In 1962, China and India went to war over a territorial dispute along the border of India’s north-west region of Ladakh and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region.
Following a Chinese victory, what’s now known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC) was enacted as a loose indicator to separate Indian and Chinese controlled territory. Despite being a flashpoint for the two nations, several bilateral agreements in the early 90s spelled potential for peaceful coexistence.
Since May 2020 we have seen this progress completely reversed, as the border saw the first shots fired in over a decade; the worst brawl in over 40 years. Since these summertime sparks, both India and China have continued to militarise and build in the disputed zone. Chinese foreign policy and growing Indian nationalism are clashing along the LAC. While many people may see this as just another border conflict, I would implore them to look deeper into the context of the LAC crisis.
Since the 60s the tension surrounding the LAC has generally waned, helped by agreements in the 90s that banned weapons, and attempted to formalise a border. However, it is entirely unsurprising that tensions are now rising. With the world tied down by coronavirus, there is much less focus from developed countries on what seems to be just another border clash between developing nations.
This view could not be further from the truth. With the pandemic acting as a smokescreen, calculated foreign policy moves from China have gone relatively unnoticed. Over the last decade, Chinese expansionism can be noticed all over Asia. Most obvious is the building of artificial islands in the South China Sea to further their claim to the entirety of this major economic zone. Their actions have even extended to the use of military vessels to bully merchant, fishing, and even foreign naval ships out of international waters. Coupled with last year’s renewed pressure on Taiwan and Hong Kong, it is hard to consider China in any other light but the aggressor.
The case to blame China is also, more importantly, based on the events of the summer along the LAC. On June 16th the largest brawl in decades broke out and left 20 Indians and an unnamed number of Chinese soldiers dead. Indian defence analyst, Ajai Shukla, places the battle1.5km into Indian territory, asserting that Chinese border forces were to blame. What’s more, Shukla also stated that satellite imagery shows Chinese structures on the sight of the brawl. This tactic of edging is very common among all the cases of Chinese expansionism in Asia. By building bridges, roads, and structures deeper and deeper into the disputed zone it allows them to push Indian forces back, leading to a de facto increase in Chinese territory. Whilst India has built in the LAC zone, it hasn’t been to edge forward; it has been to solidify their pre-agreed territory.
What must be understood about the LAC is that one side is actively pursuing expansionist policies, most of which have been deemed illegal by the international community (or in the case of South China Sea by the Hague courts).
During the summer, India banned 118 Chinese apps in retaliation to the June 16th brawl, something that many Indians took further by organising major boycotts of Chinese goods. The LAC border crisis has been stoked by the Modi administration and is now becoming a nationalist issue that the population deeply supports. Though Indian aggression is not to blame, there is a possibility that future conflict could be fuelled by growing Indian nationalism. This response from India arguably is much more worrying than if it was more docile, as has been the case in the South China Sea. A defensive Indian government along with the backing of its people could take this from a being a border dispute to a possible powder-keg between two nuclear-armed nations. Though war between major powers is very unlikely in the post-world-war period, we must hope this isn’t an Asian Cold War’s version of the Cuban missile crisis.
Focusing on more recent events, the first shots in decades were fired on September 15th. Although the US election and Brexit are extremely important this fact should have punctured deeper into our media that it did. This is a massive escalation towards genuine conflict and war. It is unknown who fired the first shot, yet both nations reached out to begin bilateral talks within a week.
On the surface, this is a positive development and makes the summer brawls seem unimportant. Unfortunately, the bilateral talks are just another ploy to make sure foreign nations don’t get too involved. Several Indian officers told the press that, as talks began on September 22nd, India began moving troops into the LAC region – in response to a large mobilisation of Chinese soldiers, vehicles, and heavy equipment.
Though militarised borders, patrol brawls, and artillery firing are not a new occurrence (the Korean DMZ and the Armenian-Azerbaijani border are currently very similar) the context and policy choices of these Asian nuclear giants is a uniquely worryingly prospect on the post-corona horizon.
The cover image was originally posted to Flickr by narendramodiofficial