China-India Border Faceoff Turns Violent

China’s increasingly aggressive military policy meets Indian assertiveness

By: Neeta Lal

Thousands of Indian and Chinese soldiers are locked in a tense confrontation in eastern Ladakh following a skirmish in which 250 Chinese and Indian soldiers went at each other using iron rods, sticks, and stones along the de facto border between the two countries.

The disputed India-China Line of Actual Control covers the 3,488-km-long order, claimed to be the longest frontier between any two nations, with any number of disputed spots. The trouble began on May 5 when Beijing accused the Indian Army of trespassing into its territory in its “attempt to unilaterally change the status” of the border in Sikkim and Ladakh.

India sought to refute the claim, saying it was not trespassing but carrying out routine infrastructure-development activities along its side of the border. Instead, it blamed China for its aggression in building up bunkers on its side, hindering normal patrolling by its troops. The Ministry of External Affairs claimed at a media briefing that Indian troops had detected Chinese intrusions at three places in the Galwan river area in Ladakh.

For the past several months, China has been alarming neighbors further and further abroad by pursuing an increasingly assertive foreign and military stance,  fomenting a trade confrontation with Australia, pushing further into the South China Sea to the alarm of the littoral nations, tightening control over Hong Kong, sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat and harassing Filipino fisherman as well as running naval maneuvers close to Taiwan and continuing overflights over the island.

In the current situation, with local army commanders unable to sort out the situation, the violent confrontation blew up around Ladakh’s Pangong Tso lake area. More than 100 soldiers from both sides sustained injuries. Another clash followed in North Sikkim on May 9 after which both sides deployed assets and troops in thousands at forward locations within their respective territories.

There as another face-off between 150 Indian and Chinese military personnel engaged near Naku La Pass in the Sikkim sector, injuring at least a dozen soldiers from both sides. Sukhoi-30 jets of the Indian Air Force scrambled as Chinese helicopters hovered over the line of control during the fracas, keeping a strict vigil.

The intensity of exchanges and troop concentration has continued over the past three weeks, leading to intervention at the highest level. Army Chief General M.M. Naravane visited the headquarters of 14 Corps in Leh with top commanders to review the security situation last week. A comprehensive review of the boundary situation involving top military leadership, diplomats, and the National Security Council Secretariat was also held to assess the ground situation in Ladakh. A high-level security meeting was chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Both Chinese and Indian armies are currently on high alert at the border, with neither side backing down despite multiple rounds of talks between top military leaders. India has mobilized its troops around a strategic bridge being built near Daulat Beg Oldi, the last military post south of the Karakoram Pass, to counter Chinese forces. Media reports say the Indian Army will refuse to allow any alteration of Indian territory and to face the Chinese challenge with “strength and restraint.”

Meanwhile Chinese President Jinping has announced his country will “strengthen its armed forces” to augment its preparedness for military combat. India construes this as a sign amid rising tensions. Xi spoke on the sidelines of China's National People's Congress, an annual political event. China has also announced an increase in its military budget by 6.6 percent in 2020 to about US$178 billion.

Military analysts say duels along the India-China border are nothing new. Frequent skirmishes between the two countries – who fought a bloody Himalayan war in 1962 – have often roiled bilateral relations even though not a single bullet has been fired over the years by either party.

Minister of State for Defense Shripad Naik last November told Parliament there were 1,025 transgressions by the People’s Liberation Army along the LAC between 2016 and 2018.

Analysts have drawn parallels between the current faceoff in Ladakh and Sikkim with the volatile 73-day hostilities in Doklam tri-junction in 2017, which also triggered fears of a war. However, matters were resolved after a few weeks of tense confrontations with discussions at the highest level.

To further enhance communications and reduce the bilateral trust deficit, Modi and Xi also held their first informal summit in April 2018 in the Chinese city of Wuhan and issued “strategic guidance" to their militaries. This was followed by another informal meeting between the two in southern Malappuram near Chennai in October last year to craft an overarching architecture for border management.

However, some experts feel that the present border flare-ups are probably rooted in China’s larger design to send a message to Delhi about various issues including its new foreign investment rules that shut the automatic route for countries that share a border with it. Another reason could be the burgeoning India-US relationship at a time when US-China ties are on a downward spiral.

According to foreign policy analyst Dr. Satish Chauhan of Mc Gill University, Montreal, Canada, Beijing is behaving true to character. “It has started pushing levers to expand its leverage over India in the face of the pandemic probe and Taiwan’s elevation. It is afraid that India’s leadership role at the WHO as the head of the 34-member executive board will bestow considerable clout in the organization’s administrative decision-making and policies. Opening a probe into the origins of the pandemic and Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Assembly are all making the Chinese leadership jittery.”

According to a member of the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis, a Delhi-based think tank, China is not merely pressurizing India to back off at the WHO; it is keen to scupper India’s efforts to attract companies that are seeking to move out of China due to Covid-19. “New Delhi bolstering its border infrastructure for better preparedness in the eventuality of a war only seems to have added to its irritants.”

Be that as it may, analysts concur that the root of the problem lies the fact that after five decades, India and China have never demarcated the frontier, triggering recurrent provocations. Even two summit-level retreats between Modi and Xi that had raised expectations for more enduring solutions, have failed to translate into effective agreements to manage the issue.

At a time when its own handling of the outbreak is coming under mounting scrutiny and relations with the US are at a nadir, there are growing concerns that Beijing’s assertiveness risks a prolonged confrontation with India as well. Instead, observers say, its focus should be to work with New Delhi to devise a sustainable political settlement for the LAC problem. A world ravaged by disease and devastation could do well without the two giants at each other’s throats.

Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based editor and journalist and tweets @Neeta_com