When Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered his People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to “think about worst-case scenarios” and “scale up battle preparedness” in order to “resolutely defend the country’s sovereignty”, it was an unusually belligerent message directed at neighboring India.
Xi’s May 26 statement was made during his annual meeting with military representatives attending the National People’s Congress in Beijing. The Chinese leader was clearly referring to the recent escalation of tensions along the nearly 3,500-kilometer Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China.
But despite Xi’s tough rhetoric and both nations’ mounting deployments of thousands of troops to mountainous areas where the two sides now confront each other, few military observers believe a repeat of the two Asian giants fateful 1962 war is in the offing.
Then, India and China fought a bitter war over a still contested boundary which saw massive Chinese attacks stretching from Kashmir in the west to the eastern Himalaya. Those battles ended in a humiliating defeat for India that clearly demonstrated China’s military superiority.
Fast forward to the present, India’s military is far better equipped and prepared for various contingencies than it was the last time the two rivals traded fire along their contested border. Rising economic integration driven by raising trade over the interceding decades has also mitigated the risk of a full-blown conflict.
The recent escalation in tensions was sparked when Indian and Chinese soldiers came to physical blows near a border pass in Sikkim in early May. The tussle was reportedly started when Chinese troops shouted out to Indian forces that Sikkim is not India’s territory and that they should leave the area.
Seven Chinese and four Indians were reportedly injured in the fisticuffs but no shots were fired.
The mountains of Ladakh, an Indian union territory carved out of the former state of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019, became the next hotspot. To improve connectivity along its sometimes volatile frontiers, India is building new roads in the area which, according to Indian sources, are located ten kilometers from the LAC.
China contests India’s interpretation of the LAC’s location and views the roadworks as a potential threat to its hold over the remote border territory, including the strategic highway it built from Kashgar in western Xinjiang to Tibet’s capital Lhasa in the mid-1950s to connect the two outlying and often restive ethnically diverse areas.
That highway runs through an area called Aksai Chin, which is controlled by China but is identified as Indian territory on Indian maps. Indian media have reported that Chinese soldiers have in recent days intruded as far as three kilometers into India-controlled territory.
In response to what Beijing sees as “Indian provocations”, the Global Times, a Chinese communist party mouthpiece, has recently published several unusually strongly worded reports and editorials on the border issue.
On May 18, it accused India of being responsible for “illegal construction of defense facilities across the border into Chinese territory in the Galwan valley” in Ladakh. Penned by anonymous “GT reporters”, the article also stated that “if India escalates the friction, the Indian military force could pay a heavy price.”
The article was followed by a stronger editorial line on May 25 which accused Indian soldiers of having “deliberately instigated conflicts with their Chinese counterparts” and that “although China’s relationship with the US is tense, the international environment for China is much better than it was in 1962 when India started and [was] crushingly defeated in a border war with China. In 1962, the national strength of China and India were comparable. Today by stark contrast, China’s GDP is about five times that of India.”
Few historians would agree with the Global Times’ assertion that India started the 1962 war. Nor was that war entirely about contested border regions.
The prevailing narrative for many years was based on a book entitled “India’s China War”, published in 1970 and written by Neville Maxwell, an Anglo-Australian journalist. He argued that India provoked the war by setting up new military outposts along the disputed border in line with then-prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s a “forward policy”, launched less than a year before the hostilities erupted.
Recent archival research, however, has shown that China began preparing for military action as early as 1959 and that the war had more to do with domestic problems in China, including the disastrous Great Leap Forward campaign launched in the late 1950s which resulted in widespread famine and sparked opposition within the Communist Party against leader Mao Zedong.
It was also a time when China wanted to dethrone India from its dominant role in the Non-Aligned Movement, which bound together newly independent states in Asia and Africa, and replace it with Chinese leadership over revolutionary movements in what Beijing later called the “Third World.”
