It has been just over a year since the bloody clash between Indian and Chinese troops at the Galwan Valley. Since then, despite the partial disengagement between Indian and Chinese forces in the Galwan area and other parts of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), as well as complete disengagement at Pangong Lake, tensions remain high. The risk of conflict, inadvertent or otherwise, continues to persist. On some levels that danger is even more pronounced at the present time. China’s current troop deployments and dispositions in the LAC area has increased Indian uncertainty about Beijing’s commitment to make troop reductions in the region. At the Qatar Economic Forum today, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said that despite promises made, China’s “close-up deployment still continues, especially in Ladakh.”
China is improving its military and civilian infrastructure in Tibet and Xingjian, two border provinces along its border with India. China is upgrading five airbases in that region and building three new ones as well. Logistical facilities for the Chinese military are also being expanded at a hurried pace. Simultaneously, new civilian infrastructure links which would be invaluable to the military in times of crisis and war are being constructed. Highways and rail links in particular.
The purpose behind these preparations is clear: In the event of a future Sino-Indian conflict China intends to bring overwhelming force to bear in a minimal amount of time. What remains is determining if the nature China’s moves here are defensive-minded or offensive.
For India, the writing on the wall was made clear after the Galwan clash. China, not Pakistan is now the main enemy. This realization has caused India to increase its partnership in the Quad, an informal anti-China alliance of sorts that also includes the United States, Japan and Australia. Further, China’s new assertiveness has also turned Indian foreign policy and defense priorities upside down. Beijing is not going to ease the pressure and it will probably expand farther into the economic realm in coming months.
This is where India is facing its real predicament. Excluding Chinese companies from doing business in India is nearly impossible. A large part of this is because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The increasing demand for pharmaceutical ingredients and India’s present dependence on China for antibiotics and painkillers means New Delhi will not be able to adopt stringent anti-China policies in the foreseeable future. This economic dependence runs the risk of becoming India’s Achilles’ heel in its growing competition with the People’s Republic of China.
India has refuted China’s claim of sovereignty over the Galwan Valley. On Friday, China said the area is located on their side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The unprecedented formal claim drew an almost immediate response from the Indian government, with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) stating that attempts by China to ‘advance exaggerated and untenable claims’ are unacceptable. “The position with regard to the Galwan Valley area has been historically clear…They are not in accordance with China’s own position in the past,” said MEA spokesperson Anurag Srivastava. India has also rejected China’s claim that India is attempting to unilaterally change the status quo.
With Sino-Indian ties at a new low, China is using economic diplomacy to entice Bangladesh, India’s neighbor and ally. Beijing has announced tariff exemptions for 97% of exports from Bangladesh. The move was evidently made as part of a larger effort by China to woo India’s neighbors away from potentially supporting New Delhi in the present border dispute. The effort is bringing about a moderate level of success that has caused the Indian government discomfort. Nepal has involved itself in the regional crisis for the first time by urging its ‘friendly neighbors’ to seek a peaceful resolution to their standoff. The statement was made today, less than forty-eight hours after the Nepalese parliament passed a controversial bill updating its political administrative map to include parts of Indian territory. The timing of the Nepalese vote is suspicious, to say the least. It likely came after heavy Chinese prodding behind the scenes and has the potential to complicate the border dispute for India.
Air activity over Ladakh is picking up, however there have been no cross-border incursions by Chinese aircraft. Indian Air Force (IAF) and People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) fighters are maintaining combat air patrols over the area, and keeping warplanes on alert at airbases in the region. Both sides have reinforced their air assets. Additional warplanes have been seen at Ngari Airbase in Tibet, and at Leh and Srinagar on the Indian side of the LAC.
Saturday’s 7 hour long meeting held by Indian and Chinese military leaders appears to have been a step in the right direction for resolving the month-long confrontation between troops from the two nations along their common border high in the Himalayas. Both China and India have pledged to resolve territorial disputes through diplomatic and military channels. China did not discuss the talks once they ended, however, India’s Foreign Ministry released a statement with a more temperate tone than has been seen in recent weeks. “Both sides agreed to peacefully resolve the situation in the border areas in accordance with various bilateral agreements and keeping in view the agreements between the leaders that peace and tranquility in the India-China border regions is essential for the overall development of bilateral relations.”
