Trump’s embrace of Modi stokes India-China stand-off in Himalayas

A photograph that went viral on microblogging site Weibo shows Chinese soldiers binding the hands and feet of Indian soldiers lying on their backs, one seemingly unconscious.

In a social media video, Indian soldiers whack a Chinese armoured vehicle with lathis on the banks of Ladakh’s distinctive Pangong Lake, where rival border patrols engaged in at least two brawls last month.

The images from the desolate and disputed Sino-Indian borderlands are a far cry from the goodwill and bonhomie that Chinese president Xi Jinping and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi exuded for the cameras in October at an informal summit.

Simmering tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbours have been inflamed by the coronavirus pandemic, Donald Trump’s hostility towards China and the US president’s strategic embrace of India and Mr Modi.

Indian and Chinese troops are now locked in a tense stand-off at multiple locations along their disputed 3,488-km boundary on the Tibetan plateau. Various rounds of talks — including this past weekend — have failed to resolve their differences.

The flare-up comes at a time of growing Chinese assertiveness, with Beijing stamping its dominance over Hong Kong and the South China Sea. Analysts said the confrontation in Ladakh reflected Beijing’s growing sense of grievance towards India, and its desire to reinforce New Delhi’s subordinate status.

“They think India is uppity, they think India is punching above its weight and they want to bring it down a notch or two,” said Ashley Tellis, an expert on Asian strategic competition at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC. “They decided that they are going to punch India in the nose.”

New Delhi recently imposed blunt restrictions on Chinese investment in the country, and has been drawing ever closer to countries that Beijing considers hostile. Mr Trump’s invitation to India to participate in the upcoming G7 meeting drew scathing comment from the Global Times, a nationalistic Chinese tabloid.

“India has been active in many of US plans that target China,” Liu Zongyi, a South Asia expert at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, told the newspaper. “If India hastily joins a small circle that perceives China as an imaginary enemy, China-India relations will deteriorate.”

The border crisis has generated plenty of angst in New Delhi. According to independent Indian security analysts, India’s cancellation of its spring military training exercises in Ladakh due to coronavirus gave People’s Liberation Army troops the ideal opportunity to seize several positions long claimed and patrolled by India.

Indian army trucks near Pangong Lake. New Delhi has been trying to upgrade roads and military infrastructure on its side of the border Indian army trucks near Pangong Lake. New Delhi has been trying to upgrade roads and military infrastructure on its side of the border © Manish Swarup/AP

Turf now held by Chinese soldiers includes positions in the Galwan Valley that overlook a new Indian highway built to supply New Delhi’s most forward military base at Daulat Beg Oldi.

“The Chinese have presented a fait accompli to India, and they are deeply entrenched and sitting pretty in vantage locations overlooking the highway, which is now in easy artillery range of the PLA,” said Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research.

China has not elaborated on the nature of the conflict, but last week Beijing permitted violent imagery from the Himalayas to pulse through the country’s highly censored social media networks. Posts labelled China-India border conflict have been viewed tens of millions of times.

The Global Times recently listed Beijing’s military hardware in the disputed region, including tanks, helicopters and drones, and quoted Chinese analysts who said the equipment “should give China the advantage in high-altitude conflicts should they arise”.

Anxious about a domestic backlash, New Delhi has publicly denied that Chinese troops have encroached on Indian-claimed territory. But a government official told the Financial Times that Chinese troops were “closer to our side of the line of actual control than they were two months ago”.

New Delhi is braced for a long stand-off. “There is a change in the status quo — the Chinese have changed their position and they have to go back,” the official said. But analysts are sceptical about New Delhi’s prospects of dislodging the Chinese troops without big concessions.

India has been working steadily to upgrade the roads and military infrastructure on its side of the border, which was traditionally far less developed than what China had built in its territory.

“They have had the first-mover advantage — they went and built the infrastructure and now that we are building it, they are feeling uncomfortable,” said retired Lieutenant General SL Narasimhan, director-general of India’s Centre for Contemporary China Studies, and a member of India’s National Security Advisory Board.

But most analysts believe that Beijing’s prime reason to muscle in on Indian positions is because of New Delhi’s deepening alliance with Washington.

“This [border confrontation] is caught up in the US-India-China situation,” said Tanvi Madan, author of Fateful Triangle, a book about relations between the three nations. “India thinks it could be a signal from Beijing to say, ‘You are flirting with these guys too much and we want you to set a limit on it’.”