It was a Himalayan border dispute, of the kind that is unfolding today, that was one of the key triggers of the 1962 war between India and China. India lost, and since then no amount of trade (more than $92 billion in 2018-19) has been able to erase a certain wariness in relations. Suspicions go back even further: Indian Home Minister Vallabhbhai Patel warned of China’s authoritarian tendencies to the country’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru after the People’s Liberation Army marched into Tibet in 1950.
The two countries have never been able to agree on the exact location of their 4,056 km border called the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and jostles between soldiers at strategic locations are frequent, some more publicized than others, though there has never been another military altercation since the early 1960s.
Opinions differ about the exact nature of the conflict now, beyond the fact that there has been some incursion by Chinese troops in multiple areas on the LAC, which have been countered by Indian forces, leading to an uneasy stalemate. Estimates of how many Chinese troops have entered Indian territory vary from a handful to 5,000. Military commanders from both sides held meetings on June 6 following which there is anticipation that the two countries might be able to resolve the problem using the framework of several bilateral agreements which provide details of past arrangements of territorial control.
But several longstanding points of friction persist, including in China’s ‘all-weather’ friendship with India’s frequent combatant, Pakistan, and India’s hosting of the Dalai Lama, and the Tibetan government-in-exile despite the ‘one China’ policy still followed by Beijing. Both countries control regions claimed by the other. India claims Aksai Chin, which is governed by China as part of the Xinjiang province, while China insists that the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh is really ‘southern Tibet’.
Relative peace has been maintained for decades as Chinese economic growth far outstripped India but in recent years as India as risen swiftly, the Asian giants have rubbed more uneasily against one another. For instance, as it has grown wealthier and militarily stronger, India has pushed forth the construction of better border infrastructure to match Chinese installations – a move that has caused tensions. Some of this jostle has been inevitable as, in the words of the then (in 2015) Foreign Secretary (and now Foreign Minister) of India, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s “foreign policy dimension is to aspire to be a leading power, rather than just a balancing power”.
Points of border friction have surfaced again and again in the recent past – in 2013, 2014 and 2017 – the last at Doklam on the India, China and Bhutan border even produced videos of soldiers of the two sides pushing and shoving one another. Many Indian commentators also saw a Chinese hand in recent flaring of a border dispute with Nepal, which India considers as part of its wider area of natural influence in the neighbourhood but where Chinese presence is ever growing.
China’s commitment to build a crucial part of its Belt and Road project through areas of Pakistan which are claimed by India have further upped the ante. Estimated at an investment of around $50 billion, the CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) as the Belt and Road stretch in this region is called, is a critical alternative route for Chinese energy imports, especially of crude oil, most of which passes through the Malacca Straits in southeast Asia at the moment – a vulnerability which has been described as China’s ‘Malacca dilemma’. But CPEC passes through territory vulnerable not only to Indian action but also indigenous (and India-friendly) rebel groups in the region.
The importance of this flash point has grown after the Indian parliament ended the autonomous nature of the Jammu and Kashmir state including the Ladakh region, which shares a border with Aksai Chin, in August 2019. India asserts that its actions were merely aimed at changing the status quo in Kashmir but there is a sense that the Chinese do not quite buy that. Additionally, as veteran Indian diplomat Phunchok Stobdan recently told me, India watches with concern as the Chinese take a lead in 5G technology and plant 5G-ready towers even in the high Himalayas. And it has for long been speculated that the Chinese would try their best to ensure that the next Dalai Lama is from mainland China, thus closing any Indian (or Western) leverage.
There are many theories on why the latest crisis has mushroomed. India is part of a coalition of 64 countries that have demanded ‘impartial, independent and comprehensive’ investigation into the root causes of the spread of the Covid-19 virus. India also took over the chairmanship of the executive board of the World Health Organization in late May. Some experts suggest that the border crisis might be pressure tactics by a China facing the heat not only on Covid-19 but also through resurgent resistance movements in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
There are also theories on why the confrontation will not blow up – the trade deficit is worth more than $55 billion in China’s favor; by some estimates, in India, nearly 70% of smart phones, 60% of drug raw material, 90% of solar power equipment, among other things, is of Chinese origin. More than 65% of Indians who use mobile apps use at least one Chinese app.
But perhaps more than ever deep questions are being asked on how the billion-population-strong neighbours would be able to accommodate each other’s great power ambitions.