Here’s what we know— and don’t know—about China’s recent actions in this long-standing territorial dispute. This article first appeared here in the Washington Post.
In early May, Chinese and Indian troops got into a fistfight on their border at Naku La Pass adjacent to the Indian state of Sikkim. A few days earlier, a brawl among border guards at Pangong Lake sent troops to the hospital. In recent weeks, Chinese soldiers also crossed the “line of actual control” (LAC) around the Galwan River valley.
Here’s what we know—and don’t know—about China’s recent actions in this long-standing territorial dispute.
1. China hasn’t taken this type of action in at least a decade
The territorial dispute along the China-India border falls across three different areas. The eastern sector, about 90,000 square kilometers (about 35,000 square miles), corresponds roughly to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh and is under Indian control. The western sector, sometimes called Aksai Chin or part of Ladakh, involves about 33,000 square kilometers and several districts in Xinjiang, and is under Chinese control. The central or middle sector, west of Nepal, is the smallest contested area, around 2,000 square kilometers, and control is divided.
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After the 1962 Sino-Indian war, the LAC has served as a de facto border in all three sectors. In at least 13 places, however, the two sides disagree over where the LAC lies.
Unlike previous border incidents in 2013 or 2014, China is simultaneously putting pressure on the LAC in multiple areas in the western sector. Although reports vary, China may have placed 5,000 soldiers on or near the LAC. In three places, China reportedly has crossed the LAC into areas India believes to have been “settled,” thus challenging the local status quo from India’s standpoint.
2. China has historically been sensitive to any change along the LAC
My research on China’s territorial disputes—and the dispute with India, in particular—can help explain China’s actions in May. Because the United States is China’s main rival, not India, China generally seeks to maintain stability in the border dispute with India. In the lexicon of China’s military strategy, the disputed border is a “secondary strategic direction.” By maintaining stability along the Indian border, China can focus its military power toward the “main strategic direction”—Taiwan and the Western Pacific. China thus seeks to deter Indian challenges to the strong position on the border it has enjoyed since the 1962 war, while preventing the escalation of armed conflict that might lead to another war.
3. Here’s what has changed since 1962
In the past decade, India has worked hard to strengthen its position on the border and its presence along the LAC. India is close to completing a major upgrade of border roads, including a strategic military-use road that connects an airfield at Dalut Beg Oldie in the northern tip of the western sector with the villages of Shyok and Darbuk toward the south. Completed in 2019, this “DS-DBO road” greatly facilitates the lateral movement of Indian forces along this part of the western sector, reducing travel time by 40 percent. The goal of this road construction, according to one Indian newspaper, is to “help India’s efforts to dominate the Line of Actual Control.” India expects to complete a network of feeder roads to the LAC by 2022.
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India has also reactivated and rebuilt airfields along the border. And India also raised two mountain divisions and is creating a mountain strike corps to conduct offensive “quick-reaction ground offensive punch” operations against China along the border. Last year, the newly established corps demonstrated its capabilities in India’s “Him Vija” military exercise. One retired Indian military officer concludes “a limited conflict” in the western sector is no longer “a viable proposition” for China’s armed forces.
4. India’s new border roads may have prompted the current standoff
China’s moves in May appeared to be in response to India’s road-building activities in the western sector. According to a former Indian defense official, China has “always been ultrasensitive to India expanding its presence” here. India’s construction of a feeder road was perhaps the first critical trigger—this road connects the LAC near the Galwan River with the DS-DBO road. The second and perhaps less important trigger is India’s efforts to build a road in Pangong Lake, where India and China dispute the location of the LAC. Although both new roads lie on the Indian side of the LAC, their purpose is to strengthen further the Indian position along the LAC.
Chinese moves, especially around Galwan, appear designed to prevent India from completing these road projects, given China’s general weakness at the tactical level in the area. These events, perhaps, are a classic expression of the security dilemma—China views India as changing the LAC status quo, even if India sees its moves as an attempt to consolidate the status quo along the LAC.
(The UN has appealed for a global coronavirus cease-fire.)
The broader context is the shadow of the 2017 China-India standoff at Doklam on the Chinese-Bhutanese border. India surprised China by deploying troops into territory under Chinese control—but also claimed by Bhutan—to prevent China from extending a track in the area. China viewed the Indian action as a clear violation of its sovereignty.
Although resolved peacefully in September 2017, this standoff greatly heightened Chinese vigilance of Indian activities along the border. By 2019, the number of reported “transgressions” on the border, when Chinese patrols cross into areas where the two sides dispute the LAC, reached their highest levels in a decade if not longer, with the majority occurring in the western sector.
What is Beijing trying to signal?
Yet even if China is responding to Indian improvements, the scope, scale and posture of China’s moves are unprecedented. Could the global pandemic be one explanation? Facing a dramatically slowing economy, criticism for the government’s handling of the outbreak of the coronavirus and worsening ties with many countries, China leaders may feel the need to show strength—and avoid signaling any weakness—over questions of national sovereignty.
If Beijing fears other nations may view China as weak or distracted by the coronavirus and the economic aftershocks, the Chinese leadership may feel it has to take a hard line against any potential challenge to Chinese sovereignty. This is true not only regarding the border with India but also with regard to Taiwan, Hong Kong and the South China Sea.
But history may also play a role. In 1962, Chinese fears that India sought to profit from the unrest in Tibet and upheaval of the disastrous Great Leap Forward influenced Beijing’s decision to go to war. As the 2020 pandemic unfolds, China may also want to signal toughness to India again.
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M Taylor Fravel (@fravel) is Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor in the Department of Political Science and director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.