Longtime foes India and China are locking horns again along a stretch of the eastern Ladakh border, which India considers its territory. China has been building roads and military installations in the region and India has responded by moving troops to the disputed territory.
The last time the two sides came to blows was in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis, as the world’s attention was elsewhere. This time, it’s a pandemic that’s distracting much of the world, but the causes are the same. Only the lead actors have changed.
Indian TV news channel NDTV showed what it said was satellite imagery of China expanding a military airbase less than 120 miles from the border with India, building a new runway and stationing warplanes on the tarmac.
Earlier this month several troops from both countries were injured during two skirmishes along the disputed border in Ladakh and neighboring Sikkim. It was just fisticuffs, and senior officers managed to intervene and calm the situation down.
The two countries share a 2100-mile border, with much of it in dispute.
The two countries fought a brief war over the border in 1962, but the argument wasn’t resolved. China still claims the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh as its territory, while India considers China-controlled Aksai Chin as its territory.
There have been many stand-offs along the border, usually involving pushing and shoving, and even stone throwing by the forces standing guard on either side, but not a single bullet has been fired in decades.
In typically obtuse fashion, Chinese President Xi Jinping issued an elliptical statement that appeared to reference the current tension with India.
Chinese President Xi Jinping said Tuesday that his country would, “scale up training and battle preparedness, promptly and effectively deal with all sorts of complex situations and resolutely safeguard national sovereignty, security and development interests,” according to Chinese state media.
It wasn’t clear whether Xi was referring to the tension with India, simmering unrest in Hong Kong, both, or even neither of the two, but the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement the same day clearly mentioning India: “China is committed to safeguarding the security of its national territorial sovereignty, as well as safeguarding peace and stability in the China-India border areas.”
Donald Trump offered to mediate the “now raging border dispute.”
We have informed both India and China that the United States is ready, willing and able to mediate or arbitrate their now raging border dispute. Thank you!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 27, 2020
Neither side is likely to accept Trump’s offer, as India doesn’t want to be seen asking for help from anyone — much less the U.S. — and China is in no mood to improve relations with the United States.
Still, Prime Minister Modi of India and President Xi personally like Donald Trump, which would be a positive asset if the shooting did start.
China doesn’t need any more bad press. Their crackdown on Hong Kong, their threats against Taiwan, and their massive coverup of the coronavirus pandemic have all contributed to changing attitudes toward Beijing around the world.
There had been cautious moves by Washington to try and enlist India in Trump’s anti-China policies, but India now finds itself embroiled in a tense border dispute and are looking to defuse the situation rather than up the temperature by joining much of the west in blaming China for their initial response to the pandemic.
Cooler heads are likely to prevail along the border. But China has its own agenda and the dispute could flare up anytime China chooses.