- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 6, 2020

As if the world didn’t have enough problems, the two most populous and nuclear armed countries — India and China — are now at each other’s throats in a long-running border cold war that has suddenly become very hot.

The high-altitude row over a long-disputed Himalayan border territory has literally featured fist fights between Indian and Chinese troops in recent weeks. It’s also prompted growing unease in Washington, where President Trump’s offers to mediate have been brushed aside by New Delhi and Beijing.

Analysts say major escalation between the nuclear-armed rivals appears unlikely at the moment, although the prospect of a widening or slow-burning clash between China’s communist leaders and the world’s most populous democracy in India is very real.

While relations between the two have been generally stable in recent years, they’ve also been increasingly complex as China challenges America’s status as India’s top trading partner — and as India’s Hindu nationalist government bristles at Chinese flexing its military and financial clout around the region. Once roughly economic equals, India has also chafed at China’s fast-growing economy, which has produced a GDP nearly five times larger that India‘s.

The latest crisis centers on Chinese troop movements along an areas of the Himalayan border that was the site of a bloody war between the two in the early 1960s. The total length of the border is 2,100 miles. But the hot zone is just off India’s northern tip, not far from the disputed territory of Kashmir and the tense border with Pakistan, another nuclear-armed nation in the region.

Mr. Trump’s surprise offers to mediate — at a time when U.S.-Chinese relations are at a low point — has some Chinese strategists fearful Washington is trying to exploit the rivalry for its own ends, drawing India into an alliance of China’s neighbors designed to contain China’s rise.

Washington looks forward to the China-India dispute in order to gain from it,” the Chinese state-controlled Global Times said in an editorial last week. “The U.S. supports India every time China and India have conflicts to encourage New Delhi’s confrontation against Beijing and to hype new border disputes.”

Chinese and Indian diplomats appeared to make progress on lowering the temperature Friday, a day ahead of a planned meeting of top military officials from both sides in the disputed region.

The Indian Foreign Ministry said in a statement Friday that the two sides had agreed to resolve the border tension through negotiations, and that additional troops and equipment that had been rushed to the region recently would be withdrawn.

But the situation remains volatile and both governments must deal with nationalistic domestic constituencies and angry voices on social media demanding escalation.

Seizing the moment

Border tensions last soared between Delhi and Beijing in 2017. While the standoff simmered after a series of troop movements at the time, analysts say China has been eager recently to press its claims amid the current global geopolitical uncertainty and a coronavirus pandemic that many in India blame on China.

Officials say hundreds of Chinese soldiers were suddenly seen moving deep inside Indian-controlled territory of the Ladakh region’s Galwan Valley, erecting guard posts and tents in early May. India responded quickly by massing troop and equipment in the area.

Indian officials claim the Chinese ignored repeated verbal warnings, triggering a yelling match, stone-throwing and even fist fights in at least one place along Pangong Lake, a body of water situated at above the 14,000-foot elevation mark in valley.

Thousands of Chinese and Indian soldiers are now reported to be camped there just a few hundred yards from each other, in a development analysts say began with China’s desire to show military dominance and prove it can engage in an aggressive foreign policy on multiple fronts at the same time.

“This is China on offense,” said Joseph DeTrani, a longtime former U.S. intelligence official focused on China, who contends Beijing’s moves are reminiscent of a 1962 Chinese military invasion of Ladakh that Mao Zedong used to show “he wasn’t happy with India and could use force to prevail if necessary.”

“This incursion appears to be a similar message for India — and others — that China is capable and willing to address a number of national security issues of concern to its leadership,” Mr. DeTrani said in an interview. “This comes at a time when China established two new administrative districts in contested areas in the South China Sea, announced plans to impose a national security law in Hong Kong and disseminated disinformation that Covid-19 originated in the U.S.”

Michael Kugelman at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars said Beijing acted in part “to telegraph strength at a moment when global criticism of China’s pandemic response has put it on the defensive.”

“We’ve seen Beijing take on an increasingly assertive foreign policy in recent months, and, not coincidentally, as its relationship with the U.S. has worsened,” Mr. Kugelman said. “We’ve seen it using bellicose rhetoric and taking provocative actions in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the South China Sea, and so its provocations on the border with India fit right in with a broader Chinese foreign policy trend.”

Rising tensions between Beijing and Washington may also factor into China’s calculus. “There’s something to be said forChina trying to throw its weight around in India’s backyard, given how quickly the U.S.-India partnership has grown in recent years thanks in great part to shared opposition to China’s rise,” Mr. Kugelman said. “Beijing understands this connection, and it clearly wants to make a strong statement addressed to both Indian and U.S. audiences.”

But President Trump has equally clearly said Washington would be happy to help.

“We have informed both India and China that the United States is ready, willing and able to mediate or arbitrate their now raging border dispute,” Mr. Trump tweeted late last month.

Neither side has embraced the idea, although Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi discussed the issue in a phone call with Mr. Trump on Tuesday even as Indian media reports claimed officials in Delhi want Washington to stay on the sidelines.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing on Wednesday “there is no need for any third party to intervene.”

Mr. Zhao claimed the situation remains “stable and controllable,” stressing that there are “sound mechanisms and channels of communication between China and India” and that “the two sides are capable of properly resolving relevant issues through dialogue and consultation.”

But it remains to be seen when that will occur. CNN reported Thursday that Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh had told its affiliate News18 station in Delhi that the two sides will hold high level talks on Saturday.

Mr. Singh suggested it could be tense. “We don’t want any country to bow before us, and we will not bow before any country,” he said.

Upsetting the status quo

Both sides accuse the other provocations in disputed border lands that have upset the tentative status quo.

India is reported to be building its own strategic road through the Galwan Valley, with the goal of connecting the area to an airstrip. The Associated Press has noted that Delhi also unilaterally declared Ladakh a federal territory while separating it from disputed Kashmir in August 2019 — and that China was among a handful of nations who strongly condemned the move, raising it the U.N. Security Council.

Most analysts agree, however, that the likelihood of a shooting war or major nuclear standoff remains low. “New Delhi has repeatedly emphasized in its public messaging that it favors diplomacy to end the crisis,” said Mr. Kugelman, adding that “China has already made a strong statement, and there’s little reason to believe things will escalate.”

Still, some warn the situation is volatile and warrants close monitoring.

“[The] rising tensions…are occurring against the backdrop of continued cross-border shelling along the India-Pakistan border and intensified militant action in the erstwhile Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir,” said Tamanna Salikuddin, a former high-level U.S. advisor in the region now heading South Asia programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

“From the Indian perspective, China’s aggression is seen as supportive of Pakistan’s efforts to contest the borders with India in this highly inflammable region,” Ms. Salikuddin said in comments circulated this week.

India and China are trying to reduce current tensions both through public rhetoric and private high commander level meetings and they have a robust conflict management arrangement,” she said. “However, there is a risk of escalation or miscalculation given the high number of troops and heavy weaponry that both India and China have positioned in eastern Ladakh.”

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide