India and China Fight It off at the Border


Photo source: Indian Express
By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

In May 2020, India and China engaged in aggressive melee  along the  Panyong Lake in Ladakh, the Tibet Autonomous Region, and the border near Sikkim. This hustling mainly occurred because the Chinese had objected to the road construction by India in the Galwan Valley, a region which China believe is its territory.

Tens were killed and soldiers were also taken captive from both sides. Eventually partial disengagement from Galwan, Hot Springs, and Gogra had occurred between June and July 2020. 

The victims from the military represent the first violent deaths on the India-China border since 1975, and the most fatalities in the locations since 1967 in the Galwan valley.

Amid the standoff, Indian government commissioned the region with approximately twelve thousand workers, who could assist India’s Border Road Organisation to build infrastructure along Sino-Indian border. The Chinese aggression could be due a response to the Darbuk-Shyok-DBO infrastructure road project in Ladakh, according to MIT professor, Taylor Fravel. At the same time, China is also building infrastructure from its side of the Line of Actual control. However, due to absence of authoritarian statements, the Chinese stances are harder to decipher.

When patrolling platoons have engaged in intense physical altercations involving scuffles like stone throwing, they are often calmed through flag meetings between Chinese and Indian senior military officers.

In these bitter battles, both nations want modest territorial gains, and want to preserve critical pieces of terrain, or deny the other permanent control of certain geography.  According to an article in Carnegie Endowment for International Peace by Ashley Tellis: ‘Both nations have reacted vigorously to considered attempts by the other to change the status quo by either entrenching a new physical presence or creating new physical infrastructure in the disputed areas. In the last decade alone, episodes at Depsang in northern Ladakh in 2013, and at Chumar in eastern Ladakh in 2014 produced local crises severe enough to require higher political intervention to defuse them.’

It is also apparent that after India’s move to Doklam in 2017, China has become sensitive to Indian activity along the disputed border. That’s why it has had upped the ante to pressure India. China may also have had been irked, according to Wang Shida of China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, who linked the current border tensions to India's decision to abrogate Article 370, and change in the status of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019. Although, Wang’s perspective was given a nod by Pravin Sawhney, he further postulated that a parliamentary speech by Amit Shah might have had even aggravated the matter further, as in the speech, Shah had declared that Aksai Chin, a disputed region administered by China, was part of the Indian-administered Ladakh Union Territory.

There have been other opinions given as well. Liu Zongyi, a South Asia specialist at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies told the Financial Times that as "India has been active in many of US plans that target China", the Chinese made their will for aggression with India even clearer. Tanvi Madan, author of Fateful Triangle stated that India thought that this was "signal from Beijing" to "limit" its relations with the US. Phunchok Stobdan, a former diplomat of India, stated that "smaller powers like India and Australia, who have aligned with the US, are witnessing a more aggressive China."

Historically, there have been about fifty round of talks between the two countries related to border issues, but only one to two percent of it have been reported in the media. What make things more complicated is that there is no public map depicting the Indian version of Line of Actual Control. Rivers, lakes and snow caps along the frontier mean that the line can shift, bringing soldiers face to face at many points, sparking a confrontation.

The border, in fact, is actually disputed at multiple locations. The Chinese version claims not only the Ladakh region, but also Arunachal Pradesh in northeast India.

The rifts at the border between China and India go back to 1950. A series of developments led to an escalation of tensions on the border back then. Dhruva Jaishankar wrote in Observer Researcher Foundation: ‘During India’s realisation of China moving the goalposts and making more aggressive territorial claims, the status of Tibet became an added complication: In the 1950s, a revolt in eastern Tibet against communist China resulted in a brutal crackdown by Chinese forces, during which the Dalai Lama and some of his followers fled to India.’

In the coming years, during Mao Zedong’s 'Great Leap Forward', there was an inadequate Indian military preparation, when a short but sharp border war broke out in late 1962. China decisively won, advancing over some territory in the western sector. In the east, however, China was inflicted with a humiliating defeat, and it withdrew before the onset of winter, believing it had taught India a lesson. After that, India-China relations remained strained for more than a decade until violent skirmishes erupted in 1967 in Sikkim in the eastern sector. Negotiations had then eventually restarted following the resumption of full diplomatic relations.

For a brief period in the early 1980s, Beijing floated the possibility of resolving the boundary once and for all. That changed abruptly in 1985, when China once again made aggressive claims, a policy that has continued. Despite another standoff in the eastern sector in 1986-87, steps toward normalisation began after 1988.

What happened after was that there were a series of unusual agreements between 1993 and 2013. The two had maintained a peaceful posture on the disputed border. This opened pathways to cooperation on other matters, including trade until animosities showed its colour once again. 

Strategically, Ladakh is important for India not only for its own sake, but for supplying Indian forces along the disputed Line of Control with Pakistan. Hence, this area is considered crucial to Indian security because for their geopolitical balance of power across a large part of Asia.

After the skirmishes, there were calls of boycott of Chinese products in India. Over two hundred mobile apps were banned. The share of Chinese smartphone companies in India had fallen to twenty two percent. China’s exports to India, at the same time, had fallen to over twenty four percent. However, in March 2021, there was return of Chinese companies such as Huawei, in the Indian market.

After several rounds of talks, the two militaries agreed in February 2021 to pull back from the mountains around the Pangong Tso Lake. They have promised to talk on the friction points at Gogra and Hot Springs, where China still has a platoon level strength, along with vehicles. The Chinese had even put on the table an earlier claim line that the Chinese had laid out in 1959. If India were to accept that, it would lose a significant chunk of territory.

The ongoing tensions had caused problems for villagers in the Pangong Tso lake area. The Indian army has not been allowing the nomads to take their livestock to the traditional winter grazing land in the mountains, forcing herders to take alternative routes such as Black Top and Gurung Hill. The local villagers see the lake as a buffer zone rather than India’s territory.

The crises, which India now faces is that it has to confront China which will be more adversarial. The entire frontier has become a hot border, and the political affairs are now full of distrust, and hostility. In the face of unremitting Chinese naval expansion, India risks losing significant political and military leverage in the Indian Ocean even more. The other worry for India is that China sees its political rupture with India as a sovereign issue, rather than a mere border issue.



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