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EFSAS Commentary

China’s aggression on the India-China border will indelibly alter the bilateral equation


The 15 June attack by Chinese troops on Indian soldiers in the remote and desolate Galwan valley, which lies on the western fringes of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that presently demarcates the two countries, represented an extreme example of the increased Chinese belligerence in its neighbourhood in recent months. That it was a deliberate, pre-planned, and barbaric attack that clearly violated the protocols of engagement agreed upon by the two sides decades ago, and caused the first fatalities on the LAC in close to half a century, is clear. What remains to be seen is the impact that the tragic loss of lives will have on the future trajectory of the broader India-China relationship, how the ramifications will play out on the regional chessboard, and to what extent the rules of engagement at the LAC, which had been arduously worked out over years, would be diluted or transformed.

The Chinese attack has led to China’s most serious security situation with India in recent years, and flared emotions have meant that the potential for rapid escalation is rife. Although experts seem unclear on what prompted China to believe that such volatility, which was the obvious outcome that could be anticipated from an attack such as the one that it launched at the LAC, would be in its interests, most seem to concur that the Chinese attack marks the 21st century turning point for India and China, and that the two countries face a future characterized by deepened distrust and potential fresh conflict. 

The attack on Indian troops comes on the back of an increasing Chinese assertiveness, be it in the South China Sea, Taiwan or Hong Kong. China has been flexing its muscle across the region, intercepting Malaysian and Vietnamese vessels in the South China Sea, seizing new powers over Hong Kong and twice sailing an aircraft carrier through the sensitive Taiwan Strait.

It is unclear whether such aggression is meant to be a Chinese show of strength and intent in response to the international criticism and calls for accountability by several prominent members of the international community for its role in the origination and spread of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), or an effort to divert the attention of its growing number of disenchanted subjects struggling to cope with the steep economic downturn and uncertainty, or even opportunism in making the most of a weakened and inattentive United States (US) that is grappling with a severe COVID-19 outbreak and a divisive election campaign. What is, however, not at all ambiguous is that China has been testing the limits of international laws, conventions and norms, and the attack on the LAC was the latest and most serious manifestation.

As had been brought out in the EFSAS Commentary of 22-05-2020 on the India-China border clashes, tensions along the LAC had started escalating early last month when Chinese soldiers, ignoring verbal warnings from India, had entered territory held by India and erected tents and guard posts there. India responded to this Chinese aggression by sending in reinforcements to the area, and since then hundreds of soldiers from the two countries have been facing off just a few hundred meters from each other in the valley of the Galwan river. 

The infrastructure projects being undertaken by India near the LAC, especially the roads being constructed to link forward points along the LAC to the nearest airport at Daulat Beg Oldi in Ladakh, appear to have unsettled China. Such constructions would enable quicker military mobilization and strategic advance by India. Furthermore, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the multi-billion dollar flagship of China’s much touted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), passes through in proximity to the area where the construction is taking place. India has opposed the CPEC as it enters Pakistan after traversing through Gilgit Baltistan, a part of the undivided princely State of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) that India has legal title over, but which Pakistan holds and administers.

Based on the decisions taken at a 6 June meeting between senior Indian and Chinese military officials, India on 15 June sent a party of soldiers to check whether Chinese forces had withdrawn from a particular point in the Galwan valley that they were supposed to have vacated. These Indian troops were attacked by a large contingent of Chinese soldiers armed with iron rods studded with large nails and large stones wrapped in barbed wire. The protocols in place at the LAC since the early 1990s prevented troops from both sides from firing weapons in order to avoid escalation. Both sides called for reinforcements after the Indian troops retaliated to the attacks. The ensuing melee went on for hours in the darkness, and was bloody and messy. The harsh climatic conditions at the altitude of 5000 meters also contributed to the number of casualties.

