THE CURRENT BORDER CONFLICT echoes the earlier war—a power play by China rather than any real desire to occupy barren landscapes. Since the 1980s, China and India have met more than 20 times for border talks. To prevent escalation, the two sides promised not to engage each other’s patrols or to open gunfire or use explosives. But they didn’t agree on a definitive border. The ambiguity has led to skirmishes through the years.
In May, China began to enforce its presence in the disputed zones and build structures. By Pangong Tso, a high-altitude lake between India and Tibet, Indian and Chinese soldiers engaged in fistfights and stone-throwing. Skirmishes continued, culminating in the Galwan Valley clash on June 15.
The skirmish didn’t surprise Varaprasad Dolla, professor of Chinese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, India. But the timing did surprise him, he said. Indian Prime MinisterNarendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping had a good relationship, holding several summits in both countries.
So why now? Experts point to a few reasons: First, India’s move in 2019 to revoke the limited autonomy granted to Jammu and Kashmir state, which includes the disputed area in the Ladakh region, caused an angry backlash from China. China believes that changed the status quo of territorial claims along the border.
Also, India had been constructing roads and rail lines and updating airfields along the LAC, and it had just completed a new 140-mile road to the high-altitude Daulat Beg Oldi airbase in Ladakh. This would allow the quick transportation of soldiers and equipment into the area. Some believe China acted more aggressively because it felt threatened by India’s infrastructure buildup.
But India said it was just catching up with China, which has already built a network of air bases, an extensive railroad network, and physical infrastructure along the border. India’s construction has hit numerous delays due to difficult terrain, budget constraints, land acquisition problems, and bureaucracy, according to the BBC.
Meanwhile, international alliances are shifting. Dolla noted China is concerned about India’s growing relationship with the United States, which India sees as a way to counter China’s growing threat. China has not responded to India’s demands for more balanced bilateral trade relations, as its trade deficit with China was around $50 billion in 2019. Meanwhile, India is increasing trade with the United States and purchasing U.S. defense equipment. During President Donald Trump’s visit to Modi’s home state of Gujarat in February 2020, the Indian prime minister called the United States its most important partner.
China is also concerned about the informal Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad) between India, Japan, Australia, and the United States. The Quad shares information and holds summits and military drills. This summer India indicated it would allow Australia to join the annual trilateral Malabar naval exercise with the other three countries in the Indian Ocean. India avoided inviting Australia in past years to avoid upsetting China.
“The recent attempts at strengthening relations is one issue … causing the Chinese to send a signal to both the West and India to make sure that your bonhomie, your cooperation, doesn’t become successful,” Dolla said.
The India-China border clash also distracts from the negative attention China has received over its handling of the coronavirus. The United States and other Western countries have called for investigations into the origins of the virus and China’s complicity in covering up the outbreak during the crucial early days. The clash also came as most Indians were stuck inside their homes during COVID-19 lockdowns, and India faces an economic downturn caused by the pandemic. More than 64,000 Indians have died from the coronavirus.