In that sense, there are certain similarities between the situation today and the run-up to the 1962 war. China first tested India’s defenses in an attack on an outpost in Ladakh in October 1959 – by sheer coincidence or not where the current tensions are escalating. The Galwan Valley was also a flashpoint area in the 1962 war.
Indian media, including the prestigious India Today and daily Hindustan Times, have tied the Chinese build-up along the LAC to its internal crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
That view mirrors the US State Department, which has asserted that China is leveraging the distraction caused by the pandemic to “coerce its neighbors” in the region, seen in muscle-flexing in the South China Sea and saber-rattling around Taiwan.
Beijing’s officials have strongly denied the accusation of pandemic opportunism. But such nationalism-driven maneuvers could also be a means for Xi to deflect attention from his government’s often opaque handling of the Covid-19 crisis.
The pandemic has also caused a massive disruption of the Chinese economy. Industrial output fell by 13.5% in January-February compared to the same period in 2019. Neither the SARS outbreak in 2002-03 nor the 2008-09 global financial crisis caused such a sharp drop in China’s production.
David Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the US-based Rand Corporation, argued in an article for the World Politics Review on May 27 that China’s assertive behavior has little to do with the Covid-19 pandemic and that Beijing has applied the same types of pressure tactics against its neighbors for several years.
While that may be true, there is arguably too much happening simultaneously for it to be a coincidence.
Nepal, previously an Indian ally which now has close relations with Beijing, is involved in another dispute with India over the construction of a road to reach pilgrim sites in Tibet, a pledge Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made to his Hindu constituency.
The road traverses territory in the northwestern corner of Nepal that Kathmandu considers Nepalese territory. Kathmandu’s stance against India is most certainly welcome by its new ally in Beijing.
The Global Times’ recent tirades against India, including mention of the 1962 war, are unprecedented in tagging India as a Chinese adversary. The publication also makes several references to what Beijing seems to believe is a new US-India alliance against China.
“Although a handful of Indian media outlets and social organizations echo the Trump administration’s views, the Indian government should keep a sober head and not be used as cannon ash by the US,” Long Xingchun, a Chinese analyst, wrote in an op-ed piece published on May 25.
In a May 27 tweet, US President Donald Trump wrote that the US was “ready, willing and able to mediate or arbitrate [India and China’s] now raging border dispute.”
Other senior US officials have leaned more heavily in favor of India’s position. “Flare-ups on the border, I think, are a reminder that Chinese aggression is not always just rhetorical,’’ Alice Wells, acting US assistant secretary for South and Central Asia Affairs, said on May 20.
“Whether it’s in the South China Sea or whether it’s along the border with India, we continue to see provocations and disturbing behavior by China that raises questions about how China seeks to use its growing power.’’
Her comments, however, were dismissed by Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian.
“[Wells’] accusation that China ‘invaded’ India is an attempt to change the current situation and is a bunch of lies. China and India are discussing the issue via diplomatic channels, and this has nothing to do with the US,” he tweeted on May 21.
It remains to be seen if the present India-China tension along the LOC will mirror the 72-day military standoff between the two sides at Doklam in 2017. At that time, China was constructing a road through territory disputed with Bhutan down to the Indian border in Sikkim.
Still, it’s not clear if India or China can afford any further escalation of the current confrontations in Sikkim and Ladakh. Although trade between China and India fell 12.4% year-on-year in the first two months of the Covid-19 crisis, China remains India’s largest trading partner.
India exports mainly cotton, mineral fuel, ores and other raw materials to China, while it imports China-made electronic equipment and components used in its manufacturing sector. India’s trade deficit with China was thus enormous at US$53 billion in the fiscal year ending in March 2019.
Whatever happens next on the border, it appears that India is being dragged into the US and China’s fast coalescing new Cold War. Given India’s longstanding policy of putting its own interests first and avoidance of close alliances with any world power, New Delhi will likely find a way to solve its latest China problem.
Indeed, India is not and is unlikely to ever become – as one analyst put it and the Chinese apparently now believe – a US proxy in a wider geo-strategic game.
Sumit Sharma contributed reporting from Mumbai