Which country is powerful China or India?
Why India and China are arming the Himalayas
High in the Himalayas, in the middle of nowhere, on the border between India and China, the waves have been rising on Google Maps for days. Whichever place you click in the area around Galwan in Ladakh, you will find comments such as "This is an INDIAN, INDIAN, INDIAN, INDIAN territory. For god sake, China must stop encroaching others' territory at once" in the reviews a user. Another user wrote: "You are welcome to visit the territory of China since ancient times." User Minsky Minsky writes: "A place that belongs to China", Amegh Deshmukh counters: "A place that belongs to INDIA."
The same in the region around Lake Pangong or Demchok. Regardless of which location you click on these days in the regions on the Sino-Indian border in the Himalayas: the probability that territorial claims can be found in the reviews is high. But the conflict is not just boiling up virtually. For a month now there have been repeated skirmishes between Indian and Chinese border guards along the border. Dozens of soldiers are said to have been injured in a scramble on Lake Pangong at an altitude of 4,200 meters. And similar scenes are also said to have occurred in the eastern Himalayas, in Sikkim. The two nuclear powers accuse each other of violating their respective borders.
While the standoff in Sikkim was settled on a local level, a number of soldiers are said to continue to face each other in at least two controversial regions in the West Himalayas. Thousands were sent to reinforce. Similar scenes occurred three years ago on the Doklam Plateau, near Bhutan. It is not entirely clear what triggered the current crisis in the West.
Crossing borders again and again
India claims Chinese soldiers invaded Indian territory by the thousands. China disagrees. India was much more likely to build infrastructure on Chinese territory. It is based on the old border conflict between the two Asian giants, who cannot agree on the exact route in all sections along their roughly 3,500 kilometers long border. And these disputed areas are the Achilles' heels in Indo-Chinese relations.
Smaller border crossings occur regularly, around 250 to 300 times a year, estimates Phunchok Stobdan, a former ambassador to India and an expert on border policy. They only last a short time, during the summer months, when new units conduct orientation operations and inspect the posts abandoned in winter. But it is unusual for the soldiers to penetrate the disputed area so deeply and set up tents, according to Stobdan.
China and India are partners and adversaries at the same time. Since a bloody border war in 1962, the two countries have been quite successful in creating contractual mechanisms to prevent armed violence. No soldier has been killed along the border since 1975. But tensions have risen again in the past few months. Both countries are mobilizing strongly along the border. The struggle for valuable resources and control of the region's water are important strategic interests. As is known, a number of mega rivers in Asia feed themselves from the Himalayas.
India's race to catch up in the border area
China has seemed to be ahead in recent years, when it comes to building roads, relocating the military, and building dams. But for a few months now, India has been trying to catch up. "India is now on the acceleration lane," confirms Stobdan. A military airport was reactivated. Roads in the border area are gradually being expanded. The road construction in Galwan in particular now seemed to have broken the barrel for China.
Beijing has so far said few words about the standoff. A few days ago, however, the state-controlled "Global Times" published a report on a large-scale exercise by the People's Liberation Army (PLA): The aim of the exercise was infiltration in the high mountains behind the enemy line - a clear signal to the neighbors in the south.
Ladakh as the plaything of the great powers
Military rearmament, in turn, puts a strain on the local population, which has been the plaything of the great powers for decades. For centuries, Ladakh was a busy hub until the conflicts in the border triangle of Pakistan, China and India brought trade to a standstill. The borders are tight. What was once considered a passage for traders and travelers to and from the Tibetan plateau is now the end of the world. Over time, the region had switched to tourism. Corona has now almost come to a standstill. In the past few weeks alone, thousands of Indian soldiers have been relocated to the region around Lake Pangong, residents say.
"It is the local population and the fragile alpine climate that suffer most from the nationalist behavior of China and India," says Ruth Gamble from La Trobe University in Australia. She sees the muscling of the countries as part of a rising nationalist rhetoric and a strong man politics - on both sides, India and China. China's President Xi Jinping and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi need "a nationalist boost to distract their citizens from coronavirus and other problems."
The two countries themselves see it differently. India accuses China of engaging in aggressive policies because the country has been cornered internationally. Corona and the events in Hong Kong have seriously damaged the country's image. The re-education camp allegations in Xinjiang have also made bad headlines. "The more concerned China is, the more it shows that it is powerful," says Stobdan. "Then it becomes argumentative. And in Ladakh the stakes are much lower than messing with Taiwan or on other fronts in the Indo-Pacific."
For China, the situation is also clear: India is struggling with economic problems and is not under control of the corona crisis. So try to distract the subcontinent from domestic political problems - with aggressive measures. This also included the suspension of Kashmir’s autonomous rights last summer. In the course of this, Ladakh was also separated from the states of Jammu and Kashmir - Ladakh as Union Territory is now directly subordinate to Delhi. Beijing has sharply criticized this.
Beijing and Delhi are drifting apart
Just three years ago, Xi and Modi shook hands at a bilateral summit in Wuhan - and thus also settled the problems in Doklam at the time. But since the division of Ladakh it has become frostier again. "It is possible that China is using the partition to pursue its own interests in Ladakh. Obviously there are strategic deliberations between China and Pakistan," analyzes Stobdan. Meanwhile India decided on a military cooperation with Australia on Thursday; A few weeks ago, just before Corona, Modi received US President Donald Trump with a great din in India.
The two Asian giants are drifting further apart again. But neither India nor China is interested in an open war. High-ranking generals from both militaries met on Saturday to end the confrontation high in the Himalayas.
Following the talks, a spokesman for the Indian Army simply said that both sides remained in contact through their military and diplomatic channels "to address the current situation in the border areas between India and China."
A solution to the standoff in Galwan and on Lake Pangong is to be expected. An end to the smoldering conflict is not in sight - the respective interests of the two states in the Himalayas are too weighty for India or China to forego their territorial claims in order to finally resolve the borderline.
"Both sides would have to give up territories that they have claimed for 70 years but have never controlled," says Gamble. That would be possible, says the professor. "But it would have to be done in a way in which both heads of state could save face. That has not yet happened." (Anna Sawerthal, June 5th, 2020)
The article has been updated to include the news of the senior military meeting.
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