In April 2020, China and India marked the 70th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations. However, the plans to celebrate the anniversary by arranging 70 events within the India-China Year of Cultural and People-to-People Exchanges were overshadowed with renewed border clashes.
Although face-offs and standoffs in border areas between China and India are not new due to the undefined borders, their frequency give a reason to muse upon further relations between the two emerging giants. It seems that the predictions of the Indian Defense Ministry’s Centre for Joint War Studies in the report, published after the summer 2017 standoff, that stated “Doklam was likely to be the new normal” become a reality [Singh, 2020a].
Once again, the Himalayan borders turned into an arena of contestation when the Chinese and Indian army personnel engaged in hand-to-hand fighting and stone-pelting in Eastern Ladakh and North Sikkim on May 5-6 and May 10, 2020. According to Zhao Lijian, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, on May 6, the Indian border troops crossed the Line of Actual Control (LAC) near the Pangong lake to build the fortification and barricades that impeded the patrol of Chinese border guards. Chinese troops were forced to respond to the situation that resulted in minor injuries of soldiers from both sides [Embassy of the PRC in India, 2020]. At the same time, the Indian Army Chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane confirmed that Indian troops were maintaining their ‘posture’ along the border and continuing to develop its infrastructure projects in the border areas [News 18, 2020]. Similar melee clashes took place a few days later in North Sikkim.
Despite the fact that the sides held multiple rounds of negotiations to settle these border incidents, on June 15, 2020, on the LAC in the Galwan Valley of Eastern Ladakh, another violent clash happened between the Chinese and Indian border troops. According to Indian media, India lost 20 soldiers, and 76 were wounded, while the Chinese side has not released exact information on fatalities [Livemint, 2020]. Although the parties were following the 1996 agreement’s provision that no firearms are allowed within 2 km from the LAC, the incident resulted in first deaths since 1975. While Chinese officials stated that the Indian troops crossed the LAC and attacked the Chinese, the Indian side claims that the Chinese troops deliberately lured and trapped Indian soldiers to pressure Delhi on the status quo [Gabuev, 2020].
Overall, during May-June 2020 only, at least four separate clashes happened at several locations along the LAC in Eastern Ladakh: near the northern bank of the Pangong lake, at Hot Springs, in the Galwan Valley, and near the Naku La Pass in North Sikkim.
In order to maintain peace and tranquility along the LAC, four rounds of the Corps Commander-level talks were held on June 6, June 22, June 30 and July 14, 2020 [Financial Express, 2020]. They are expected to ease tensions in the border areas through implementing the de-escalation plan, distancing the border posts and decreasing the number of troops in the friction areas. A phone conversation between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval on July 5 have also positively impacted the process of disengagement [Bhaskar, 2020].
One of the possible reasons of the recent escalation is the infrastructure development activities in the Indian borderlands. The construction of the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) Road, which runs close to the LAC, will allow, when complete, to shorten the distance between the capital city of Ladakh, Leh, and the DBO post near the Chinese border from two days to six hours. The road will provide India with easy access to the Karakoram Pass that divides Ladakh from China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Military experts believe that India’s construction activities triggered China into accusing India of altering the LAC position since India fosters the improvement of its roads and airfields to reduce the infrastructure lag on its side of the LAC [Reuters, 2020]. Either way, the Indian government sent another 12,000 workers to the construction sites near the Chinese border in Ladakh in order to meet the deadlines since the working season in these areas extends from May to November only. The Border Roads Organization (BRO) plans to complete all 61 strategic roads along the Chinese border by December 2022, which will enable the fast mobilization of troops and artillery when needed [Singh and Choudhury, 2020].
Beijing has similar plans, and the Chinese side has already completed all 47 tunnels and 119 bridges out of 120, and laid about 115 km of the tracks of the Lhasa-Nyingchi-Chengdu railway. It is planned to be opened in 2021 to become the first electric railway in the region. It is expected to bring many advantages for the region’s economy. In particular, the opening of this railway, on the one hand, will enable the touristic opportunities of Tibet and, on other hand, a rapid transfer of reinforcements from the Chengdu Military Region, where the majority of military provisions are produced and significant military forces are deployed [Desai, 2020].
Thus, both China and India have been enhancing their transport networks and military infrastructures in their borderlands in order to ensure fast mobilization of the army, as well as advancing the army itself. The importance of infrastructure and road facilities were demonstrated during the Doklam standoff in the summer of 2017 when the Indian forces formed a human wall of 300 soldiers on the Doklam Plateau in the Bhutanese side to protest against the Chinese construction activities in the Bhutanese territory. In the aftermath of the conflict, both governments upgraded the importance of border infrastructure facilities and intensified the development programs in the border regions. Beijing, possessing comprehensively superior border and military facilities, has been concentrated on building a new model of villages on the Tibetan side of the border. Those developments were officially linked to “poverty alleviation” and “defense of the borders”, whereas indigenous people become the “Guardians of the Sacred Land and Builders of Happy Homes” [Arpi, 2018]. Simultaneously, China continues to improve its border infrastructure by building new transportation links, airports, and bridges along its LAC.