Following the clashes, the Indian Army issued an initial statement on 16 June in which it said that, “During de-escalation process underway in Galwan Valley, a violent face-off took place yesterday night with casualties on both sides. The loss of lives on the Indian side includes an officer and two soldiers. Senior military officials of the two sides are currently meeting”. This was followed by an update that evening that raised the death count to 20, and it mentioned adverse climatic conditions as a factor. The Indian Army said in this second statement that, “17 Indian troops who were critically injured in the line of duty at the standoff location and exposed to sub-zero temperatures in the high altitude terrain have succumbed to their injuries, taking the total that were killed in action to 20”.

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) also released a statement that day in which it asserted that, “On the late-evening and night of 15th June, 2020 a violent face-off happened as a result of an attempt by the Chinese side to unilaterally change the status quo there. Both sides suffered casualties that could have been avoided had the agreement at the higher level been scrupulously followed by the Chinese side”. It added that India, nevertheless, remained “firmly convinced of the need for the maintenance of peace and tranquility in the border areas and the resolution of differences through dialogue. At the same time, we are also strongly committed to ensuring India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

Zhang Shuili, a spokesperson for the Western Theater Command (WTC) of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), meanwhile, accused India “of going back on its word” and “violating commitments”. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that China had taken action and “lodged strong protest and representation with the Indian side”. While Shuili acknowledged that there had been casualties on both sides, China has shied away from revealing the actual number of troops it had lost. Multiple media reports, quoting US intelligence and Indian Army sources, said that China suffered 43 casualties, including 35 deaths. 

By 17 June, China was also talking peace. Reuters reported that China’s foreign ministry had said that day that Beijing does not want to see any more clashes on the border with India, and that both nations are trying to resolve the situation through dialogue. The Indian and Chinese foreign ministers also spoke over telephone and agreed that dialogue was the way forward. However, while the Chinese minister Wang Yi demanded that the Indian soldiers involved in the incident be “severely punished”, India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar asserted that “premeditated and planned action” by the Chinese side was “directly responsible” for the violence. Jaishankar added that the “Chinese side sought to erect a structure in Galwan Valley on our side of the LAC” and thereby set up the clash.

The complexities of dealing with a country like China were, however, reiterated soon thereafter when China on 17 June claimed “sovereignty over the Galwan Valley region”, a claim that India promptly rejected as “exaggerated and untenable”. This was the first time that China had made such a claim, and the timing of it just after a major clash at the claimed location would indicate that China’s talk of resolving differences through dialogue notwithstanding, it will continue to make statements and take actions that are likely to keep the situation on the LAC tense and uncertain.

China’s strategy at the LAC has been described by Pakistani columnist Syed Fazl-e-Haider as, one of provocation, and incremental pushes, constantly testing resolve”. He also opined that, “In the current Sino-India border standoff, Beijing looks offensive and aggressive; New Delhi seems defensive and restrained, and the United States appears to be eyeing the developing situation as a silent spectator”.

James Jay Carafano, the vice president of foreign and defense policy studies in The Heritage Foundation in the US, was highly critical of China for the 15 June attack and called for the US to back India. He wrote, “Let’s be clear about the source of these tensions. The fault lies mostly with the Chinese. For months they have ratcheted up the frequency of small-scale border confrontations, trying to pressure India into complying with China’s view of the border… In late May, Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Alice Wells warned us this was coming. ‘There’s a method here to Chinese operations, and it is that constant aggression,’ Wells said. ‘The constant attempt to shift the norms, to shift what is the status quo. That has to be resisted whether it’s in the South China Sea ... or whether it’s in India’s own backyard.’ China, however, seems more interested in bullying other countries than solving disputes… Thanks to the Chinese regime’s increasing aggressiveness, the messy border dispute in one of the most remote and desolate places on Earth has gotten worse… the U.S. ought to take a stand against China’s increasing bullying. India is an important American partner for peace and stability in the region. Beijing ought to have no illusions about where America stands. The U.S. stands with our friends”. Carafano further urged the US to impress on China the need to return to the pre-May status quo at the LAC.

