Increased Border Tensions Between China And India: How Two Super-Powers Pursue National Interests During A Global Pandemic

Last month, Foreign Policy reported two instances of cross-border confrontations between the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and India’s armed forces on the contested territorial zone known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC). These collisions consisted of fistfights and stone-throwing between soldiers resulting in more than 100 injuries across both armies. These militarized tensions intensified on the 27th of May where Chinese troops entered 3 km beyond the contested zone – according to Indian military officials and media sources – by establishing tents, stationing vehicles and heavy machinery, in order to pursue strategic influence within the region. Indian forces then brought several battalions and reinforcement troops to the Himalayan border in defence of these developments.

China’s ambassador to India has encouraged peaceful diplomatic procedures between both countries to prevent the situation from escalating to ungovernable circumstances. Sun Weidong emphasised the necessity for both countries to never permit “differences [to] overshadow our relations.” Hence, military leaders from both the PLA and Indian military forces met last Saturday as an attempt to peacefully resolve border tensions. However, political analyst Ravi Agrawal argues that these clashes are, “the most serious tensions between the two nuclear powers – representing a third of the world’s population – in nearly three years.” Experts argue that both rising powers view one another as an obstacle to establishing greater influence within Asia more generally. This then expresses the geopolitical significance of the contested territorial zone across the Himalayan border.

Arguably, these diplomatic efforts have successfully contained the situation thus far. However, border tensions between China and India reflect one of the many ways in which each superpower pursues its national interests comfortably without international condemnation, due to the complex circumstances that the COVID-19 pandemic has generated. For instance, Beijing intends to pass a national security law in Hong Kong that will impede on civilians’ rights to protest against the Chinese government. Alternatively, Prime Minister Modi continues to strengthen India’s close relationship with President Donald Trump and the United States. This has provided the far-right Hindu nationalist government protection from international criticism in the aftermath of civilian unrest due to the controversial, anti-Muslim citizenship law that was passed in parliament last year.

Unfortunately, Hong Kong has resided in a state of uncertainty with regards to its relationship to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), in the last few years. President Xi Jinping has utilized the current circumstances to suppress the city’s promised freedoms at a time where the international community is distracted. The sense of solidarity for civilian self-determination in Hong Kong has significantly reduced in the past few months, due to the COVID-19 health pandemic that has stretched beyond borders and heavily impacted populations across the world. Additionally, India’s close relationship with the politically far-right US has secured the country an ally during a time where Modi continues to expand his Hindu nationalist political-agenda under very minimal criticism from the international community.

COVID-19 has diverted international attention from the problematic national interests that both India and China currently pursue. The increased border tensions at the LAC has arguably had little attention internationally, since nation-states across the world are struggling to deal with the socio-economic impact of the pandemic domestically. This has presented both countries various opportunities to pursue national interests comfortably and without international condemnation, which would have been far more pronounced if the pandemic hadn’t occurred. It is therefore likely that further collisions between China and India at the Himalayan border will materialise, since both superpowers are actively seeking to solidify their national interests in various ways.