Indo-China Border Tensions—No End Yet?


By Syed Qamar Rizvi.


A recently held fierce border standoff between China and India in Bhutan’s Doklam region —albeit temporarily resolved– seems yet to pave the way for the brewing confrontation between Beijing and New Delhi in so far as the said conflict may be getting anytime a new turn and twist because of the twin nature of the conflict both in land and sea since New Delhi has been growing its hyper concerns about a Chinese naval presence in its backyard: the Indian Ocean.

In August, India and China have reached an agreement to end the most serious dispute in years between the Asian powers. The two sides agreed to settle a border dispute at Doklam in the eastern Himalayas. Increased tensions there had raised fears of a wider conflict between the two countries. China’s foreign ministry said that Chinese soldiers will continue to patrol the area. A foreign ministry official said “China will continue to exercise sovereignty rights to protect territorial sovereignty in accordance with the rules of the historical boundary.”

But the strategists apprehend that despite the resolution of this conflict, there are still prompt signs that the two sides may get involved in their border clashes in future. Experts from India, China and the UK told Sputnik that while being the host of the upcoming BRICS Summit in the southern port city of Xiamen, China had to make some concessions to try to ease tensions over its the border dispute with India which in recent months in order to avoid any unintended surprise at the event.

The Shanghai-based expert pointed out that the recent standoff has helped China better understand the potential harm India can cause. “This incident has allowed China to clearly understand potential threat from India. I would call India an ‘incompetent bungler.’ That’s because India always is a spoiler in all the international organizations it becomes a part of. It always takes outrageous and irrational actions. After this incident, China realized that India is not a friendly partner, but a trouble-maker,” Hu claimed.

India, a close ally of Bhutan, then deployed troops to stop the construction project, prompting Beijing to accuse India of trespassing on Chinese soil. Tensions along the LAC rose in 2014. China has said India must withdraw its troops before any proper negotiation takes place. India said both sides should withdraw their forces together.

The plateau is strategically significant as it gives China access to the so-called “chicken’s neck” – a thin strip of land connecting India’s northeastern states with the rest of the country. The two nuclear-armed neighbours fought a brief war in 1962 in India’s border state of Arunachal Pradesh China’s foreign ministry said in an official statement that “the Indian side must immediately and unconditionally withdraw all personnel and equipment from the Chinese soil”, while reiterating that its troops had been inside Chinese territory when the confrontation took place.  An official statement from India’s foreign ministry said that “there is no commonly delineated Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the border areas between India and China.”

It added that differences in perception of the LAC have caused situations on the ground that could have been avoided if there was a consensus on the border lines.The latest skirmish occurred even as the two armies continued a two-month stand-off further east, near a plateau known as Doklam in India and Donglang in China. Since the confrontation began in June, each side has reinforced its troops and called on the other to retreat. The latest incident comes amid an ongoing dispute between the two sides over a strategic Himalayan plateau thousands of kilometres away where hundreds of Indian and Chinese soldiers have been facing off against each other for more than two months.

The border trouble began in June when Chinese soldiers started to extend a road through the Doka La territory — known as “Donglang” in Chinese. The area is disputed between China and Bhutan. China has said India must withdraw its troops before any proper negotiation takes place. India said both sides should withdraw their forces together. The plateau is strategically significant as it gives China access to the so-called “chicken’s neck” — a thin strip of land connecting India’s northeastern states with the rest of the country.

A ceremonial Border Personnel Meeting on the Indian Independence Day was also not held this time as the Chinese side did not respond to a communication from the Indian side, according to IANS. It was the first time since 2005 that the meetings were not held. However, there were reports of troops from both sides exchanging sweets on the occasion on Tuesday.

According to the Indian claim, Indian troops are militarily much better-placed there and can easily threaten China’s narrow Chumbi Valley in the region, if required, the according to India’s assessment. “But the PLA could try something in eastern Ladakh, as was seen on Tuesday, or eastern Arunachal Pradesh or Lipulekh Pass and Barahoti in the central sector (Himachal-Uttarakhand),” one of the sources said. 

The Indian defence establishment, however, is sticking to its belief that China will not risk a full-fledged war despite its major build-up of troops, artillery, air defence, armoured and other units in the southern part of the Tibet Military District that falls under the Western Theatre Command (WTC) of the PLA, after the Doklam confrontation erupted on the eastern front in mid-June.

In this situation, the role being played by both Japan and the US, the two India’s backers, cannot be ignored.  Tokyo has ‘been watching the situation very closely’, the ambassador appeared to justify and support New Delhi’s position by saying, “We understand that India is involved in this incident based on bilateral agreements with Bhutan.” “What is important in disputed areas is that all parties involved do not resort to unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force, and resolve the dispute in a peaceful manner,” he said.

Japan is no stranger to such efforts, particularly involving China. Tokyo has repeatedly warned the Chinese about their deteriorating ties over the Senkaku Islands. While China claims that they were aware of the islands from the 15th century, the Japanese contend that when they surveyed the island in the 1800s. India, Japan and US conducted the naval exercise this year amid growing tension with China. As the warships left Chennai and maritime surveillance aircraft of the Indian and US navies, China also began deploying personnel of its PLA-Navy to Djibouti, a naval base on the Horn of Africa.

There is something essentially flawed about the idea that Indian naval power can prevent Chinese warships and submarines from accessing India’s near-seas. But unlike that international waterway, the Indian Ocean isn’t a site of overlapping sovereign rights, meaning Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to counter the mainland on his home turf may not be sustainable.

As for the US, Washington has had no inclination to intervene in the said conflict and pragmatically it would also observe a non-intervening policy in future. Experts say the Trump administration might want to steer clear of upsetting Beijing, especially given it wants help resolving the North Korean nuclear threat.

“The standoff has ended without resolving the dispute over the Doklam plateau. The Indian forces have retreated 500 meters to their ridge-top post at Doka La and can quickly intervene if the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) attempts to restart work on the military road — a construction that triggered the face-off. As for China, it has withdrawn its troops and equipment from the face-off site, but strongly asserts the right to send in armed patrols. A fresh crisis could flare if the PLA tries again to build the controversial road to the Indian border,” Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, told Sputnik.

The Chinese Defense Ministry said that China will maintain a high combat readiness level in the disputed area near the border with India and Bhutan and will decisively protect China’s territorial sovereignty.

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