NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE W hen the world diverted attention elsewhere, China and India, two of the world’s most populous nations with nuclear weapons, engaged in their most contentious border dispute in five decades. Armies from both nations faced off in the Eastern Ladakh’s Galwan Valley region. India claimed that during this dispute, at least 20 of its soldiers were killed and more were wounded. It also revealed that China suffered 35 to 40 casualties, though Beijing refused to confirm it.
The two Asian neighbors share a lengthy border of more than 2,000 miles. Historically, they’ve had multiple border disputes. A border war took place in 1962, after China built a highway through the Aksai Chin region in order to directly connect its two western regions: Xinjiang and Tibet. China claimed it won the 1962 war, but India said the war resulted in a stalemate that left many border issues unresolved.
After decades of negotiation since then, the two nations came to accept a Line of Actual Control (LAC) as their de facto border. The LAC is the demarcation that separates Indian-controlled territory from Chinese-controlled territory, It didn’t solve the border dispute completely, but it put in place a mechanism both nations could work with. As the two nations each started their own path toward modernization and economic development, both sides chose to put the border dispute aside and focus instead on strengthening their economic ties through trade and investment. This approach has helped maintain a relatively peaceful border for decades — until China’s Communist Party (CCP) secretary, Xi Jinping, came to power.
Xi is probably the most ambitious leader of the CCP since Chairman Mao’s reign. Xi is hostile to the liberal world order that has guaranteed peace and prosperity for most of the world after World War II, including China, which has benefited immensely from the global stability. Xi’s goal is to establish a new world order that is China-centric and purely derived from the CCP’s value system.
In 2013, Xi rolled out a major foreign-policy initiative called “One Belt and One Road” (OBOR). The initiative consists of building infrastructure projects across continents and expanding China’s economic and geopolitical influence. Xi deemed the OBOR initiative “the project of the century.” At least 157 nations and international organizations have signed up to be part of it.
India has a good reason to feel threatened by some of the OBOR initiatives. One is an oil and natural-gas pipeline from Kunming, a city in southern China, to Myanmar’s Arakan coast in the Bay of Bengal. The pipeline would not only give China easier access to cheap oil, but would also enable China’s ships, commercial as well as military, to establish a presence close to the Indian Ocean, right in India’s backyard.
Another OBOR initiative troubling to India is the China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor, a signature OBOR project, which passes through Kashmir, a disputed territory between India and Pakistan. India views this project as China’s taking a stand on Pakistan’s claim to Kashmir. Some in India, such as Chintamani Mahapatra, a professor at the School of international studies at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, have even called this OBOR initiative “a new kind of colonization.” Consequently, India refused to send a high-level delegation to China’s OBOR summit in May 2017. At the time, India’s Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson, Raveesh Kumar, said, “No country can accept a project that ignores its core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Then, in June 2017, India and China arrived at their first serious border dispute in more than five decades, when Indian soldiers stopped a Chinese-army construction crew from building a road in a pocket of land in the Doklam region. Since this land lies between Bhutan, China, and the Indian state of Sikkim, all three countries had claimed ownership of it. China treats the region as part of Chinese-controlled Tibet. India claimed it was intervening on behalf of both India and Bhutan, because both have historical claims to the disputed land, and Bhutan is a tiny country that relies on India for security protection. The standoff between the two nations lasted about ten weeks before both sides agreed to deescalate. Although Beijing did not continue its road construction, it has kept Chinese forces in Doklam since then.
Under the banner of “Belt and Road,” Beijing continued to build new infrastructure and extend roads along the Line of Actual Control; it hasn’t stopped even during the pandemic. India says that China’s infrastructure-building spree has let Beijing advance its LAC steadily westward into India-controlled territory. To stake its claim, India has been building roads along its LAC also. China is concerned that the highway India is building would get into the China-controlled Aksai Chin plateau, which is crossed by the Xinjiang-Tibet highway.
Both sides had been engaging in an intense stare contest in the Galwan Valley for a few weeks prior to the deadly incident on June 15. India’s Ministry of External Affair said the vicious conflict, which took place the night of June 15, was the result of “an attempt by the Chinese side to unilaterally change the status quo in the region.” Chinese military statements, however, alleged that the Indian soldiers crossed the LAC and attacked the Chinese troops.
No matter who initiated the conflict, the result was deadly. Although, thankfully, neither side opened fire, a major scuffle took place. “The Chinese pelted the Indian soldiers with stones and beat them with clubs embedded with nails and wrapped in barbed wire,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “Indians retaliated with iron rods and batons.”
The rest of the world should be concerned with China and India’s border dispute. In the past, such disputes were resolved relatively quickly thanks to economic dependency between the two nations. This time, however, seems different. Beijing is using the same playbook it followed successfully in the South China Sea: Build infrastructure first, then claim that infrastructure as China’s territory and use force to drive away neighboring countries in the name of self-defense. That’s exactly what Beijing did the day after the border face-off this week.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Western Theatre Command spokesperson Colonel Zhang Shuili stated, “China always owns sovereignty over the Galwan Valley region.” India immediately rejected China’s claim. The way the Chinese government probably sees it, playing tough will not only secure additional territory, it will also stir up fervent nationalist support back home and shift people’s attention away from the slow economic recovery and the second wave of the coronavirus outbreak in Beijing.
Meanwhile, in India, the public has had a low opinion of China since the beginning of the pandemic. Many Indians blame the Chinese government for its mishandling of the early outbreak, which turned a controllable local situation into a global pandemic. India has had more than 440,000 cases to date, and the number of deaths now exceeds 14,000. The pandemic also took a heavy toll on India’s economy; Goldman Sachs predicts it will shrink by 45 percent in the second quarter this year. As the border dispute is heating up, a boycott-China campaign has gained popular support in India, with the hashtag, #BoycottMadeInChina. The campaign urges Indians to “give up all Chinese software in a week, all Chinese hardware in a year” — as innovator Sonam Wangchuk put it in a video he released to promote the boycott.
Even without the social-media campaign, India has been decoupling from China both economically and politically. Economically, the Indian government is wooing manufacturers from China to India. This April, India also revised its foreign-investment rules to add additional scrutiny for investments from neighboring countries, aiming at China. Politically, India has pivoted to the U.S. in recent years, especially taking part in security cooperation with the U.S. in an effort to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific region. The growing tie between India and the U.S. probably only reinforces China’s own insecurity and desire for territorial expansion.
Prime Minister Modi set a precedent of avenging the deaths of Indian soldiers in 2019, when he ordered air strikes in Pakistan after a suicide bomber killed more than 40 Indian paramilitary police. India media have been giving wall-to-wall coverage of the current border dispute and pressuring the Modi government to take a similar hard line against China.
The border dispute is a reflection of a deeper problem: the underlying, deep-rooted mistrust and hostility between China and India, each feeling insecure about the other nation’s growing economic and military power. The two countries, with a combined population of more than 2.8 billion people, both have nuclear weapons, strong nationalist leaders, and growing nationalist voices that demand “tough” actions and counter actions. No one is willing to back down at this point. The conflict could escalate to a point of no return, which would gravely harm a world that is already battered by a global pandemic. We can only pray that cooler heads and voices of reason will triumph in the end.