The border challenge

Topics Ladakh | PM Modi | Chinese army

The Line of Actual Control (LAC) is once again on the bo­il with border clashes be­t­ween the militaries of India and China seemingly at their highest since 2015. Talks to resolve tensions ha­ve not had an impact so far and there remains the perpetual danger of crisis escalation with neither side willing to budge. As per Indian Ministry of De­fe­nce records, Chinese transgressions ha­ve increased significantly, in particular in Ladakh where around 130 transgressions were witnessed till April. Indian and Chinese troops have been eyeball to eyeball in eastern Ladakh after China objected to the to the construction of a road in Galwan river area, well within Indian territory. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has warned of “necessary cou­nter-measures” underlining that “Chi­nese border troops are committed to upholding peace and tranquillity in China-India border areas” but will “resolutely defend the sovereignty and se­curity of our homeland.”

The Sino-Indian border is not fully demarcated and the LAC remains hi­ghly contested. What is also true is that barring the middle sector, the two na­tions have not even had a mutual ex­change of maps about their respective perceptions which has led to operational challenges whereby soldiers from either side have ventured into areas deemed as theirs by the opposite side. As a consequence, local instability has been a perpetual feature of this terrain for decades. But in recent years, border clashes have become routine though most have remained localised and de­fused at the local commander level. The 73-day Doklam standoff on Sikkim-Bhutan border in 2017 became a major flashpoint, waking Indian policymakers from their slumber that China is not to be taken for granted.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi tried to deal with this problem by reaching out directly to the Chinese president. Their first informal summit at Wuhan in April 2018 resulted in “strategic guidance to their respective militaries to strengthen communication in order to build trust and mutual understanding and enhance predictability and effectiveness in the management of border affairs.” They also “directed their militaries to earnestly implement various co­nfidence building measures agreed upon between the two sides, including the principle of mutual and equal security, and strengthen existing institutional arrangements and information sharing mechanisms to prevent incide­nts in border regions.” While it did manage to stabilise a seemingly free-falling Sino-Indian relationship in 2018, it has clearly failed to bring any stability at the border.

A number of factors can be attributed to the border clashes. There is the perpetual issues of differing perception of the border. More significantly, India has ramped up infrastructure on its side, so the Chinese military is finding Indian soldiers in locations where they are not used to seeing Indian footprint. Indian Army’s patrolling is also more effective than in the past, forcing Chi­nese military to up the ante. The fact that more Chinese soldiers are now cro­ssing over into the Indian side can also be the result of growing Chinese aggressiveness on territorial issues.

Flaring up of tensions between In­dia and China in 2020 even at a time both the countries are grappling with containing the spread of Covid-19 cannot, but be linked to the larger approach the Communist Party of China (CPC) is following in its en­gagement with the outside world. Despite growing worldwide rancour about Beijing’s behaviour in the initial phases of the pandemic, the CPC is busy demonstrating its military prowess vis-a-vis its weaker neighbours on various territorial issues. And New Delhi’s evolving posture supporting the demand for an independent en­quiry into the origins of coronavirus as well as reinstating Taiwan as an ob­ser­ver into the World Health Or­ganisation means that the CPC would like to draw some red lines for India by upping the ante on the border question.

The US has reacted by challenging China on its behaviour with the outgoing Principal Deputy Assistant Se­c­re­tary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Alice Wells, suggesting “there’s a method here to Chinese operation”. Arguing the need to resist China’s “constant aggression, the constant attempt to shift the norms, to shift what is the status quo,” she called for a strong pushback “whether it’s in the South China sea where we’ve done a group sail with India, or whether it’s in India’s own ba­ckyard, both, on land as well as in the Indian Ocean.” A new report submitted to the US Congress as mandated by the National Defense Authorization Act 2019, “United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China”, also makes this point by underlining that “Beijing contradicts its rhetoric and flouts its commitments to its neighbo­urs by engaging in provocative and co­ercive military and paramilitary activities in the Yellow Sea, the East and South China Seas, the Taiwan Strait, and Sino-Indian border areas”.

For New Delhi, it has now become imperative to assess the implications of Chinese behaviour not simply by looking at the bilateral matrix but also by integrating China’s role as a global po­wer into its calculations. The present border turmoil can be calmed down te­mporarily but so long as the CPC continues to face internal pressure to use the military instrumentality for injecting a sense of nationalism into the na­tion’s body politic, India will have no option but to continue to build up its deterrence capabilities by enhancing its internal strength and by developing more robust external partnerships.
The writer is professor of International Relations, Department of Defence Studies, King’s College London
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