The situation in Eastern Ladakh remains tense as Indian and Chinese troops have been locked in a standoff along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) there since May. Indian foreign policy analyst Amrita Dhillon has explained what is behind the protracted row and who could benefit from the Sino-Indian rivalry.
On 10 September, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar for the first time since the beginning of the border conflict on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Moscow. Both sides agreed on five guiding principles to ease tensions, with a view to disengaging and maintaining distance by Chinese and Indian troops and proceeding with new confidence-building measures.
The standoff along the poorly demarcated Sino-Indian LAC started on 5 May on the northern bank of Pangong Lake in the Himalayas and then escalated into a bloody clash in mid-June which resulted in the death of at least 20 Indian troops in Galwan Valley.
What has Caused the Tensions Between India and China?
There are many reasons for the brewing tensions between the two Asian giants which also sidelines any attempt for reconciliation, emphasises Amrita Dhillon, an Indian foreign affairs analyst and Founding Editor of The Kootneeti, a New Delhi-based publication.
“First, why does the India-China border standoff happen at Eastern Ladakh? Why not North-East India where the Chinese already have disputed borders and they do not recognise India’s Arunachal Pradesh? The reason is that approximately 60% of the length of the Pangong Lake lies within the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Now we have to understand China’s concern here. The Tibet region is connected with Xinjiang with a narrow lane G-219, which is merely 100 kilometres from the Pangong Lake”.
In a hypothetical warfare scenario New Delhi can gain a competitive advantage in this area by targeting G-219 thus disconnecting Tibet from Xinjiang, she notes. Apparently therefore, the Chinese see this geographical location as their potential vulnerable spot, according to her.
Second, the ongoing standoff is part of a broader set of rows simmering between the two nations, the Indian analyst says referring, in particular, to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which passes through the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir claimed by New Delhi.
“On the one hand, Beijing objects to Indian construction and investment in India’s own territory – Arunachal Pradesh – and on the other hand, [China] is shaking hands with India’s arch-rival Pakistan and making that land accessible for business without any consultations with India”, Dhillon says.
Third, China needs unfettered access to strategic sea lanes of communication through the Indian Ocean to accomplish its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). To that end China needs to maintain working relations with India, which controls the ocean and its major “choke points”.
Road to Reconciliation Will Take Time and Effort
Although the two Asian giants have a number of issues to discuss, the recent SCO meeting has been fruitful and especially given that the five-point agreement was established, the Indian journalist notes, emphasising Russia’s role in it.
“India and Russia are traditional allies and show trust in each other”, she notes. “I can’t say if this trilateral meeting will bring anything close to a resolution on Eastern Ladakh, but Russia should stay prepared for a bigger role in Asia”.
Commenting on the Sino-Indian agreement struck in Moscow, the New Indian Express also alleges that the “five-point consensus is just the beginning of a long road to peace”. According to the media, if the Chinese and India military leadership manages to work out a “tangible disengagement plan on a reciprocal basis”, a possible meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the forthcoming November G20 summit “could formally reset bilateral ties”.
For his part, Ved Prakash Malik, who was chief of army staff of the Indian Army from 1997 until 2000 admits that the situation remains tense in his Wednesday comment piece for The Indian Express. He expects “a long haul on both the diplomatic and military fronts”: “Remember, it took nearly six years to resolve the Sumdorong Chu incident [in 1986] diplomatically”, he wrote. Nevertheless, he predicted that the winter months would reduce the intensity of the standoff.
Who is Affected by Sino-Indian Row?
Meanwhile, the situation triggers concerns among other regional players, including Russia. Speaking to the Economic Times, Russian deputy envoy to India Roman Babushkin noted that mutual trust between Beijing and New Delhi needed to be restored so that external players could not capitalise on the spat.
“The state of affairs here is a matter of regional stability, and escalation can be misused by outside powers in geopolitical purposes to create further alienation lines in the region”, Babushkin said, as quoted by the media outlet on Monday.
According to Dhillon, the Sino-Indian rivalry is clearly in the Interests of Washington for the following reasons:
First, it would help the US to accomplish its policy in the Asia-Pacific region, now named “Indo-Pacific”, which allows the US to mount pressure on China and North Korea.
Second, it would allow the US to maintain control over China without equipping many resources in the region. RAND, a US influential think-tank, has recently speculated on converting the US-backed informal Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) into an openly anti-China alliance in the Indian Pacific. India is seen as a key participant of the Quad by the US.
Apart from Washington, Pakistan may also benefit from the potential Sino-Indian enmity, Dhillon suggests, adding that “during the Indo-China conflict, Pakistan has broken all records in the ceasefire violation”. The analyst also believes that Islamabad may try to strengthen its positions in Kashmir in case the standoff between Beijing and New Delhi goes too far. However, according to her, this is an implausible scenario.
“I believe, the bigger question that arises is do India and China have any other option than resolving this crisis?” she asks. “Both are developing economies. However, China’s economy is four times larger than India. Both share 3,488km unsettled land boundary, so resolving the dispute should be the primary focus for both countries”.