Two nuclear-armed powers, both run by nationalist governments at a time of economic tension, are once again squaring off along their shared border. Is this a recipe for disaster?
Earlier this week, China accused Indian troops of illegally trespassing on Chinese territory in the Himalayas, months after the two countries engaged in their bloodiest clash in more than four decades.
That incident, which left dozens of soldiers dead, had been followed by calls for calm and deescalation, but negotiations between Indian and Chinese officials went nowhere, and things are once again heating up along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto border between the two countries.
Speaking Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said: “the Indian side has severely undermined China’s territorial sovereignty, breached bilateral agreements and important consensus, and damaged peace and tranquility in the border areas, which runs counter to the recent efforts made by both sides for deescalation of tensions on the ground.”
For its part, New Delhi has accused Beijing of being the aggressor, and such is the nature of the hotly-disputed 2,100 mile-long (3,379 kilometer) border, where there is little agreement even over the supposedly agreed-upon facts, like the LAC itself, that both sides could potentially be correct.
That the deescalation process pursued since their last clash in June did not amount to much comes as little surprise, given the outstanding disputes and geopolitical pressures on both sides. But even as outright conflict remains a thankfully distant prospect, there is reason for concern that relations between the two largest powers in Asia are getting worse.
The Line of Actual Control, the loosely-defined, de facto border, emerged out of the Sino-Indian border war of 1962, which itself was sparked by longstanding historical territorial disagreements.
For much of the 1800s, the Himalayas was a focus of the military and political rivalry between the three empires of Russia, Britain and China, with all three claiming various parts of the region. Decolonization only brought with it further confusion and antipathy, particularly after Pakistan split from India in 1947 as both countries gained independence.
On any map that attempts to show all three countries’ supposed territories, the area between them is a mess of overlapping claims, with little agreement on any side.
The latest border incident occurred around Pangong Tso, a strategically located lake which spans an area stretching from the Indian territory of Ladakh to Chinese-controlled Tibet. It is south of the Galwan Valley, where the bloody clash between Chinese and Indian troops took place in June.
Antoine Levesques, research fellow for South Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), said that the lake itself holds little immediate military value to either side, but this has not stopped the ramping up of patrols and development in the area on both sides.
Until late last month, Levesques said, “diplomats had refrained from publicly and specifically discussing the situation at Pangong Tso lake. But it remains one location where successive rounds of military-led talks have failed to result yet in impactful or visible de-escalation and disengagement witnessed in other hotspots.”
And while there is little immediate military value to the lake, there are strategic benefits to China in establishing control over the area, he added.
“As the site of a bloody tactical battle in 1962 which India lost, before losing that year’s short conflict altogether, Pangong Tso carries considerable symbolic value,” Levesques said, predicting that were any proper deescalation to be carried out, positions around the lake would likely be the last to be traded away or disengaged from.