China-India border tensions
Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal
On June 15, Sino-Indian tensions spiked with the killing of 20 soldiers during a confrontation in the Galwan Valley-- the mountainous region of Ladakh. The Chinese military has also suffered casualties, but Beijing has given no details. Reportedly, soldiers brawled with sticks and clubs studded with nails and no shots were fired.
The killing of soldiers in a physical confrontation without shooting reveals a simmering hatred. While claiming that Indian troops crossed the border and attacked their personnel, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said: "We again solemnly request that India follows the relevant attitude and restrains its frontline troops."
New Delhi expressed similar sentiments, saying Chinese soldiers violated the agreement while calling for “dialogue for the maintenance of peace and tranquility in the border areas.”
After the bloody clash, the resumption of immediate contact between the Indian and Chinese leadership brought signs of relief to the region. The communication may prevent the escalation of the conflict temporarily, but without a permanent solution, the probability of escalation remains.
In India, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi asked why Prime Minister Modi was ‘silent and hiding’ on the India-China face-off and demanded a response. Amid criticism from the opposition, on June 17, Modi said the sacrifices of Indian soldiers would “not go in vain," and called for an all-party meeting on Friday to chalk out a consensual national strategy.
India has never shied away from the use of force or from coercing smaller neighbors since its inception. In 1962, it adopted a similar approach towards China and faced a humiliating defeat in a limited border war. They had another exchange of gunfire along the border in a remote pass in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh in 1975, which resulted in the deaths of four Indian soldiers.
Since then, New Delhi has refrained from military adventurism against China and focused on confidence building measures aimed at lowering tensions along the 3,500 km Himalayan border, referred to as the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
In 2017, the two countries had a military standoff for 73 days at Doklam, but the situation was defused through diplomatic channels.
The current row began in early May, when Chinese border forces checked Indian soldiers' movement in the disputed territory of Ladakh at three different points. Both sides made repeated verbal warnings to each other to leave the area amid stone-throwing and fistfights.
But it seems China’s warnings have failed to alter India’s militaristic methodology of the construction of roads and airstrips in the region. New Delhi has continued its military infrastructure buildup in the area because it desires to exhibit its military posture-- not only to demonstrate its two-front war capability but also to cement the Indo-US strategic partnership. For the latter, the point is to encourage American-led countries to provide advanced dual-use technology to India to modernize its armed forces and balance China’s increasing military power.
The killing of soldiers will attract the attention of both nations' neighbors as well as the world’s biggest powers. It will hasten to determine the contours of a new cold war, facilitate America’s China containment policy, India's emergence as a more robust economic partner of Washington, and a more significant strategic imbalance in South Asia. Besides, it taxes India's seven decades of struggle to maintain its strategic autonomy in global politics.
President Donald Trump declared China along with Russia, a challenge to US National Security. He has also been using the COVID-19 pandemic to tarnish China's soft image and made China-bashing a central plank of his re-election campaign. The Sino-Indian conflict assists Trump to muster the support of Indian-Americans. Conversely, the battle justifies the Modi government's mega spending on military purchases. It diverts the masses' attention from internal economic crises and public unrest towards external threats originating from China.
Strategic analysts raised the alarm that prevalent tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors could turn into unintended full-blown military action. Additionally, the escalation of conflict between them has a direct bearing on Pakistan and Nepal.
Some analysts conclude that the conflict might lessen tensions along the Line of Control between India and Pakistan, and provide breathing space to Kashmiris in Indian-held Kashmir. In reality, the conflict diverts the international community’s attention from the plight of Kashmiris towards India’s military vulnerability emanating from China.
Taking advantage of Sino-Indian deterioration of relations, Nepal passed a law redrawing its international border with India by including some of the disputed territories.
Instead of decreasing the military threat from India, the conflict stresses Islamabad’s diplomatic struggle to strike a balance in its relations with Beijing and Washington. It furthers US support to India's military modernization entailing a more significant conventional imbalance between India and Pakistan. And increased conventional inequality lowers the nuclear threshold in South Asia.
The American strategy to project India as a great power and a strategic counterweight to China could encourage the Modi government to use military adventurism against Pakistan to boost Indian armed forces' morale, which is compromised with 20 soldiers beaten to death in Ladakh.
The escalation of this conflict will no doubt be hazardous for China’s economic pursuits through its BRI initiative; it will trigger anti-China sentiments in India, increase American involvement in India’s affairs and further New Delhi’s economy towards recession.
China-India border tensions