Contextualizing India and China’s Border Skirmish

Conflict in the India-China border region holds a magnifying glass to geopolitical tensions

CIA map of the Sino-Indian border, 1963 (Wikimedia Commons)

What’s Happening on the Border?

May 9th saw Chinese and Indian soldiers come to blows along the Sikkim border, after a separate fight had taken place May 5th near the lake Pangong Tso in Ladakh (a state disputed by Pakistan as well as India and China).  No soldiers were killed, and only reports of injuries have surfaced from both incidents.

The last few weeks have shown, however, that there may be more to the scuffles than initially met the eye. Both China and India have moved troops into the border region in mid-May, and satellite imagery corroborates both states’ reports that military buildup has taken place. China, for instance, has tripled its number of patrol boats in Pangong Tso. (Check out some even more recent satellite footage of Chinese camps near the “Line of Actual Control” between the countries here.) The geopolitical context of the skirmishes, particularly the Ladakh incident on May 5th, merits investigation as it reveals a great deal about the status of China and India’s relationship.

Map of the China-India-Pakistan border region. Ladakh, where an Indo-Chinese dispute broke out May 5, lies within the disputed region of Kashmir. Sikkim (not pictured), where the May 9th dispute broke out, lies further east along the Sino-Indian border. (Image from Nations Online)

The incident in Ladakh on May 5th was hardly India and China’s first border conflict.  1962 saw what many have called the “humiliation” of India after a month-long war.  With the world distracted by the Cuban Missile Crisis, China and India skirmished over disputed Tibetan territory near Bhutan and Kashmir.  Indian forces, largely unprepared and relying on faulty intelligence, faced a decisive defeat.  China’s victory, as The National Interest puts it, “confirmed Chinese control of Tibet, and created the foundation for a strong relationship between Pakistan and China.”  The challenging geography along the border, combined with China’s lack of “interest in administering a significant portion of Indian territory,” prevented China from advancing further into India.  In spite of China’s “forbearance” with regard to territorial incursions, the conflict “sparked a serious interest in military modernization in India.”

China and India experienced smaller-scale border skirmishes in 2017 and again in 2019.  Fortunately, neither escalated into a war, even though the 2017 standoff resulted in months of military displays on both sides.  In 2017, the issue that allegedly precipitated the skirmish was Indian forces’ confrontation of PLA construction workers attempting to build a road through Doklam, an area claimed by both Bhutan and China.  In 2019, according to India’s News18, tensions rose in Ladakh when “patrolling Indian troops were confronted by People’s Liberation Army soldiers, who objected to their presence.”  Fortunately, India and China deescalated the situation; as in 2017, nothing really came of it.

Why Ladakh? As it turns out, this border state—especially the area around the lake Pangong Tso—serves a strategic purpose as a regional access route. As Delhi Defence Review puts it, “The narrow valleys abutting the northern and southern shores of the lake are historic trade routes that serve as transit corridors between Ladakh and the Ngari Part of Tibet. This means that they can also serve as axes for ingress into Indian territory from the Tibetan side.” India’s Economic Times supports this assessment: “By itself, the lake does not have major tactical significance. But it lies in the path of the Chushul approach, one of the main approaches that China can use for an offensive into Indian-held territory.”

According to the Delhi Defence Review, controversy has arisen over control of the lake’s “spurs,” or “fingers”—pieces of land that jut into the water: “India has numbered the spurs on the Northern side that lead up to the LAC as Fingers 1 to 8. However, while the Indian side claims the border to be up to Finger 8, when counted from a Westernly direction, it patrols only up to Finger 4, since China disputes Fingers 5 to 8. The Chinese meanwhile, have been trangressing [sic] all the way up to Finger 3, which is around where the September 2019 incident took place.”

A road through Sikkim, near the Sino-Indian border. Sikkim is a small state bordering Bhutan, Nepal, and China (Wikimedia Commons)

The otherworldly beauty of Pangong Tso in Ladakh evokes a sense of calm, but the lake has become a flashpoint for geopolitical tensions (Wikimedia Commons)

The Broader Security Context

With this in mind, let us examine the geopolitical context of Sino-Indian relations.  As China expands its military and India does the same, both countries have acted with the United States in mind—though in very different ways.  Tensions rise between the US and China, but India has remained largely neutral since the Cold War.  In the words of Robert D. Kaplan, author of Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, “India, like the United States, inhabits its own geographical sphere, in India’s case between the Himalayas and the wide Indian Ocean, and thus is in a position of both dominance and detachment.”

What geopolitical responsibilities have this “dominance and detachment” conferred upon the subcontinent?  As China has sought to hedge against Indian power by supplying arms to states bordering India and often hostile to it (Burma, Pakistan, and Bangladesh), India has turned to the ocean, looking outward into the Indian Ocean and its littorals.  India’s military has traditionally remained focused on containing Pakistan, but recent naval buildup indicates that Modi’s government has begun to plan for a naval future.

