As China reopens its economy after months of lockdowns, the country’s leadership has initiated a broad offensive to expand its influence at home and abroad. A new Hong Kong security law that attemps to stamp out dissent in the autonomous region sparked another round of anti-Mainland protests. Meanwhile, China has scaled up military exercises in the Yellow Sea, which will extend into the South China Sea this summer. Now a standoff between forces on the Sino–Indian border has opened a new front in Beijing’s offensive. This latest development in a decades-old dispute between the world’s two most populous countries underscores the myriad obstacles that Chinese president Xi Jinping faces in his goal of “national rejuvenation.”
Over the past month, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has reportedly moved at least 5,000 troops to the “Line of Actual Control,” which demarcates the border between China and India. The mobilization of troops to the Galwan River valley, on the westernmost border between the two countries, led to a clash on May 5, when Chinese and Indian forces engaged in fisticuffs and stone-throwing. In keeping with Sino–Indian border protocols, both sides were unarmed, but the skirmish — and another in the Naku La region near Tibet on May 12 — left several troops injured.
Though the facts on the ground in the remote Himalayan border region are unclear, satellite imagery of the area confirms a rapid military buildup by Chinese forces since April. India has responded in kind, mobilizing troops and artillery to the area in recent days, according to Bloomberg News. An Indian policy analyst who requested anonymity adds that there is also evidence that the two sides have moved aircraft closer to the region.
The apparent trigger for China’s military buildup is the completion of an Indian road in the Galwan River valley up to the Line of Actual Control, according to Indian national-security analyst Nitin Gokhale. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has long held a superior position in this frontier region, with roads and electricity lines that far surpass those on the Indian side. However, “in the last few years, India has been playing catch-up, and has finally built roads up to the LAC,” according to Dhruva Jaishankar, the director of the Observer Research Foundation’s U.S. Initiative. India’s Border Roads Organization, which is currently constructing 61 roads, has now developed the infrastructure to compete with the PLA in the disputed territory. In turn, China has attempted to preserve its advantage by pushing back Indian development, leading to intermittent confrontations. Most recently, in 2017, China’s construction of a road through Doklam, near Bhutan, an ally of India, set off two months of brinkmanship, ending with a Chinese retreat but heightening caution on both sides.
The border dispute pertains primarily to two contested territories: the Aksai Chin plateau to the west and the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh to the east. Chinese offensives in the two areas ignited the 1962 Sino–Indian War, ending with an informal ceasefire as the two sides agreed to the loosely demarcated Line of Actual Control. To Beijing, the LAC granted territory claimed by Delhi on the western side of the border, which contains a strategically crucial road between Tibet and Xinjiang. In the eastern portion of the LAC, however, the PRC effectively ceded what it calls “South Tibet,” retreating to the McMahon Line, the Tibetan–Indian border drawn by British colonial officials in the early 20th century. But PRC officials still consider the McMahon Line a vestige of imperialism, and continue to lay claim to Arunachal Pradesh, an Indian state of 2 million people with strong cultural ties to Tibet.
Since the 1962 ceasefire, the two sides have engaged in intermittent skirmishes, most notably in 1967. After clashes in the late 1980s, prime minister Rajiv Gandhi became the first Indian leader to visit China since the Sino–Indian War, and negotiations ensued over the following years. In 1996, Beijing and Delhi agreed to protocols barring the militarization of border zones, and over the next decade the two sides compromised on certain territorial disputes.
Of late, though, the Sino–Indian border has again become a flash point. Before the 2017 Doklam standoff, Chinese forces twice encroached on Indian territory in Ladakh, in 2013 and 2014. Those confrontations, coinciding with visits by Chinese leaders to India, represented attempts by the PRC to establish its superiority to India. A strengthening U.S.–India relationship has made Beijing cautious of its regional rival, increasing the strategic importance of the Sino–Indian border. Indeed, since the 1950s, the PRC has settled all its land-border disputes except for those with India and Bhutan. China has also strengthened ties to Pakistan, in a bid to put pressure on India.
While the recent trend indicates that the confrontation will end without casualties, each round of brinkmanship increases the likelihood of war. “The two sides’ ability to patrol these remote areas has increased significantly, leading to more clashes and run-ins,” Jaishankar says. For now, Indian and Chinese officials are attempting to settle the dispute diplomatically. Both governments have been relatively muted about the standoff, suggesting that neither side plans to escalate the standoff in the near future, but negotiations over the weekend ended without a settlement.
Whatever the outcome, the standoff highlights the challenges to China’s bid for regional hegemony. Ongoing disputes with Taiwan and Hong Kong have escalated just as the diplomatic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic materializes. Japan is now paying its businesses to leave China, a measure also under consideration by the U.S. Reuters reported that an internal memo presented to Chinese national-security officials recommended preparing for war with the U.S., citing a spike in anti-China sentiment to its highest level since the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident. Surrounded on all sides by foes, Xi faces mounting obstacles to his goal of “national rejuvenation.”