On the 10th May 2020, Indian and Chinese troops engaged in a cross-border dispute in Sikkim. After built up tensions, a month later another clash began in The Galwan Valley. By September, shots had been fired for the first time in over 40 years. Such confrontations are the worst India and China have seen in recent years. Although face-offs between the two sides are not uncommon, border disputes do pose a challenge for Indian and Chinese security. Also, their economic relationship could be strained if the two rising giants do not resolve their territorial dispute. Therefore, this article looks at the recent tensions between the two states and considers what this means for the future of their bilateral relationship.
Where did it Begin?
The Sino-Indian war took place in 1962, when Indian and Chinese troops fought over the Himalayan territory of Aksai Chin. Aksai Chin is located between Tibet, Xinjiang and Ladakh and territory was the primary cause of the war, as well as other issues including sporadic violence. China had gradually exerted its influence over Aksai Chin for four years before the war. At the time, India placed its forces along the border, but China’s strategy was to launch a full-blown attack. China’s standpoint was that the territory they were fighting over was deemed the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and they should have sovereignty over it. As India’s strategy was one of defence, they were outnumbered and lacked sufficient weaponry. Therefore, they suffered heavy casualties with many of the army killed, wounded, missing and captured. The war lasted until China announced a unilateral ceasefire on 21stNovember 1962.India was left defeated and humiliated as it was never prepared for a war with China. Until 1962, India had always focused on the security threat posed by Pakistan and had the upper hand militarily.
Since the 1962 war there have occurred numerous infrequent stand-offs between Indian armed forces and Chinese armed forces along the disputed territory. There is a competitive nature between the two states whereby these stand-offs become an opportunity to militarily flex their muscles. Episodes occurred in Northern Ladakh in 2013 and Eastern Ladakh in 2014. In 2017, the situation escalated when China attempted to form a road that would extend its border into India. India opposed this and feared that if the road was built, China would have increased access to the Siliguri Corridor, also known as the ‘chicken’s neck’. This is a highly contentious area for India as they believe it is a strategic asset to them because it connects the North Eastern states to the mainland. The high-altitude stand-off lasted for over a month. In September 2019, another violent clash took place near the Pangong Tso (lake), an area that China has control over two thirds of. The most recent disputes involved pushing, shoving, fists, wooden clubs, and stone throwing. The skirmish in May resulted in 11 injured in total, 4 Indian forces and 7 Chinese forces. It was resolved by local brigadier-level sector commanders who were able to discuss the tensions and come to a resolution. However, the clash in June saw 20 Indian soldiers dead and up to 40 Chinese casualties. In late July, it was believed that troops were withdrawing from the border region. However, this remained incomplete and throughout August and September, Indian troops were continuing to deploy along the LAC. For over 40 years, no bullets were fired in these skirmishes because of the de facto border code that prohibits the use of firearms. However, this changed in September when the first shots were fired. The most recent disputes are believed to have been triggered by a disagreement over the location of Chinese observation towers and tents. It seems, tensions have been building since India’s revocation of Article 370 in 2019 and China’s resistance against India’s infrastructure plans in the borderlands.
A Turbulent Future?
In 2018, PM Modi and President Jinping agreed to maintain peace along the border at the Wuhan summit. India and China’s collective economies make up over 17% of the entire global economy. Also, China is India’s primary trading partner with annual trade worth $92 billion. They have attempted to increase cooperation and build confidence measures by undertaking joint projects including a training program for Afghan diplomats and reviving the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor. However, these efforts are undermined by the pervasive feeling of distrust between the two states and the echoes of Cold War history. Also, the summits and efforts of cooperation have not stopped the outbreaks of violence, nor have they solved any of the underlying issues. Underlying issues that strain the Sino-Indian relationship include nuclear weapons, China’s support for Pakistan, the situation in Tibet and India’s sheltering of the Dalai Lama, the Chinese navy making an appearance in Indian waters and Indian foreign policy. The Covid-19 pandemic has added pressure to Sino-Indian relations as the Indian general public blame China for the outbreak thus causing an anti-China sentiment. Both states have downplayed the recent stand-off’s as short-term and temporary incidents. However, if relations continue to sour over territorial boundaries and the border remains unresolved, this could compromise their economic relationship. To prevent prolonged crisis, China would need to withdraw its aggressive position voluntarily through peaceful negotiations with India. India could attempt a forceful removal of Chinese forces, but that would lead to increased escalation. Further, India should tread with caution as neighbouring countries including Sri Lanka and Nepal are becoming increasingly supportive of China. In other words, unless India and China find a way to trust each other, it is highly likely that they will be pushed to the brink of war once again.