At a time when the world is facing an unprecedented pandemic and every effort is being made to contain it, the last news one wishes to hear is the resurfacing of feuds between nations that were thought to have been buried decades ago such as the Indo-Chinese conflict in northwest India.
The Indo-Chinese border clashes earlier this month came as a shocking surprise as they unleashed a buried feud that had lain dormant for almost five decades after the Indo-Chinese War in 1962 when a border dispute over the regions of Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh in the Himalayas escalated into a war with thousands of casualties on both sides. Most of the fighting occurred in rugged mountainous border zones and involved no aerial units. However, the former Soviet Union supplied India with jet fighters, though the US and UK refrained from doing the same.
On 15 June this year, the first clash of its kind in over 45 years of peace between the two gigantic nations occurred and left at least 20 Indian soldiers dead together with an unspecified number of Chinese. Exchanges of accusations between the Indian and Chinese foreign ministries then took place, during which Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said that the Chinese had attempted to erect a structure inside Indian territory. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi claimed that the Indian forces had initiated the hostilities and had attacked first.
The soldiers of these two nuclear-armed powers did not use any firearms or artillery in the clashes, but instead used clubs, crude weapons or hand-to-hand combat in fighting that lasted for hours. The clashes also occurred some 4.2 km above sea level on the mountainous border between the two countries. The reason for the lack of weapons is that the area is nearly completely demilitarised and border soldiers on both sides are not allowed to carry guns.
The alarming aspect of all this is not simply the renewed clashes, but also the fact that the clashes took place at all between these two countries with very large populations. China has some 1.44 billion citizens followed by India’s 1.32 billion. These gigantic countries represent some 36.17 per cent of the global population, and, to make matters worse, China has the world’s third most-powerful army, while India is ranked fourth in the world.
Both countries possess significant nuclear capabilities and a varied arsenal of lethal armaments. Moreover, China is the second-largest economy in the world, while India is the fifth. These numbers indicate the gravity of any feud between the two countries, let alone a fully-fledged war.
The situation could not be kept under wraps for long, and news of the clashes spread across the world with the potential of the conflict to escalate. On 20 June, Indian jet fighters and helicopters were moved to forward bases near the border with China. Indian warships have also been deployed in the Bay of Bengal in anticipation of further Chinese moves. Similarly, the Chinese have not sat idly by, but have moved a large force close to India’s borders.
According to Indian sources, the Chinese army has been ramping up a large force for months at the 3,488 km border separating the two countries. This has included new installations and fortifications being constructed in the area. Chinese jet fighters such as J-11 and J-8 fighters as well as bombers have been deployed at Chinese bases in Tibet. All these arrangements and displays of force have indicated a Chinese desire to keep a strong presence in the region and to retain the upper hand, even as this will not be easy given the enormous strength of the Indian army.
The insanity of this conflict that could escalate into a fully-fledged war if cooler heads do not prevail is that it is taking place over a no-man’s land contested by the two countries for nearly five decades. The uninhabitable area of the Galwan Valley near Aksai Chin is mountainous and nearly unpopulated due to its high elevation and extremely cold weather even in summer.
On the other hand, India is no stranger to border conflicts, and it has had several with Pakistan, the last of which took place in 2019 and resulted in casualties. The escalating tensions in northwest India may be an unwelcome surprise to Indian politicians, who have kept up their cool demeanour throughout the week. But as the Indian nation mourns its officers and soldiers killed in the skirmishes, the government has had no alternative but to issue warnings to China and to make military moves in case the conflict escalates further.
The Chinese government is facing many challenges at the moment as a result of the coronavirus outbreak originating from its Wuhan region and then spreading across the world. This has caused worldwide suspicion of the Chinese government’s initial reactions and transparency about the nature of the virus, which some believe could have been nipped in the bud had China been more transparent about its dangers. That said, other opinions have cleared China of responsibility for how the virus has spread, though some countries, among them Australia, have still requested an investigation into the origins of the virus in China, a stance that has immensely irked the Chinese government.
Moreover, tensions in the Chinese province of Hong Kong are escalating as clashes between the security forces and protesters against a new law passed by the Hong Kong parliament has placed what some see as further restrictions on the freedom of expression in Hong Kong. The latter was handed back to China by Britain in 1997 under a unique constitutional principle called “one country, two systems.” This has provided Hong Kong citizens with a form of self-rule and considerable freedoms, and these have benefited the Chinese state on many levels as Hong Kong has become its export arm and the catalyst for its meteoric economic rise over the past two decades.
However, many believe that the new law could jeopardise Hong Kong’s unique status, as the central government in China will now likely be more involved in the region’s governance. Furthermore, the situation with the United States is becoming steadily worse, and US President Donald Trump has issued a warning that the possibility of a complete separation between the Chinese and US economies is looming. Chinese officials have replied that such a step will harm US economic interests.
Such global and regional tensions represent a growing challenge to the Chinese state, and a border dispute with a giant such as India is the last thing the Chinese may desire at the moment. A war between these two nuclear powers and the two countries in the world having the largest populations will be a world war in itself even if it only involves these two countries. Therefore, all possible peace initiatives must be tried in order to deescalate the situation before it is too late to do so.
The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly