09/2020 | Reading time: 7 minutes
Even though the current pandemic seems to worsen every day, some tensions are not put on hold because of COVID-19. This is exactly the case with a half-a-century-old disagreement between China and India over their borders. But is the increasing tension between the two countries enough to start a third world war as some people have already heralded? Quite unlikely. Is it at least enough to spark a war between the parties involved then? As it stands, the five-point agreement reached by the two countries seems to have eased the tension. The only question is: for how long?
Since the middle of May, tensions have flared up again between the two Asian giants. China and India, with a combined population of more than 2.8 billion people, have squared off once more at their disputed borders, near the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which was drawn after the Sino-Indian War of 1962. The dispute between the two nuclear powers seems to be getting tenser, as, so far, there has been no proper resolution in sight for the long term. But is this series of conflicts enough to spark a third world war if we take into account the two countries’ nuclear capacities and their preeminent role in the global economy, or is it just barely enough to make these nations go to war against each other? As both countries want to solve this set of problems in their own way, a world war is highly unlikely. On the other hand, the half-a-century-old friction between them might just prove enough to set off a war if the diplomatic management of the situation does not bear fruit.
The Chinese–Indian border dispute originates from the end of the 1950s, just a decade after the birth of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 and the Republic of India in 1947. Even though the Sino-Indian relationship got off to a good start, the unsettled borders caused friction between the two nations in less than a decade, as, towards the end of the 1950s, they could not set an officially demarcated borderline between them on two long stretches of the more than 3500-km border. Mao Zedong’s China invaded Tibet in 1950, and the year-long war ended with the PRC’s seizing a small area at Arunachal Pradesh on the north-eastern border and Aksai Chin on the north-western part of India, territories which India considered to be theirs.
After almost a decade of trying to handle the disputed borders diplomatically, China saw no better way than go to war with its neighbour. In just a month, the Indian army was decisively defeated by the Chinese. The war came to an end after China, claiming it had reached its objective, declared a ceasefire and withdrew its troops behind the Line of Actual Control, which works as the de facto border until this day.
One of the reasons behind the Chinese offensive was to acquire Aksai Chin on the western side of the border, since it was an important strategic location connecting Tibet and Xinjiang with some infrastructure already in place. Finally, as the Chinese victory set the current LAC at the end of 1962, the Aksai Chin region on the western front, just like Arunachal Pradesh on the eastern, became the focal point of border disputes between the two nations.
After the 1962 war, there were constant clashes between the border patrols of the two sides. As China and India tried to mitigate the risks of the tensions rising higher, they have signed multiple treaties, including the 1993 treaty, which stated that the LAC was officially recognised by both parties, and the 1996 treaty, which expressed that neither side may overstep the LAC and that no guns and explosives should be used around the disputed borders in order to avoid further escalation.
After the treaties, the situation between the Asian giants seemed to have normalised, besides the abovementioned smaller skirmishes between border patrols. The positive turn is also signalled by the fact that the last time the two sides fired guns at each other was in 1975. Obviously, as the situation gets tenser, stand-offs occur, which was the situation around the Doklam plateau on the eastern frontier in 2017. However, after that, the two countries managed to stay away from the disputes up until this May.
Just before the summer of 2020, China and India have faced off once again. The reason for the tense situation was, as the foreign ministry spokesman for China Lijian Zhao put it, that Indian troops had crossed into Chinese territory and attacked, which led to “fierce physical conflict.” The nerves seemed to calm down for the rest of the month, but, according to Zhao, on 15 June, Indian troops “once again crossed the Line of Actual Control for deliberate provocation when the situation in the Galwan Valley was already easing.” The brutal skirmish at the banks of the Galwan River, between Ladakh and Aksai Chin regions, ultimately led to the death of twenty Indian soldiers and an unspecified number of deaths on the Chinese side.
The Chinese administered Aksai Chin and the Indian territory Ladakh separated by the Line of Actual Control. The red circles indicate the recent clashes. From top to bottom: Galwan Valley skirmish, clash near a newly built Chinese road, Pangong Lake skirmish.
Source: University of Texas Libraries via Wikimedia Commons, author: CIA, licence: public domain
Prime minister of India Narendra Modi gave a speech about the situation just two days after the clash had occurred. He argued that India wanted peace but, if provoked, would provide an appropriate response. He also reassured his nation that the most important thing for the government was the integrity and sovereignty of the country. PM Modi claimed that India had never provoked anyone and always tried to keep differences from becoming disputes, and he also highlighted that the martyred soldiers “[would] not go to waste.” The prime minister also said that no foreign soldiers are inside Indian territory and that no territory has been lost.
While both countries accuse each other of the provocation, it is important to fact-check the assertions on what is going on in the region. As China has been more active with its infrastructural improvements in these territories for the last couple of decades, and, specifically, since 2016, it has much more developed road and railway connections to its airbases than India. This is the reason why the latter is playing catch-up with its infrastructural developments, and it may also be the cause of the recent stand-offs, as improvements in military capacities in both countries near the LAC continue. Currently, China works on connecting its roads and railway lines with the inner part of the country, which ultimately would lead to strategic advantage over India in case of war, because it would allow much quicker troop movements and equipment transport. India wants to have the same capacities; thus, it started serious infrastructural development near the LAC from its side.
