Tensions between India and China are rising again. This summer, the two countries’ militaries clashed in Ladakh along the Line of Control, their contested border in the Himalaya region. The loss of more than 30 lives sobered both governments, prompting military talks that made little progress. Late last month, there was another confrontation between the two armies — fortunately verbal, not physical — that underscored the fragility of the cease-fire.
Hostility is infecting the broader relationship. The general public in both countries are increasingly antagonistic to the other and the Delhi government has launched an economic offensive against its northern neighbor. Since both nations are headed by nationalists, the prospect of more clashes and escalation is real.
India and China have long contested their 3,500-km border, the Line of Control. They fought a war in 1962 (which India lost) and have clashed several times since. The possibility of escalation prompted them to adopt rules of engagement in 1993 in which both sides banned border patrols from using firearms.
That worked until last June, when each country accused the other of encroachment. Hundreds of troops were deployed from each side, and one evening in mid-June they brawled. It was no less deadly for the absence of firearms: Soldiers used rocks, sticks, clubs and bare fists, and for the first time since the 1970s, lives were lost. Several dozen troops were killed — the Chinese never admitted their casualties — and a dozen or so Indian troops taken hostage (and eventually released).
The wounds have festered since, especially among Indians. The Indian Army said it would no longer abide by the old rules of engagement. In early July, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, along with other senior officials, visited Ladakh, offering support for the troops and promises of infrastructure spending, both of which signaled to Beijing his concern about the issue.
Several rounds of negotiations followed and just two weeks ago, the two governments agreed to resolve problems in an “expeditious manner” and in accordance with existing protocols. India’s Foreign Ministry released a statement that affirmed that “The two sides will continue to sincerely work toward complete disengagement of the troops along the Line of Control.”
That report was followed days later by news that both sides had sent more troops to the area and were digging in. India accused China of building observation towers, bunkers and marinas in disputed territory, and said that these moves “violated the previous consensus” and constituted “provocative military movements.” Troops from both sides were said to have come within a meter of each other and engaged in yelling matches before being separated. A Tibetan member of an Indian special forces unit died in a mine blast near the site of a flare-up with Chinese troops.
According to a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, Chinese troops “never cross the Line of Control.” A spokesperson for the People’s Liberation Army denounced the Indian Army for a “flagrant provocation” by crossing the Line of Control. Rhetorical retrenchment narrows the space for the “mutually agreed reciprocal actions” that India insists upon.
A growing troop presence makes real the prospect of another armed clash. That inclination is reinforced by a perception that Modi mishandled the June incident, when he initially played down its severity. Indian officials, and especially those in the military, are disenchanted with mechanisms to deal with the military standoff, arguing that China is changing the status quo.
Chinese strategists counter that India is the revisionist, pointing to Delhi’s decision last year to change the status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, territory held by India but claimed by Pakistan, separate Ladakh from it, and to administer the region as a union territory. For them, that demanded a Chinese response.
India is advancing on a second front, adopting measures that restrict Chinese access to the Indian economy. Even before the first clash, India had changed rules to require government approval of all investment from China. It has further tightened investment restrictions, imposed tariffs on a wide range of imports from China, banned nearly 180 Chinese apps and told local telecommunications companies to phase out equipment from Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE.
While restrictions will hurt both sides — China’s share of India’s total imports more than quadrupled, increasing from less than 3 percent in 2000 to 14 percent in 2018 — Indian sentiment has hardened with many consumers backing a “boycott China” movement. Anger is rising in China as well. According to an August Global Times poll, more than 70 percent of Chinese believed that India was too hostile to them and nearly 90 percent support their government’s “retaliation against Indian provocations.”
Nationalist leaders, the general antagonistic public, military confrontations and nuclear-armed neighbors: This is as dangerous a combination as can be imagined. Diplomacy and top-level intervention are ever more urgent, yet ever more difficult in a pandemic. A face-saving formula for mutual redeployments and a retreat by both militaries are essential first steps.