China and India: what the border dispute between the nuclear powers is about

The controversial border between India and China remains a potential trouble spot, as the recent clashes show. Neither side wants an escalation, but there is great distrust.

For the third time since the beginning of May, there have been tangible physical clashes between soldiers on both sides on controversial sections of the Indo-Chinese border (Line of Actual Control, LAC). In addition to the fists, stones and iron bars were also used. Unlike the incidents at the beginning of May, in which there were “only” injuries, deaths have now been reported on the Indian side. Three soldiers were killed in the clash in the Galvan Valley in the western sector of the border on Monday, according to an Indian army statement. High-ranking delegates from both sides are currently investigating the incident on the spot in order to alleviate the situation, it said.


The first of the most recent three clashes was on May 5 at Lake Pangong in Ladakh, the second on May 9 around 1200 kilometers east of Nathu-La Pass in the Indian state of Sikkim. After the incident on Monday, first of all, Chinese accusations were only made. India has “seriously violated the (bilateral) consensus, crossed the border twice and provoked and attacked the Chinese armed forces.”

Beijing also accused India of border violations in May. India, in turn, accused China of preventing normal patrols by Indian soldiers. While both sides tried to trivialize the incidents, they increased their troops and brought additional heavy equipment to the affected areas.

Road construction and fighter planes

According to experts, the increasing tensions at the border could be due to the expansion of infrastructure near the border through India. India has been building roads and runways in the remote Himalayan regions near the LAC for about ten years.

China feels particularly provoked by the construction of another road on Lake Pangong-Tso in the Ladakh region, which is controversial between the two sides. The project improves the connection to a runway, the highest in the world, in the Indian Galwan Valley. India wants to catch up with the modern road network that China built years ago on its side of the border. “The Chinese do not like the infrastructure India is building on its side of the border, although they have done the same on their side,” Srikanth Kondapalli, professor of China studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, told the DW. “Ultimately, they say we can improve our infrastructure, but not you.”

Dean Cheng of the American “Heritage Foundation” confirms that the Indian infrastructure projects in the Ladakh region have made the Chinese suspicious. “That is part of the problem. China always sees itself as the wrongdoer.” Conversely, China’s military activities in the border region on the Indian side have led to fears. “From time to time, the People’s Liberation Army flies its fighter jets over the Qinghai plateau, which is rather provocative behavior. Beijing is not just controlling its airspace, it is sending the signal to the world: these are ready-to-fight armed planes.”

Long smoldering conflict

Long Xingchun, from the Beijing University of Foreign Languages ​​University, presented the Chinese position in May in the party-related newspaper “Global Times”: “In recent days, India has built illegal defense systems on Chinese territory in the region of the Galwan Valley. India has left the Chinese border guards no other Choosing to act as necessary, increasing the risk of escalation and further confrontation between the two sides. “

The current clashes at the Indian-Chinese border have been the most serious since 2017. At that time, several hundred soldiers on both sides faced each other for 73 days on the Doklam plateau, which is controversial between the Indian ally Bhutan and China. The occasion was the road construction work of the Chinese who had alarmed India. The conflict was finally resolved through diplomatic channels.

Low-threshold military disputes are not unusual at the approximately 3,500 km long Indian-Chinese border, which is largely controversial and not binding under international law. In 1962, both sides waged a brief war over the controversial areas to the west and east of the border, killing around 2,000 people.

China continues to occupy around 90,000 square kilometers in the eastern border section, roughly the area of ​​Portugal, in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. The area is informally known as “South Tibet” in China. In the western border section, India in turn occupies around 38,000 square kilometers of the Aksai Chin plateau in the Ladakh region.

Heavyweight rivalry

In more than a dozen bilateral rounds of talks, no approach to the border dispute has been achieved so far. However, there have been no firefights in this conflict since the 1970s. On the other hand, mutual distrust has increased, not least because of the more intense geopolitical rivalry between the two countries with billions of people. The prominent status enjoyed by the Dalai Lama and his exile government in India and China’s close ties to India’s arch rival Pakistan, which has been reinforced by Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road project for several years, are also important factors.

Experts in the region believe that the state reorganization of the Indian part of the Kashmir region by the Modi government has contributed to the recent tensions. Derek Grossman of the Rand Corporation think tank told DW: “The unilateral change in the status of Jammu and Kashmir by Modi 2019 was registered with strangeness in Beijing. It appears that China is trying to move along the ‘Line of Actual Control within this changing environment ‘to defend its territorial claims.’

“Image maintenance for the Chinese people”

By contrast, Jayadeva Ranade, head of the “Center for China Analysis and Strategy” in New Delhi, sees domestic reasons for China’s behavior. In his view, President Xi Jinping “is currently under great pressure because of his mistakes in the outbreak of the corona virus and in the measures to contain it.” In addition, China will “foreseeably not achieve the two goals of the century proclaimed by Xi Jinping,” said Ranade.

On the one hand, this means the goal of making China a country with moderate prosperity by 2021, the 100th year KCH was founded. The other goal refers to 2049, when the People’s Republic celebrates its centenary. In the meantime, China is said to have become a major global power and a modern socialist industrial state. The Chinese leadership is therefore forced to improve its image among the people. To do this, she deliberately used the means of aggression against India, according to the analysis by the Indian China expert.

Author: Srinivas Mazumdaru

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