China and India are two of the most populous countries in the world with ancient civilizations that date back over 4000 years. Since independence, the two countries have enjoyed cooperative diplomatic and trade relations. However, the undertow of territorial disputes and several border skirmishes have kept the relations strained. The relations between China and India became tense fifty‑eight years ago, when beset by tensions over territorial disputes, China attacked India on 20th October 1962 after India attempted to define the borders unilaterally – this was when the world’s gaze was fixed on nuclear tensions between Soviet Union and the US. The attack followed a string of allegations with India accusing China of suppressing Tibetan regional autonomy, while China charged India with attempts to weaken its rule in Tibet.
Although the war over Tibet after a brief period of clashes was over soon with China emerging as the victor, the conflict over the Line of Actual Control (LAC) as a disputed border between China and India remained unsettled. The repeated clashes over territorial disputes and disagreements on demarcation of LAC led to increased militarization and deployment of troops in the region. This came with the consequence that violation of the imaginary and undecided LAC by either military during border patrols and surveys ignited standoffs. It also triggered military confrontations between the two whenever there was an increase in border militarization or development of logistical infrastructure close to the disputed border by either side. For instance, in 1975, clashes resulted in the death of four Indian soldiers when Chinese troops established camps in the Daulat Beg Oldi sector 10 km on their side of LAC. In 2013, President Xi Jinping at the BRICS Summit in Durban expressed his desire to settle the Himalayan border dispute as early as possible. However, again in 2014, China and India were face‑to‑face on LAC, when Indian workers started construction of a canal in a border village. In 2017, both militaries came to another stand‑off when Chinese brought heavy road‑building equipment near the Doklam region and started road construction in the disputed area.
Likewise, on 16 June 2020, a clear provocation that escalated into a military engagement between China and India in the rugged terrain of Galwan Valley seemed to be India’s infrastructure development in the disputed Ladakh region. Especially, the construction of the north‑south road leading to the airfield in northern Ladakh signified a threat for the Chinese. The construction of road appeared serious to PLA as it could transport troops and supplies to the disputed area and destabilize the LAC balance. The current turn of events that left around 20 Indian and some Chinese soldiers dead and many injured on both sides while several Indian soldiers taken hostage was a Chinese attempt to freeze the construction of Indian infrastructure. The deaths were the first fatalities in four decades from the simmering conflict along the 2000 km undemarcated LAC.
China expected India to put a halt to the construction projects in the disputed area like China did at the tri‑junction region, where China, Bhutan, and India meet, after the 2017 Doklam stand‑off as it was a critical geostrategic location for India. China asserted India to respect the LAC, as there was no clear‑cut demarcation of it and stressed on the need to develop a mechanism to resolve the border dispute. The Chinese Foreign Office spokesperson, after the military engagement stated that they want peace and tranquility, while upholding the so‑called Wuhan spirit of ‘mutual understanding, trust, and predictability’.
Both states have made several attempts at confidence‑building measures (CBMs) in the past. The first attempt to foster good neighbourly relations was signed in 1993 titled as “Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control in the India‑China Border Areas”. Later in 2012, another agreement titled ‘Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination in India‑China Border Affairs’ was signed. This agreement was designed to develop political contacts to prevent border incursions on LAC. In 2019, during the 14th meeting of the CBMs, both states reiterated their intent to actively negotiate the border‑related issues. Although CBMs were fortified but due to lack of attention on a conflict resolution mechanism a new cycle of tensions and accusations ignited, making peace at the moment a dim and distant possibility.
As tensions remain high, if the conflict escalates, it could do so to a point of no return as it could engulf the strategic partners on both sides. With both states adopting an aggressive stance, confidence‑building measures or a peace agreement would be unattainable. Although both states have expressed a wish to resolve the issue through dialogue, neither side has disengaged militarily. The satellite imagery obtained by Reuters showed that military build‑up is strong on both sides of LAC, as 30‑40 Indian vehicles and over 100 vehicles on the Chinese side were spotted near the Galwan River. Both sides have prepared troops and heavy weapons anticipating further escalation. Some analysts have argued that the strategic location of the conflict is in India’s favour, but one aspect not to be neglected here is that China’s People Liberation Army (PLA) though not having as many bases in the Western theatre as India, does have a stronger backup, and PLA’s military is equipped with highly advanced capabilities; hence the balance of military power is heavily tilted in China’s favour. According to the 2020 SIPRI Military Expenditure Database, between 2010‑19 China increased military expenditure by 85 percent, while in comparison India increased it by 37 percent. The Indian construction projects that triggered the current conflict was an attempt to shift this balance in its favour, which has so far backfired.
However, to restore the balance of power, the Indian government could move further close to its strategic partner, the US. While the US would continue to provide diplomatic support, on the military front, an increase in military hardware sale to India would intensify a potential arms race in the region. Since the clash has buffeted the esteem of the Indian government that had surged to power on populist and nationalist sentiments India is likely to continue its military modernization pitching it as the need of the hour since the crisis is on‑going. It might even further engage with China militarily to diminish China’s growing soft power image enhanced with its role in the global pandemic crisis, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects, and its technological ventures of covering the world with its 5G technology. India could be under the impression that military engagement would shake China’s reputation as a soft power turned into a military aggressor, and negate the impression of ‘peaceful rise of China’ while supporting the general precept that rise of a power cannot be peaceful in an anarchic world. Standing up to China would support India’s aspiration of becoming a regional power, if not global.
Nonetheless, the two advanced nuclear countries should realize the grave danger of a military confrontation. While both have agreed on diffusing tensions as early as possible, they might exert additional pressure on each other by increasing their military presence in the region, or through diplomatic means. In that case, the course of events would go beyond immediate recovery or spread to other domains of warfare. This is what the world least needs at this time as it struggles to save lives and economies from collapse in the wake of coronavirus crisis which continues to take its deadly toll across the world.
The situation should especially be a wakeup call for Modi government which has destabilized the region with a series of recent provocations against most of its neighbours. To give peace a chance, the agreements should be respected and both states should agree to develop a conflict resolution mechanism. For this India would have to give up its political chest‑thumping, which may be enchanting to a section of its domestic audience for the time, but continues to be an intolerable nuisance abroad.