Rising tensions in Eastern-Ladakh – Wider Foreign Policy Implications

Rising tensions in Eastern-Ladakh – Wider Foreign Policy Implications

In recent history, tensions between China and India over control of the Galwan Valley have never been as high. Whereas China has the upperhand in the border dispute, India is trying to find other ways to frustrate China in its search to increase its geopolitical influence over the region.

The Line of Actual Control

In April 2020, China sent thousands of its forces into the Galwan Valley, a widely disputed area at China and India’s shared border in Eastern Ladakh and Aksai Chin, taking Delhi by complete surprise. Despite an agreement between top Indian and Chinese military leaders in early June, as of November, China has not yet disengaged its forces and withdrawn from the region. Consequently, tens of thousands of soldiers on both ends of the so-called Line of Actual Control (LAC), the demarcated line between Indian and Chinese controlled territory, are awaiting a long, cold, tension-filled winter in the Himalayas. 

The region has seen a decades-long territorial claims dispute between India and China. In 1962, the countries fought over a strategic part of the region which gave China a favorable but volatile truce. The region has seen ongoing frictions ever since and even confrontations in 2013 and 2017. However, tensions have never been as high as this year. 

On 15 June, Chinese and Indian border guards engaged in a skirmish which claimed the lives of 20 Indian and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers. India’s command accused China of unilaterally violating their peace agreement with respect to the Galwan Valley. Similarly, China’s military command put the blame on India’s border soldiers for the fight and the subsequent casualties. With thousands of troops stationed on both the Indian and Chinese side of the LAC one match could light the tinderbox and engulf the region in conflict.

The current status quo favors China in the uninhabited mountain range. Its unilateral military action in April presented India with a “fait accompli” according to Ashley J. Tellis, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, to Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad: either India retakes what it sees as rightfully theirs through the use of force or it accepts China’s claim to the zone. China is building on its presumption that India will avoid  engaging militarily because of its internal crises such as a stagnating economy,  uncontrolled Coronavirus outbreak and a lack of commitment to the region. China thus hopes to keep control over the area without a military fight.

Why did things escalate?

There is strategic value to the valley. First, many South Asian rivers find their source here, particularly the Indus, which flows downwards through Kashmir into Pakistan. Controlling the flow of these rivers can greatly increase a country’s geopolitical influence over the region as hundreds of millions of people rely on these rivers for their water supply. Second, the area shares a border with Tibet. China’s annexation of Tibet is a source of anxiety for China, since the region is not as ‘culturally assimilated’ as China would like to be, with possible uprisings by Tibetans having the potential to create domestic unrest. If the great powers ever clash utilizing the Tibetan’s resentment of China could give India leverage to provoke unrest in domestic China. Hence, China has an interest to preemptively mitigate this threat by removing India’s direct border with Tibet, whilst India wants to keep Tibet close in case of escalated conflict with China. Interesting to consider is that India is hosting the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader. Third, the region is close to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which plays a big role in the Belt and Road Initiative as it gives China access to the Gwadar port in the Arabian Sea. Gwadar port is an essential part of the project, as it would guarantee oil imports if its activity in the Malacca Strait was restricted. 

The strategic value and both sides having historical claims over the region which they are willing to defend explains the longstanding tension. According to India, the recent acceleration of tension moving away from a passive truce to a more active conflict can be attributed to China’s April encroachment. China argues differently and states it had no other choice to maneuver its military to the valley because of the increased activity of the Indian military in the months leading up to the Chinese incursion. Such activities included building a military airstrip and other infrastructure close to the Line of Actual Control providing quicker access and supply chain for Indian forces. In reality, however, it seems more likely that China was triggered by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement that Ladakh would not fall under the direction of the autonomous Kashmir region but rather to Delhi. China likely considered this a provocation and felt the need to act.

India’s response

As a response to China’s activities in the Galwan Valley , India is seeking other ways to frustrate China without risking military confrontation in the valley (for now). It particularly focuses on expanding its own political influence over the region, whilst simultaneously actively countering China’s. As such, on 19 October, India invited Australia to join the trilateral Malabar naval drill together with Japan and the United States. As Australia agreed to partake in the drill, it will mark the first exercise where the regional grouping known as the Quad is fully present. Indian statements explain that the Quad supports a free and open Indo-Pacific and adheres to the rules based international order dishing out a dig at China and its increased activity in the Indian Ocean. Likewise, India carried out a multiday complex naval drill together with Russia in the bay of Bengal. These operations indicate a clear power projection of India vis a vis China in the Indian Ocean and a demonstration of the growing and budding relationship between Delhi and Washington.

Additionally, support amongst Modi’s government to initiate official trade talks with Taiwan is growing rapidly. For several years, Taiwan has been seeking stronger (trade) relations with India, but Modi was hesitant to entertain the idea as India would face an agitated China if such a deal would be registered with the World Trade Organization. Now, however, with China’s hawkish nature with respect to their disputed border, India entertains the idea. This is compounded by the fact that India is interested in Taiwan’s advanced technology and electronics. Earlier in October, the Indian government greenlit investments by Taiwanese companies such as Wistron Corporation, Pegatron corporation, and Taiwan’s Foxconn Technology Group for the production of smartphones. India is also suggesting to its allies, particularly the US, to move supply chains away from China to decrease the country’s leverage over the region. Similarly, the US and India have signed a military agreement with respect to sharing of satellite intelligence.

How will this unfold?

When escalations between two nuclear powers rise the world always turns anxious. Although the border tension is worsening it seems unlikely that the Galwan valley is the hill India is willing to die on. As China has the bigger military, already controls a large part of the valley and has more interest in having control over it than India, it seems that they can get away with its encroachment and subsequent altered status quo without an actual battle. This does not mean that India sits by idly. Overall worsening relations between Beijing and Delhi makes Delhi look for alternative ways to frustrate China, such as by building an alliance with Taiwan. With China’s hawkish approach to its backyard and the growing power of India, it seems likely that every action will trigger a reaction paving the way for a downward spiral into the unknown.

Categories: India, Security

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