China and India have locked horns over the Line of Actual Control (LAC) on the border. The escalating tension has come at a time when the world is battling the global COVID-19 pandemic which has created an unprecedented health and economic crises.
Rather than displaying bilateral cooperation to revive the devastating economies, Beijing and New Delhi are engaged in a border confrontation, overshadowing their fight against COVID-19.
While the summits between India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and China’s President Xi Jinping in Wuhan in April 2018 and in India's Mamallapuramin October 2019, had provided a window of opportunity to the two countries to cement long-term peace in the border areas irrespective of their different stances over the LAC, the present stand-off shows both sides have frittered away the opportunity only to bring themselves into the war like situation.
Additionally, both the informal summits had maintained that India and China should seek stability in the international landscape and that both sides would prudently manage their differences but not allow differences on any issue to become disputes.
The ongoing confrontation attests to the failure of the two countries in implementing Confidence Building Measures like sharing information and engaging in negotiations to resolve their disputes.
Beijing and New Delhi do not engage in consistent negotiations over their border disputes to resolve them permanently; it is only the long confrontations at the border which bring into sharper relief the level of tension and trust deficit existing in their bilateral relations. A major factor of friction is the disagreement over the location of the LAC, a hotbed of transgressions by the border forces who most of the time move back to their respective areas peacefully.
Though the two countries’ border management has succeeded from many decades in preventing a deadly confrontation at the border, it has not prevented the rise in intrusions, standoffs and rock-pelting incidents which are often reported from the LAC. If any of these provocations goes out of control, a flare-up is likely to occur.
In the current face-off at the Galvan valley in eastern Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir, the Chinese troops are reported to have come three to five kilometers inside the LAC.
Further, the latest friction is a grim reminder of the thorny issues which often push New Delhi and Beijing towards confrontation on their border while on the global platforms the two neighbouring countries are not seen on the same page.
The issues are China’s alleged military and diplomatic support to Pakistan, India’s growing bonhomie with the United States (China’s key rival) and the two countries’ territorial disputes in the border areas.
For China, the border escalation with India right now is most likely to attract massive media attention across the globe, enabling Beijing to draw attention away from the growing pressure over it with respect to the international investigation into the origin of the Coronavirus.
Moreover, it is assumed that Jinping government is constrained to pacify the angry masses- not satisfied with their government’s handling of COVID-19- at the domestic level; the confrontation with New Delhi possibly has proven an effective distraction from the domestic troubles.
There have been prolonged confrontations between the two neighboring countries in the past as well – the confrontations which remained in news for weeks together, raising fears of armed conflicts and had to be resolved at the political level.
China opposed the construction of an Indian observation post at the LAC in the Depsang Valley in Ladakh in 2013. The resulting stand-off lasted for twenty-one days. Year 2014 saw a sixteen –day standoff at Chumar in Ladakh when China resisted the construction of a water irrigation channel at the LAC.
The most recent face-off took place in 2017 on the Dokhlam plateau when Indian forces stopped the construction of a road by the Chinese military into the disputed area claimed by Bhutan, India’s key regional alley.
The confrontation remained in force for seventy-three days, raising prospects of a major armed conflict. The standoff resulted into a summit between Indian premier Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan in 2018.
Shyam Saran, the former foreign secretary of India believes that the Chinese actions at the LAC could be for three major causes: one, India should not join the US-led China chorus over COVID-19, India should desist from restoring the observer status to Taiwan in the WHO and should ensure no harm to China’s economic interests .
Additionally, India is heading the WHO’s 34-member executive board, from May 22, and a probe of the origin of the coronavirus is due to complete. Beijing through its assertiveness at the border seems to demoralize New Delhi and refrain it from standing up to China.
The infrastructure upgradation underway on both sides of the border could also be ascribed to the escalation and frequent stand-offs at the border region between the two nuclear armed countries.
To deescalate the situation, the best course of action for both sides is to exercise restraint and engaging in negotiations without losing further time: a flare up is likely to draw the regional players and the US into action.
America formally recognizes India’s territorial claims in the border dispute with China and China’s hostility with India is likely to be viewed by Washington as an attack on India. In such a case, the border dispute can prove a nuclear flashpoint with global implications. In 1962 Indo-China war, the US supported India through military equipment and supplies.
Interestingly, the US wants India to play a strong role in balancing China’s influence and power in the region. India, on the other hand, seeks the US support to strengthen its position in relation to China. The ongoing stand-off between China and India could possibly induce the latter to seek diplomatic and strategic support from Washington.