- + 20 Indian soldiers died in a brawl in the Sino-Indian border.
- + There is a long history of tension between the two nuclear powers.
- + The conflict is not likely to disappear nor to escalate beyond fistfights.
Why is there hostility between Xi and Modi?
Answer: Brawling has now cost lives at the border between the two nuclear powers.
On June 15th, conflict rose in the Sino-Indian border due to a brawl between soldiers in the Galwan Valley in the mountains of Ladakh that cost the lives of 20 Indian troops. While the Chinese have not revealed their number of casualties, this marks the first loss of life at the border in 45 years. Tensions are running high and the area is receiving more and more troops coming from both sides of the border.
According to the Indian Lieut-General H.S. Pang, this latest development began when the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) took 40 to 60 kilometers of territory that India claimed. On this day, India believes the PLA launched a premeditated and planned attack, with rocks and clubs, against Indian troops who in turn were pushed back and fell into the river below. Some Indian soldiers died in the fight while others of hypothermia, considering the very high altitude of the region.
On this event, Prime Minister Modi stated on June 17th that “our soldiers died having battled and killed the enemy”. However, and even if Modi did antagonize the Chinese heavily, neither China nor India (both nuclear nations, by the way) seem eager to allow the conflict to continue to escalate. Still, it is not the first time the Sino-Indian border causes problems.
China and India have been rivals for a long time: however, the peak of their conflict took place in 1962 with a brief border war in the disputed Himalayan border. While there were many factors contributing to the conflict, the underlying issue was the lack of definition of the border between these two countries. This altercation at the border, which continued to cause small confrontations between the two Asian giants, was finally settled in 1996 with a peace agreement that established the controversial Line of Actual Control (LAC). Due to its colonial cartography the border is still hard to determine and everyone has a different view on where it actually lays.
Such is the uncertainty that events like the one that took place on June 16th are somewhat inevitable. However, since both sides have little intention to escalate tensions further, there have been some agreements to remain civil. For example, in 2003, there was another agreement in which both sides promised to retain from using armed weapons in any rawl, hence the rock throwing and acrobatic kicks. Still, Modi and Xi are heavily stocking the region around the LAC. It could get worse than punches.
What does Xi want?
Answer: While very diplomatic, his silence on the matter makes it unclear.
Unlike Modi, who called for an all parties meeting on June 19th, Xi has maintained quite a low-profile within this situation. China provided little information on its casualties during the last clash, however, it has deployed troops to the three stand-off points along the Line of Actual Control. Beijing has more to say about the immediate cause of the brawl. The Chinese see it as a reaction to India’s, illegitimate in their view, build-up of infrastructure in easter Ladakh including a North-South road. In their view, it violates the territorial agreement between the two countries.
However, Xi has been very diplomatic in his interactions with Modi over their border issues. In June 2017, tensions were once more running high in the border region with Bhutan. This was partly due to the fact China had begun the construction of a road in Doklam, near the border of the three countries: China, India and Bhutan. After a tense 73-day stand-off between the two nuclear powers, Xi hosted an informal summit in the city of Wuhan, now famous for COVID 19. During this summit, both leaders seemed to settle the issue very diplomatically; it was nicknamed the “Wuhan Spirit”. However, the spirit seems to have faded now.
What does Modi want?
Answer: For tensions to ease in the region.
India, as well as basically everyone else, is quite anxious with the rise of Chinese might, both economically and politically, and especially so close to home. There is worry about Chinese warships in the Indian Ocean as well as Chinese construction, again in the Ladakh region near Daulat Beg Oldi, a vital and strategic airfield for India. While the Chinese military ambitions may scare Modi, the reality of China-India relations is far more friendly. China, after the US, is India’s largest trading partner and an important exporter and importer as well. Being the first and third largest economies of the regions, the two countries benefit from close relations. Maintaining multilateral cooperation with China is among Modi`s objectives. Still, borders seem to be a big issue for Modi and his nationalistic leadership.
Overall, the Indian borders have a bloody history. From the occupation in Kashmir to the war with Bangladesh, it is a long one too. However, recent developments have made tensions around and inside India grow. For instance, on June 12th, an Indian citizen was killed by the Nepalese border guards amid a brawl to the East. In the West, with Kashmir, the situation is even trickier. On June 15th two indian officials were allegedly abducted and tortured in Pakistan by “Pakistani agencies¨. Now, there are 20 more lives lost at the border.
What is Modi doing?
Answer: Looking for help elsewhere, specifically the US.
One of the main elements of Indian anxiety towards China is the clear asymmetry between the two in military terms. Back when the Sino-Indian border war took place in 1962, the PLA quickly dominated their counterpart. This asymmetry is leading India to deepen its relations with the United States in turn. Apart from the compliments exchanged between Trump and Modi, who are very similar in many aspects, Indian defense has been more and more friendly towards the US. In February, the two nations closed an Arms Deal of 3.5 billion USD, solidifying their alliance. Additionally, India is part of a group of Chinese skeptic countries known as the “Quad” made up by the US, Australia, Japan and India. While this is not a military alliance yet, Australia will join naval exercises with the other three soon.
Who is winning and what about you?
Answer: No one is winning and no one is losing, but nationalism on both sides is worrisome.
Tensions are not new between these two superpowers in the region, and such a loss of life cannot be helped. Little progress has been made by negotiations as altercations become more common and more troops are dispatched to the area. The “Wuhan spirit” has little to show for. Nationalism in both countries does not seem to help either. As Jabin Jacob of Shiv Nadar University states: “Nationalist narratives in both countries are beginning to percolate down to the militaries in difficult-to-control ways.” The public image in each country of the other makes matters even more complicated. However, full blown conflict between the two nuclear powers seems far fetched. Both sides still seem committed to keeping the violence at arms length.