A fresh dispute with India over their long border in the desolate mountains of the Himalayas has created a new dilemma for China to go with its intensifying rivalry with the United States and international backlash against its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Beijing risks pushing New Delhi further into the American camp, analysts have warned, if the current border face-off continues to drag on and spirals into another protracted stand-off like the Doklam row three years ago.
Although China said on Wednesday that the overall situation was “stable and controllable”, with no reports of fresh scuffles along the disputed Line of Actual Control, tensions remain high according to observers and Indian media reports amid one of the biggest border troop build-ups in years.
Details remain sketchy about how the dispute started, but scuffles and eyeball-to-eyeball face-offs during regular patrols over three weeks ago in the north Ladakh region and near the pass of Naku La along the Sikkim border have turned into a tense military stand-off.
While skirmishes like this are usually considered routine in the long-running dispute between the two Asian neighbours, what makes it stand out are the timing of the latest row and the way it is being handled on both sides.
While the coronavirus has already caused the postponement or cancellation of many events planned to mark the 70th anniversary of China-India diplomatic ties, the latest border tensions are set to further dampen the mood for celebration.
As Covid-19 continues to ravage much of the world, including India and the US, China’s increasingly adversarial ties with America have taken a turn for the worse, with the world’s two largest economies edging closer than ever towards an all-out confrontation.
“China is in the middle of what could be called a nationalist moment,” said Gal Luft, co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, a Washington-based think tank.
From Beijing’s perspective, the deteriorating global economic conditions no longer allow it to focus on the Chinese dream, President Xi Jinping’s best-known mantra, as the only source of the legitimacy for one-party rule.
“Instead, it now focuses on other issues, like nationalism and sovereignty. This shift is reinforced by a sense of besiegement caused by the escalating rivalry with the US,” Luft said.
With both sides refusing to back down to defuse tensions, pundits believe the latest row is the most serious since the 73-day military stand-off in 2017 along an unmarked border in the remote tri-junction of Sikkim, Tibet and Bhutan known as Doklam, or Donglang in Mandarin.
As many as 5,000 Chinese troops have been deployed in recent weeks at several locations in eastern Ladakh, including Pangong Lake and Galwan Valley, according to Indian media reports, where about 250 Chinese and Indian soldiers were involved in a tense clash on May 5. More than 100 troops from both sides were injured in fist fights and by flying stones.
According to a report by The Indian Express newspaper on Friday, satellite images from Indian military showed Chinese forces had built temporary structures on its side of the border, and deployed at least 16 tanks, numerous infantry combat vehicles, excavator machines and trucks.
Nevertheless, an unnamed senior Indian military official was quoted by the Press Trust of India news agency as saying that the “strength of the Indian Army in the area is much better than our adversary”.
During a press conference on Wednesday, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian did not deny the media reports about the Chinese troop build-up but sought to play down the seriousness of the stand-off.
As in previous skirmishes, both sides have accused the other of trespassing on their territory and stirring up tensions.
Citing military sources, the Chinese nationalist tabloid Global Times warned last week of “necessary countermeasures” and said the Indian Army had repeatedly obstructed Chinese troops’ normal patrols and tried to “unilaterally change the status quo” in the border area, including the Galwan Valley.
Sun Shihai, an expert on China-India relations at Sichuan University, said the skirmishes and stand-offs along one of the world’s longest land borders were largely due to territorial ambiguities and overlapping claims along the Line of Actual Control.
“The priority is to prevent it becoming another Doklam stand-off, as neither side can afford an escalating confrontation or even conflict,” he said.
Sporadic border rows have disrupted and even derailed years of effort to address the mistrust and hostility between the two countries and their people as they jostle for dominance in the region.
“Bilateral ties have seen some progress since Doklam, especially following the frequent leadership exchanges, but there remain some deep-rooted problems marring our relations, with the unresolved border dispute topping the list,” Sun said.
China’s relations with India have also been plagued by Delhi’s warming ties with Washington, its resistance to the Belt and Road Initiative – Xi Jinping’s pet infrastructure development plan – and their opposing positions on spiritual leader Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in northern India.
Sun confirmed the presence of a large number of Chinese troops but said they were there mostly to safeguard Chinese territory and counter any transgressions by Indian forces.
“The mission is not over yet and we don’t know yet if they [Indian troops] will come back again,” he said.
Sun and retired Chinese colonel Yue Gang said that the number of scuffles and skirmishes had risen since India began catching up with China in terms of infrastructure building in the disputed region.
Official data from India showed that nearly three-quarters of the Chinese transgressions since 2015 occurred in Ladakh region, with their number soaring to 497 last year, from 284 in 2018.
“Under Xi, China is increasingly seeking to redraw its land and sea frontiers,” said Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research think tank in Delhi.
“Its success in the South China Sea, where it has fundamentally changed the status quo without firing a shot, has emboldened its moves in the Himalayan borderlands.”
However, as the latest military flare-ups had taken place at multiple locations along the Himalayan frontier, the situation could become more serious than the 2017 Doklam stand-off, which was confined to a single area, he said.
“India values its strategic autonomy and foreign policy independence. But Xi, through his provocative actions, is working to push India into the US camp,” Chellaney said.
“This is just one example of how Xi is acting contrary to China’s long-term interests.”
Shashi Asthana, a retired Indian major general and chief instructor at the United Service Institution of India think tank in Delhi, cautioned against any provocative steps that could exacerbate tensions due to rising nationalism in the two countries.
“It needs to be noted after the experience of the Doklam incident that any intrusion in India will ignite nationalism in India, refuel a national response and be resented by the whole nation, despite the pandemic,” he said.
“In this context, it needs to be deliberated that it’s easy to start a stand-off, but it’s difficult to find a graceful exit.”
Mohan Guruswamy, chairman of the Centre for Policy Alternatives Society, a Delhi think tank, said people should be wary of Indian media hype about border disputes, citing the hazy reports that were published about what happened in Doklam.
“Due to the lockdown, we are mostly reliant on the official [Indian] narrative [but] to my mind that is about as trustworthy as the official Chinese sources,” he said.
“At this moment, both countries have politically beleaguered governments that are keen to cover up their mishandling” of the coronavirus pandemic, he said. “Both regimes need a good diversion.”
The border tensions between the world’s two most populous nations have grabbed international headlines and caught the attention of US President Donald Trump, who made an unconventional offer on Twitter to mediate in the “now raging border dispute”.
But observers said the offer was merely an empty gesture by a US leader with a tainted image who is well known for his impulsive, transactional approach to diplomacy.
“The Trump administration can no longer be viewed as an honest broker on anything China related, especially in light of its recent efforts to exploit China-India tensions and draw India into its orbit,” Luft said.
The border dispute was likely to remain localised and unlikely to spin out of control, he said.
“The two powers have much bigger issues to deal with than fighting over some border outposts at 14,000 feet, and much more to gain from preserving their economic relations,” Luft said.
“While both want to save face in light of what they view as infringements on their sovereignty, neither can afford to lose a billion potential customers. At a time of a major economic slowdown this is all that matters.”
According to a 2019 survey of nearly 2,500 Indians by the Washington-based Pew Research Centre, 46 per cent had an unfavourable view of China and Xi Jinping, while just 23 per cent saw them in a favourable light.
While Indians generally saw the US as more important economically than China, 61 per cent of those polled regarded China’s economic expansion as a bad thing for Delhi.
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This article China-India border dispute fuelled by rise in nationalism on both sides, observers say first appeared on South China Morning Post