With a still-raging pandemic, a looming economic catastrophe, and tense worldwide protests over racism and police violence, about the last thing the world needs right now is a land war between its two largest countries—which have about 430 nuclear warheads between them.
A tense border dispute between China and India boiled over in what the Indian Army called a “violent faceoff” with Chinese troops on Monday. Three Indian soldiers patrolling the border were killed in the initial brawl, and 17 succumbed to injuries later. Others may still be lost or captured. Details about the incident are still a little sparse, but the soldiers were apparently killed in a brawl involving rocks and clubs. [Update, June 16, 2020 at 3:40 p.m.: The Tribune newspaper reports that most of the fatalities “occurred as soldiers fell-off cliffs” and that the Chinese troops were armed with “Stones, Steel poles, bamboo poles with nails embed on them.”] The Indian media has reported that there were Chinese casualties as well, but this has not been confirmed. The incident dashes hopes that tensions were deescalating since the two sides faced off in a pair of massive fistfights in May.
The latest escalation draws on decades of tension over the border zone. China and India fought a short but intense border war in 1962, which China won, but the two sides never negotiated a final settlement despite dozens of rounds of talks over the years. The 2,500-mile border between the two countries, much of it running through virtually uninhabited mountainous terrain, is today the longest unmarked frontier in the world. The two sides’ militaries are separated by a loose demarcation known as the Line of Actual Control, though they don’t always agree on exactly where that line is. Disputes along the line are frequent—the Indian media reported “497 Chinese transgressions” along the line in 2019—and they sometimes get violent. However, the unwritten rules of the conflict preclude guns, so there’s been no shooting between the sides since 1975. While it’s strange to think of the high-tech militaries of two nuclear-armed powers going at it with rocks and metal bars, it’s certainly better than the alternative.
The last time things got this ugly was in 2017, when India deployed troops to stop the Chinese military from building a road in Doklam, an area claimed by both China and the tiny, India-backed kingdom of Bhutan. Both sides eventually stood down. The scuffles this May were reportedly the result of Chinese objections to Indian patrols in disputed areas. China has been bolstering its military presence in the disputed region where this week’s deadly clash took place, with as many as 5,000 troops, according to Indian media reports.
If history is a guide, the two sides should be able to talk themselves off the ledge, even after this week’s casualties: For both sides, the border tensions are mostly a distraction from bigger strategic priorities, and the risks of escalation couldn’t be higher. But there are some underlying factors that create more cause for concern.
With global attention distracted by the coronavirus, Xi Jinping’s government has lately been moving aggressively to assert its sovereignty over disputed areas, including stepping up military activity in the South China Sea and chipping away at Hong Kong’s political independence. This activity is likely alarming to the Indian government. India was already casting a wary eye on China’s massive global infrastructure investment program, the Belt and Road Initiative, which has included massive investment in India’s main rival, Pakistan. China has backed Pakistan’s claims in the disputed Kashmir region and is also seemingly increasing its influence on India’s neighbor and longtime ally, Nepal. (Nepal is currently involved in yet another border dispute with India.) India’s leaders may see this as a last chance to push back China’s growing military influence in its neighborhood. While we’re certainly going to learn much more about the incident in coming days, initial reports look very bad for the Indian military, which might also prompt the government to take action to redeem itself.
The extreme levels of hard-line nationalism in both countries right now certainly isn’t stabilizing things. As Sadanand Dhume writes in the Wall Street Journal, “public opinion in India has turned sharply anti-Chinese. On social media and in WhatsApp groups many Indians blame China for the coronavirus, which has battered India’s economy and strained hospitals in major cities like Mumbai.” This deranged cartoon from an Indian cable news channel gives an idea of the level of vitriol on display right now. CNN reports that an Indian app called “Remove China Apps,” which helps users boycott Chinese software, was downloaded more than 4 million times before Google removed it from its store.
Meanwhile, Chinese state-run media outlets like the Global Times have gleefully pointed to India’s failures to contain the coronavirus in contrast with China’s response, and accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of stirring up the border conflict in order to distract the public from criticism of the government response. While it’s certainly in better shape than India in terms of the coronavirus, China’s global prestige has taken a hit as a result of the pandemic, and it may also be looking for a demonstration of strength.
Then there’s the Trump factor. The president unexpectedly, and a little bizarrely, offered to “mediate or arbitrate their now raging border dispute” in a tweet last month, but it’s pretty clear where the White House’s sympathies lie. Modi has one of the better relationships with Trump of any world leader, and U.S.-India defense ties have deepened with the two populist-nationalist leaders in office. Meanwhile, as the U.S. has sought to blame China for the global spread of the coronavirus and hopes of a trade deal have faded, the Trump White House has stepped up its anti-China rhetoric on a variety of fronts and sought to enlist allies in a global campaign against Chinese influence. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has referred to China’s activities around the Line of Actual Control as part of an overall pattern of aggressive behavior.
Now, that doesn’t mean the Trump administration has any intention of backing India in a military conflict with China. But Modi may be going into this dispute under the impression that Trump has his back. And Xi may be feeling like the U.S. and India are ganging up on him.
These dynamics could lead both sides to make some reckless choices they might avoid under normal circumstances, and we probably shouldn’t count on Trump to talk them down.