High-altitude skirmishes on disputed sections of the Sino-Indian border can look a little low-tech. A bilateral code discourages the use of firearms. But that doesn’t stop soldiers from using sticks, stones and sometimes their fists when they encounter the other side.
And in recent weeks they have engaged each other with greater frequency than normal – leading some to ask if Beijing is using the Covid-19 crisis to further long-held political and territorial ambitions.
In the past couple of months Chinese boats have rammed and sunk a Vietnamese fishing vessel in the South China Sea. Beijing has also declared two disputed archipelagos as Chinese administrative districts and reiterated its position that it is willing to take Taiwan by force, and set out to implement a new national security law in Hong Kong.
“It took into account the risks of international umbrage and reached the reasonable assumption that there would not be a significant geopolitical price to pay,” the New York Times said in an article about the action in Hong Kong and other recent moves.
Certainly governments in Europe and the US have been distracted by the virus and domestic issues (such as the continued protests in American cities). But that didn’t stop Donald Trump tweeting about the escalating tensions on the Sino-Indian border. “The United States is ready, willing and able to mediate or arbitrate their now raging border dispute. Thank you!” the American president wrote on May 27.
‘Raging’ is probably not the word to use for the China-India border row, though the temperature has been raised by reports of significant troop build-ups in the disputed territory in the area known as Ladakh in India and Aksai Chin in China.
Ownership of this land has been disputed since the foundations of modern India and China in the late 1940s – with India arguing it inherited the territory previously delineated by the British.
But China disagreed and began building roads in the disputed region in the 1950s, ultimately leading to the Sino-Indian war of 1962. That short-lived conflict ended with a ceasefire the same year and the loose recognition of a Line of Actual Control (LAC) – though both countries still claim territory either side of it.
It’s hard to pinpoint what triggered this round of skirmishes. The Indian paper The Print suggests it could have been the pitching of Chinese tents on the Indian side of the LAC in early May and perhaps a disruption to water flow along the cross-border Galwan River.
The newspaper also geo-located video coverage of Indian troops pelting a Chinese armoured vehicle with stones on the Indian side of the LAC. Another video showing bloodied Indian soldiers being tied up by Chinese troops was geo-located by the same newspaper to the Chinese side of the LAC, suggesting Indian troops had mounted a counter-operation.
“What has been happening is a series of fast-paced in-and-out intrusions by the forces of India and China into each other’s territory,” The Print said, based on a survey of footage and satellite images.
Both sides have attempted to play down the encounters with Zhao Lijian, often the most outspoken Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, saying “We are fully capable of properly resolving any issue between us through dialogue and consultation.”
Chinese media has been largely quiet about the issue and discussion of the topic has been censored on local social media platforms.
Indian media has been more vocal, reporting every twist and turn in a month of rising tensions.
India has been building more infrastructure in the area – sparked by a 2017 stand-off over the Doklam sector that highlighted the superior roads in Chinese-controlled territory.
Prompted by the heightened tensions, an Indian software engineer this week released a new app that helps people scrub their phones of Chinese-made apps (TikTok, the short-video app, is extremely popular in India which may hinder uptake of the engineer’s product).
As with past flare ups, this one may generate noise but eventually return to the status quo. The two sides are due to sit down for senior-level military talks in a mountain hut this weekend.
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