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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.

Murky waters

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.

Geopolitical tensions

For all both countries’ talk of a desire for deescalation, a meaningful mechanism to prevent clashes still seems a long way off, though winter conditions will at some point make any further action in the Himalayas impossible for a period.

Partly, the latest disputes are a result of an increasingly assertive foreign policy on both sides. Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, Beijing has become far more aggressive in its territorial claims not only in the Himalayas but also the South China Sea, while also taking a far harder line with regard to Taiwan and semi-autonomous Hong Kong.

For his part, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has overseen a marked shift in tone toward not only traditional rival Pakistan but also China. Last year, Modi’s government revoked the limited autonomy granted to Indian-controlled Kashmir and split the former state into two union territories, Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir.

This move alarmed many in Beijing, particularly as it was followed by aggressive comments by several leading Indian politicians, such as Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah telling a rally of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that “any intrusion into the the borders of India will be punished.”

Any Indian expansion or significant fortification of its hold over the region could threaten China’s strategic goals in central Asia, Happymon Jacob, an associate professor at the Center for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, told CNN earlier this year.

“China has invested more than $60 billion (on the economic corridor) with Pakistan” that runs through the disputed region, he said, adding that this is a “crucial element” of Xi’s signature Belt and Road trade and development plan.

These moves set the stage for the June conflict, which brought relations between the two powers to new lows. While China was largely able to control public reaction through a downplaying of the issue in its tightly controlled state media, the reaction in India was outrage, with many jingoistic commentators calling for Delhi to take the fight to Beijing.

Speaking in July, Tanvi Madan, director of the India Project at the Brookings Institution, said the clash “hardened views in the government, the strategic community, and the public that were already toughening because of Covid about China.”

It also fueled an ongoing pivot of sorts by Delhi toward Washington, further alarming Beijing, which already regards itself as somewhat boxed in by the United States in the region.

“The US-China relationship is arguably about as tense as a relationship can be without being in a hot war. By contrast, the US-India relationship is on the ascent,” Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center, wrote recently. “Looking at the Ladakh crisis, Beijing’s moves can be seen as an effort to deliver a tough message to both Washington and New Delhi: If you two are going to band together against us, then be ready to get pushed back.”

This photo taken on September 14, 2018, shows a general view of Pangong Lake from the Indian-controlled side.

The nuclear factor

In any dispute between China and India, there looms the shadow of both countries’ nuclear capabilities.

The conflict in June was – thanks to an apparent policy of not carrying guns on the disputed border – fought with hands and clubs, about as far as you can get from nuclear weapons. However, both countries have been building up their military power, and have plenty of missiles and armaments positioned around the region.

Writing last month for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, analysts Toby Dalton and Tong Zhao described that clash as “the gravest military confrontation the two nuclear powers have faced in fifty years.”

“If ties between the two powerful neighbors are indeed entering a more sharply competitive era, a crucial question arises: will nuclear weapons play a more prominent role as each country seeks to shape each other’s behavior?” they added.

Unlike the India-Pakistan conflict, which is always spoken of with regard to the potential for it to spill over into nuclear war, the issue of atomic weapons is largely absent from the China-India dispute, at least in public.

“Nuclear weapons have mostly remained in the shadows, including during the 2020 border standoff,” Dalton and Zhao wrote, adding, however, that under both countries’ aggressive, nationalist leaders, “Beijing and New Delhi are improving their nuclear arsenals and conventional military capabilities, while ongoing debates in both capitals question the wisdom of continued adherence to nuclear restraint policies.”

They expressed concern that because China’s nuclear strategy is largely aimed at balancing the US, it overlooks the effects that Beijing’s actions might have on India, which is far more conscious of – and concerned by – the nuclear strength of its neighbor.

“Beijing’s lack of understanding of New Delhi’s threat perception, disinterest in addressing India’s security concerns, and gradual effort to strengthen its own nuclear forces could add fuel to India’s perceived need to boost its strategic capabilities and nuclear arsenal,” the two analysts wrote.

An arms race could set the stage for the India-China conflict to become far more like that between Delhi and Islamabad, where the chance for nuclear war is a danger that must always be considered, even when individual incidents are not in themselves particularly extreme.

‘Prepared to pay a huge cost’

The dismissive attitude that many in China feel towards any potential threat from India was evident in state media coverage of the latest dispute this week.

“India’s provocations along the border with China and the subsequent deterioration of bilateral relations will please those countries which have instigated India to act as a pawn in their strategy to contain China,” said the state-backed China Daily on Tuesday. “But India should never expect to get substantial support from them should India’s continuous provocations spark a war with China.”

An editorial in the jingoistic tabloid Global Times, which has strong links to the Chinese military establishment, emphasized India’s economic and coronavirus woes, before claiming that Indian moves on the shared border were an example of how “its nationalism is inflicting damage to itself.”

“China is an immovable neighbor and much stronger than India,” the paper said. “The two countries are suitable to be partners in seeking common development. But if New Delhi wants to label Beijing its long-term strategic rival, it needs to be prepared to pay a huge cost. In the meantime, it will never manage to get one more inch of land at China-India border areas.”

In another piece, the paper quoted Wang Dehua, head of the Institute for South and Central Asian Studies at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, who argued that India was “blindly follow(ing) the US by clashing with China.”

The assumption in Beijing may be that in any such clash, it will emerge victorious, as it did in the 1962 war. But that was fought between two vastly different countries, neither of which was a nuclear power at the time, and the potential repercussions of a new conflict could be far, far greater.

CNN’s Joshua Berlinger contributed reporting.