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What does the latest Sino-Indo confrontation in the remote regions of the Himalayas mean?

By James Maclaren, Jul 24 2020 08:32AM

Indian and Chinese forces clash across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) which separates the two countries armed forces on the Indian border with Chinese Tibet, stirring up concern that a larger confrontation in this desolate but beautiful wilderness is possible. Is this latest scuffle just local posturing or a precursor to something more serious?

Pangong Pso is a beautiful highland grass lake set deep high in the Himalayas. It freezes in winter and at 14,000 feet its relative inaccessibility makes it a remarkable area of beauty that qualifies it as an area of scientific interest for its flora, fauna and wildlife that should draw attention from around the world. Unfortunately, through its waters run the LAC, drawn up between Indian and Chinese forces after their short conflict in the region in 1962. The central part of the deep lake and the shores beyond are disputed territory across which Indian and Chinese soldiers can glare at each other.

Both sides possess a different understanding of where the LAC runs. What is agreed is that Chinese forces occupy positions that fall within territory claimed by India. Both sides patrol and border incursions are regular occurrences, although only India reports such incidents. While the area has been the subject of border confrontations since the ’62 Indo-Sino war, the latest confrontation is troubling. The latest incident which took place from the 5th May involved around 250 soldiers and amounted to fistfights and rock-throwing. Hardly serious stuff from the two largest nuclear-armed armed forces in the world. But the dispute has spread, including to areas where the LAC is agreed, such as the Galwan Valley over 200 miles away. Here, China objects to road infrastructure being built by the Indian side while India objects to Chinese tented encampments into which it has bought military reinforcements. Reports say that up to 5,000 Chinese troops have been drafted into the region.

Previous stand-offs have been resolved mostly by local commanders with mutual withdrawal and comradely good behaviour, however, this situation has been elevated to the political level and the question is raised as to why there is an increase in confrontation now? Interpreting China’s intentions in the opaque policy that covers the Indo-China border is challenging and although Beijing may just be engaging in some provocative probing, now would seem an inopportune time to be picking quarrels with neighbours.

One theory is that the timing has little to do with a disputed border and more to do with the possibility of India assuming a leadership role in the World Health Organisation (WHO). This appointment would provide opportunity for geopolitical mischief as global pressure for a probe into the origins of the Coronavirus pandemic are considered. Some border dispute pressure is a simple way of Beijing reminding its Indian neighbour to watch its step.

It is also possible that the extensive infrastructure building programmes of both sides including bridges, roads and underground bunkers may be responsible for the heightened tension. India’s attempts to limit and disrupt the Chinese security infrastructure advantage would bring opportunity for border friction. However, this does not account for the timing of the latest incidents.

A further theory is that India has responsibility for stirring up the latest aggression, undertaken perhaps to remind the United States of its support for India in the territorial dispute with China. Since U.S. support for India in the ’62 conflict the strategic ties between the two countries have deepened. The U.S. largely supports the Indian territorial claims, and should China attempt to engage in hostilities across the LAC then it may be viewed as an attack on India rather than a remote skirmish. Some nip and tuck on the Himalayan border is a useful way of reminding the U.S. of its allegiances, especially when that country’s resources are spread far and wide.

Washington is a source of intelligence for India in its Himalayan border wrestle with China. Certainly, Delhi would have an interest in strengthening intelligence links reducing the advantage in Military forces that China on paper enjoys. In return Washington may well press for more active forward engagement from India on issues like Taiwan and the South China Sea. The LAC dispute is a useful lever to strengthen further the U.S.-India strategic relationship and give Beijing pause for thought.

It is possible that cool heads in Delhi and Beijing will prevail and that the uneasy but stable relationships between the two sides will resume. Nevertheless, the slow but steady build-up of military infrastructure and the connection to wider Indo-Pacific policy serves as a reminder, that these confrontations have the ability to escalate quickly and not in a good way.

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