India-China border clash presents deescalation challenge for two ‘very nationalistic’ governments

By Declan Carey

‘NATIONALISM’ is at the heart of recent border clashes between India and China taking the lives of at least 20 soldiers – but both sides fear the risks of all out war.

On June 15th armies of the two countries clashed with rocks and clubs on the disputed border in the Himalayas known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

India claims Chinese troops transgressed onto their side of the Galwan Valley, breaking a recent agreement to ‘peacefully resolve’ rising tensions back on 6 June.

Ministers from the two countries exchanged words during a recent telephone call in an attempt to calm the situation, but that did not stop the Indian External Affairs Ministry publicly denouncing China’s ‘untenable claims’ in the region.

A spokesperson from the Indian Government said: “The External Affairs Minister and the State Councillor and Foreign Minister of China had a phone conversation on recent developments in Ladakh. 

“Both sides have agreed that the overall situation should be handled in a responsible manner and that the understandings reached between Senior Commanders on 6th June should be implemented sincerely. Making exaggerated and untenable claims is contrary to this understanding.”

Professor Steve Tsang, Director at the SOAS University China Institute, told Redaction Politics that while neither side views further escalation as beneficial, Indian Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping can not afford to appear ‘weak’ against the other.

He said: “When you put a lot of boys with homemade toys and encourage them to think they are always right and they must be patriotic and the other guys are nasties then we can see the result of what happened and it’s more or less basically that.

“Two governments both in Beijing and Delhi that are very nationalistic.

“The risk of escalation has increased but I don’t see that either side wants to have a border war. The fact that both armies are not facing each other with regular firearms is for a reason: to reduce the risk of escalation.

“If you don’t put firearms in the escalation is a lot easier to control.

“Domestically neither Modi nor Xi Jinping can afford to look weak and so it’s a case where you need real diplomacy to make sure they can find some ways to not escalate without either side losing face.”

India and China have a history of fighting over border dispute and in the 1960s tensions erupted after a series of failed negotiations.

The resulting Sino-Indian Wars took hundreds of lives and soured the relationship between the two Asian giants.

According to data by the World Bank, India currently spends $66.51 billion on military expenditure, placing it among the most powerful nations in the world according to rankings by Global Firepower.

However, that remains a fraction of the colossal $249.997 billion being spent by China as it looks to establish itself as the dominant power in the region, a topic recently analysed on the Redaction Politics podcast.

Despite the difference in military spending, both countries boast nuclear weapons and the result of any conventional war would have catastrophic consequences felt across the world.

US Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell told reporters in a press briefing that Chinese aggression can be viewed as “an opportunity to take advantage of distraction” with the coronavirus pandemic ongoing.

He said: “I’m not going to speculate, but I will point you to several articles that I’ve seen that note that there – one explanation for creating multiple fronts like this is an assessment in Beijing that the world is distracted and is focused entirely on survival, right, recovering from the corona pandemic, which then possibly is seen as an opportunity to take advantage of distraction.

“And I’m not going to offer an official U.S. Government position on that, but there are some – numerous explanations out there for that. What we’re doing, we’re obviously watching the India-China border dispute very closely.

“It – this activity is similar to activity we’ve seen in the past on border disputes with the People’s Republic of China, and again, I would point you to those – I think it was 2015 when Xi Jinping traveled to India the first time. The PLA invaded this contested area deeper and longer, with more people, than ever before historically. 

“Again, whether that was a negotiating tactic or a – just a punch in the nose to demonstrate their superiority, I don’t know. But then we saw the Doklam issue down near Bhutan, where we saw similar concerns.

“I wish I knew. Again, we don’t have a lot of visibility and we don’t have a lot of open dialogue with our Chinese counterparts, and honestly I’d like to see more of that if we can.”

With India’s recent election to the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member, the two countries will soon share a seat at the same table for resolving conflicts around the world.

But Professor Tsang is skeptical as to whether China would ever allow the UN or other third party involvement in its own affairs including the border dispute with India.

He said: “They are two nuclear powers. But at the end of the day, I would be surprised if the Chinese would accept any third party interference including from the UN.

“They would never accept any interference if they have an advantage and third party interference would only help the Indian hand, not the Chinese hand. It’s not beneficial to them.

“I can see both the Indians and the Chinese reinforcing their forces in the border region but as long as in the areas of dispute they keep to the agreement not to send troops in with regular firearms, then they keep it under control.

“If they escalate by sending in troops with regular firearms then we are going down a slippery slope there because if one side starts carrying firearms the other will, but we are not there yet and hopefully we will not be there.”


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Featured Image: BMN Network @Flickr

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