Editor’s Note: An abridged version of this article will appear in a forthcoming EER report, “Are India and China At A Point of No Return?”
On June 15, 2020, Indian and Chinese soldiers clashed in a violent confrontation for the first time in 45 years. Up in the icy peaks of the Himalayas in the Galwan Valley region these soldiers fought each other with clubs, rocks and batons, without firing a single shot. The Indian army reported 20 of its soldiers were killed. While Beijing did not disclose the number of its dead soldiers, state media has acknowledged casualties. Indian and U.S. intelligence reports have cited at least 40 casualties on the Chinese side. A number of prisoners have also been exchanged between the two countries.
A Conflict Rooted in History
India and China share a 3,488 km-long border with India’s northeast — parts of which remain disputed. During British colonial rule, the border between India and Tibet had been defined along the McMahon Line established by British administrator Henry McMahon. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the incorporation of Tibet into the PRC, China disputed the border claiming large tracts of Indian territory.
Both countries went to war in 1962 after which a loose Line of Actual Control (LAC) was established. However, perceptions about the LAC differ on both sides, compounding the problem. China also occupied the Aksai Chin territory of the Ladakh region of the Jammu and Kashmir state. Since then, China has periodically raided territory claimed by India. The last confrontation occurred in 2017.
A boundary agreement mechanism was reached in 1993 with both countries agreeing to peacefully resolve the border issue. The agreement ushered in decades of peace which saw economic ties between the two countries burgeon. Despite the peace, China built massive infrastructure along its side of the LAC. In contrast, India’s policy was not to build on its side of the line. However, when the right-of-center Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014, a new policy was adopted which reversed the previous policy. India then began building along the LAC which China viewed as a provocation.
The Tibet factor
India and China share civilizational ties which are more than a millennia old. Buddhism traveled to China from India. Still today there are about 300 million Buddhists in China, though figures are difficult to track because of the Communist regime’s policies. After India gained independence, and after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, ties remained cordial.
According to Professor Phunchok Stobdan — a native of Ladakh who specializes in Himalayan politics — the failed Tibetan uprising in 1959 created tension between the two countries. He said: “The failed Tibetan uprising in 1959 and the arrival of the Tibetan spiritual and temporal head, the 14th Dalai Lama with his entourage into India, created tensions in bilateral relations.” The Dalai Lama was allowed to set up a Tibetan government in exile in India, a constant irritant in Sino-India relations.
Security Dilemma: Indian Fears
For India, the increasingly close China-Pakistan alliance and China’s inroads into South Asia — part of India’s neighbourhood — has been an irritant. In 1965, Pakistan ceded the Shaksgam Valley— part of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir — to China. China has used this territory to link its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to the Arabian Sea — part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). India perceives China’s massive investment and the influx of Chinese citizens to Pakistan as another build-up on its borders. On the international stage, China has obstructed U.N. resolutions targeting Pakistan-based, anti-India terrorist groups. It has also blocked India’s entry into multilateral forums like the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group.
The growing Chinese footprint in South Asia — which begins with chequebook diplomacy, but has often ended in a debt trap for countries like Sri Lanka and the Maldives (apart from Pakistan), as well as in Nepal and Bangladesh — ensures a sustained China presence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region which constitutes a security threat for India.
Security Dilemma: Chinese Fears
China’s growing ties with Pakistan — in addition to the fallout from the Cold War — has resulted in closer India-U.S. ties. Just as India sees its rise hedged in by China, the latter sees its rise hedged in by the U.S.. With President Barak Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy, China has been suspicious of any U.S. presence in the Indian Ocean and it was already wary of Washington’s alliances with Seoul and Tokyo in the Indo-Pacific region. Meanwhile, business and defense ties have strengthened between India and the U.S., with the U.S. designating India as a major non-NATO ally.
India’s participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) with Australia, Japan and the U.S. has further fueled Chinese suspicions of an India-U.S. alliance to contain China’s rise.
India’s Reorganization of Jammu and Kashmir State
Another point of contention in Sino-Indian bilateral relations was India’s reorganization of the status of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019. While most countries refrained from interfering or commenting on an domestic India matter, Pakistan and China condemned the move. Beijing considers the Shaksgam Valley and the Aksai Chin territory as strategic territories under its control. The Aksai Chin connects China’s Xinjiang region to Tibet. The Shaksgam Valley connects Xinjiang to Pakistan and forms part of the CPEC. China, therefore, called for three UN Security Council Meetings to discuss India’s move, all of which were scuttled by the U.S., Russia and France. The Galwan Valley — where the current confrontation occurred — is in the Ladakh region which China is now claiming in its entirety.