The series of confrontations that took place along the border in the past month brought on fears in India that a coordinated effort was being made by China to seize territory as the rest of the world was distracted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Both nations reinforced their military units in the area, and according to numerous reports Chinese troops actually set up camps on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control.
Although Saturday’s meeting has produced a glimmer of optimism for the future, the dispute remains unresolved. More talks are expected in the coming days, and weeks, but for the moment the edge appears to have been taken off of Sino-Indian tensions in the Himalayas.
Author’s Note: The June DIRT project on China’s Perceptions of the World will begin next weekend. I mistakenly posted the start date for 6-7 June. Apologies.
High level talks are set to begin Saturday between general officers of the People’s Liberation Army and the Indian Army as the month-long standoff between India and China continues in eastern Ladakh. The Indian contingent will be led by Lieutenant General Harinder Singh, commander of the Leh-based 14 Corps. The Chinese representative will be the commander of the Tibet Military District Lieutenant General Xu Yong. The talks will be held at the Border Personnel Meeting Point at Maldo in Chushul sector of Eastern Ladakh at 8 AM Saturday.
Outside of India, and China there is growing optimism that the talks will pave the way to finding a solution to the standoff. However, the Indian and Chinese governments do not appear to be expecting firm resolution to come from the dialogue. After all, diplomatic discussions between Beijing and New Delhi have done nothing. Do not be misled by the statements being made recently by Indian and Chinese officials stressing the need for a peaceful resolution to the standoff, and their disappointment about how it has affected bilateral ties. China and India are rivals even if both sides are reluctant to admit it.
Both sides insist that until a permanent solution is found for the boundary issue, it is necessary to maintain peace around the border areas. Neither side wants war to emerge from the standoff in eastern Ladakh yet neither side has seen fit to budge from their present position. There has been aggressive military posturing by both sides in the region. India and China are both moving heavy equipment, and weaponry to their bases near the area, intent to be militarily prepared if the tense standoff transforms into an armed conflict at any given time.
In the weeks leading up to the G20 summit in Hangzhou China expectations remained cynically low for the two-day gathering. Although the gathering is an economic conference, it was clear that geopolitical issues would dominate talks. Tensions in the South China Sea, further North Korean missile tests, no agreement between the US and Russia on Syria, and increasing challenges to globalism and free trade had all played a part in making the prospects for a productive summit dim.
As expected, geopolitics took center stage. In his speech, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that one South Asia nation is responsible for spreading terrorism across the region. His comments leave little to the imagination regarding what nation-state he was referring to and the fact that the comments were made in Hangzhou make it obvious that Modi is hoping China can restrain the South Asia nation in question, which is an ally and beneficiary of the People’s Republic.
The tensions between the US and China came to the forefront at the start of the summit when incidents between US and Chinese officials took place at the airport. In one encounter, a White House press aide was instructing foreign reporters on where to stand as President Obama deplaned from Air Force One when a Chinese official confronted the aide. “This is our country. This is our airport,” the official declared angrily. Shortly after this, the same official confronted national security adviser Susan Rice, prompting the Secret Service to intervene.
When it was time to conduct business, Chinese President Xi Jinping told President Obama he opposes deployments of THAAD in South Korea and foreign intervention in the name of human rights. He called on the US to take a ‘constructive’ position in the South China Sea, help curb Taiwanese independence desires, and end support for Tibetan independence. So it appears that despite all of the areas where China and the US have forged cooperation, there remain a number of issues where the two sides are quite far apart.
Presidents Obama and Putin addressed a number of hot-button issues between the US and Russia when the two leaders took some time away from the summit to hold a meeting. Syria was the main topic with much of the discussion devoted to it. A US-Russia ceasefire and agreement on Syria has proven to be quite elusive and no progress was made in Hangzhou. However, Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will continue talks later this week. The primary roadblock to a ceasefire agreement is the existence of ‘Gaps of Trust’ between the US and Russian governments. Put simply, there is a multitude of reasons for either side to distrust the words, intentions and actions of the other, and little reason to trust. Putin and Obama have both hinted that hope is not lost and a new agreement could be coming within days.
The last notable highlight of the G20 Summit was North Korea’s decision to launch three ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan on the final day. The move was likely an attempt to get the attention of world leaders at the summit and remind them that North Korea is still a force to be reckoned with in Asia.