Xi and Modi: A tale of two borders
Illustration: Palli Khenni

‘20 soldiers killed on disputed Himalayan border with China’ was the headline that greeted my morning reading of The Guardian on 17th June 2020. Since the foundation of the Republic of India in 1950 and the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the two neighbouring countries have rarely seen eye to eye. The dispute between China and India in regards to jurisdiction over borders and contested regions was first witnessed in 1962, through the Sino-Indian War. 

The two nuclear powers have a loose demarcation of a border, known as the Line of Actual Control, which comprises three main sectors. Ladakh-China, Uttarakhand-China and Arunachal Pradesh-China form the Western, Central and Eastern sectors respectively. It is the former and latter sections that have had the most volatile military interactions. Although claimed by India, the Western sector of Aksai Chin is administered by China; conversely, the Eastern sector of Arunachal Pradesh is administered by India  -though claimed by China. After 1962, there have been many skirmishes fought between the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and the Indian Armed Forces. However, no large-scale battles have taken place. Two notable altercations at the borders have been the Nathu La and Cho La clashes of 1967 and the Doklam Standoff in 2017. 

Previous altercations and US intervention

The Nathu La and Cho La clashes of 1967 are of great importance as they held particular interest from the White House. India was viewed as a vehicle in assisting America’s strategic relations with China.  India’s geographical proximity to China meant that America was keen to support and influence the nation against a Communist adversary. After the war in 1962, the US were eager to keep an eye on any conflict arising in India. It has been recorded that not only did India consult its American allies in matters of diplomacy and military action, but a daily briefing was made to President Johnson between the 12th and 15th of September, and once again after the Cho La skirmish took place on the 1st of October. The overall response from India was seen quite favourably by the Americans as the clashes were short-lived with few casualties. Most undoubtedly, the military action that took place in the borders – with the help of the US – is a major reason towards the absorption of the Sikkim region within India today. 

Similarly to the events of 1967, the altercation between China and India in 2017 involved three nations. The 2017 standoff was triggered by the building of a road in the disputed territory of Doklam, an area which is not only claimed by China but also the Indian ally Bhutan. Despite India not claiming the territory, it is seen as a buffer zone, vital for restricting China’s encroachment onto Indian land. The incident itself lasted 72 days with around 3000 troops from either side being deployed in Doklam. The standoff seemed to heighten day by day, with extra artillery and infrastructure being brought in by the Indian forces and the Chinese carrying out exercises in the Xizang (Tibet) region of China.

Consensus or conflict?

Despite escalation, both powers wanted to resolve this issue quickly. Following the application of soft powers, the matter was resolved with both sides retreating and the Chinese withdrawing their plans to construct a road in Doklam. This event was seen as a potential ‘Band-Aid’ on Sino-Indian relations. President Xi Jinping was adamant to get on the ‘right track’ with India and this was seen to be reciprocated by the nation in 2018 when they seemingly isolated the Dalai Lama in his adopted home of Dharamsala. Pro-Tibetan rallies were banned in India’s capital of Delhi and all parades were restricted to the Ashram and surrounding regions of the Lama. 

Despite the optimistic remarks and actions by both nations in 2017 and 2018, it appears recent events paint a very different image of Sino-Indian relations. The contemporaneous conflict on the India-China borders has shocked many; with 20 soldiers being killed, it is the deadliest altercation in 45 years. The dispute started in early May of this year within the Galwan Valley, a small region within the Himalayan area, when both nations claimed encroachment over the Line of Actual Control. The conflict has ignited patriotic sentiments from both sides. 

The dispute over borders soon took a virtual dimension. Videos of clashes between Chinese and Indian military personnel stormed the phones of Indian WhatsApp users, who were quick to fireback against China. Virtual bloggers took to various other social media platforms to analyse the action taken by the two nations, Indians criticised China on YouTube whilst “China-India conflict” was the fifth top trend on Weibo.  A few Chinese ‘netizens’ questioned the 35-death toll recorded by the Indian government, whilst a large number reposted the zero-death toll reinforced by the Chinese Communist Party. The activity circulating on the Chinese intranet suggests that nationalism seems to be a fuelling factor within political discussion and was a major factor for escalating tensions. To back down to another nuclear power would appear weak, especially as China spends three times more than India on their military budget. 

Despite the escalation and sizable death toll, a consensus was reached on the 23rd of June to disengage. The decision came after Chinese, Indian and Russian talks were held in order to plan a conclusive end to the conflict. Russia’s involvement within this Sino-Indian conflict is of particular interest when considered from an historical context.

The 1962 war also involved interaction from the Kremlin, yet their position of neutrality was counterproductive for India. Amidst the Cuban Missile Crisis China’s relationship with Russia was shaky and thus in-order to subdue any ill-feelings by the Chinese, Russia’s strategy was to remain neutral despite India being a close-ally. 

Borders – a pawn in gaining regional hegemony?

Yet it is still uncertain as to whether this will quell economic tensions resulting from the border dispute. In response to the killing of the 20 soldiers many Indians boycotted Chinese products. Furthermore, some Sino-Indian business deals were put on hold, joint ventures with companies predominantly from the Chinese engineering sector have been suspended until national political clarification has been attained. 

The dispute between India and China is more complex than a disagreement over borders or a piece of land. As China begins to find a place within the global political economy, their aspirations shall begin to grow. Acknowledgement by other nations and membership of international organisations does not always facilitate their quest for regional hegemony.

In conjunction with John Mearsheimer’s view on how China is ‘gonna try to dominate Asia’, its ascension as one of the world’s leading economies has changed their economic and political aspirations. While China’s global political ambitions remain somewhat nebulous, their interest in expanding their sphere of influence in South Asia is nonetheless being curtailed by India.