India-China standoff could trigger conflict, say experts

Updated 28 May 2020

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Skirmishes between Indian, Chinese soldiers are far more serious than conflicts in recent years. — AFP ImageForum/File
Skirmishes between Indian, Chinese soldiers are far more serious than conflicts in recent years. — AFP ImageForum/File

NEW DELHI: As President Donald Trump offered to mediate the India-China border standoff on Wednesday, not before poking Beijing in the eye on Hong Kong and Taiwan, defence experts in New Delhi expressed their fear that the jostling was serious and could turn into an unintended full-blown military action.

Former Indian envoy to China and Director of the Institute of Chinese Studies, Ashok Kantha, said on Wednesday that the skirmishes between the soldiers in Ladakh and Sikkim regions were far more serious than what had been seen in recent years.

They involved a sizeable number of Chinese soldiers who Mr Kantha said had occupied Indian territory. “They have resulted in injuries to Indian soldiers and so far the established protocol between the two armies to resolve such situations has not succeeded.”

The Chinese media has blamed Indian troops for transgressing the Line of Actual Control, and accused India of impeding routine patrol by Chinese troops along their Himalayan boundary.

In the absence of an official account, Indian media have offered a clutch of speculative explanations for the standoff. These have included China’s alleged need to pressure India against siding with the US-led criticism of it handling of the coronavirus outbreak. Indian media has, however, not commented on an equal likelihood that Indian prime Minister Narendra Modi was in need of shifting the focus from his handling of the pandemic emergency, which has been roundly criticised at home and abroad for its callous approach towards millions of migrant workers. There is also speculation that the Chinese move may be aimed at shoring up the protection for the Karakoram Highway that is critical to CPEC, which India opposes.

Asked by TV anchor Karan Thapar for The Wire news portal if he was worried that the situation, which has lasted for almost a month and about which the Indian government has maintained an almost complete silence, could lead to a border conflict, Ambassador Kantha said: “I will not rule out an accident happening”. The situation involves a large number of troops, and there are skirmishes occurring and injuries taking place. However, he added: “Hopefully it won’t happen.”

Mr Kantha said managing the problems was not enough for India. “We need to resolve them.” He said this means we need a paradigm change.

Mr Kantha told The Wire that there was need for “greater transparency” on the part of the government. He said a series of serious incursions have taken place and the government should share more information with the country.

Speaking about the skirmishes, which are not confined to a small area and have been taking place in, at least, four different locations, Mr Kantha said that there is “a pattern behind it.” He said there seems to be “central guidance from the Chinese side.” China, on its part, appeared to be less strident about the standoff though, reportedly taking the view on Wednesday that the situation on the ground was broadly stable along the border.

Former Indian diplomat and China expert, Prof P. Stobdan noted that after downplaying the border stand-off for over two weeks, the government had finally dismissed China’s accusations of the Indian Army crossing the Line of Actual Control.

Published in Dawn, May 28th, 2020