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Recent Developments in the Sino-Indian Border Dispute

Recent Developments in the Sino-Indian Border Dispute

Tensions between China and India are flaring once again over the long-contested border separating the world’s two largest militaries, the latest development of an ongoing dispute dating back over a century. A video circulating on social media captures Indian and Chinese troops engaged in melee combat, attacking one another with clubs and sticks, supposedly in the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. Though Indian and Chinese authorities confirmed a skirmish took place on December 9th, the video’s absence of snow indicates the altercation likely occurred sometime earlier this year. Experts now believe this confrontation to be one of several previously unreported border clashes to materialize over the last two years. China’s rising power and international assertiveness are increasing the frequency of these incidents, establishing a dangerous “new normal” along the 2,167-mile Himalayan border.

While attending parliament on December 13th, Indian defence minister Rajnath Singh declared China is seeking to “unilaterally change the status quo” at the border, officially known as the “Line of Actual Control (LAC).” He alleged around 200-300 Chinese troops approached an Indian outpost in the Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh, leading to a “scuffle” with 50 Indian counterparts. The Indian media recorded that each party suffered between 20-40 injuries, with no reported deaths. A string of clashes during the 1990s led to a joint firearm and explosives ban within 2km of the LAC to reduce conflict escalation. However, this has not stopped border patrols from assaulting one another with innovative melee weapons designed in response to the ban, including spiked clubs and metal stun batons.

Both governments are in constant communication via diplomatic and military channels, and the situation at the LAC is “generally stable,” according to China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin. Nevertheless, this recent episode is no isolated incident, rather a continuation of the 2020-21 clashes in Ladakh, the other disputed Indian border region partly occupied by China since their victory in the 1962 Sino-Indian war. After the 2020-21 skirmishes left multiple dead on each side, Indo-Chinese relations have been fragile and look set to deteriorate further.

Less than a week after the video emerged, India went forward with a scheduled nuclear ballistic missile test in the Bay of Bengal, declaring the region a no-fly zone on December 15th. Capable of striking targets anywhere within a 3,300-mile radius, the missile was dubbed the “China-killer” by Indian news sources. In response, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) state-run media labeled the weapon a “dwarf” compared to those in China’s arsenal. Furthermore, China deployed a military survey ship capable of tracking objects like ballistic missiles and satellites through space to the port of Hambantota, Sri Lanka. Considering Sri Lanka’s current economic crisis, India fears expanding Chinese influence over the island, which has become an attractive candidate for CCP financial assistance.

The contentious nature of the LAC dates back to the times of the British Raj and an autonomous Tibet. Arunachal Pradesh, which includes Tawang, was incorporated into British India according to the McMahon Line set during border negotiations with the newly independent Tibet in the 1914 Simla Convention. Chinese representatives were not present at Simla due to the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1912, and thus never recognized the McMahon Line or Tibetan sovereignty. In 1950, Chairmen Mao Zedong sent the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to reoccupy Tibet up to the McMahon Line, then guarded by troops under the newly constituted Republic of India. Beijing claims all of Arunachal Pradesh, roughly 32,000 square miles, historically belonged to South Tibet and therefore belongs to China. The Tawang district is culturally and spiritually significant in Tibetan Buddhism, as it holds the world’s second-largest Buddhist monastery while marking the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama. On the other hand, Arunachal Pradesh is strategically valuable to Indian defense as it borders Bum La Pass, the passageway used by invading CCP forces in 1962 that led to the temporary Chinese occupation of the region.

While historically a part of China, it’s essential to note that Tibet has had little say over its sovereignty. After Tibet rebelled against Chinese rule in 1959, the CCP effectively quashed any vestiges of regional autonomy, and the 14th and current Dalai Lama fled into exile. Because the Dalai Lama hid in the Tawang Monastery for several weeks after escaping, the building symbolizes Tibetan resistance to Chinese subjugation. Along with the border disputes, the decision taken by the Indian government to grant asylum to the Dalai Lama in the uprising’s aftermath provided fundamental grounds for the Chinese invasion three years later.

The desolate Aksai Chin plains of Kashmir marks the other piece of land under conflicting territorial claims and was the subject of the 2020-21 border skirmishes. The Ardagh-Johnson Line, devised by British civil servants, placed this primarily uninhabited terrain in the northwestern Indian territory of Ladakh. Like Arunachal Pradesh, this dispute emerged from Britain’s arbitrary colonial boundaries drawn without Chinese approval. As a result, China occupied Aksai Chin during the war, but unlike Arunachal Pradesh, it has remained ever since. In addition, Aksai Chin offers the only route connecting Tibet with Xinjiang, the western Chinese province known for its large population of Uyghur Muslims. Finally, the area’s high altitude affords the CCP an excellent surveillance position for monitoring Indian regional activity.

Though border clashes erupted sporadically after the Sino-Indian War, with notable standoffs in 1967, 1987, and 2017, there is evidence these incidents started occurring more regularly since the 2020-21 skirmishes. Tibetan Prime Minister-in-exile Penpa Tsering recently claimed that “Intrusions from the Chinese side have been happening all the time.” Additionally, a September 29th Twitter post shows defence minister Singh inspecting border patrols in Arunachal Pradesh. One sign in the background reads “Face-offs: 2022”, alluding to the reality that several altercations have been unannounced to the public this year. Experts are worried about the LAC becoming a permanent “live” border situation characterized by constant provocations and an unabating risk of escalation.

Australia, the U.S., and other regional players are urging restraint between the two in light of recent events. Like China, India aspires to be a formidable global superpower one day with a say in determining the future world order. As India increases its technological capabilities, it has more incentive to abandon its traditionally risk-averse posturing regarding the LAC. However, the balance of power currently favors China, pointing India towards the West. The U.S. and India started conducting annual military drills in 2002, and cooperation continues to grow today. Japan, India, Australia, and the U.S. formally inaugurated the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) in 2017 to counter rising Chinese regional influence. By allying with the West, India is addressing its security concerns while accommodating its long-term ambitions. Despite lagging behind China militarily and economically, India is now the most populated country on earth with the desire and potential capacity to overtake China as Asia’s future economic powerhouse. By courting countries like Australia and the U.S., New Delhi hopes to gradually persuade the West to transfer the global supply chain from China to India. This goal is many decades away, and there are many hurdles India must jump through, but it is not unfeasible. Much is at stake regarding the recent clashes, and the future political dynamic of Asia may rest upon whether China and India let their historical grievances dominate relations.