Despite China’s belligerence, its reluctance to make public the number of troops that it lost on 15 June displayed its soft underbelly at the LAC. It also reflected a contradictory wish to prevent the clashes from escalating. The response of the Chinese government to the LAC clash was also conspicuously low-key, unlike incidents in its other military theaters such as the Taiwan Strait, where minor provocations by the US military often lead to bellicose warnings from Beijing. Christopher Colley, a fellow at the Wilson Center who specializes in the China-India security relationship, believes that, “It’s a strategic decision by China to not disclose casualties and fatalities and a deliberate attempt to de-escalate what could be a very, very dicey situation if you let nationalism become involved”.

Hu Xijin, the hawkish editor of the Chinese government owned tabloid the Global Times, pointed out that, “This looks to be the first time Chinese soldiers have been sacrificed in conflict over the past two decades”. The BBC's Beijing correspondent Robin Brant believes that the reason behind keeping the number of casualties under wraps is that China's propagandists may not want to fan nationalist flames at home by making much of any loss, or admit to a significant and demoralizing loss. In the minds of the Chinese leaders, they seem to believe that deaths in such a confrontation could be read as a sign of weakness, especially if the Chinese side really did come off worse. In effect, for China the casualties were a rare cause for embarrassment, one it fears may also embolden other adversaries along its border.

Swedish journalist and author Bertil Lintner, in an article titled ‘China shoots itself in the foot in the Himalayas’ argued that China's killing of 20 Indian soldiers is the latest aggression by it, and that by indulging in such behavior China was “making foes of friends and driving its encirclement”. He added, “In April, a Chinese vessel sank a Vietnamese fishing boat in the South China Sea which prompted the Philippines, an old US ally that under the current president Rodrigo Duterte had moved closer to China, to vocally side with Vietnam. That was not surprising considering a Philippine fishing boat was in June last year rammed by a Chinese vessel in the nearby Reed Bank area. China has also managed to antagonize a range of other countries in the region. On June 4, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsud said at a virtual news conference that China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea ‘affect Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.’ On May 26, Jakarta had declared that China’s so-called ‘nine-dash line’ outlining its wide-reaching claims in the South China Sea lacks a basis in international law. Jakarta cited a 2016 ruling by Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague which had ruled in favor of the Philippines in a complaint against China’s encroachments into the South China Sea, which China rejected as baseless. In May this year, a Chinese survey ship was involved in a month-long standoff with a Malaysian oil exploration vessel in the South China Sea. The ship, Haiyang Dizhi 8, eventually left the area escorted by at least two Chinese naval vessels while Malaysia’s West Capella also withdrew after ‘completing its planned work.’ Judging from postings on social media statements from civil society organizations and anecdotal evidence provided by individual local as well as international analysts, anti-Chinese sentiment is also on the rise in Myanmar”.

Lintner went on to add that, “China’s apparent rising disregard for what the world thinks as well as agreements it has signed with other countries was felt across the region when Beijing earlier this year announced plans for a new security law for Hong Kong. Residents in the former British colony resented the move and demonstrated against it while Britain considered such interference in Hong Kong’s internal affairs as a breach of the Sino-British declaration of 1984 under which London agreed to hand over the territory to China in 1997. The declaration was registered with the UN and Britain considers it a binding international treaty”. Lintner also called out China’s saber-rattling against Taiwan, which he underlined had helped to forge a new informal alliance between Taiwan and Japan. Lintner concluded that, “From the Himalayan mountains to the South China Sea, China’s recent actions are redounding on Beijing in unforeseen ways and maybe pushing the encirclement it aims to avert”.

