By Salman Parviz

India-China standoff enters 9th week

July 8, 2020 - 13:34

As the dispute over the shared border between India and China, two nuclear-armed nations, enters its ninth week, the region remains tense. The high-altitude, rugged Ladakh region is now the epicenter of the border standoff. It is far removed from the lives and imagination of most Indians and Chinese residents; the region has now become the talk of their daily conversations and worries.

According to Reuters, China has begun pulling back troops from along its contested border with India, Indian government sources have said. The Chinese military was seen dismantling tents and structures on Monday at a location in the Galway Valley near the site of the latest clash, said India government sources, who declined to be identified as they are not authorized to speak to the media.

In response to whether China has moved equipment back to the Galway Valley, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian said both sides were "taking effective measures to disengage and ease the situation on the border."

"We hope India will meet China halfway and take concrete measures to carry out what both sides agreed to, continue to closely communicate through diplomatic and military channels, and work together to cool down the situation at the border," Zhao told a news conference.

Indian and Chinese troops are now locked in a tense standoff at multiple locations along their disputed 3,488-km boundary on the Tibetan plateau. Various rounds of talks have failed to produce results.

New Delhi has banned Chinese apps after 20 Indian soldiers were killed in the high-altitude brawl in Galway Valley on June 15. The clash saw soldiers in brutal hand-to-hand fighting with clubs and sticks about 4,270 meters above sea level amid sub-zero temperatures. China has yet to confirm whether it suffered casualties.

India's decision to ban dozens of Chinese apps is a big setback for China's top tech firms trying to replicate their remarkable domestic success globally, as they are now stymied in what many consider the world's last great untapped digital market.

On Friday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise visit to Ladakh and, in a veiled dig at China, said the "age of expansionism" is over.

India claims 38,000 square kilometers of land currently under Chinese control while Beijing stakes claim to a 90,000 square Kilometers area within Indian territory, reports Aljazeera.

On the surface, the dispute turns on whether the land belongs to China or Bhutan. It is only about 34 square miles, but it is pivotal in the growing competition between China and India over Asia's future.

The dispute dates to contradictory phrases in an 1890 border agreement between two now-defunct empires, British India and China's Qing dynasty, that put the border in different places. One gives Bhutan control of the area – the position India supports – and the other China.

Bhutan that joined the UN in 1971 does not have diplomatic ties with China.

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 (PLA) troops the ideal opportunity to seize several positions long claimed and patrolled by India.

The clash last month between Chinese and Indian troops in the Himalayas left casualties for the first time in 45 years. Soldiers from both sides have camped out in Galway Valley in the Ladakh region, accusing each other over trespassing over the disputed border, a trigger of a brief but bloody war in 1962, after which China strengthened its control over the region.

Lying between the Kunlun mountain range in the north and the Himalayas to the south, Ladakh was originally inhabited by people of Indo-Aryan and Tibetan descent.

"Located at the crossroads of important trade routes since ancient times, Ladakh has always enjoyed great geostrategic importance," says Indian Major General Dr. GG Dwivedi, an expert in Sino-Indian relations.

In talks with Indian Express, General Dwivedi said China's forays into the region began after the 1949 Communist Revolution, when Chairman Mao Zedong, himself a veteran of guerilla warfare, began consolidating China's periphery as part of his expansionist designs.

The PLA occupied Tibet in 1951 and then began to eye Ladakh. The Tibetan revolt of 1959 and the Dalai Lama's flight to India saw China further strengthened its military presence in Ladakh. India reacted by setting up Army posts in the region to prevent Chinese expansion.

"This resulted in the initial clash between the Indian and Chinese forces in the Kongka Pass area in 1959. Later, Galway Valley became the scene of action when the Indian Army established a post to cut off the Chinese post in the Samjunjling area, marking the beginning of the 1962 war," says Dwivedi.

In the latest face-off, Indian troops first spied the Chinese on the banks of Pangong Tso lake, which is one-third in India and two-thirds in China. The lake is of great significance to the Chinese, who have built infrastructure along both its sides to ensure the speedy build-up of troops.

In a sign that today's escalation has been brewing for a while, in April, a top Indian official accompanied the Dalai Lama to the border of Tibet, shrugging off China's public insistence that the journey is halted. In May, India boycotted the inauguration of Chinese President Xi Jinping's signature "One Belt, One Road" project, saying the plan ignored "core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity."

In another sign of deteriorating Indo-China bilateral relations, New Delhi recently imposed blunt restrictions on Chinese investment in the country and has been drawing ever closer to countries that Beijing considers hostile.
 
Pundits claim that New Delhi's deepening alliance with Washington has alarmed Beijing and intensified border tensions. U.S. President Donald Trump's invitation to India to participate in the upcoming G7 meeting drew scathing comments in Chinese media.

Indeed, pundits believe the reason for Trump's two-day visit to India on February 24 was to counter China. Washington is wary of the emergence of China on the world stage.

China is also the main supporter of Pakistan. Gwadar Port is a deep seaport on the Arabian Sea at Gwadar in Baluchistan province of Pakistan. It is located just 600 kilometers from the Strait of Hormuz. The port was made possible only after China lobbied for it because of its growing interest in landlocked Afghanistan and the region.

India is investing in Chabahar Port. During an interview with the Tehran Times in 2017, former Indian Ambassador Saurabh Kumar to Tehran pointed that Chabahar Port is an important part of North-South Corridor, the multi-model sea, rail road route to move freight between India, Russia, Iran, Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.

Gwadar port lies 172.2 kilometers (107 miles/92.98 nautical miles) to the west of Chabahar Port. To counter China's influence in the region, the development of the Chabahar Port got a waiver from the Trump administration's "Maximum Pressure" sanctions on Iran.

Global reactions

While Indo-China standoff continues, global support for India has grown. Most Western leaders have criticized China over a tough new security law in Hong Kong and the South China Sea and are now uneasy with the border standoff.

On Friday, Japan backed India in its border standoff to support New Delhi's position opposing unilateral changes to the LAC. Japanese ambassador to India Satoshi Suzuki tweeted about his country's support following a conversation with Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla, hoping for a "peaceful resolution through dialogues." The move was akin to support of Japan's support to India during the 2017 Doklam standoff with China.

French Defense Minister Florence Parly conveyed "steadfast and friendly support" to her Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh in a letter on June 29, in which she expressed "deep solidarity" over the death of 20 Indian soldiers in the violent face-off with Chinese troops along the LAC on June 15.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday said: "Tensions over territorial claims are rising across the Indo-Pacific region, as we have seen recently on the disputed border between India and China, and the South China Sea, and the East China Sea," while he hiked Australia's defense budget to $270 billion for a 10-year period. The remarks came against the backdrop of Australia, banning China's Huawei for its 5G sector infrastructure.

Although members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have been silent on the India-China standoff, the ten states' leaders recently rejected China's claim to almost the whole of the South China Sea.

In early June, the Indian Foreign Ministry said a day after military commanders from both sides met near Chashul, a border village at the disputed frontier near Pangong Tso, a lake where troops from the two countries clashed last month.

"Both sides agreed to peacefully resolve the situation in the border areas according to various bilateral agreements and keep in view the agreements between the leaders that peace and tranquility in the India-China border regions are essential for the overall development of bilateral relations," the statement said.

Modi and Xi last met in India in October, promising to increase economic and security cooperation. Both leaders must have a follow-up of this meeting in order to de-escalate the border tensions.

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