IMA Analysis

Monday June 1, 2020

Border Tensions May 2020

Speaker:  Adit Jain,Editorial Director, IMA India May 2020

Fire-Breath of the Dragon

China recently moved thousands of troops close to the border, even transgressing into Indian territory. This was abnormal, as previous dispositions have generally observed the sanctity of the Line of Actual Control. India responded by the deployment of several battalions of an infinitary division, normally based in Leh, on ‘operational alert’. The aggressive bluster followed skirmishes on the 5th and 9th May, in the area of Pangong lake, where over a hundred troops on both sides were injured. The high-altitude border has been belligerently disputed since the invasion of 1962, when China occupied large tracts of Indian land in the Aksai Chin region. Based on the Johnson Line (the demarcation between India and Tibet) this area constituted a part of India, in the erstwhile Principality of Jammu & Kashmir. Moreover, at that time China did not control most of Xinjiang province and the Maharaja (of J&K) had constructed a fort in Shaidulla (now renamed Xaidulla) to protect the caravan trade, going effectively beyond the Johnson defined border. However, since independence, the Government of India has used the Johnson Line as the basis of the official boundary. Through the Karakoram Pass, India claims, the border extends North East of the Karakoram Mountains, through Aksai Chin to the Kunlun Range.

New Delhi sees the recent aggression as being far from routine. Backed by huge troop deployment, China’s actions could be a plausible response to the construction of a road by India between Durbuk and Daulat Beg, at the Karakoram Pass, together with airstrips adjacent to the Line of Actual Control. This would enable easier troop movement, as well as have within near sight the highway that connects China to Pakistan, built as a part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. China has recently stationed an entire division in the Ladakh region close to the tri-junction at the Line of Actual Control, where the boundaries of Pakistan, China and India meet. Satellite images show the Chinese building an expansion to a nearby airbase with fighter jets on the tarmac. Previous skirmishes were different. This time the Chinese have crossed into Indian territory, deployed tents and mechanised infantry.

India’s defence establishment would understandably be concerned about escalation not only in Ladakh, where the risk of a conflict is no longer minimal, as things could quite easily slip out of hand, but equally about a battle on two fronts. China may not hesitate to assume hostile positions in the east along the border with Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan. In recent years, its geopolitical response has been unpredictable with assertive positions across the Taiwan straits and the South China Sea, where it has occupied vast areas claimed by Vietnam. Perhaps it is in response to China’s aggression and precarious claims on territory, that the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an informal alliance, has evolved. This includes America, Japan, Australia and India in joint military exercises on an unprecedented scale.

It is possible that policy makers in New Delhi will revisit the entire gamut of India’s relations with China from a strategic perspective. Currently, China exports USD 72 billion in goods annually to India, which constitutes one of its largest markets outside of America. Several Indian manufacturing industries have shut in the face of Chinese dumping and the tragic inability of India’s government to respond on time, either with tariff barriers or industry-friendly policy measures. Notwithstanding the current border issues, India’s position on bilateral trade going forward may see a more hardened stance, affecting sectors such as consumer electronics and telecommunications. This may impact the supply chains of many companies and the sourcing of capital equipment. But for now, the focus will be on security and an appropriate response strategy.