Indian politicians have also regularly called for the liberation of areas occupied by Pakistan and China, though for observers this is more of posturing for domestic consumption.
Political analysts in India have been scratching their heads as to the timing of the current Galwan Valley confrontation. Tensions broke out in May when Indian soldiers accused Chinese military personnel of obstructing their patrols along the disputed border in Ladakh and Sikkim. In turn, Chinese troops accused Indians of building infrastructure on their side of the LAC. The Corps Commanders of both sides met on June 6 “in a positive and cordial atmosphere” and agreed to “peacefully resolve the situation in the border areas in accordance with various bilateral agreements.”. However, tensions escalated when the two sides faced off in a violent clash on the night of June 15.
Local Ladakhi villagers have been warning local officials for months now about a Chinese incursion into Indian territory — in many instances they were prevented from letting their cattle graze. On June 27, the Associated Press reported that newly released satellite images showed renewed construction activity — on both sides — along the Galwan River Valley, even as Chinese and Indian diplomats said military commanders had agreed to disengage from a standoff there.
However, what many analysts cannot understand is why would China want to escalate tensions at a time when it is experiencing a slew of problems including an escalating trade war and disintegrating diplomatic relations with the U.S. — its largest trader partner. In addition, the EU has slapped hefty tariffs on Chinese products and China is facing a lot of international backlash and criticism because of the Covid-19 pandemic which originated in the Wuhan province. Countries have accused China of suppressing data which prevented the containment of the virus. At the same time, China is facing rising tensions with Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan.
India: A Battlefield for Proxy War?
According to Probal Dasgupta — a former member of India’s defense forces and the author of the newly-released book “Watershed 1967: India’s Forgotten Victory over China” — China’s actions are indicative of its growing weakness. He points to a proverb of Chinese war philosophy which says: “Act strong when you are weak and act weak when you are strong.”
Therefore, the escalation on the LAC line must be viewed in this context — a move by Chinese president Xi Jinping to project power and divert attention from his domestic failures, while also testing India to see how far it can go, given the military and economic asymmetry between the two countries. In the 2017 stand-off, China withdrew under Indian insistence.
Another view gaining currency is that China is striking at India as a way to strike at the U.S. China has also been encroaching territorial spaces of its other neighbors — Japan and Taiwan. While the U.S. is geographically distant, India is on China’s frontier.
Given that China was the first country to get back on track after the pandemic struck, it has taken advantage of the fact that other countries — including India — are still preoccupied with combating it.
Impact of the Galwan Valley Face-off
Rise in Nationalism and Militarization
Both India and China believe they are exceptional countries and have their own definitive ideas about their respective roles in world affairs. Both have young, aspiring populations who are confident and assertive. While China views the U.S. as the bigger adversary, it views India as a growing threat to its regional aspirations. Nationalist sentiments are on the rise in both countries and the stand-off has only magnified those sentiments.
In India, calls range from an economic boycott of China to reversing India’s one-China policy to outright war. The deaths of Indian and Chinese soldiers have outraged citizens of both countries — cutting across political divides — and will surely lead to further militarization on both sides.
In fact, Indian analysts do not rule out a short war — basing their predictions on China’s behavior patterns. Indian media reported a growing consensus within the government that the country should be prepared for a “military response” even though dialogue and talks are ongoing. Indian soldiers have been given the green light to fire their weapons along the LAC — if necessary. India has also asked Russia to speed up delivery of the S-400 missile system that it has purchased. On its part, China’s state-run media has been belligerent and Chinese strategists have warned of war.
Chinese incursions into Indian territory and harassment of local villagers in Ladakh has the potential to radicalize youth there, pushing them to further violence as many feel Indian authorities do not take their complaints seriously. Such feelings run the risk of alienating the local population who are on the frontline and any reckless move can trigger an even bigger catastrophe.
The latest round of confrontation between the two neighbors has triggered calls for an economic boycott of China. China is India’s second largest trading partner, with bilateral trade touching almost $93 billion, skewed in favor of China with India’s trade deficit at $53.56 billion. While it will take time to wean the Indian economy off from China totally, the Indian government has taken small yet decisive steps in this direction. Many Indians believe that an economic boycott will force China into a reality check.
India and China are two ancient civilizations and neighbors with natural aspirations for development and the well-being of their people. With the steady economic decline of traditional power centers, the world has been predicting the rise of the Asian century, where China and India would constitute two major economies. Therefore, an India-China war would be catastrophic — not only for them, but for the world. Instead of fighting, China and India could work to complement each other’s growth by encouraging healthy competition and cooperating in mutually beneficial areas. Despite raging tempers, channels of communication and diplomacy are open and both sides will ultimately have to negotiate with each other. War is never inevitable and in every conflict there is always something retrievable.
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