As world leaders wrestle with the coronavirus outbreak, squabbles have once again erupted along India’s north-east. What started off as isolated incidents of fist-fighting between soldiers now threatens to snowball into a serious stand-off between the world’s two biggest countries.
Reports of scuffles along the Sino-Indian border are nothing new. Troops have sporadically engaged in fighting along the mountainous Ladakh region for years; one high-profile example being the 2017 Doklam stand-off. The incident resulted in Delhi directing 270 soldiers to block Chinese construction of a road that cut through territory claimed by both the Middle Kingdom and Indian ally, Bhutan.
While the situation was undoubtedly tense at the time, analysts across the globe generally understood it to be one of diplomatic posturing more than anything else – while the incident gave rise to several casualties through informal fighting, it was never expected to escalate to a full-scale conventional war.
This time, however, it’s different. Tensions are ratcheting up along the border, at the same time as China is tied up in a war of words with the West over the origins of the COVID-19 crisis.
While it is probably irrational to suggest, as several media sources have done, that conventional war is on the cards, it should be noted that President Xi Jinping is looking to reassert the country’s presence on the global stage at all costs. Unpredictable at the best of times, his patriotic brand of gunboat diplomacy could see these skirmishes escalate, costing lives on both sides.
It is unclear how the engagements began, although previous Sino-Indian border clashes have largely come about as a result of troops taking matters into their own hands. On the eve of 5 May, local media began to report physical altercations between the two sides in an area called “Finger 5” in the eastern Ladakh theatre, one of the better-known battlegrounds in the 1962 Sino-Indian war. According to sources in the country, as many as 400 troops clashed; engaging in hand-to-hand fighting and stone-pelting.
Five days later and some 1,200 kilometres away, Indian and Chinese troops clashed once again in north Sikkim (Naku La). While reports issued by the Indian Army fail to detail the number of troops engaged in this instance, they do note that 11 Indian troops were left injured.
Though unverified as yet, Indian media claims that thousands of Chinese troops are operating inside Indian territory, which is delimited by the so-called “line of actual control” (LAC). As many as 10,000 Chinese troops have been sent to the border, as President Xi issued an instruction to top military leaders to “prepare for the worst”.
On its part, India has reaffirmed a commitment to resolving the issue diplomatically. Sidestepping an offer from US President Donald Trump to mediate the dispute, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has doubled down on diplomatic plays to reach out to Beijing.
“The two sides have established mechanisms both at military and diplomatic levels to resolve situations which may arise in border areas peacefully through dialogue and continue to remain engaged through these channels,” said India’s Foreign Ministry.
But the issue lies at the heart of the matter; the treaty which purports to regulate the China-India border doesn’t actually do so at all. Like many international covenants (including ANZUS), it is couched in vague, nebulous language that fails to provide clarity to either party.
“The whole region of Ladakh is undefined, there is no agreed LAC, in some areas they respect each other’s position, and in some areas they don’t, which is the crux of the problem,” said Professor Srikanth Kondapalli, of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
LAC in a global context
As is all too clear in the South China Sea (and, for that matter, Hong Kong), sovereignty disputes are likely to come to the fore in the years to come. The rise and rise of China must be tempered against an appreciation of the means by which these issues can be defused effectively, to avoid what some analysts call the “Thucydides Trap”. Even if China and India fail to come to blows over these incidents, a close analysis of how this dispute plays out could well offer up some insight for the future.
Professor Kondapalli also adds that China’s ambitions in the region are largely linked to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a key point of the broader Belt and Road Initiative. That is to say, the country is unlikely to back down from a strictly strategic standpoint – but many would add that it is even less likely to do so now, as its standing on the world stage is called into question by factions in the US, the UK and Australia.
One Bangalore-based policy analyst suggests that from a practical standpoint, both sides could currently benefit from stability, and that the current situation is unlikely to help either of them in their efforts to curb the spread of the virus.
“Beijing is facing challenges on many fronts, an economic slowdown, tensions with the US, international anger amid the pandemic, protests in Hong Kong, etc,” said Manoj Kewalramani, of the Takshashila Institution. “Likewise, New Delhi’s interests lie in managing the COVID-19 outbreak at home and focusing on reviving the economy.”
It’s hard to tell how the days and weeks to come will play out in terms of the dispute. Top Chinese diplomats have seemed to downplay President Xi’s remarks – like the country’s ambassador to India Sun Weidong, who said the two nations posed “no threat to each other”.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, on the other hand, surprised international observers when he remained silent on the issue at the end of the third session of the National People’s Congress.