Conflict has been the order of the day in India. Its troops again have clashed violently with those from China high on their shared Himalayan border. And thousands of farmers are besieging the capital, New Delhi, using their tractors to pull apart police barricades.
After two months of peaceful protests, things turned violent Tuesday and at least one person died. The police fired teargas at protestors and charged them with bamboo canes. For two months the farmers have formed a huge makeshift city on the Delhi outskirts, where they continue to protest the government's attempts to force market-friendly reforms on the agriculture industry. At times they have used as many as 150,000 tractors to clog the city's roads.
Tuesday was India's equivalent of Independence Day. Only it wasn't, because it also celebrates Independence Day. India's Republic Day falls on Jan. 26 and marks the moment that its constitution went into effect in 1950. A nation that loves filing forms in triplicate also celebrates Independence Day on Aug. 15, the date in 1947 when the new country won nationhood from Britain. Make that duplicate nations! The Muslim-majority provinces became Pakistan.
The farmers had won widespread sympathy with their protests, which previously had been peaceful. The protest leaders distanced themselves from Tuesday's violence, having promised the march would be peaceful. But some farmers clearly decided to ratchet up the pressure at a time Prime Minister Narendra Modi was giving a speech to the nation and saluting a parade.
The Indian Supreme Court on Jan. 12 suspended implementation of new farm laws until the dispute is sorted out. Modi has offered to make some concessions on the new laws, which intend to bring greater private-sector investment into the farm industry. The farmers are insisting on a complete revocation of the new rules, which they say will hurt small operators. There are 16.6 million farmers registered in the government's online farming market. But around 58% of the Indian population makes their livelihood from farming.
Indian shares performed well last year. The benchmark Sensex climbed 17.2%, outpaced in Asia only by pacesetter South Korea and its fellow export-driven economies, Taiwan and China. The prospective rebound in trade drove gains there.
The Indian economy is far more domestic than those other top performers in Asia. Its economic recovery has stagnated since last summer due to a resurgence in the coronavirus. Only the 25.4 million coronavirus cases in the United States surpass the 10.7 million Covid-19 patients in India. To date, 153,000 Indians have died of the virus, according to a Johns Hopkins tally.
The military fight with China is turning into an economic one. China has been the antagonist along their shared border. It has been engaged in a gradual land grab, eking away a few hundred yards here and there in the contested zone that both nations for years have left vacant. As with China's island building in the South China Sea, it has been constructing small "villages" in these no-man's-lands, figuring possession is nine-tenths of the law -- particularly in high-altitude wasteland plains where there is no law.
Details of the latest skirmish between troops from the two sides are foggy, as is usual in an area so high up it doesn't receive normal telecommunications. The Indian Army has noted only that there was a "minor face-off" last week in northern Sikkim, an Indian state that borders China. That was "resolved by local commanders as per established protocols," the Army stated, without giving any casualty count.
China, as usual, is clamming up. When asked, the Chinese foreign ministry said it had "no information" and only that there are "military talks" taking place. The editor of the Global Times, often used to make China's foreign policy stance clear, said the reports are "fake news," which we know after the last four years generally means something that the speaker knows is true but doesn't like.
We still don't know how many Chinese soldiers died when the two armies clashed violently last June. More than 20 Indian soldiers died, either clubbed to death, cast off a mountainous pass, or dying from exposure after falling into a freezing river. Troops from the two sides do not carry guns to avoid a repeat of the 1962 war between the two nations along their mountain frontier. But they improvise weapons from sticks, metal poles and rocks.
As we saw with the viral outbreak in Wuhan this time last year, the instinct of the Chinese Communist Party is to refuse to comment on anything negative, or even admit it is going on. There's no positive spin on dead Chinese soldiers. "What dead Chinese soldiers? What dead virus patients?"
India is a chatterbox. The media is fervid. They report that four Indian troops were injured when fighting to force back a Chinese patrol, with the People's Liberation Army also suffering casualties. Last June, it's likely the PLA lost a similar number of dead soldiers as India.
For investors, there are commercial considerations at play. India on Tuesday has made a ban permanent on 59 Chinese apps, including ByteDance short-video app TikTok, which was as wildly popular in India as it is in the United States.
The UC Browser from Alibaba Group Holding (BABA) and WeChat from Tencent Holdings TCEHY are also thought to be on the list, as well as the Web browser Baidu (BIDU) , the Twitter-like messaging app Weibo (WB) , and Mi Video Call from Xiaomi XIACY, the world's third-largest smartphone maker.
India imposed a temporary ban on those apps after the deadly fighting last June. It subsequently has given the Chinese companies involved the chance to explain how they censor content, work with the Chinese and other governments, and how they share and secure user data. India's Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology is not satisfied with the response.
India, with an estimated 1.33 billion people, will soon replace China, with its population of 1.4 billion, as the world's most-populous nation. The United Nations estimates that switch will take place in 2027. China's population will be topping out at 1.46 billion around that time, whereas India should hit 1.65 billion before starting to fall around 2065.
New U.S. President Joe Biden has pledged to use diplomatic means rather than strictly trade tariffs to corral China's rising aggressiveness. Key to those efforts in Asia will be how Biden approaches the "Quad," the alliance of the democratic powers active in the region: Australia, India, Japan and the United States.