Publish: 06 Sep 2020, 02:24 pm
As a months-long military standoff between India and China along their contested mountain border stretches, analysts warn that nuclear-armed countries – already engaged in their bloodiest battle in decades – could unwittingly plunge into conflict.
For 45 years, a series of agreements, written and unwritten, have established an uneasy truce along the eastern frontier of the Himalayan region of Kashmir. But the movements and clashes over the past few months have made the situation volatile, increasing the risk that miscalculation on either side may have serious repercussions outside the cold-desert region, reports UNB.
"The situation is very dangerous on the ground and can spiral out of control," said Lt Gen DS Hooda, who served as the Indian military's Northern Commander from 2014 to 2016. "A lot will depend on whether the two sides are able to control the volatile situation and make sure it doesn't spread to other areas."
The two Asian giants held several rounds of talks, mostly involving military officers, without success. In a sign that the talks are now moving to the political stage, their defense ministers met in the Russian capital on Friday to try to put an end to the deadlock. It was the first direct high-level communication between the sides since the conflict erupted in the Ladakh area four months ago.
Last week, the two most populous nations in the world, sharing thousands of miles of contested borders, accused each other of fresh provocations, including reports of soldiers crossing each other's territories.
India said its soldiers had thwarted the Chinese military's "provocative" movements twice last week. In exchange, the Chinese Ministry of Defense accused Indian soldiers of breaching existing lines of control and causing provocations along the border.
Tensions exploded with a brawl between soldiers in early May. The crisis worsened drastically in June, when they clashed with clubs, stones and fists, leaving 20 Indian soldiers dead and hundreds injured. China has reported no casualties.
The standoff is over contested parts of the untouched landscape in an area that boasts the highest landing strip in the world and a glacier that feeds one of the largest irrigation systems in the world.
Hooda said that while he doesn't think either side is preparing for a full-scale war, the "true calamity" is the collapse of current treaties and protocols.
Wang Lian, Professor of International Relations at Beijing University, Beijing, said the possibility of open warfare is doubtful because both sides have shown restraint in recent meetings. But he also said that New Delhi is under pressure from domestic anti-China sentiment and has been emboldened by tougher US action against Beijing.
"I don't think (India) would go so far as to escalate military conflict of a larger scale, but I believe both sides are making some preparations," Wang said.
India and China share the disputed and undemarcated 3,500-kilometer (2,175-mile) boundary, known as the Line of Actual Influence, which extends from the Ladakh region in the north to the Indian state of Sikkim.
The nations fought a border war in 1962, which also spread into Ladakh and ended in a shaky truce. Since then, soldiers from both sides have patrolled and guarded the disputed border area, according to agreements drawn up by the two countries which did not involve the use of firearms against each other.
But defense analyst Rahul Bedi said that India changed the rules of engagement along the border following the deadly June clash. He said local commanders have been given "freedom to initiate adequate and proportionate responses to any hostile acts" by Chinese troops.
Members of India's strategic community, including defense analysts and retired generals, say China's army is opening new fronts, deepening mistrust and delaying immediate disengagement before winter, when temperatures in the region can fall to minus 50 degrees Celsius (minus 58 Fahrenheit).
Another area of concern for India's military is the country's decades-old territorial dispute over Kashmir with archrival Pakistan, a key ally of China. Indian military policymakers say that if a full-scale conflict erupts between India and China, Islamabad could throw its support behind Beijing, creating an even more dangerous situation for New Delhi.
Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan. Its eastern edge, the cold, high-altitude desert region of Ladakh, borders China on one side and Pakistan on the other, and is home to the world's only three-way nuclear-armed junction. Most Kashmiri Muslims on the Indian side support an armed movement that demands the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country.
Gen Bipin Rawat, India's chief of Defense Staff, warned Pakistan last week not to exploit the crisis with China.
"Pakistan could take advantage of any threat developing along northern borders (from China) and create trouble for us," Rawat said, warning that Islamabad "may suffer heavy losses should they attempt any misadventure."
India unilaterally declared Ladakh a federal territory, separating it from Kashmir in August 2019, putting an end to its semi-autonomous status and straining the already fragile relationship between New Delhi and Beijing. China was one of the countries that strongly condemned the change and raised it in international fora, including the UN Security Council.
According to some Indian and Chinese strategic analysts, India's move has escalated existing tensions with China, leading to a June border confrontation.
"We are entering into a very difficult phase," said Pravin Sawhney, a defense analyst and China expert. "Disengagement is a criticality to avoid war, which the two nations don't want. But if any war breaks out, Pakistan will pitch in, and so would Kashmiris. It will be a three-front conflict."