Kaplan writes that Indian naval expansion could pose a threat to China’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean, especially if India begins to exert sufficient control over the Andaman-Nicobar Archipelago near the Strait of Malacca.  Such control could potentially jeopardize China’s control over the Strait, a key chokepoint through which over 50% of China’s oil must pass.  (China’s reliance on the Strait, dubbed the “Malacca dilemma,” is a major impetus behind the Belt and Road Initiative.  This massive, multi-state project—heralded as a “new Silk Road”—is designed to build up trade routes and increase China’s overland access to oil and natural gas.  It is also an important factor Chinese planners have considered in their efforts to build up a “string of pearls,” a concerted effort to expand Chinese port access in the Indian Ocean.)

A man watches the Strait of Malacca (Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas, Wikimedia Commons)

Specific, recent developments, both commercial and strategic, herald the expansion of this so-called string of pearls.  Satellite imagery suggests that China has begun reef destruction and artificial island construction⁠—similar to that we have already witnessed in the South China Sea⁠—in the Indian Ocean.  In spite of the chaos wrought by coronavirus, work has continued on a Djibouti military base⁠—China’s first overseas⁠—intended to provide access to the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean.  Such developments undoubtedly make Indian planners uneasy, especially given the explicitly militaristic design of the base, which China had alleged “has nothing to do with an arms race or military expansion.”

The string of pearls continues to expand across other Indian Ocean littorals, commercially as well as militarily.  Satellite imagery also indicates that China’s Sinopec (one of three national oil companies) has recently commenced operations at Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port, a strategic location that Twitter-based satellite intelligence analyst @detresfa_ calls a “new fueling point for the Belt & Road/European-Asian sea route in the #IndianOceanRegion.”

What’s Next?

Analysis from the Indian side points towards possible escalation, with Indian journalist Manu Pubby referring to the tensions as the “highest since [the] Doklam standoff” in 2017. In The Economic Times, he reports that both India and China have moved troops into the Ladakh region and writes that “While most such standoffs are shortlived and get resolved after mild pushing and shoving by troops, the Galwan standoff turned ugly after scores of soldiers were injured when the Chinese side tried to use excessive force to push back an Indian detachment on the spot in early May.”

Chinese media, on the other hand, seems inclined to believe that India has little incentive to up the ante. Citing Chinese analysts, The Global Times writes that “India is merely seeking to divert its domestic attention and pressure since the COVID-19 pandemic impacted its economy, and China has a military advantage in the Galwan Valley region. So, the Indian military won’t escalate the incident.” The Times paraphrases the analysis of researcher Hu Zhiyong, stating that “the Galwan Valley is not like Doklam because it is in the Aksai Chin region in southern Xinjiang of China, where the Chinese military has an advantage and mature infrastructure. So, if India escalates the friction, the Indian military force could pay a heavy price.” The Times portrays India as the aggressor, writing that “The Galwan Valley region is Chinese territory, and the local border control situation was very clear.”

It is important to note, however, that the nationalistic Global Times— described as a “belligerent state tabloid” by Quartz—is hardly representative of all Chinese media. The truth of the situation seems to lie somewhere between the two countries’ analysis. After all, as South China Morning Post reports, officials on both sides are “insisting that diplomatic channels remain open” despite both countries’ deployment of troops. According to the Post, India may be better “prepared to deal with Chinese adventurism” than The Global Times implied. As research fellow Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy told the Post, “I am not worried because there is constant communication between officials and leaders and all channels of communications are open. And both countries are mindful of their priorities and limitations.”

At this early stage, it is difficult to predict how the situation will resolve itself. After all, as defense journalist Ajai Shukla argues, this might not be a “typical” Sino-Indian border conflict. As Shukla has written on his blog, “This is not shaping up like a routing patrol confrontation, or even a temporary occupation of disputed territory … This time the PLA soldiers are digging defences, preparing bunkers, moving in heavy vehicles and have reportedly even moved artillery guns to the rear (albeit in their own territory) to support the intruders, say [unnamed sources].”

As Shukla sees it, the operation seems to have been coordinated at a semi-high level: “The PLA intrusions into Ladakh do not appear to be a localized operation, since they are spread across the area of responsibility of different PLA brigades and division. That suggests centralized coordination from at least the PLA’s theatre command.” In either case, any reports made at this early stage are difficult to corroborate: intelligence reports fly, sources remain unnamed, and states’ motivations and incentives are difficult to discern. In the words of the proverbial “Zen master” of Charlie Wilson’s War, “We’ll see” what happens on the border.

In the meantime, what can be done to prevent border skirmishes⁠—not to mention larger hegemonic clashes between China and India both on land and around the Indian Ocean?  If liberal IR theory is to be believed, China and India’s membership in BRICS should act as a binding tie between the two countries.  Fortunately, China and India’s recent conflict has been restricted to small border skirmishes between restive groups of soldiers.  But should Sino-Indian tensions ever appreciably escalate, economic and political cooperation facilitated by BRICS could keep China and India from coming to blows.

Border conflicts aside, coronavirus has also begun to test the Sino-Indian relationship.  As Brookings reports, “India’s government has announced restrictions on foreign direct investment from countries that share a land boundary with India—a move clearly directed against China … It will also likely work with others to blunt or balance China’s future influence in institutions like the World Health Organization.”  Only time will tell how this crisis, as well as potential future border clashes, continue to impact Sino-Indian relations.

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