India’s border infrastructure was way behind the Chinese one. After the Doklam incident, speaking before the Indian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defense in March 2018, the Indian Vice Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant General Sarath Chand pointed out his serious concerns about the poor transportation infrastructure and lack of adequate allocation of funds for the army in comparison with China [Gurung, 2018]. Acknowledging the strategic importance of roads in difficult topographic areas to provide fast mobilization of troops in the face of a more immediate threat than previously expected, the Indian government took seriously the capacity of the India-China Border Roads (ICBR). As a result, the ICBR program has been developed to strengthen India’s ability to deal with Chinese intrusions. Before difficult terrain and natural disasters led to delays in the completion of roads, but the perceived immense threat from China convinced the government to allocate additional budget to overcome these obstacles and speed up the road construction. Subsequently, while the number of completed ICBRs were only 17 in 2014, it increased to 28 in 2017, and to 36 in 2019. Thus, the post-Doklam reforms allowed to extend the ICBRs from 962 km in December 2017 to 2,501 km in December 2019 [Dubey, 2020]. As of January 2020, the BRO constructed 75% of planned ICBRs, with the plan to complete another 11 roads in 2020 and nine in 2021 [Gurung, 2020]. After the incidents at the Eastern Ladakh, the government requested to finish the strategic Darbuk-Shyok-DBO Road by October 2020 until the end of the working season. Thus, the government and the BRO have been working intensively to advance India’s border road facilities, shorten the distance along the LAC and bridge a lag from China.
In addition, due to the undefined LAC that differs from a few meters in some places to tens of kilometers in others, the parties have different perceptions about the extent of their territories. Intrusions to the other side’s territory are considered as transgressions, which complicate the border interaction and carry security implications for China and India alike. Although the frequency of transgressions concerns both sides, if we look at the statistics during the last 10 years since Indians calculated the Chinese transgressions, the fluctuation in numbers has not been changed considerably. Chinese transgressions in India are illustrated in Table 1, whilst the Chinese side does not report publicly on Indian transgressions.
Table 1. Number of Chinese transgressions
|Number of transgressions||250||220||430||340||500||428||296||473||404||663|
Source: Sandh, (2016); Singh, (2020b).
Since both China and India aspire for global influence and constantly demonstrate their geopolitical ambitions, the border clashes have obviously become one of the most sensitive issues between the competing powers. Therefore, on the one hand both countries are competing for advancing their border infrastructure facilities, on the other hand they are attempting to resolve or mitigate existing border challenges. As such, the “strategic guidance” provided to their militaries within the “Wuhan Spirit” by President Xi and Prime Minister Modi could be mentioned. The high-profile informal summits between the two leaders in Wuhan and Mamallapuram after the Doklam crisis promised a new breath to addressing existing challenges institutionally. The 22nd meeting of the Special Representatives on the boundary dispute and the 16th meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) on China-India Border Affairs have also attempted to find a common solution to border issues and mitigate the consequences of border clashes, yet the decisions are dependent on political will rather than the technical preparedness [MEA India, 2020].
It is worth mentioning that China has become far more assertive given its small-scale but aggressive maritime activities in the South China Sea. The border intrusion claims by China thus can be viewed in conjunction with Beijing’s global assertive diplomacy, which at present pursues a policy of triumphalism. The passage of a tight national security law for Hong Kong and the unilateral announcement of the establishment of two new administrative structures in the South China Sea are other cases that illustrate the assertiveness of Chinese policy. At the same time, internationally, China has been playing two roles amid the COVID-19 pandemic: being the global aid donor for developing countries in the fight against the disease and being a combative power ready to respond to different opponents, including the United States [The Economic Times, 2020].
India also portrays itself as a more assertive player in global politics, by building strategic relations with China’s rivals such as the United States and Japan and strengthening its positions in the Indo-Pacific region. Revoking Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomous status and splitting it into two federal territories (Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh) in 2019 was also an assertive action of the Modi government that has had implications both domestically and internationally. India’s decisive position, expressed, among other things, in ambitious construction works along the Chinese border, is another demonstration of the strengthening Indian posture.
By and large, from the recent border skirmishes, several conclusions could be extracted. The major difference from the previous years is the more mature position of India. While before Indians were engaged in border clashes primarily to defend their territory, the last incidents demonstrate that it is India that has been building its fortifications close to the disputed territory. Thus, finally after the Doklam crisis, India understands, in line with its ambitious political agenda, the importance of border defense, which is seen in the comprehensive infrastructure construction plans. China has been constructing its border facilities since the 2000s, with the aim of developing its Tibet and Xinjiang regions, simultaneously enhancing connectivity in the Himalayas and fortifying its borders. Before the Doklam crisis, India paid less attention to the importance of connectivity of its borderlands, albeit it had been developing people’s exchanges in the form of border trade and pilgrimage posts. Although the volume of border trade never exceeded $1 million, for India border trade had been a confidence-building measure and a tool of procuring basic necessities for its isolated border areas. The border infrastructure meanwhile was considered as a means of maintaining the survival of residents of those areas, not as a strategically important object for a fast military reaction.
India’s upgrading of its border infrastructure also coincides with its growing global and regional aspirations. By claiming itself as a balancing power to China, the current Bharatiya Janata Party government is more assertive in amplifying its positions in a bid to counter China. The border development activities have elevated the significance of border infrastructure as one of the national security stakes.
Ultimately, the main urgent issue in China-India relations is the border settlement. The latest border clashes have demonstrated that the border settlement is far from realization than ever. In addition to the importance of territorial integrity and sovereignty, the geopolitical rivalry at the regional and global levels will be among the major factors that will impact the resolution of the border issue. Ironically, after 70 years of discussions and negotiations on the border settlement with the periods of ups and downs, China and India have returned to their initial problems hindering the process – personalization of politics, assertive diplomacy, and competing global and regional ambitions of both governments.
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Dr.Albina Muratbekova is a research fellow of the Eurasian Research Institute at H.A.Yassawi Kazakh Turkish International University. Albina holds a PhD degree in Oriental Studies from Al Farabi Kazakh National University. She was a Fellow of the EUCACIS PhD support programme, Fudan Fellow 2017, a visiting student of the Cambridge Central Asia Forum at the University of Cambridge along with being an exchange student at Lanzhou University. Previously, she had worked at the international departments of Narxoz and AlmaU universities on the implementation of the internationalization strategy of th