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China-India border face-off has worrying global impact, not least for Africa and BRICS

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Dr David Monyae is the Director of the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg.

The Sino-Indian border dispute has global implications. China is the world’s second-biggest economy with an increasingly modernising army, and the countries together constitute 37% of the global population.

The current breakdown in relations between China and India has far-reaching implications for the world and for solidarity in the developing world. Expectedly, border misunderstanding in the disputed Line of Actual Control has been the accelerant for the current situation.

The recent clash that claimed the lives of 20 Indian soldiers was the deadliest in more than 40 years. The situation is growing more tense; according to The Sydney Morning Herald, “satellite images released by Maxar, a Colorado-based satellite imagery company, shows the new construction along the Galwan River Valley, occurring against a backdrop of worsening relations between the two countries”.

India-China disputes in that region are longstanding. It is noteworthy that the Sino-Indian principles of peaceful coexistence that were signed in 1954 between China’s Chou En-Lai and India’s Jawaharlal Nehru were partly aimed at fortifying good neighbourliness between the two countries, thus avoiding disputes like the current one. The border war of 1962 threatened this peaceful coexistence and the current resurgence of this dispute shows that the peace that followed the 1962 war was delicate.

With hindsight, the resurgence of the India-China border disputes seems to have been almost inevitable. Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, he has steered China in a more assertive direction and has emboldened the country not to be bashful about its achievements, and potential. His China Dream concept is an oblique signal to the US that China will continue its path to economic and military strength, which will unavoidably dent America’s global domination.

Between 2009 and 2018, military spending in China rose by 83%. This is all part of Xi’s intent to make China’s army world-class by mid-century and to put together an army that can fight and win wars. In terms of diplomacy, Xi has been very active in courting the developing world and the West too, through initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative. His utterances demonstrate faith in a multilateral international order.

India seems to be drifting in the opposite direction since Narendra Modi took the helm of the country. Amid Sino-American disputes, India has blatantly taken America’s side. This does not bode well for the future of the developing world.

The current nationalistic sentiment that is seeping into countries such as the US and the UK evokes memories of the colonial order. It is thus troubling that India seems to be joining this resurgence of nationalism, which carries religious chauvinism, racial strife, anti-immigrant sentiment and withdrawal from multilateralism. 

There are a number of reasons why the current Sino-Indian dispute could have global implications that are infinitely more considerable than former disputes had. First is the fact that China is now the world’s second-biggest economy with an increasingly modernising army. 

Second, with 1.43 billion and 1.37 billion people in China and India respectively, the two countries constitute 37% of the global population. For this reason, whatever happens between them will engulf a considerable fraction of the world in turmoil.

Third, the world is currently destabilised by Covid-19, and China and India should play a central role in curbing the virus. The virus originated in China and, doubts notwithstanding, China has reasonably tried to contain it. India, on the other hand, is a seminal player in the export of medical supplies. According to export.gov, “the Indian healthcare industry amounted to $150-billion in 2018 and is expected to reach $280-billion by 2022 due to increased demand for specialised and quality healthcare facilities.”

Thus, synergy between China and India could be crucial in containing the spread of Covid-19. Another reason why the stakes are high in Sino-Indian relations is that the two countries are the leading powers of the developing world, and hence the implication of their interactions impinge on the developing world. This is where the case of Africa comes in.

Africa’s relationship with both China and India was formalised at the celebrated Bandung Conference in Indonesia in 1955. That conference was a bedrock of the developing world’s concerted struggle against imperialism. It was also a prelude to initiatives such as the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). 

Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro, like India, has overtly shown that its sympathies are with the US rather than China.

Historically, both China and India looked askance at the capitalist West. This scepticism was induced by intersecting discomfort with capitalism and the racial stratification that had caused the suppression of people of colour in the developing world by the West. Africa was a natural kindred spirit of China and India in this respect.

The current nationalistic sentiment that is seeping into countries such as the US and the UK evokes memories of the colonial order. It is thus troubling that India seems to be joining this resurgence of nationalism, which carries religious chauvinism, racial strife, anti-immigrant sentiment and withdrawal from multilateralism. 

Furthermore, India’s ban of 59 apps from China is understandable even though it confirms that India is espousing a hostile attitude towards China that has been Donald Trump’s playbook from his 2016 campaign to date. All this goes against the aspirations of the developing world.

The Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) group of countries represents the premium body for amplifying the voice of the developing world on the global stage. Since 2014, Russia and Brazil have suffered economically, and South Africa’s economy has also taken a hit. China’s growth has also been slowing down, while India’s has been unsteady. However, the two countries enjoy a clear advantage over the remaining three members of BRICS.

Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro, like India, has overtly shown that its sympathies are with the US rather than China. Thus, within BRICS, Africa could only count on Russia, China and South Africa to maintain a commitment towards staunching the crises besetting the region. This does not augur well, especially considering the huge strain that Covid-19 has exacted on Russia and South Africa. Prospects in the near future illustrate that Africa might not have respite anytime soon. Trump will use the same formula that helped him to get elected in 2016. This is the formula that Modi has used, as shown through his government’s suppression of the Muslim population.

From the look of things, Africa is more likely to move towards China, especially in the sphere of economics, while India will most likely seek to benefit economically from Sino-American trade disputes. This situation is not ideal because Africa’s situation is such that it should strike beneficial relations with powers that can help to improve the continent’s lot. This depends on a strong concerted voice from the developing world, which would carry a lot of weight if it is endorsed by power players such as China and India.

Alas, the current Sino-Indian dispute occludes this from happening. DM

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