Waking up the Dragon with an Elephant’s Trumpet
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IN JUNE 2017, Indian soldiers in Sikkim took Chinese border guards completely by surprise when they crossed into Bhutan and physically blocked the Chinese road construction crew from extending a track into disputed territory.
Eventually, hundreds of Indian soldiers stood face-to-face with as many Chinese for over two months, before New Delhi and Beijing negotiated a mutual withdrawal that saved face for the Chinese. Today, it is the Indians who have been taken by surprise. In the third week of April, Indian border forces in Ladakh observed regular Chinese forces on the Line.
India and China share one of the world’s longest land borders. The India-China border is 3 488 kilometers long. In 1962, the two countries engaged in a bloody Himalayan border war, and as a result India lost 38,000 sq. kms of the disputed territory of Kashmir to China which is referred to as Askai Chin, and tensions have continued to break out sporadically in the decades since.
Over the past month aggressive cross-border skirmishes between Chinese and Indian forces resulted in minor injuries to troops. In recent weeks the border skirmishes continued, and in the latest spate of conflict it has been widely reported in the international media that India lost 20 soldiers on 15 June, and Chinese casualties are unknown.
“China is committed to safeguarding the security of its national territorial sovereignty, as well as safeguarding peace and stability in the China-India border areas,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson’s office said in a statement.
There is no Indian foreign office official statement on the issue so far, but interviews with former Indian military officials and diplomats suggest the trigger for the flare-up is India’s construction of roads and air strips close to China-Pakistan CPEC trade route. It has been suggested that Xi Jinping’s China has taken a hard line on all matters of territory and sovereignty.”
It has been noted that the Indian government has pushed for improving connectivity by 2022 in the Ladakh region, where it plans to have 66 key roads built along the Chinese border. One of these roads is near the Galwan Valley that connects to the Daulat Beg Oldi air base, which was inaugurated last October. "The road is very important because it runs parallel to the Line of Actual Control and is linked at various points with the major supply bases inland," said Shyam Saran, a former Indian foreign secretary. The new construction of airstrips and roads directly threatens the China-Pakistan economic corridor CPEC.
These attempts are being backed up by the US-Indo nexus as the United States has for a long time been nurturing India as a regional super-power to counterbalance the growing influence of China in the region. The US and India are concerned about China’s vast and ambitious road and seas economic network, and the revival of the ancient Chinese silk trade route, a part of which is now being called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which connects Eastern China to Pakistan, and makes its way to the Pakistani Southern deep sea port of Gwadar. The Gwadar port is of particular geo-strategic importance not only as the listening post for China’s naval forces, but it is also situated very close to the Strait of Hormuz, which is a vital corridor for oil and petroleum exports. It is estimated that over 67% of global oil and petroleum supplies pass through this corridor to the rest of the world.
India’s sudden expansion into the Galwan region has not gone unnoticed and has certainly raised the eyebrows of President Xi Jinping’s administration in Beijing. The Chinese government reacted mildly when India’s government unilaterally decided to annex part of the international disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir by abrogating Article 370 35a on 5th August 2019. Beijing reacted by calling a UN Security Council meeting in late August last year to raise the issue diplomatically at the UN.
On May 29, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo waded into the territorial saga, voicing his concerns over the border dispute on a podcast.
"The Chinese Communist Party -- the nature of activities they are undertaking ... Even today, increasing forces of China moved up to the north of India on the Line of Actual Control there on the Indian border," Pompeo said. "These are the kind of actions that authoritarian regimes take, and they have a real impact."
Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump said last month that the US would be willing to mediate or arbitrate border disputes between India and China. "We have informed both India and China that the United States is ready, willing and able to mediate or arbitrate their now raging border dispute. Thank you!" he tweeted.
The new dimension which is adding to the current Sino-Indo standoff is that the Nepalese are claiming back some of their territories from India, and the Nepalese parliament has approved a new map of Nepal. This new development threatens India’s surface connectivity to the Assam region. The two share a 1,808 km long border. The history of the demarcation of the modern India-Nepal border began on March 4, 1816, after the signing of the Sugauli Treaty between British India and the state of Nepal. Nepal claims that India has encroached on over 60,000 hectares of land in 23 of the 75 bordering districts, with 71 total areas of dispute.
Since South Africa is part of IOR-ARC, IORA, BRICS and IBSA, it is perhaps time for diplomatic intervention and mediation as China and India are the part of BRICS. South Africa can play a neutral role in mediating between the two countries, and South Africa is also well placed to seek a mediation role in the disputed territories of Kashmir since South Africa is a non-permanent member of UNSC. South Africa should live up to the principled foreign policy stance of Nelson Mandela : “All of us remain concerned that the issue of Jammu and Kashmir should be solved through peaceful negotiations, and should be willing to lend all the strength we have to the resolution of this matter” (Mandela, 1998).
South Africa’s foreign policy has always been based on advancing human rights and promoting democracy. South Africa has a track record of success with previous mediation efforts from a neutral position. For example, in 2014, former President Jacob Zuma appointed then Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa as special envoy to the Sri Lanka mediation process. Prior to that, in 2009, then President Thabo Mbeki was appointed by the African Union to broker a power sharing and mediation deal between South Sudan and Sudan. In both cases, South Africa’s neutrality and mediation played a fruitful role.
* Salman Khan is an independent political analyst for South East Asia & Human Rights Activist. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of IOL.