Dean Cheng, the Heritage Foundation’s research fellow on Chinese political and security affairs, cautioned China of very ugly and protracted confrontations at the LAC if it chose to escalate the violence against India there. While underlining that the present situation was radically different from 1962, when India and China engaged in a bloody war, Cheng noted that, “In 1962, Chinese forces arguably out-matched their Indian counterparts, in what was predominantly a light infantry campaign”. Neither side employed airpower or missiles. In recent years, both sides have been building their infrastructure along the LAC, and any fighting would likely involve more advanced weapons operating in extreme geographical and climatic conditions, Cheng averred.

Recent studies have highlighted the advantages India today holds to ward off a 1962-type setback in the event of a full-scale escalation with China. A research paper published by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School earlier this year analyzed comparative data of Indian and Chinese strategic assets and noted that New Delhi's conventional advantage on account of its exclusively China-centric deployments across air, land and high-altitude platforms remained “under-appreciated” in Indian discourse. The paper also underlined that while China may be largely on its own facing off against India in the Himalayas, New Delhi has been developing defense relationships with countries wary of Beijing as a rising military power.

Interestingly, Huang Guozhi, a Chinese military expert and senior editor of Modern Weaponry magazine, wrote in an article published by China’s thepaper.cn on 9 June, in the midst of the ongoing standoff at the LAC, that “At present, the world’s largest and experienced country with plateau and mountain troops is neither the US, Russia, nor any European powerhouse, but India”. He added that, “With more than 200,000 troops in 12 divisions, the Indian mountain force is the largest mountain fighting force in the world”, and that India also plans to create a mountain strike force of more than 50,000 troops. Guozhi also pointed out that the mountain brigades raised by India are almost exclusively meant for the Chinese border, especially the Tibetan plateau, which rendered them highly specialized units for the adverse conditions along most of the LAC.

Most experts are in agreement that the current tensions along the LAC are unlikely to snowball into a full-scale war. As Miha Hribernik, head of Asia for risk insight at Verisk Maplecroft wrote, “The risk of miscalculation aside, we believe there is little appetite to beat the war drum. Nevertheless, neither Modi nor Xi can afford to completely back down in what is an exceedingly complex and long-standing sovereignty dispute. We accordingly expect tensions along the disputed border areas to continue to simmer during the rest of the year, with neither side willing to pull back completely, but with little enthusiasm for further escalation”. 

The enhanced military capabilities and the infrastructure developed by India at the LAC since 1962 and the potential adverse implications for China of these capabilities in the event of a war are likely to be a factor that inhibits China from engineering any sharp escalation. Beyond these military dynamics, a war today between India and China - which together account for over 2.7 billion people, or one third of the world’s population - could be catastrophic for the people of both countries and lead to human suffering on an unprecedented scale. It is imperative, therefore, that both sides, and especially the confrontational China, ensure that the prospect of war is kept out of the strategy drawing board. China must realize that a war, as damaging as it will be for India, will hit China and its global vision and dreams extremely hard.

The process of formally demarcating the India-China border has been hanging fire for almost 60 years since the 1962 war, and most of the blame for the excruciatingly slow progress on this count rests squarely on China’s shoulders. Even the British, when they ruled India, found China extremely reticent towards all its proposals for demarcation. The British made 5 such proposals between 1846-47 and 1914. China rejected each of them. The absence of a formal boundary and the differing perceptions regarding the alignment of the LAC have repeatedly resulted in disagreements and violent clashes, and this situation is not going to change till a formal border is agreed upon.

India has made it clear that though it has little appetite for violent clashes, it will not stand down to Chinese intimidation. This was precisely the point made unambiguously by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a televised address on 17 June. India would much prefer a diplomatic solution to the border issue with China. Meanwhile, the present international milieu in which China finds itself under severe pressure from several quarters could be well utilized by India to its advantage.

An aggressive diplomatic offensive by India similar to that launched after the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, as part of which the leaders and ambassadors of as many countries as is possible are briefed regularly on the nature and extent of the violations by China at the LAC and urged to publicly criticize China for its actions and demand that it withdraw, could yield results as it would painfully prick China’s intense sensitivity to its global image and reputation.