As China and India square off in a Himalayan standoff after a skirmish in that killed 20 Indian troops in mid-June, it’s becoming clear to most the staredown is not chiefly about which side should control an uninhabited piece of barren mountain rock.

Indeed, observers and analysts agree that the conflict is about something bigger: strategic rivalry between Asia’s two giants and more specifically China’s desire to punish India for rejecting its multinational Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

China, it seems, is keen to send a message to India’s neighbors on who now rules the roost in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly at a juncture when India and many of its allies and partners – not the least the United States – struggle to contain Covid-19 outbreaks at home.

But while it is understandable that an increasingly assertive China wants to flex its growing muscles while the West is preoccupied with health crises, regional analysts are left to wonder why Beijing appears to be simultaneously shooting itself in the foot by antagonizing other regional countries.

Some analysts believe China is flexing its muscles, not just on the Himalayan border but also in the South China Sea and over Taiwan, as a sort of new Cold War litmus test to gauge which nations are willing to openly criticize Beijing’s more assertive posture and which remain reticent.

In this connection, however, China may get more than it bargained for in taking on India.

Indian border security force soldiers keep vigil near a military bunker along the Srinagar-Leh National highway on June 17, 2020.Photo: Faisal Khan/NurPhoto

China’s domestic vernacular media have shied from covering the Ladakh mountain standoff in detail, though the English-language Communist Party mouthpiece The Global Times has published strong warnings to India, including one de facto threat on June 15 to conscript other regional “reliable strategic partner(s)” like Pakistan and Nepal into the dispute.

Hu Zhiyong, a supposedly independent scholar in Shanghai, was quoted in the paper as saying that “If India escalates border tensions, it could face military pressure from two or even three fronts.”

Those reports and commentaries are clearly meant for foreign audiences, especially readers in India, who have been reminded of what the paper referred to on May 25 as India’s “crushing defeat” in a 1962 high mountain border war between the two sides.

In a June 22 editorial, The Global Times wrote that “we would like to warn India’s feverish nationalists not to lead New Delhi down the wrong path, and not allow India to repeat past mistakes.”

Unlike in 1962, Beijing now not only has regional allies but, as the paper also emphasized in a June 22 editorial, China is “an industrialized country with a GDP [gross domestic product] five times that of India, it spends more on defense than India does, and most of China’s advanced weapons are manufactured domestically, but all of India’s advanced weapons are imported.”

While much of that may be true, India is not the same military ill-prepared country that it was in 1962. Indeed, more recent history shows India can stand its ground against China. The first test came when the two sides’ clashed at two mountain passes between Sikkim and Tibet in September 1967.

At that time, China’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement strikingly similar to today’s pugilistic rhetoric: “Do not misjudge the situation and repeat your mistake of 1962.”

Indian troops being inspected before leaving their posts in the Ladakh region during the 1962 border war with China. Image: Getty Images

But, according to Indian statistics which have not been disputed by independent observers or scholars, 88 Indian soldiers were killed and 163 wounded while the Chinese side suffered 340 killed and 450 wounded in the 1967 Himalayan clash.

The only serious armed incident after that was in October 1975, when Chinese troops ambushed a contingent of the paramilitary Assam Rifles in Arunachal Pradesh in the eastern Himalayas. Four riflemen were killed, but it did not escalate tensions along the volatile 3,500-kilometer frontier that separates the two sides.

In late 1986 and early 1987, thousands of Chinese and Indian troops confronted each other also in Arunachal Pradesh, but no clashes occurred. In that instance, Chinese troops were forced to retreat.

According to an Indian Army officer who was on active duty along the border at that time, then-army chief General Krishnaswamy Sundarji “wanted to show the Chinese that this was not 1962. He wanted to…demonstrate to the Chinese that it’s a different Indian Army they are facing today.”

Indeed, India has strengthened and modernized its armed forces, formed one of the world’s most extensive and sophisticated strategic external intelligence agencies, and, not least, become a nuclear power. When India has fought, it has won, including armed conflicts against neighboring Pakistan, most recently in 1999 at Kargil in Jammu and Kashmir.

With more than 1.4 million active troops and nearly a million in reserve, India now has the world’s largest standing volunteer army. India’s production of defense material declined in the 1990s, but has more recently revived, seen in $1.46 billion worth of military materiel exports in 2018-2019.

While neither side likely wants a full-blown conflict, bickering over the border will not easily be resolved. One problem is that the colonial British who once ruled India drew up several proposed borderlines separating what was once their territory from the Chinese.

One is the outer Ardagh-Johnson Line which was named after two 19th century colonial administrators and follows the border as drawn on official Indian maps today. The other is the MacCartney-MacDonald Line, named after two other British officials, which follows roughly China’s claims.

The area in dispute and which India claims, Aksai Chin, is so remote that it was not until 1957 that India discovered that China had built a highway connecting Xinjiang with Lhasa in Tibet through it. The Galwan valley, where the mid-June clash took place, was also a flashpoint during the 1962 war.

The Line of Actual (LAC) control today is to the west of the MacCartney-MacDonald Line. Another major problem, Indian negotiators say, is that while they have marked their claims precisely on official maps, China’s are more diffuse and are frequently changed.

Those shifting boundaries are keeping China’s various neighbors on edge as Beijing pushes for a new world order with itself at its center. By testing and probing borders and boundaries, from the Himalayas to the South China Sea, Beijing is gauging responses and acting accordingly to maximize its claims.

An all-out war with India is unlikely, but the dispute may escalate in other ways as China pushes its BRI forward across the region. That infrastructure aims to augment trade, which is still important between the two sides, though the Covid-19 crisis has taken a heavy toll on recent volumes.

As the border crisis started to mount in February, India’s exports to China dropped 13.7% to $1.1 billion compared with the same period in 2019, while shipments to Hong Kong declined by 62.4% to $681 million. It remains to be seen how heavily the Covid-19 crisis will affect future trade and therefore the possibility of a wider conflict.

A Chinese soldier (L) and an Indian soldier (R) stand guard at the Chinese side of the ancient Nathu La border crossing between India and China. Photo: AFP/Diptendu Dutta

What is certain, however, is that China is fortifying its military installations along the LAC. In the mid-June clash that killed Indian soldiers, Chinese troops reportedly used clubs wrapped in barbed wire and iron rods welded with nails in their assault.

That explains why no shots were fired and the hostilities were quickly capped. But newly built bunkers, tents and storage facilities now dot the LAC on both sides, meaning both sides are digging in for a long showdown.

Yet if China really wants to “teach India a lesson”, using military rather than crude rudimentary weapons, Beijing should know by now that any armed conflict in 2020 won’t likely proceed or end like the one it handily won in 1962.

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