Although the recent skirmishes between the Indian and Chinese armies over the border dispute have subsided, the tension between the two Asian giants is far from over. The current military tensions include Demchok, Galwan Valley, and Daulat Beg Oldie, but Pangong Tso Lake is another conflict hotspot which continues to be a concern and the confrontation between the two armies continues there.
Combat on the India-China Border
Indian and Chinese troops clashed on the night of May 5-6 on the banks of the contested Pangong Tso Lake. The clash led to the deployment of troops by both nations at various points along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladak. After the command-level meeting between the two, despite the Chinese accepting India’s point regarding other areas in the region, Beijing has not accepted Indian concerns over the ground situation in Pangong Tso. The Chinese have established a “significant” presence in this grey area which earlier used to be patrolled by both armies. India wants restoration of the status quo, which means they demand that the Chinese must vacate the grey area.
Why is Pangong Tso Important?
Pangong Tso is strategically very close to Chusul Valley, a strategic area which served as the primary battlefront between India and China during the 1962 Sino-Indian War. China is keen to have strategic control over Pangong Tso as it gives a view of the Chusul Valley. Except for the width of Pangong Tso the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that has separated Indian and Chinese troops since 1962 also runs through this area.
According to defense experts, infrastructure development near the LAC threatens China’s occupation of Aksai Chin and the Lhasa-Kashgar highway. The threat to this highway jeopardizes China’s hawkish plans in Pakistan-occupied territories in Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir.
Construction of the 255 km Daulat Beg Oldie-Darbuk-Shayok road has also unnerved China. Daulat Beg Oldie holds the distinction of being the highest airfield in the world. The road extends up to the last military post at the Karakoram pass. On completion, the road will reduce the travel time from Leh to Daulat Beg Oldie from two days to six hours.
Why is China Adopting Hawkish Policies Towards India?
Domestic pressure due to massive job losses and negative international perceptions post-pandemic has queered the pitched for China. Adding to its woes is Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose calls for Vocal for Local, a Swadeshi (domestic) movement, urging people to be vocal about local products to make them global. After Modi’s call, boycotting Chinese products has gained momentum in India. Several Bollywood personalities including Arshad Warsi, Milind Soman, and others have joined the “Boycott China” campaign on social media.
Although Modi has refrained from naming China, ostensibly the movement is meant to reduce the use of Chinese products in the post-COVID-19 era. China has a huge trade deficit, with India’s imports from China being more than $65 billion USD, whereas China’s imports from India being around $13 billion USD. According to International affairs experts, the increasing Chinese hostility at the Indo-China border is linked to the “Boycott Chinese Products” campaign, as the campaign could both effectively reduce the trade imbalance as well as hurt China economically.
Incident Near the Senkaku Islands
On May 8, two China Coast Guard ships chased a Japanese fishing boat in Japanese territorial waters around the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which are also claimed by China. Beijing announced its hold on the islands in April, setting up two administrative units on islands in the South China Sea. Its aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, also conducted drills in the Taiwan Strait.
China also announced on May 28 that it would impose a national security law on Hong Kong to crackdown on pro-democracy activists in the territory, drawing protests from around the world.
However, the latest Chinese move on the India front appears to be a part of its long-term strategy to gain greater control of the area. It was under this design, taking advantage of Indian troop withdrawal, that China first built a road up to 5 km on the Indian side of the LAC in 1999, during the Kargil War with Pakistan.
A military officer on condition of anonymity said both sides do intercept each other’s patrol parties and stop them from completing their objectives. But now, Chinese troops have blocked Indian access to the previously patrolled area and, effectively taken control of approximately 60 square kilometers.
With India assuming chairmanship of the World Health Organization (WHO) — which is in the eye of the storm for its mishandling of coronavirus — and China being the bete noire opposing US President Donald Trump’s idea to include India in G7, testing times are ahead for both the Asian giants. According to political observers, China’s efforts to divert global attention from its coronavirus botch-up may lead to intentional escalations at the Indian border and lead to the situation taking a turn for the worse.