Vijay Srinivas | Bengaluru
Tensions between India and China flared-up once again at the Himalayan region in recent weeks. Skirmishes between troops of the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army broke out on May 5 at Pangong So lake region in Ladakh. According to media reports, the scuffle took place as soon as the PLA stopped Indian troops from patrolling in the region. Skirmishes were also reported on May 9 at the Naku La region near Tibet where both forces exchanged blows and pelted stones at each other leaving several of them hurt including a senior Indian officer who was later airlifted to a hospital.
Clashes erupted solely because of the difference of opinions between both nations over the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de-facto international border.
What’s driving tensions?
While there are many reasons, India’s infrastructure project — a new road built along the Shyok river to Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) along the LAC in Ladakh region is seen as a predominant one for flaring of tensions according to experts. Global Times, a Chinese state-run media organization stated, “the Galwan valley is Chinese territory and the local border control situation was very clear.” Dragon blamed India for forcing its way into the Galwan valley.
Misunderstanding between both the nations picked up soon after India released its new map after the negation of Article 370 that paved the way for the creation of Ladakh as a new union territory. The map showed Aksai Chin, the region controlled by China but claimed by India as a part of India’s union territory Ladakh. India’s home minister Amit Shah’s statement on recapturing Pakistan Administered Kashmir had caused more friction in the relationship as the Karakoram highway, one of China’s pet project, passes through this region linking it with Pakistan. India’s reaction towards Beijing during the pandemic had also infuriated China. India had banned all exports of PPEs to China when the pandemic began earlier this year.
At the brink of war?
Skirmishes between both sides aren’t new. India and China opened diplomatic channels to resolve the issue in 1950 but it went in vain after both parties waged a war in 1962 and since then there were many small scuffles reported. An escalation was speculated widely in the media when Indian and Chinese soldiers engaged in fistfights back in 2017 at the Doklam region which is claimed by Bhutan and China for two months but the tensions were defused later through diplomatic ways. “Both Armies crossing the LAC is fairly common and the issue is resolved at local military levels but the building up of troops is kind of different”, says former Indian diplomat P Stobdan to BBC news.
The “Extraordinarily complex” relationship
India’s external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar says, “both India and China are now in an extraordinarily complex relationship.” The Sino-Indian rivalry is deep-seated. The two nations have been at each other’s throat for issues ranging from the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile to China’s growing hegemony in Asia and across the globe. The China-Pakistan partnership, India’s closeness with the United States, Japan, and Australia, China blocking India’s entry into the NSG and Beijing’s lack of support towards New Delhi’s ambition of joining the UNSC as a permanent member have all created friction between the two Asia power centres.
India has grown into major power both economically and militarily but it still remains behind in strength when compared with China. When former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi tried to repair the complex relationship in 1988, a year after scuffles broke out in Arunachal Pradesh, the most pertinent issue of border dispute was kept aside and both leaders agreed on better ties keeping their domestic economy in mind. Gandhi-Deng summit that once helped both nations flourish economically is losing its fizz lately. In 1988, India’s GDP stood at $297 billion while China’s GDP at $312 billion the same year, three decades later India’s GDP was at $2.7 trillion while China’s GDP at a whopping $13.6 trillion in 2018. China’s GDP is five times bigger than India’s while it’s defence expenditure at $261 billion in 2019 also remains four times higher than that of India’s $71 billion.
Even the recent summits in Wuhan and Mahabalipuram had helped in mending ties in different ways but the border disputes still remain a bone of contention.
The way forward
China which is already facing pressure from international communities over the coronavirus pandemic would be unwilling to escalate. Both countries know that a military conflict is not the solution and dialogue seems to be the only way forward. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on the other hand had made it clear that the face-off would be handled through diplomatic channels.
“But if diplomacy doesn’t work, then India should be ready for border skirmishes and even a limited war”, says veteran Lt Gen HS Panag.