China Escalates Aggression During Pandemic: Border Skirmish With India Causes Fatalities

A skirmish between the Indian and Chinese armies on 15 June has led to the worst incidence of violence between the two countries in decades, with 20 Indian troops and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers dying in combat. The conflict took place in the Galwan Valley, a disputed area on the Indo-Chinese border, situated between Indian-controlled Ladakh and the Chinese-controlled Aksai Chin region.

Al Jazeera reports that the fighting was triggered by Chinese tents and observation towers being built on what Indian officials stated was on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The structures had been built after a de-escalation agreement on 6 June, claimed India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. Indian government sources told Reuters that an Indian patrol visited a mountainous section of the region to confirm that Chinese troops had moved back from the LAC. They demolished two tents and some observation posts which had been left behind, but a large group of Chinese soldiers soon arrived. Fighting broke out between the forces, with the Chinese soldiers reportedly attacking Indian troops with iron rods and spiked batons. It is customary for troops on both sides not to carry firearms in the region. The Guardian reports that many troops fell to their deaths from the steep ridge, with the fighting continuing for up to six hours and involving around 600 soldiers.

Experts have noted the increased Chinese military build-up on the border, with Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at California’s Middlebury Institute of International Studies, telling Reuters, “it looks like China is constructing roads in the valley and possibly damming the river”. The change in the status quo is thought by some to reflect the growing asymmetry of power between the two countries’ military capabilities. Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor of Chinese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, told the Guardian: “China’s GDP is $14tn, India’s is less than $3tn. China spends nearly $220bn on the military but India spends $52bn.” Sumit Ganguly and Manjeet Pardesi write in Foreign Policy that the border issue was largely put aside by both countries in 1988 so that they could have the stability to focus on domestic economic development at a time when both countries had a comparable GDP. By 2018 China’s economy had grown to five times that of India’s, dramatically shifting the balance of power.

India seems to be taking steps to retaliate economically, with the Economic Times noting that trade barriers, import duties, order cancellations, bans and consumer boycotts are all possible measures. This has already begun, with Indian Railways cancelling a major contract with a Chinese firm and state-owned telecommunications operator BSNL being instructed not to use infrastructure provided by Huawei. Government ministers and citizens alike have urged various boycotts of Chinese goods, with #BoycottChinaProducts trending on Twitter. Effigies of Premier Xi Jinping have even been burnt in protests. However, China is currently India’s largest trading partner and is deeply intertwined in its economy, making it difficult for India to hit back economically.

Last week’s skirmish is one of several incidents between China and its neighbours that have taken place in recent months. In April, the Chinese coast guard sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel in the South China Sea, and it harassed a Malaysian drillship near Borneo in April and May. On 21 June, the Japanese Defense Ministry reported that a suspected Chinese submarine had been detected off the coast of Japan. In the two weeks leading up to 22 June, there were eight incidents of Chinese jets flying into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. These occurrences represent a growing trend of China taking provocative actions that exert its military capabilities. Ravi Agrawal writes in Foreign Policy that, “the coronavirus pandemic may have strengthened—and sped up—Beijing’s growing conviction that it has the power to take bold moves around the world … even in 2008, as the world reeled from the global financial crisis, Beijing responded with massive stimulus measures and a global lending spree, expanding its influence and power.” In other words, China may be taking advantage of a crisis.

It seems quite likely that the coronavirus pandemic has provided a sufficient distraction for China to push its agenda in the South China Sea and on its borders, but also a means to bolster nationalistic pride at a time when China has come under criticism for its actions with regard to COVID-19. Agrawal adds that “both [India and China] are led by nationalist strongmen who are struggling to respond to the pandemic and its economic fallout. [They] have jingoistic media and populations that increasingly enjoy a bit of muscle-flexing.”

China’s recently proposed security legislation for Hong Kong is another major event that has gone relatively unnoticed. The coronavirus pandemic has provided a distraction from the worsening situation in Hong Kong, where pro-democracy protests that started in response to plans for extradition legislation in June 2019 had become increasingly violent. The new anti-sedition laws are reported by the Guardian to be considered by critics and legal observers as “one the most blatant violations of the ‘one, country, two systems’ framework since the handover of Hong Kong from UK to Chinese control in 1997”, as the Hong Kong Bar Association has said in a statement that the legislation would violate the territory’s de-facto constitution, which explicitly states that Hong Kong enact its own national security law.

This has led Taiwan, which China maintains a claim over, to shelter dissidents who have fled Hong Kong. Taiwan’s successful response to the coronavirus crisis, along with China’s alleged shortcomings, have led for increased calls for Taiwan to be allowed to be an observer at the World Health Organization. This, and Taiwan’s actions with regard to Hong Kong, may increase domestic pressure within China to assert its claimed sovereignty over Taiwan. China’s conduct towards Hong Kong and Taiwan may prove to be flashpoints in its relationship with the United States, whose Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has made increasingly supportive statements about Taiwan and Hong Kong.

In summary, China’s actions are both a reflection of its long-term desire to become the pre-eminent power in Asia, and an immediate reaction to issues and opportunities raised by the coronavirus crisis, the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and the actions of the United States. These provocations carry an unacceptable risk of spiralling into serious conflict, and themselves have a great human cost as lives are needlessly lost. China’s actions in Hong Kong do not respect the “one country, two systems” principle agreed in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1997, and it is right for the international community to see that the terms of the treaty be upheld. While China’s rise as an economic power is undeniable, there is no need to engage in bloodshed or violence to prove it. Cooperation and respect have largely maintained peace and prosperity for China and its neighbours over recent decades – they are not virtues to be discarded lightly.

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