China, India must not allow nationalist fervour to inflame border conflict, observers say

Minnie Chan

Diplomats and defence officials from China and India might have promised to work together to ease border tensions, but they must also strive to quell a rising tide of nationalism at home, observers say.

Despite 2020 marking 70 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries, over the past month border tensions have once again been running high, with troops engaging in fist fights and stone-throwing in the Galwan River valley between Ladakh in Indian-administered Kashmir and Chinese-administered Aksai Chin.

Since their two-month military stand-off in Doklam in the summer of 2017, both Beijing and New Delhi have boosted their border defences. That dispute was sparked by China’s construction of a road in the area – known as Donglang in Mandarin – which is claimed by China and Bhutan, an ally of India.

While the cause of the latest conflict remains unclear, Sun Shihai, principal research fellow at the China Centre for South Asian Studies at Sichuan University in southwest China, said that India had taken advantage of the prevailing tensions between Beijing and Washington.

India, China’s top generals hold 4-hour talks to defuse border tensions

“India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is advocating aggressive unilateralism when dealing with border problems involving China, Pakistan and Myanmar,” he said.

“There are signs and risks emerging that some Indian officials believe they can take advantage of the tensions between China and the US, as Washington is trying to bring India into its Indo-Pacific Strategy to contain a rising China.”

Manoranjan Mohanty, an expert on China-India affairs based in New Delhi, said India’s decision to revoke Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status and impose direct federal rule, as well as increasing its counter-insurgency operations across Kashmir during the coronavirus lockdown, had put Beijing on high alert, as China’s only direct road link between Xinjiang and Tibet is in Aksai Chin.

The long-running border dispute between China and India is a legacy of treaties – like the Ardagh-Johnson Line and McMahon Line – signed by the British colonial government that ruled India and a declining Chinese Qing dynasty in the 19th and 20th centuries.

But Beijing later refused to recognise the treaties, which sowed the seeds of a territorial dispute along the China-India border, which encompasses three separate regions covering more than 120,000 square kilometres (46,330 square miles) around the Himalayas at altitudes of up to 4,300 metres above sea level.

The eastern sector, of about 90,000 square kilometres, corresponds roughly to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is under Indian control but claimed by China as “South Tibet”.

The central or middle sector, west of Nepal, is the smallest contested area at about 2,100 square kilometres and is almost entirely under India’s control.

Nationalist sentiment is growing in both India and China. Photo: Reuters

The western sector, Aksai Chin, covers about 33,000 square kilometres and several districts in Xinjiang, and has been under Chinese control since 1962 when the two nations fought a short but savage war in which more than 2,000 people were killed.

The 1962 conflict took place during the Cold War when the world was divided between the US and its allies on one side and the former Soviet Union and its supporters on the other. Delhi at that time stood with Moscow.

“In 1962, India decided to go to war with an isolated China, which had split ties with Moscow and faced a series of major problems at home and overseas,” Sun said, referring to the Great Famine from 1958 to 1961 and the Tibetan uprising of 1959, which saw the Dalai Lama flee to India.

Also in 1962, the Soviet Union and the United States were embroiled in the Cuban missile crisis.

Fears of extended stand-off on India-China border despite talks

The border war started on October 20 when Chinese troops from the People’s Liberation Army took India-controlled Ladakh and crossed the McMahon Line to win a landslide victory.

The war lasted just a month – ending when Beijing declared a ceasefire on November 20 – but left a long shadow over how Delhi perceives Chinese intentions.

“While we do not want war, we will not tolerate any bullying by Beijing. This is not 1962,” Amarinder Singh, the chief minister of the Indian state of Punjab, said recently about the latest conflict.

Mohanty said China’s growing naval presence in the Indian Ocean had pushed Indian policymakers to adopt a multipronged policy on the diplomatic and military fronts, including strengthening its ties with the US.

The 1962 war lasted just a month but cost more than 2,000 people their lives. Photo: Getty Images

Despite the mistrust between the two countries, Beijing-based military analyst Zhou Chenming said both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi understood the possible consequences of the world’s two most populous nations going to war.

“Beijing and New Delhi have set up a five-level military communication mechanism – from brigades to chief commanders – for handling border disputes and hold regular meetings to share information,” he said.

“China and India must prioritise their economies as they are home to more than a third of the world’s people.”

Hong Kong-based military observer Liang Guoliang said that since 2015, Beijing had shifted its national defence strategy away from its northwest regions to the coastal areas of the East and South China seas, which meant its border dispute with India was a “secondary” matter.

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