The skirmish in the Galwan Valley ended on 22 June, just a few days after it had begun, and the world has since turned its head towards China and India. Just like Maxar, a space technology company. The satellite images taken by the company could give a much deeper understanding of the situation, as they show some structures that were not there a month earlier and seem to be built by Chinese troops. The bunkers, tents, and storage units in the Galwan Valley show that the Chinese have indeed taken a step closer to the LAC, which could have been a response to recent Indian infrastructural developments and newly built and renovated airbases in the Ladakh region near the poorly demarcated Line of Actual Control. The problem with the LAC is that it tends to shift, just like the rivers, lakes, and glaciers it was drawn over.
As army officials in the region managed to separate the Chinese and Indian soldiers, talks began between the two sides locally and diplomatically. Yet the solution still seems far away. The reason behind that is that both countries accuse each other of trying to enter and/or seize their territories, and they deliberately claim that they were provoked by their counterparts. Both countries have quite strong and nationalistic leaders and governments who see backing off as a sign of weakness, which made diplomatic talks unfruitful until the last couple of weeks. This attitude has also taken a toll on bilateral relations, since India banned several dozen apps, e.g., the famous Chinese app TikTok, alongside with other Chinese products or even investments in the country, including restrictions on Huawei’s 5G network-building. There has been a serious uproar against China amongst the Indian population, which led to the boycott of Chinese manufactured goods and, in some cases, even to the burning of President Xi Jinping’s picture.
Talks continued throughout the summer, and tensions seemed to ease, but, at the end of August, yet another face-off took place near Pangong Lake. China claims that Indian troops illegally trespassed on Chinese territory in the Himalayas, which caused tensions to rise again.
China’s reaction was to deploy more troops in the area, which set off the escalation yet again. It seems that the diplomatic solution did not prove as effective as the two sides had hoped during the first week of September because, despite the de-escalation measures, the LAC is still prone to cause serious friction between the countries. So the build-up of military forces alongside the border continues. As a reaction, the Indian chief of the defence staff said that India was ready to use military force if China became a serious security threat.
While relations between China and India have never been colder without a war, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting was held in Moscow on the second week of September, just a couple of days after the first warning shots had been fired by both countries in almost half a century. At the meeting, the foreign ministers of China and India finally managed to hold a face-to-face meeting for the first time since clashes had begun in May. Even though both want to de-escalate the situation to maintain peace and tranquillity and both want to continue the discussion through official diplomatic channels, the two countries continue to blame each other, ending up at a standstill during the talks. Actually, both countries want to show the world that they are ready to solve the issue with peaceful discussion, but neither of them is ready to give even an inch to progress towards the common goal whilst they are getting prepared for military action if all else fails.
Because of the unfruitful talks and warning shots, China and India started gathering a massive number of armed troops at Pangong Lake near the LAC, which does not help the de-escalation process. As the commanding officers try to calm the deployed troops, who are at shooting distance from each other, China does not seem to trust India, since the PLA has just freed five Indian nationals who were captured a couple days before because the Chinese thought they were Indian spies. As a response to the alleged spying activities by India, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China conducted a series of tests near the border, including drones and rocket launchers, to ready themselves for high-altitude warfare, which leads to the conclusion that the PLA is raising combat readiness and seriously considering its options.
The tension near the LAC only seemed to be eased by the higher-level diplomatic talks that occurred in the second week of September. Sun Weidong, the envoy of China to India, is sure that the two countries are able to overcome these problems via diplomatic dialogue and must preserve mutual trust. A five-point consensus has been negotiated by the foreign ministers after the SCO meeting, and, as Sun Weidong said: “China hopes the five-point consensus reached between the two foreign ministers can be implemented,” while he highlighted that his country was “ready to strike a heavy blow to Indian troops if they [refused] to implement it.” Similarly, Narendra Modi and his chief of the defence staff are also ready to defend India’s sovereignty. The five-point plan, mainly focussing on restarting confidence-building measures and de-escalation by higher-level diplomatic talks, could lead to the common goal of calming the situation. However, the question lingers whether the strongly nationalistic governments of both countries are able to conduct successful dialogue whilst they are preparing to go to war with each other.
Ultimately, it is almost certain that neither side wants to go to war, while they are firmly standing by their proclaimed territorial sovereignty, even if, contradictory to their statements, it means that the problem can only be solved by a war alongside the disputed borders. Hopefully, with diplomatic solutions seeming to have started easing the pressure on both countries’ militaries and governments, the two Asian giants can come up with a solution instead of sending more troops near the LAC. However, as they prepare for the worst, the build-up of military forces may end up causing a war. We cannot say with confidence that the diplomatic efforts will work, but at least both countries claim to work hard on the case as of now.
At this point, we should not forget that both sides are nuclear powers. If worse comes to worst, this factor can be considered one of the most feared possibilities of solving the incident. Ultimately, this could set off a domino effect in a world already suffering from high tension and lead to another world war. Thankfully, on the one hand, China and India are fully aware of such risks, so it is in neither side’s interests to start an all-out war. On the other hand, it is also highly unlikely that this quarrel will lead to a series of events causing the next world war because neither China nor India wants to seek help from other countries for solving the dispute. It is fair to suggest that, even if the foreign ministers are able to find a solution, tensions may need to be discussed on an even higher level by the president of China and the prime minister of India. Such a summit is yet to be held, since, for the foreseeable future, these two nations have faith in their lower-level trust-building measures. Let us hope there are grounds for their optimism.
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