In the past two months, India and China have been caught up in a worrying standoff as border skirmishes reignited fears over a military escalation between the two nuclear neighbours. High up in the Himalayas, at 14,000 feet above sea level, the border between India and China rolls over 3,500 kilometers, interrupted only by Nepal and Bhutan. For large stretches, however, the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is not clearly defined: many are the disputed areas along the world’s longest unmarked border that, since the Sino-Indian war in 1962, has become the scene of occasional clashes between the two armies. Yet, not a single soldier has been killed since 1975, until last June.
The western part of the LAC borders the eastern part of the Union Territory of Ladakh, on the Indian side and, on the Chinese side, Aksai Chin, or the portion of the former princely state of Kashmir under Chinese control. It is an impervious, uninhabited and arid territory of enormous strategic importance for the two powers. According to India, on the night of June 15th, 20 Indian soldiers (including their commanding officer) were killed after a six-hours clash in a steep area of the Galwan Valley. A contingent of 55 jawans (Indian soldiers) were reportedly attacked by the People’s Liberation Army with iron rods and spiked batons, apparently as retaliation for a Chinese tent burned earlier by Indian troops, as agreements between the two countries banned the use of firearms to reduce the chances of a dangerous armed escalation. Following the clash, India has removed weapons restriction for its soldiers along the LAC.
According to nationalist Indian media outlets, 43 soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) were killed in the Galwan clash: a statement denied by Chinese authorities that has maintained discretion over the matter. The mêlée that broke out in mid-June was particularly gruesome: it involved hundreds of soldiers from both sides and those who died, perished after falling into the freezing river. The reason behind the incident is not yet clear, as both parties have given contrasting statements in the aftermath of the clash. While Beijing claims that “the sovereignty over the Galwan Valley area has always belonged to China”, Indian authorities say that China had “unilaterally tried to change the status quo” in the disputed region.
Diplomacy vs Reality
In the aftermath of the clash, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that China had not intruded into the border, nor had any post been taken over, contrary to statements previously given by his same government. Yet, according to satellite imagery obtained by Reuters, there are clear signs of the landscape being altered in the weeks before the deadly clash, while other recent satellite images show that China has added new structures near the site, “underlining the challenge of disengagement and the risk the accord could still fall apart because of overlapping claims in the arid territory”. While China continues to claim exclusive control over the entire Galwan Valley and blames India for the recent clash, the two countries have engaged in bilateral talks and agreed on de-escalating the tension that was building up on the shared border in the past two months.
A number of incidents have occurred since the beginning of May on the Pangong Lake, in Hot Springs and on the Depsang Plains, all located along the western part of the disputed border, followed by a de-escalation agreement. But the tension deflagrated days later, with the June 15 mêlée. Already at the end of May, Indian media reported on a Chinese incursion in the Galwan Valley with the aim of objecting to India’s road construction within the Indian territory. China blamed India for the stand-offs and claimed that India had illegally constructed defense facilities across the border on Chinese territory in the Galwan Valley. According to India’s ambassador to China, Vikram Misri, China’s claim of sovereignty over the Galwan Valley is “completely untenable”, as he demanded Beijing to restore the status quo pre-June 2020.
According to Indian defense analyst and retired Colonel Ajai Shukla, China captured 60 square kilometers (23 square miles) of Indian-patrolled territory between May and June. “The Chinese occupation of Indian-claimed territory and the killing of Indian soldiers are a heavy challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image, which rests on muscular Hindu nationalism” Shukla wrote in an opinion piece for Al-Jazeera, “it exposes Mr. Modi to allegations of political misjudgment since he has, over the years, invested personal and political capital into wooing China and befriending its President Xi Jinping. The two have met numerous times, including in two informal summits at Wuhan in 2018 and in Chennai, in India, last year. Modi portrayed each of these meetings as heralding a new era of strategic cooperation with China.”
A delicate balance
Contemporary relations between India and China, the world’s two most populous countries and fastest growing economies, have been marked by border disputes and strategic competition. After China’s invasion of Tibet in 1950, the two countries fought a war in 1962, two minor conflicts in 1967 and 1987, and went through a number of standoffs. Yet, since the 1980s, the two neighbors have engaged in reinforcing their diplomatic and economic relations. In the last decade China has become India’s main trading partner, but the commercial balance is heavily in favor of Beijing. Since Narendra Modi has been in power, he has actively worked on building confidence and ties between the two countries, but the border skirmishes between May and June and the killing of Indian jawans reignited a wave of anti-China sentiment among Indians, fueled also by a jingoistic nationalist media.
Dr. Wang Shida, Deputy Director of the Institute of South Asian Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) and other regional analysts have linked the current tension along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) to India’s move, almost one year ago, to abrogate Article 370 in Kashmir nullifying its semi-autonomous status, “posing a challenge to the sovereignty of Pakistan and China”, who control the other two parts of the former princely state, claimed by India. On its side, India views the strengthened ties between its neighbors with suspicion. According to Happymon Jacob, professor of international relations at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, China considers Ladakh crucial for its access to Central Asia and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the multibillion-dollar project within China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), that fuels Indian fears of encirclement.
“The Chinese president’s image has been dented by his handling of the coronavirus outbreak; the setback in Taiwan, where pressure and subliminal military threats resulted in the re-election of the anti-unification president, Tsai Ing-wen; and Beijing’s failure to clamp down on anti-China protests that continue roiling Hong Kong”, wrote Ajai Shukla on the New York Times. “Given China’s growing incursions in the Senkaku Islands, claimed by both China and Japan, its increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea and the new security law in Hong Kong, Mr. Xi would not have lost much sleep over violating the five border agreements signed with India between 1993 and 2013”. Meanwhile, Indian media sources assure that China is pulling back its troops and withdrawing from the disputed area, under the close watch of the United States that see with suspicion China’s increasing aggressiveness.
Photo: Tauseef Mustafa / AFP
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