As predecessors to a possible nuclear war go, fistfights and stone-throwing aren’t exactly the first things that come to mind. But looking into the ongoing India and China’s long, contested border, that’s exactly what has been happening for the past month, prompting President of the US, Donald Trump to offer to mediate what he called a “now raging dispute” between two of Asia’s major military powers this Wednesday.
Tensions along the 2,000-mile border have been high for decades, with the Indian government reporting more than 1,000 mostly minor incursions by Chinese troops between the years 2016 and 2018. But the hostilities have increased over the last several weeks following large movements of the Chinese troops into the previously Indian-controlled territories.
What’s happening at the India-China border now?
Up to 10,000 Chinese troops, well-equipped with vehicles and tents, are reportedly stationed in Ladakh, close to where India, China and Pakistan meet. They have also crossed the “line of actual control” between the two nations in early May. In the last few weeks, there have been two clashes, one on the 5th of May, in Ladakh, and another on 9th of May, more than 1,000 miles away, close to India’s eastern border, which furthermore meets China and Bhutan.
Both the sides appear to have so far kept to an informal agreement where weapons aren’t used in clashes, to prevent them from escalating. But several soldiers from both the sides have been injured, including senior officers, according to reports, although much to our relief none has died.
Tensions increased further this Tuesday, because of the satellite photos published by Indian station NDTV that purportedly revealed Chinese troops building an expansion to a nearby airbase, and fighter jets on the tarmac. Later on the same day, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that China was stepping up its readiness for any kind of military conflict—though it’s not very clear whether this was a direct reference to India or for its rising concerns over Hong Kong and the Coronavirus pandemic. On the other hand, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a high-level meeting with defence officials to discuss the entire situation.
History of the border tensions between India and China:
The two countries went to war in 1962 over the borderline between Ladakh and Aksai Chin, which both claimed but was controlled by China. It resulted in a humiliating defeat for India, who lost more than 1,300 of its soldiers. But the war did help a little to shift the location of the “line of actual control,” the term that has come to describe the military realities on the ground. No Indian soldiers have been martyred on the border ever since 1975, thanks to efforts by the two nations to guard against escalation.
But tensions have still occasionally flared between the two nuclear-armed countries. The last time that the two sides had a major confrontation at the border was in 2017, when Indian troops had forcefully moved into Bhutan, a small kingdom that is sandwiched between these two powers, to stop China from building a road that India believed would alter the strategic balance of the area.
Why are the two countries clashing again now?
This latest incursion could be in response to India’s move of constructing a bridge close to the line of actual control in Ladakh, which can be seen as a way of retaliation in kind for India’s move into Bhutan in 2017, says Ayushman Kaul, a South Asia research assistant at the Atlantic Council, a think tank.
“China constituted this as India’s attempt to change the status quo,” Kaul says. “This stemmed from the 2017 exchange, where India had applied the same argument to China, saying China’s construction of a road upended the status quo in that region. It’s basically saying Okay, if you’re going to do that, we’re going to do this.”
Recently there has been a lot of speculation in the Indian media that China’s move is an attempt to divert attention away from its alleged role in facilitating the spread of COVID-19 around the world.
In any case, Kaul says, the inclusion of military hardware makes this incursion the most significant in a long period of time. “It’s not only that China has crossed over, but also they have deployed tents and heavy vehicles,” he says. “It’s a drastic change from the previous behaviour we’ve seen on the border.”
Yet the heart of the matter as we all know is never a single road or bridge. “The land that the two countries are fighting over is an arid plateau,” says Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London. “But it’s about much more than territory. It’s symptomatic of this much deeper strategic clash between the two nations. It’s part of enormous unresolved border tensions between a very aspiring China, which believes its Asian century is here, and an India which also feels it has a massive role.”