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Thursday, February 15, 2024

Impact of Ladakh border skirmishes on China-India bilateral relations

Sino-Indian differences regarding the LAC are well known, and hence the change of Ladakh’s special status was perceived as a change in status quo by the Indian side. Both sides attempted to separate the border issues from overall bilateral ties; however, the geopolitical realities are quickly catching on.

On June 15th, 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, Sino-Indian forces clashed with each other in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). After this clash, China grew more assertive in its claim over the entire Galwan Valley and Arunachal Pradesh. The Galwan Valley clash was the beginning of a new phase in Sino-Indian bilateral ties. The relations, though, despite efforts of political actors from both, continue to be defined by growing antagonism of which the border tensions are a major part.

When seen in conjunction with China’s US geopolitical competition, the possibilities of Sino-Indian bilateral relations remaining frozen seem likely. During the Galwan Valley clash, twenty  Indian soldiers were killed, while according to international media, Chinese soldiers also died, though the exact number is unknown. Stones and sticks were primary weapons of aggression; this engagement occurred after four decades of quiet at the border. Indian and Chinese troops refrained from the use of firearms in direct confrontations as specified by the 1996 and 2005 Agreements between both sides.

Read more: India worried as China builds new bridge in Ladakh area

Understanding the matter better

These rules of engagement are in place to avoid an escalation of tensions as such a scenario could prove too costly. However, casualties after the Galwan clash show that these rules of engagement can only prevent the casualties from exponentially increasing rather than entirely preventing. Interestingly Indian reaction had been more cautious, even appealing and un-confrontational as China is still preventing the return to pre-crash positions, effectively taking possession of previously Indian-controlled territory.

There have been eleven rounds of discussions among both militaries for disengagement. The Indian side desires a return to the status quo –return to the positions of the pre-2020 border clash.  Disengagements have been successful on the North and South Bank of Pangongwhere both sides agreed to simultaneously move a few kilometers back, while in PP17A in Gogra Post area, PP14 in Galwan Valley, and the Depsang Plains in the far north, China is resisting the Indian military’s access to pre-clash positions. New Delhi and Beijing have different perceptions of the LAC. The main driver behind the Galwan Valley clash was the pacing up of infrastructure by both armies on their respective sides of the border.

New Delhi for years refrained from building roads along the LAC to prevent a repeat of the 1962 Sino-Indian War when the PLA took advantage of the roads on the Indian side to facilitate troop movement. In 2008 this policy was reversed, and in 2014 the infrastructural development amped up. Infrastructural development on respective sides of the LAC means rapid mobilization of troops and supplies to the other side. India’s DS–DBO Road in Ladakh would mean swift access to China’s Aksai Chin. Hence Beijing opposes this construction while continuing to build critical infrastructure on its own side of the LAC.

Read more: Chinese soldier who strayed across Ladakh border is returned by India

In fact, now China claims the entire Galwan Valley as its own territory, all the while stepping up incursions in Sikkim as well. The relative calm of the previous forty years has been abandoned, and China has made incursions along LAC a regular event.   For instance, on Dalai Lama’s birthday last year, on July 6th Chinese troops entered into the Indian territory of Demchok along the LAC to object to locals’ celebrations of Dalai Lama’s birthday.

These troops stayed inside the Indian territory for thirty minutes

Though the construction of critical infrastructure on both sides triggered the 2020 clash and China’s subsequent incursions into the Indian territory, the underlying cause behind PLA’s growing assertions along LAC is entirely different. New Delhi’s abrogation of Article 370, which stripped Jammu and Kashmir of semi-autonomous status, is the core strategic issue inspiring China’s change in strategy. After the abrogation of this article, Ladakh, previously part of J&K, has been conferred upon the status of a separate Union Territory under New Delhi’s direct control. Ladakh is the Indian side of the LAC, a disputed and demarcated boundary line.

Sino-Indian differences regarding the LAC are well known, and hence the change of Ladakh’s special status was perceived as a change in status quo by the Indian side. Both sides attempted to separate the border issues from overall bilateral ties; however, the geopolitical realities are quickly catching on. It is no secret that the US considers India a geopolitical competitor to China. US objective is to engage Beijing with a regional rival and delay its ambitions of being a global hegemon. Despite economic ties and ever-growing bilateral trade- which crossed a whopping figure of US$100 billion last year- both China and India acknowledge being adversaries and belonging to different blocs in the current global configuration.

Blocs, of course, is a loosely based term in the current global scenario, with the likes of China as the revisionist bloc and the US as the status quo power. India is a part of QUAD, which besides not being a military alliance, is still is directed at China. New Delhi also fears a two-front war theatre with China on one side and Pakistan on the other. The frozen Sino-Indian ties went further down a few degrees when China announced a PLA troop-who engaged with Indian troops during Galwan Clash as a torchbearer in the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. This triggered fury in New Delhi, which announced a diplomatic boycott of the entire event. This Chinese action was quite provocative and showed that it is not concerned much about upsetting New Delhi.

Read more: Ladakh Union Territory illegally set up by India, says China

Beijing is not prone to making thoughtless and meaningless gestures, and that too at Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony. This gesture symbolizes that Beijing is not worried about India’s resentment over such political or domestic actions. Indians have been unable to contain Chinese incursions into their territory as well as adopt strict rhetoric on an official level. The government-level responses to PLA’s border incursions even after the deaths of twenty Indian soldiers show New Delhi’s realization that escalation of tensions would asymmetrically affect India. The Galway Clash and the muted Indian response indicate that despite belief, New Delhi is unable to stand up to China.

It is either unwilling or unable to defend its own territory, let alone challenge Beijing. Furthermore, the muted US response to the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine demonstrates that there isn’t much Washington can do for its allies despite assurances in the face of strong adversaries. Perhaps this is the reason that New Delhi has been cautious about AUKUS as it comprehends that China can escalate tensions at the LAC in order to pressure and punish India. The trends show that China will only grow more assertive in the Sino-Indian bilateral ties. Despite economic terms, strategic calculations will continue to dictate the trajectory of Sino Indian equation.



The writer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan. He can be reached at op-ed@hafeezkhan.com. The views expressed by the writers do not necessarily represent Global Village Space’s editorial policy