Asia

India-China border conflict risks spiraling out of control

The disputed Himalayan region remains uneasy after the failure of commander-level talks between the countries

Ben Joseph

Updated: October 15, 2021 04:14 AM GMT

Indian Defense Minister Raksha Mantri Shri visits troops on the Line of Actual Control on the disputed India-China border in Ladakh on June 29. (Photo: AFP)

Indian and Chinese soldiers will remain in forward areas on their disputed border after commander-level talks this week failed to end a 17-month standoff.

The conflict has a long history of political ambitions and diplomatic complications. And the peace and stability of local people have become the obvious casualties.

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Both nations together make up a vast mass of land, housing nearly half of humanity. Lying on both sides of the Himalayas, they are rich with bygone civilizations. But that did not prevent them from fighting a war over the precise location of their Himalayan border in 1962.

Since then, an uneasy calm has prevailed with occasional flare-ups, skirmishes, transgressions and land grabbing on the 3,440-kilometer mountainous border that has never been demarcated by China and India. Their reactions are often swift and forceful despite several military-level talks and the 1996 agreement that banned the use of guns and explosives on the border.

As rivers, lakes and ice caps along the high-altitude mountain ranges shift, the entire disputed border witnesses face-offs at many points. The root of the problem is the difference in perception of the two countries.

China, pursuing a socialist path under a totalitarian communist leadership, is the world's second-largest defense spender; India, aiming for a theocratic state under the current Hindu nationalist party, comes third. A nuclear-powered India is a close ally of the US, the world's largest defense spender, and China has roped in Pakistan, another nuclear nation, as its junior partner.

India has to rise above the proxy diplomatic weapon of the US, or the Chinese must patch up its differences with the Americans, to give peace a chance 

So, it is a game involving nuclear powers and running their diktats in the inhospitable mountainous range. India and China are vying with each other to erect strategic infrastructure projects along the border, known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

India has to rise above the proxy diplomatic weapon of the US, or the Chinese must patch up its differences with the Americans, to give peace a chance in one of highest and coldest battlefields in the world.

With annual snowfall of around 11 meters, life is not easy in the area. Due to harsh weather, soldiers have to wear high-altitude clothing, caps, gloves, boots and goggles and ignite stoves to warm up as temperatures drop to minus 10-15 degrees Celsius in the summer and down to minus 50C in the winter.

For India, the LAC in the mountainous region is 3,488km but for the Chinese it is only around 2,000km. It is divided into three sectors — the eastern sector covering the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, the middle sector passing through Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh in eastern India, and the western sector in centrally administered Ladakh, a sparsely populated but stunningly beautiful tourist spot and the scene of frequent face-offs with China.

Ladakh, with much of its Himalayan terrain above 15,000 feet (4,572 meters) and sandwiched between Pakistan-occupied Gilgit Baltistan and China-occupied Aksai Chin, is the most dangerous flashpoint in Asia because two superpowers and their aggressive militaries are trying to nibble away at each other's territory.

Aksai Chin in northern Ladakh is a strategic place to China. The disputed territory under Beijing's control acts as a gateway to the Tibetan Autonomous Region and Xinjiang province, two restive and sensitive areas that China is constantly worried about. China under Mao Zedong seized Aksai Chin during the invasion of Tibet in 1950.

The recent clashes on the border stem from India's belated efforts to build up a road network to match that of China, which raised its eyebrows at India's decision to bring Ladakh under national rule on Aug. 5, 2019.

Numbering a few hundred thousand, the Ladakhis, close to the Tibetan Buddhists in culture, language, history and religion, are caught in the grip of increasingly nationalistic governments on both sides of the Himalayas where the Chinese have outpaced India to gain a strategic advantage in the event of a flare-up.

Starting with the 1962 war, Ladakh, the third part of the erstwhile Indian provincial state of Jammu and Kashmir, has witnessed frequent territorial incursions.

Both nations yet again stumbled into clashes over the inhospitable terrain in the first week of this month.

As fallout from the Oct. 10 inconclusive talks, Indian soldiers will have to spend a second winter at high altitude due to the refusal of China to pull troops back from their current positions

Ahead of the crucial commander-level talks on Oct. 10, an altercation between patrolling troops erupted in the eastern sector of the India-China boundary in Arunachal Pradesh.

According to the Indian version, the Chinese arrived in sizable strength to face an Indian patrol unit. However, the situation was brought under control with no untoward incidents by the intervention of local commanders.

The incident in the Tawang sector in Arunachal Pradesh occurred nearly a month after some 100 Chinese troops crossed the LAC in the Barahoti sector in Uttarakhand.

A deadly brawl claimed 20 Indian troops and an unknown number of Chinese in June 2020. India increased its military engagements with the US after the clash.

As fallout from the Oct. 10 inconclusive talks, Indian soldiers will have to spend a second winter at high altitude due to the refusal of China to pull troops back from their current positions.

Massive military build-ups and the presence of thousands of Chinese, Pakistani and Indian soldiers in the Himalayas have caused the glaciers to melt faster. The trash from the costly military maneuvers by three national armies cannot be retrieved due to hostile weather. This calls for their total withdrawal to save these glaciers, which are like a natural dam.

The simmering tension is fraught with the risk of escalation that could turn ugly for all of Asia and the world

Though the altitude, climate and mountainous terrain of the Himalayas impose severe constraints on both armies, India sees China as an expansionist adversary and their political ties are defined by hostility and distrust despite cordial trade relations.

Aided by Washington, New Delhi has decided to compete strategically with China. Military resources India invested in the LAC are also aimed at checking China's global ambitions and maritime military expansion into the Indian Ocean, where the US navy has beefed up its presence recently.

Since Washington considers Beijing a competitor in its global ambitions, India, a US client state, and communist China will be tempted to make Ladakh and the entire LAC more violence-prone. In the coming days, this uneasy military stalemate will bring more troops, tanks, helicopters and heavy artillery to the region.

The simmering tension is fraught with the risk of escalation that could turn ugly for all of Asia and the world.

Since the current confrontation is linked to the growing geostrategic tiff between China and the US, it is set to linger on unless the Americans and Chinese become bhai-bhai (brothers), as the Indians called the Chinese once upon a time.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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