Tensions between Chinese and Indian troops in the Himalayas have been high since early May. Tensions escalated when thousands of soldiers engaged in a deadly clash, resulting in dozens of deaths.
On June 15th, the first fatal clash between China and India since 1975 and the most serious since 1967, took place. With both sides blaming each other, it is unclear how the bout started.
Beijing has announced that there were Chinese casualties but has not elaborated further. The Indian press claims their troops killed 43 Chinese soldiers.
Even though the two countries have been at conflict for years, the loss of life breaks nearly 50 years of peace between them, and the timing is suspicious.
The History behind the China-India Relationship
During the founding of the People’s Republic of China from 1949 to 1959, the two countries enjoyed a period of peace with India regarding China as a cooperative fellow nation with a tough birth. Although the two countries’ political and economic systems were different, it seemed the two countries had many routes for cooperation.
The Sino-Indian war of 1962 drastically changed the public perception of China. With a conclusive Chinese victory, Communist China was an aggressive neighbor that should not be trusted.
Soon after the short but deadly war, the line of actual control (LAC) was established.
Despite signing five agreements to reduce the risk of combat, occasional unarmed clashes have not been unusual since 1962.
As a result, some analysts say Beijing is unlikely to plan anything on the same scale of the war in 1962. Instead, it will inflict small scale military setbacks on India, and take land bit by bit, similarly to Russia’s rolling border in Georgia.
But is it different this time?
China’s aggressive policies in the region and toward the U.S., compounded with the devastating effect of COVID-19 on India and the world, have made the conflict’s timing very suspicious.
Prompting us to ask, ‘what’s really behind this conflict?’
Advancement of Infrastructure on Both Sides
The Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi road in Ladakh has been a major Indian project for years. Cutting through mountain ridges as high as 16,000 feet, it took 19 years to construct.
The road runs from Daulat Beg Oldi, a military base and landing ground for the Indian Air Force, directly to the disputed border with Chinese controlled Aksai Chin. India’s troops can move from its military base with a higher speed to the disputed border.
Importantly, India would be able to respond quickly to Chinese aggression, increase patrolling and close monitoring of movement at the border, and, consequently, reply with a greater military force.
China has seen India’s steady improvement of infrastructure as a threat to its interests. To some, this may seem hypocritical as Chinese road-building in the Himalayan region began as early as 1950.
One could argue that infrastructure development on the Indian side is only as a response to that of China’s.
Nevertheless, the advancement of infrastructure on both sides has unquestionably increased tensions and led to a conflict between the two nuclear powers.
China’s Aggressive Policies in the Region
India is not the only country China has been in conflict with recently. While most countries in the world have been battling with the Coronavirus, China has been aggressive in the South China Sea and Hong Kong.
Last month, China sank a Vietnamese shipping boat with eight fishermen on board while fishing in the Paracel Islands. Claimed by Vietnam, the Paracel Islands have been in Chinese control for a long time and are supposedly hosting surface to air missiles.
Strategically, this is significant for China because it makes it easier to dominate the sea. China has also placed an oil rig in the contested area, which is patrolled by 30 to 137 boats, including six warships.
The Chinese are sensitive towards the Parcel Islands because they have a strategic significance, which could explain Vietnamese vessels’ sinking. Perhaps, the fishing boats were somewhere they shouldn’t have been.
What’s more interesting is that in recent years, the Indian Navy has dramatically increased its presence near seas. A vast majority of China’s oil shipments, container vessels, and bulk cargo traffic passes through the Malacca Strait, where the Indian Navy has a significant presence.
Combative patrolling by the Indian Navy is common in the Indian ocean. They could easily disrupt the flow of any Chinese cargo that passes through there, which would be more logical for India than a direct conflict with China.
In the past few months, hardly a day has gone past in Hong Kong without news of arrested activists. The push against U.S. warships in the region is also increasing, using aggressive signaling, and illuminating U.S. warships with fire control radar.
China is trying to reshape Asia.
In 2020, we have seen a more assertive and dominant China, keen to maintain and grow its influence in a post-COVID19 world. With India threatened, it’s driven towards the welcoming arms of the U.S.
India’s Relationship With the U.S. and its Allies
The U.S. would undoubtedly see this aggression as China’s attempt to assert itself in the region. It would try as a countermeasure, as it has done before, to communicate its full support to New Delhi.
Recognizing India’s geographical importance, the U.S. would do anything to make sure it is friendly with India and always has troops close to the Chinese border.
In an attempt to limit India’s geographical threat, China has surrounded it by funding neighboring countries, as evidenced by its alliance with India’s arch-enemy, Pakistan.
The number of Indians who feel India should make a more common cause with the U.S. and other democracies in the region is increasing.
A recent military logistics agreement was signed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, with a similar agreement between Delhi and Tokyo expected to follow. Is this the start of new alliances against China?
China’s intimidation could be justified, maybe that’s why it has adopted a threatening strategy towards India and other countries in the region, to show that it will not be overwhelmed.
Tensions Can Only Escalate
China is only pushing India away towards other countries in the region by pursuing its aggressive strategies. With India’s geographical importance, and China’s unpopularity in the region, is this wise of China?
India is preparing well to deal with any Chinese aggression. The development of infrastructure and the forming of new alliances with other countries are proof of this.
Moreover, India’s defense minister was in Moscow last week to push Russia to speed up the sale of the S-400 missile defense system.
The recent killings could be a snapshot of the future. With both superpowers possessing nuclear power, It’s hard to see how the relationship between them can improve.