In May 2020, China and India once again clashed at various points along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that marks the unofficial border between the two countries (3,448 km in length), primarily in the Ladakh region (on May 5 and 6) and at Naku La in the Sikkim region (on May 10).

This is not the first time that the two sides have clashed in this way, however. The recent events are the latest installment in an unresolved historical border dispute over dozens of areas along the Line of Control, primarily Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh. The dispute is motivated by a difference in opinion regarding the sovereign rights of these areas. Although agreement on the boundary line has been reached for some areas (in particular around the center of the Line of Control), the border has not been formally defined. By December 2019, more than 20 rounds of negotiations had taken place without achieving an end to the conflict.

The reasons behind previous clashes have varied: one side would send troops into a disputed area or would attempt to build infrastructure there, and the other side would feel forced to intervene. Although minimal violence occurred this time, the significance of the recent clashes should not be overlooked, as the situation has the potential to escalate into a large-scale military conflict as happened in 1962, particularly as the military capabilities of both sides are increasing and as strategic developments are occurring in the Pacific–Indian region. It is therefore important to understand this conflict within the wider context.

Three approaches to explaining the renewed border dispute

There are several possible explanations behind the re-ignition of the India–China dispute, of which the following three are the most important:

The first approach is to look at the current crisis as simply part of a recurring chain of events, with no particular significance as regards its timing. This approach is based on the fact that the border dispute between the two countries is an historical dispute that dates back nearly seven decades and was the cause of an all-out war in 1962. Although the two sides concluded a bilateral peace agreement in 1993 (Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas), the agreement did not contain a final settlement for the conflict nor an official border demarcation. The agreement did serve to freeze the dispute, however, by setting out the commitment of both sides to enter into “peaceful and friendly consultations” and to refrain from making any threats of the use of force. The two parties also committed to respect the Line of Control until the conflict had been settled, and to resolve any problems or crises that might occur along the line through direct dialogue.

The second approach is based on the old idea that countries with internal problems often resort to reigniting or fabricating external problems in order to reduce pressure on domestic structures or draw attention away from domestic problems. In this regard, some analysts have suggested that the Chinese and Indian regimes have decided to reignite their historical dispute now in order to relieve the internal pressure on them caused by the coronavirus crisis and the related domestic challenges.

This interpretation is inaccurate, however. China has largely succeeded in overcoming the coronavirus crisis, having managed to gain almost complete control over outbreak, infection, and death rates. Life is beginning to return to normal in China, including at the epicenter of the epidemic (Wuhan). Furthermore, the Chinese regime must already contend with an external dispute with the USA, which has floated theories that the virus may have been manufactured in China and has criticized China’s treatment of Hong Kong and the Chinese Muslim Uighur minority; the Chinese government therefore does not need to fabricate or revive any other external crisis in order to relieve the internal pressure on it. The situation in India is similar. Although India is ninth in the world in terms of the number of infections and deaths from the virus, it seems unlikely that the recent border skirmishes were part of an attempt to alleviate internal pressure, as the coronavirus pandemic is a global crisis and therefore does not reflect a specific failing by the Indian government. Moreover, the government needs to mobilize all available resources, including economic, financial, healthcare, and media resources and its logistical military capabilities, if it is to overcome the pandemic. It therefore has no need to fabricate an external crisis that would require it to divert some of those capabilities.

The third approach looks at the situation within the wider context of the US–Chinese crisis. Although the Indo-Chinese border dispute is not directly related to the US–Chinese crisis, this does not mean that there is no connection between the two, not only with regard to strategic US–Indian relations and India’s role within the USA’s strategy to contain China, but also with regard to the important strategic developments taking place in the Pacific–Indian region. In coordination with the USA, Japan, and Australia, India has begun to treat this region (which stretches from the eastern shores of the Pacific Ocean to the western shores of the Indian Ocean) as a single strategic unit and a theater through which to contain and confront Chinese policies.

