The ambush set up by Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) for an Indian patrol was medieval.
In the Himalayan high-altitude no man’s land claimed by both countries, their forces have agreed to not carry guns to diminish the chance of dispute flaring into open war.
The PLA on Monday last week had dammed up mountain streams, which they unblocked as the Indian troops approached. The rush of water knocked many off their feet, and then the Chinese soldiers swept down, brandishing sticks encrusted with nails, Indian media reported.
The units fought hand to hand for hours and several Indians tumbled down the mountain to their death. When the battle was over, at least 20 Indian soldiers were dead, dozens more injured and several taken captive.
China had losses too, although it has not revealed figures.
A fragile half-century old consensus is also dead.
Before the battle, no soldier from either side had died in a border skirmish for 45 years. China and India fought a war over the border in 1962 and clashed again in 1967, but both seemed keen to avoid incidents that could spiral toward another.
Then there was the ambush, which left two nuclear-armed nationalist strongmen — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) — facing off over the bodies of their troops. Neither leader’s politics allows much room to look weak on issues of national sovereignty and territorial control.
On Saturday, China accused India of “deliberate provocation,” and criticized its construction of infrastructure in the area. However, India’s construction has been well inside the territory it controls.
The battle came after a steady build-up of Chinese forces and infrastructure and an increase in reported patrols around the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto border.
“This appears to be a far more concerted push on China’s part to change the status quo,” said Andrew Small, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
There is a clear picture of a growing Chinese presence, Small said, adding that information about the border areas is fragmentary and mostly from Indian sources supplemented by satellite images.
“The Chinese military has been hardening its position in multiple locations, not simply conducting patrols across the LAC, but building infrastructure and maintaining an ongoing presence,” he said.
It seems improbable that commanders on a contested frontier would plan such a deadly ambush without at least tacit approval from the highest levels. Yet it is not an obvious time for Beijing to be stirring up trouble with its neighbor.
Its economy has been shattered by COVID-19, relations with the US are at one of their lowest points since diplomatic ties were re-established in the 1970s, and Hong Kong is in revolt after Beijing’s announcement of imposing security legislation in the territory, provoking international outrage.
Chinese authorities have also launched a trade war with Australia over its demands for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19 and are in a stand-off with Canada over the extradition of a senior executive from Huawei Technologies Co.
Some analysts believe that aggression at the Chinese-Indian border is a response to domestic pressure on Xi, desperate not to look weak on national sovereignty after fumbling the economy and relations with trading partners.
“I feel it’s generally a response to the pressure Xi feels he is under. Because of COVID [-19] and the criticism China faced internationally, the economic crisis at home and the concomitant deterioration of China-US relations, [Beijing] has taken a tough stance on a number of sovereignty issues as a way of signaling that China will not be cowed,” said Taylor Fravel, director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Others see a more opportunistic aggression from a government which over the past decade has replaced economic priorities and global stability in its foreign policy with aggressive nationalism.
Forced to choose between acceptance and escalation, no country has wanted to take on China, and Modi after the incident seemed willing to pay a political price to avoid further escalation.
In a televised statement on Friday last week Modi said that Chinese troops had not intruded across the country’s borders, directly contradicting his foreign minister’s previous position.
“From the Chinese point of view, why not push forward?” University of Miami political science professor June Dreyer said, adding that China’s economy is five times the size of India’s, and Beijing’s official defense budget US$100 billion higher than that of New Delhi.
Protests in India and calls to boycott Chinese goods are unlikely to have a major economic impact, and there is little threat of military action from the Indian side.
However, Beijing might have underestimated the damage caused by the skirmish.
“One of the things this crisis has taught us is that the Chinese understanding of India is quite poor and is often colored by cognitive biases of all kinds,” said Ashley Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The deaths and the end of the tacit agreement to avoid fatalities are likely to harden attitudes toward China, both publicly and among politicians, which could have a long-term fallout, both economically and diplomatically.
“I suspect China has lost another generation in India, many of whom had seen China as an opportunity. Basically, now they will say we can’t trust them,” said Tanvi Madan, director of the India project at the Brookings Institution. “Even if there was already an internal debate, this has strengthened the hands of those who have called for a rethinking. One thing this will put an end to is the idea that economic interdependence is going to alleviate political strains.”
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