warfare should not be construed as something far off in the distant, for it can have quite tangible consequences in everyone’s daily life. For instance, a Singapore-based cyber intelligence firm found that Chinese hackers had recently targeted the databases of Indian Covid vaccine makers whose vaccines are being used for the national immunisation campaign. This is the point at which these apparently unrelated matters of territorial conflicts, cyber warfare and COVID meet: they all influence one another according to the geopolitical rivalry between India and China in this struggle for regional hegemony.
Vaccination campaigns as a matter of geopolitical rivalries
When the Biden administration appeared reluctant to lift the ban on exporting vaccine raw materials to help out in the South Asian Covid crisis, calling on the need to ‘vaccinate the American people first’, the US opened the door for China into India. China could not have been happier, for it gained solid grounds on which it could present itself as India’s saviour – at the expense of the US. However, recent political events have made India very wary of China’s real intentions, and the Indian élite has pegged this seemingly humanitarian move as an opportunistic incursion into the country. To avoid becoming too dependent, and letting China lay its hands on their sovereignty, India has decided to speed up its vaccination campaign and rely mostly on national laboratories. Nonetheless, considering its current Covid death tolls, India remains limited in its choices to tackle the national crisis. Beyond the Indian population’s health, what remains at play is political game for regional hegemony between the two Asian colossi. Because of this, China and India have either sold or freely provided many countries with Covid vaccines out of a desire to enhance their soft power. So far, India holds the lead, as it produces more than 60% of the vaccines sold in the world.
To conclude, very few things in life can ever truly overcome self-interest, and the chances of this are even lower in the political arena. It would be naïve to assume this is any different just because this new crisis involves health. Covid vaccination campaigns in the states of South Asia, as in any other country, are puffed up with geopolitical ambitions, private interests of laboratories and national reputation concerns. Therefore, we have to stay attentive and keep a critical eye on the handling and meaning of vaccination campaigns all over the world.