China-India standoff in Ladakh and regional geopolitics
Zahid Hussain
The standoff between Chinese and Indian forces in the strategically located Ladakh region has heightened tensions between the world’s most populated nations. Border skirmishes between the two countries in the disputed territory are not new but the latest face-offs are the most serious in recent years. Thousands of soldiers now face each other along the tense frontier.
Although both sides have played down the incident, the military buildup in the sensitive region is ominous given emerging regional geopolitics. Recently declared a federal territory by Indian authorities separating it from the disputed state of Kashmir, Ladakh lies at the confluence of three nuclear states: India, China and Pakistan. It is the area where physical military collusion among these countries can take place, which makes it a potential flashpoint.
The China-India border dispute covers nearly 3,500 km (2,175 miles) of frontier that the two countries call the Line of Actual Control. The countries fought a bitter war in 1962 that spilled into Ladakh. A major point of contention between the two countries is the Aksai Chin plateau in the Himalayas, a contiguous part of the Ladakh region that is now under Chinese control.
In 1993, the two countries signed an agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control. But there has never been any sign of the territorial dispute being settled despite overall improvement in diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Notwithstanding their suspicion of each other, the trade between the two countries has reached closed to $100 billion. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping have held several meetings in the past years, but their geopolitical rivalries go much deeper.
A growing US-India strategic relationship has been one of the major factors straining their relationship.
China had increasingly been concerned by India’s military buildup in Ladakh region over the last few years. India’s move to build a strategic road connecting the region to an airstrip has raised further suspicions of New Delhi’s design. The standoff began in early May when the two sides accused each other of intrusion.
Surely both sides have a mechanism in place to deescalate the situation, but the current standoff in a volatile region has more serious political and strategic implications.
Chinese media and officials have accused India of aggressively trespassing on Chinese controlled areas and blocking the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) patrols. As tensions mounted, rival soldiers got engaged in physical fighting and attacking each other with rocks. Chinese forces detained many Indian soldiers who were later released. Soldiers also faced off along a frontier in India’s northeastern Sikkim state in early May.
Although there has not been any use of firepower yet, the situation has remained tense with the reinforcement of troops on both sides. India has accused China of occupying its territory. There have also been reports of increased helicopter activity. Some Indian defense experts have described the standoff as the worse in decades and last week, the Indian prime minister chaired a high-level security meeting to assess the situation.
Surely both sides have a mechanism in place to deescalate the situation, but the current standoff in a volatile region has more serious political and strategic implications. China’s closeness with Pakistan, particularly on the multi-billion dollar China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship project of China’s ambitious Belt and Road initiative, has drawn criticism from New Delhi.
India’s aggressive campaign against the construction of road under the CPEC that passes through Gilgit-Baltistan has also fuelled regional tensions. Both China and Pakistan suspect that India’s reported military build-up is part of a move to undermine the strategic road project. India’s escalation along the Line of Control which divides Azad Kashmir and Indian-held Kashmir has also added to regional tensions.
China alongside Pakistan has strongly condemned India’s unilateral revocation of Kashmir’s special status and raised the issue at the UN Security Council and other international forums to the ire of New Delhi. Kashmir has been virtually under a state of lockdown now for a year and rampant human rights violations by Indian security forces have drawn criticism from the international community. Pakistani officials see the latest escalation in Ladakh as part of an Indian move to divert international attention from the Kashmir issue.
In a tweet, US president Donald Trump has offered to mediate between Beijing and New Delhi on the issue. Predictably the offer has not gone down well with Prime Minister Modi’s government which expected the US to stand by India, a natural US strategic ally, rather than playing mediator. Surely the border clashes between India and China have remained manageable, but the situation could get out of control with other geopolitical factors. Chinese President Xi Jinping has exhorted his troops to be prepared to defend the nation.