This approach provides a multifaceted understanding of the current crisis. On the one hand, China is deliberately showing the USA that it will not hesitate to target US allies in the region in response to the USA’s internal, regional, and international maneuvers against China. China is also sending the message to India that its alliance with the USA and the expansion of its security capabilities at China’s expense within the Pacific–Indian region in general, and in the Pacific Ocean and fjords in particular, will not be without cost. This border dispute is powerful card in China’s hand, as the two countries have come to blows numerous times over the matter. The threat of reigniting the issue therefore serves as a formidable deterrent.

In addition, China and India are each concerned that the other is carrying out infrastructure projects in zones of direct conflict and in other related regions that could change the course of the current conflict. India is highly concerned by the development of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor. While the project includes a number of important components, most crucially for India the project extends into areas under Pakistani control in the disputed Kashmir region along the border with Pakistan (Gilgit-Baltistan region). By strengthening these regions’ ties with the Pakistani economy, other Pakistani provinces, and the Chinese economy, the project will change the political and geo-economic situation in such a way as to hand Pakistan the advantage in the conflict over Kashmir and give residents a reason to remain tied to the Pakistani State. For that reason, India insisted that the founding document of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank contain the reservation that “project financing in disputed areas requires the consent of both parties to the dispute” (India joined the Bank on January 11, 2016). In addition, China has attempted to connect some areas of conflict along the Line of Control to its infrastructure; such action provoked another crisis in mid-2017, when the Chinese army attempted to build a road through the disputed Doklam region.

Conversely, China is concerned by Indian efforts to build roads and airstrips along the Line of Control. In developing such infrastructure, in particular for military purposes, India will increase its control over the disputed areas and strengthen their connection to Indian infrastructure. It will also enable India to more quickly mobilize its military in disputed areas in the event of conflict. This analysis is supported by the statement made by General Naravane, the head of the Indian army, in January 2020, in which he said that India was seeking to “rebalance” its pattern of proliferation and its strategy along its western, northern, and northwestern borders in order to deal with potential threats from Pakistan or China.

In light of these facts, the military skirmishes between India and China in various disputed areas along the Line of Control — while insignificant in and of themselves and relatively infrequent — are an essential tool that each side is using to assert its sovereign rights over the other.

The future of the conflict

In recent decades, China and India have attempted to settle many of their other border disputes. For example, China has settled disputes with Nepal, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and India has settled most of its border disputes with Nepal and Bhutan. In 2015, India even settled its border dispute with Bangladesh. Nonetheless, it is unlikely that China and India will reach an historical settlement to their border dispute any time soon. This conclusion is supported by the following factors:

First, we must take into account the nature of the strategic developments taking place in the Pacific and Indian regions and the deterioration in US–Chinese relations, which will lead to further strengthening in strategic relations between the USA and India. This, in turn, will have an impact on Chinese–Indian relations and will stoke further conflict, especially if India extends its security apparatus into the South China Sea and the connected straits. The two sides are likely to become more polarized given the launch of security dialogues between India, the USA, Japan, and Australia, which could ignite an arms race in the region. In this context, a settlement to the border dispute is unlikely; rather, it may become one of the primary areas and triggers of conflict.

Second, we must take into account the stage of development that both China and India are at. At the moment, both countries are becoming stronger economically and militarily. During such transitional stages, each side assumes that they will at some point become the stronger power, leading them to postpone the resolution of the conflict until the balance of power tips in their favor and to reject any settlement in which they would have to make concessions.

Although, during the most recent crisis, US president Donald Trump offered to intervene to help the parties settle the conflict, China is unlikely to accept this offer for several reasons, chiefly the current crisis of trust between it and the USA, and the nature of the USA and India’s strategic relationship, which has raised doubts in China’s mind about the USA’s neutrality in mediating between the two parties. However, the most important factor is China’s historical approach to managing its external border disputes. China has always pursued settlements through direct bilateral negotiations between the parties to the dispute and has rejected all international involvement or mediation, a prime example of this being China’s approach to the South China Sea conflict.

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