Business & Politics
India and China’s Escalating Border Dispute
7th July 2020
Where did the dispute begin?
The dispute centres on areas of contested territory between China and India. The two countries contest where the border between them lies, which has led to long-standing tensions, including a brief war in 1962. After that war ended, the two countries agreed on a 2,100 mile long demarcation line, known as the Line of Actual Control. However, they did not go so far as negotiating an official border and still do not agree on exactly where the line lies. The Line of Actual Control separates Ladakh, which is part of Indian-administered Kashmir, from Aksai Chin, which India claims as its own territory but which China controls.
What has been happening recently at the border?
Over the last few months, there has been an increasing number of clashes along the Line of Actual Control between Chinese and Indian troops. These have mainly been low-level fistfights, including one larger fight that broke out in May. These tensions have resulted in both countries sending more troops to the border. An escalation occurred on the 15th of June, resulting in death for the first time in 45 years. India lost 20 soldiers, while China has refused to comment on its casualties.
What has sparked the recent escalation?
In May, India reported that the Chinese army seemed to have grabbed forty to sixty kilometres of territory in India, including areas not previously disputed. While each side crossing the border is not uncommon, due to the disagreement of where the line is, this was a more severe incursion as it included things like digging trenches and moving heavy equipment.
It is not entirely clear why China would do this, although there are several possible explanations. One reason could be that India has been building a road to an air force base in the area, which China may have seen as a threat, although both sides have built infrastructure in the past. Another possible reason is that China has also been increasingly aggressive in Asia recently, possibly due to other world leaders being distracted by the coronavirus crisis. This includes increased aggression in the South China Sea and a crackdown in Hong Kong.
The increased aggression in Ladakh may be part of this general trend. Additionally, China may be unhappy with India furthering its alliance with the US, including a 3.5 billion dollar arms deal in February. Regarding the clash on the 15th of June, India claims that China launched a premeditated attack on its troops, while China claims that Indian troops crossed the border and provoked Chinese soldiers.
Why is this important?
Both India and China, the two most populated countries in the world, possess nuclear weapons. While the chance of these being used remain remote, any increase in tensions inevitably raises the possibility that the two countries could escalate into war. Even if they didn’t use nuclear weapons in a war, it could still be very destructive given the size of their respective armies (two of the biggest in the world) and populations.
Can this be resolved?
It may be a positive sign that while both countries have guns and tanks near the border, the recent outbreaks of violence have been confined to fistfights, stone-throwing and some use of clubs. While this has still resulted in multiple casualties, each side has restrained themselves from using firepower. Both countries are banned from using firepower due to a 1996 agreement, which has not yet been broken. However, attempts to deescalate further may be unsuccessful.
Initially, on the 6th of June, both countries agreed to disengage but this did not prevent the fatal attacks on the 15th. On the 24th of June, military commanders agreed again to disengage their troops, and it remains to be seen whether this will reduce tensions. Satellite imagery has since emerged showing China has built several structures near the clash site from the 15th of June, in an area India claims is on its side of the Line of Actual Control. This casts some doubt on the possibility of disengagement, as this may be seen as a provocation by India. Even if tensions deescalate, the prospects of agreeing on an official border and fully ending the conflict are likely to be low, as several rounds of talks since 1962 have failed to produce one.
Featured photo by Steven Lasry