When did China and India first contact?
"The Chinese are currently undermining their own rise: They are forcing neighbors like India to take tough countermeasures" - which is behind the border conflict between China and India
For the first time in 45 years, shots were fired at the Sino-Indian border. There were no injuries or deaths this time. The border conflict could escalate into war, says South Asia expert Jeff M. Smith.
Mr. Smith, China and India have been fighting over their common border for nearly sixty years. Why is the conflict flaring up in the Himalayas now?
There are two reasons for the current crisis: On the one hand, China tried to stop Indian infrastructure construction along the Line of Actual Control, the LAC. China has repeatedly reacted militarily when India tried to expand its infrastructure in the disputed area. We know that India has recently built new roads, one of which runs almost the entire length of the LAC in Ladakh. However, India's infrastructure is hopelessly inferior to the Chinese one - China is determined to maintain this strategic advantage along the LAC.
And what is the second reason?
Since the outbreak of the corona pandemic, the Chinese have been acting more aggressively towards their neighboring countries. You can see it in Hong Kong, with Taiwan and in the South China Sea. Then there is the dispute with the USA. This overlaps with the "Wolf Warrior" diplomacy that we have seen in China in recent years: China is more hostile and more willing to take risks. On the night of June 20, the situation at the LAC then escalated. I don't think that this episode was planned by either China or India.
Twenty Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers died at that time. They had beaten each other with sticks and stones, some fell and froze to death in a river. That sounds like a strangely archaic conflict.
China and India have agreed that the patrols along the LAC will not carry weapons. That probably made sure that not more soldiers died. But that also led to these medieval-looking fights, in which soldiers attack each other with sharpened sticks and push off cliffs. I don't know when the world last saw this kind of fighting.
Why was shooting at the LAC on Monday?
The Indian army has apparently fired warning shots at approaching Chinese soldiers. It may have been the first time since 1975 that shots have been fired at the LAC. At that time there was a fatal exchange of fire. But it's hard to tell if warning shots have never been fired since.
Why is this area so controversial?
There are around a dozen sectors along the border where there is disagreement about where the LAC exactly goes. In other places, however, an agreement has been found: "We will patrol this far, you will patrol as far as there." The patrol routes overlap in the disputed sectors. This is where the conflicts arise. Pangong Lake is a critical point. There the Chinese are trying to change the status quo in their favor. And that's where the skirmishes are happening right now.
In this region there are mainly lakes, mountains and glaciers.
We are talking about an inhospitable landscape, cold, almost uninhabited. But it's an emotional issue for both countries. It's not about the strategic value of an area or raw materials.
Could there be a war?
Yes, there is a risk that the conflict will escalate. As soon as violence and deaths occur, the potential for misjudgments and escalation increases significantly. Last week, the Indians conquered new observation posts on the south bank of Lake Pangong. I don't want to overestimate the situation, China and India have actually had the LAC under control so far. But many things seem more uncertain today than they did a few months ago.
How much does the border conflict affect Sino-Indian relations as a whole?
Apart from minor incidents, the border conflict has so far not had a major impact on the relationship. India reported hundreds of cases of Chinese soldiers crossing the LAC every year. But when two patrols met, they both unfurled their banners and went on their way. Now the incidents are becoming more and more frequent. In 2013 a large number of Chinese troops crossed the LAC and stayed for several weeks. It was a response to Indian infrastructure projects and led to a mini-crisis on the border. There were similar crises in 2014 and 2015. And in 2017 the Doklam crisis broke out: Indian troops overran the LAC to prevent the Chinese from building a road. The soldiers were hostile to each other for 73 days.
And now the border conflict moves into the center of the relationship?
He now has a prominent place. He is now at the top of India's priority list in relation to China.
Strong men rule both Delhi and Beijing, with Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping pursuing a nationalist agenda. Does that further fuel the conflict?
I wonder: if Manmohan Singh, Modi's predecessor, were still Prime Minister, would he handle the conflict differently? Probably not. The personality of Xi Jinping plays a much more important role. I think he's a big factor in China's resolute demeanor along its borders. Modi has sought personal contact with Xi several times. Modi believed he could turn a new page in the Sino-Indian relationship. But Modi's efforts were unsuccessful.
In the past few years, China has pushed ahead with its Belt and Road initiative, including in India's neighboring countries. The Chinese Navy appears more and more frequently in the Indian Ocean. Does India feel surrounded?
