The recent Sino-Indian clashes in the Naku La sector of Sikkim and along the Pangong Lake in eastern Ladakh have once again brought to light the Sino-Indian border dispute.
The approximately 3,400-kilometer-long (2,100 mile) Sino-Indian border had seen repeated intrusions from the Chinese side in the past as well.
It was in 2013 that a 21-day standoff took place between the two sides in the Daulat Beg Oldie sector in eastern Ladakh. The next year, the two sides were locked in a 16-day standoff in the Chumar sector of Ladakh. What was more ironic was that this came during the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to India in September 2014. Then, in 2017, the two countries were involved in a 73-day tense standoff in the Doklam region of Bhutan, when Chinese troops started constructing a road there.
While these kinds of skirmishes are not new, the main question is why now?
First, it may be part of a bigger move in Chinese foreign policy. Recently China has been on the diplomatic offensive against many countries, especially against countries like Australia, which have called for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus outbreak. It comes at a time when Chinese diplomats have adopted a so-called “Wolf Warrior” diplomatic posture, which has these diplomats adopt a very hardened (and undiplomatic) posture on issues affecting China.
Second, Beijing may also be wanting to deflect attention from matters inside the country, where the fight against the pandemic has extracted a big toll on the country’s economy. There are also some reports emerging of new infections in other cities in China.
Third, Beijing may want to keep the border hot in order to increase the pressure on India in other areas. In the light of the coronavirus outbreak, India had ordered rapid testing kits from China. However, the order was subsequently canceled as they were found to be faulty. China also claims the Indian province of Arunachal Pradesh as its territory, and in the past had repeatedly raised objections during the visit of leading Indian dignitaries and the Dalai Lama to the border province.
Fourth, the passage of a resolution at the recently-held 73rd session of the World Health Assembly — calling for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the response of the World Health Organization (WHO) to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic — had been backed by India, as well as countries like Japan, Indonesia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Canada, among others. There is no doubt that Beijing would have been incensed by this.
Though in the aftermath of the 2017 Doklam standoff the two sides had managed to put a lid on their differences for the time being with the Wuhan Informal Summit (2018), which was followed by the Mamallapuram Informal Summit (2019), there are still many issues which have not been resolved between the two sides.
China’s “all-weather” support to Pakistan is a thorn in the ties between the two countries. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will allow China to bypass the Straits of Malacca, which is its “Achilles Heel,” given its narrow nature. In addition, Chinese backing has been crucial when it comes to state-sponsored terror emanating from Pakistan. For a long time, it had blocked the terrorist listing of the dreaded rogue Maulana Masood Azhar at the United Nations, but finally had to give way on account of sustained international pressure.
Another issue is China’s lack of support for India’s quest to be a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. Though India has received support from all the other permanent members of the UNSC on this issue, it is China that remains the stumbling block. It has also blocked India’s entry into the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers’ Group), a body that regulates global nuclear commerce.
What to Expect Now?
It will be naïve to expect China not to resort to further aggressive actions on the border just because the current round of tensions may have subsided. China would surely have many more tricks up its sleeve.
New Delhi would also need to think of strategies to counter future Chinese aggressive actions. It would do well to consult with friendly countries like Japan and the United States to draw up a coordinated response to future Chinese incursions.
Japan has also been at the receiving end of provocation from China. The Chinese aircraft carrier and its five-ship flotilla recently transited through the Miyako Strait in an apparent show of force. Earlier, in 2010 during the Senkaku incident, Beijing had halted the export of rare earths to Japan.
The U.S. has carried out many FONOPs (Freedom of Navigation Operations) in the South China region, where China has been belligerent in the last few years. Sooner or later, the two may be involved in a skirmish, unless any one side backs down.
Planning Out the Future Strategy
India has also been ramping up its infrastructure in the border areas. When these infrastructure projects are in areas close to the Sino-Indian border, they may lead to future skirmishes between the two. China would be keen to deny the advantage to India when it comes to border infrastructure. However, New Delhi would have to stand its ground on such issues, since any climb-down in one sector could lead to more pressure from China in other sectors.
The other option would be to take on China in the economic realm. There may be room for leverage, as India ran a huge trade deficit of $56.77 billion USD vis-à-vis China in 2019.
As they say, “a stitch in time saves nine.” India, Japan, and other like-minded countries would do well to remember this dictum when it comes to dealing with the Dragon.
Author: Dr. Rupakjyoti Borah
Dr. Rupakjyoti Borah is a senior research fellow with the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, Tokyo. His books include The Elephant and the Samurai: Why Japan Can Trust India and Act-East via the Northeast. He has been a visiting fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs and the University of Cambridge. The views expressed are personal. Twitter @rupakj.