June 2020 is not the first time India and China have locked horns. The current military stand-off is steeped in decades of political, diplomatic, and economic maneovering; and diplomatic strategy is what should seek its end this time too. Why? History speaks for itself, to begin with.
The LAC or Line of Actual Control is not set in stone. Both countries have long managed to harbour their own versions of it and yet avoid wars after the lone Sino-Indian War in 1962.
On May 5, at Pangong Tso, a lake along the LAC, PLA (People’s Liberation Army, China) troops restricted Indian troops from patrolling ambigous areas between the Indian and Chinese claim lines. Since that day, multiple clashes erupted in Ladakh and Sikkim, injuring hundreds.
On the 15th of June, Chinese and Indian armies fought each other at the disputed border along Ladkakh, Kashmir. 20 members of the Indian Army died in the clash that involved clubs, rocks, and barbed wire but no guns, since there is an agreement in place forbidding arms. It is not clear how many casualties were suffered by the Chinese side.
There are many possible causes being claimed by different experts for China’s provocation back in May. One is the construction of Darbuk–Shyok–DBO Road by India along its own region of the LAC. It connects Leh, Ladakh to Daulat Beg Oldi near the China border. Another one is the abrogation of Article 370 by India in 2019, after which Amit Shah had declared the highly disputed Aksai Chin as part of Ladakh Union Territory.
However, these are just triggers. The roots of this dispute, just like our other pertinent border dispute, lie in colonial rule.
Whose LAC Is It Anyway?
There was a Sino-Sikh war over Ladakh in the 19th Century, post which the British assumed control over it. Conflicting borders were drawn by British and Chinese imperialists (in Tibet) which stand as a basis of argument till date.
New tensions were sparked when the People’s Republic of China annexed Tibet in 1950, which was followed by the Tibetan uprising and the Dalai Lama being granted political asylum in India in 1959. Negotiations based on yesteryear border claims failed, and a war broke out in 1962. China ended up winning and redrawing the border, now called the LAC. A ceasefire was declared. Tension broke out again in 1967 along passed between Tibet and Sikkim in which hundreds of soldiers lost their lives. After that deadly second war, there was tension once in the 80s and then once again in 2013, but matters always de-escalated ultimately.
It’s Not Just About Ladakh Or Doklam
No Indian Prime Minister has perhaps had as many meetings with a Chinese President as PM Modi. He banks highly on his strong personal relationships with world leaders for a diplomatic edge, which also helped him peacefully avert crisis in the 2017 Doklam stand-off. To take stock, China had begun road-building operations in Doklam, another disputed territory between China and Indian ally Bhutan. Indian soldiers stood in to prevent these operations; a time bomb that ticked for 70-odd days. Both nations decided to withdraw troops at the end.
What should’ve signalled danger for us back in 2018 was that China had quietly resumed its Doklam activities and neither Bhutan or India contested them. This was a clear extension of China’s South China Sea policy.
The Goldmine Of Control: South China Sea
The South China Sea is a region of stategic, geopolitical, and military importance. It is the route through which a third of the world’s shipping carrying $3 trillion worth of trade passes every year. This includes not less than $200 billion of Indian trade. Plus, it is known to have 7.7 billion barrels worth of oil reserves and about 266 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves. The country that controls this route practically becomes gatekeeper to the rest of Asia. It is not just India’s but everyone else’s business as to what China does next in this area. For the geographically vast nuclear power, this region is a potential parking space for its second strike nuclear submarines in the event of a first strike against it.
Apart from China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines are all seeking claim over these waters. With China’s unchecked rise in military power in the past decade, it has engaged in island-building and positioning of naval patrols to assume physical control. In 2009 itself, China had declared, without any treaty or legal agreement, South China Sea as its territorial waters.
In late May, US President Donald Trump had offered to mediate between China and India, and the offer was met with refusal from both countries. Alarmed by the simultaneous aggressions on the LAC and in the South China Sea (which included sinking of a Vietnamese fishing vessel), Australia had called for easing of tensions through dialogue.
What seems to be the heart of the global issue is that China faces a threat of the rest of the world withdrawing trade relations with them and diverting them towards its neighbours (read: India). China is trying to prepare itself for the inevitable by using its geomilitary expansionist strategies and assuming physical control over the Asian region.
Meanwhile, the silence from our immediate neighbours has been deafening. To put it shortly, in the recent past, we had managed to anger Bangladesh with the CAA controversy, and Nepal and Pakistan with a redrawn map claiming J&K and Ladakh to be under its administration.
The Precarious Hindi-Chini Relationship
Not too long ago, in late 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping had visited India and held crucial talks with PM Modi. The key takeaways from these included efforts to build a stronger trading partnership; a commitment to ‘open and inclusive international trade’ and sustainability; a string of events marking 2020 as Year of India-China Cultural and People to People Exchanges; an agreement to set up new mechanisms for trade and defence cooperation; and a clear reluctance to put respective internal matters such as J&K or Hong Kong on the table.
After such a positive mood being set less than a year ago, there are Indians burning Chinese goods in protest as you read this. In the romantic spirit of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’, state measures included a major Railways contract with a Chinese being cancelled, a Mumbai monorail project with Chinese bidders being cancelled, and the Department of Telecommunication directing BSNL against usage of Chinese products in its operations.
These reactions show a scary disregard of economic facts. Of all our trading partners, the biggest deficit that we have is with China. Our neighbour accounts for more than 10% of our trade. But in China’s books, Indian trade is just 2.1%. A country like USA with 13.7% in the same list can probably afford a trade war with China more than we can. To reemphasize, China, the ‘world’s factory’ is the largest trade partner of most countries. India’s boycott won’t hurt it as much as it will hurt India itself. China’s official FDI in India is at least $2.34 billion. Major Chinese companies such as Alibaba, Xiaomi, Tencent, China-Eurasia Economic Cooperation Fund have invested in the most important of Indian startups such as Paytm, Ola, Snapdeal, and Swiggy.
What Is Our Next Move?
India can neither risk losing crucial investment with a looming recession, nor another longstanding military threat adding to the one already existing with Pakistan. This war cannot be fought with artillery, and certainly not by destroying goods that you have paid for and that also pay for your contrymen’s livelihoods. In fact, war doesn’t really work in China’s favour either, it would rather save resources for securing the South China Sea and save its image for the aftermath of the Covid defamation debacle.
The only thing that can truly solve this situation is good old diplomacy. India needs to leverage its allyship and get Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal on its side; while also leveraging the prevailing mistrust and getting the international community and UN on its side. To invoke ancient philosopher Kautilya, “Immediate neighbours are adversaries and those further afield are allies”.
Snehal is Columnist at GGI.
She is a writer, poet, music aficionado, Oxford comma proponent, and a lot of other things. She also writes on personal finance for 'Qrius Creative Labs'. She has worked as a copywriter, content writer, scriptwriter, creative strategist, and direction assistant at multiple organisations in the past.
Snehal is a graduate from the Bachelor in Mass Media, Advertising from St.Xavier's College, Bombay.