In the 2000s, China began to develop relations with countries in India's immediate vicinity, with Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. These relationships intensified in the 2010s. A few years ago, China opened its first military base on the Indian Ocean, and in 2013 and 2014, Chinese submarines began regularly patrolling there. I think India feels more encircled today than it used to be. Not least because the other hostile neighbor, Pakistan, has very, very close ties with China.
It sounds like India is rightly concerned.
Modi recognized the need to strengthen ties with his neighbors - in the past India has not always paid them due attention. India is more generous today, but the success so far has been mixed. India has a second way of defending itself: It can, in turn, become more active in China's neighborhood. This is how India is deepening its relations with Japan. The Indian Navy is more present in the West Pacific and also in the South China Sea. Last year she also carried out joint maneuvers there with Japan, the USA and the Philippines. Of course, these economic and diplomatic ties are not as strong as China's ties in South Asia. But they are there and they are growing.
What role does the Quad, the security forum between India, Japan, Australia and the USA play?
India's determination to revive the quad is remarkable. For years, Australia, the United States, and Japan had tried to get India to do just that. India agreed in November 2017 - one month after the Doklam crisis with China.
For its part, does China feel threatened by India's rapprochement with the US?
I wouldn't say threatened, but China is sensitive to this relationship. China is not afraid that India will launch an invasion. But China fears that a closer relationship with the US will strengthen India's back and that Delhi will become less indulgent.
India banned a total of 177 Chinese apps, including Tiktok, in response to the July incident. Are such economic sanctions hurting China at all?
Yes. The immediate financial impact of these measures may seem modest. But we know that this industry is a high priority for the Chinese. They want to collect data and they want to play a dominant role in the Indian IT market. And of course they want to build India's 5G network. It is likely that no Chinese company will be allowed to participate in its expansion. India will soon be the most populous country in the world. If it loses access to that market, it will be a significant loss for China.
You said China is taking a hard look at not only India, but Hong Kong, Taiwan and the South China Sea as well. Then there is the trade war with the USA. Is Xi Jinping fighting on too many fronts?
I think he does. The Chinese are doing what is most likely to undermine their rise: forcing their neighbors to take tough countermeasures. With a little more finesse and diplomacy, Beijing could have prevented these neighbors from seeing China as a threat.
Why is China performing like that?
I think Xi Jinping just doesn't care. He believes China is giving other countries enough positive or negative incentives to prevent them from responding backwards. I am convinced that there are people in Beijing who believe that China is acting too harshly, too quickly, too early. But apparently the more aggressive camp in Beijing has gained the upper hand in the past six months.
In the South China Sea, China has behaved very cleverly so far, it has appropriated island by island, steadily expanding them. Beijing always made sure that the conflict did not escalate. This is how China got what it wanted. Is Beijing pursuing the same strategy at the LAC?
Traditionally, China has not been as aggressive along the LAC. But maybe the Chinese government has learned the wrong lessons from the South China Sea. There is a different environment there: the neighbors are smaller countries that show little willingness to strike back against the Chinese. The Indians, on the other hand, will fight. You won't give in.
How does China see its neighbor India?
Chinese diplomats and officials always speak of the important inter-Asian harmony. But in conversations behind the diplomatic facade I sense a certain contempt for India, as well as frustrations. The feeling that this country wants to act like a superpower, but was wrong about the weight class. China sees India in the league of Pakistan, but instrumentalized by the US to provoke China.
And how does India see its neighbor China?
India has long had a negative view of the Chinese. That has to do with the border issue, the memory of the 1962 border war is still fresh. And China's relationship with Pakistan is a sore point. Many Indians see China as an untrustworthy rival. With the flare-up of the border conflict, these views hardened.
First shots in 45 years
paz. · On Monday evening, the smoldering border conflict between India and China in the Himalayas escalated further. For the first time in decades, shots were fired - although jointly agreed rules of conduct stipulate that border patrols do not use firearms. The incident took place in the region between the Indian region of Ladakh and the Aksai Chin area controlled by China and claimed by India. In a statement, the Indian military wrote that Chinese troops had crossed the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and fired warning shots. The course of the LAC is controversial, and so Indian and Chinese border patrols meet again and again. In the Chinese version, it was the Indians who crossed the LAC and fired shots. It was a serious military provocation, said a Chinese spokesman in Beijing. What exactly happened in the remote, disputed area cannot be independently verified.
Collaboration: Natalie Wenger
Jeff M. Smith conducts research on South Asia for the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington. He has written a book about Sino-Indian rivalry in the 21st century.
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