Analysts say the volatility along their 3,500-kilometer-long disputed boundary appears to be widening as a new flashpoint has emerged.
In December last year, soldiers from both sides scuffled in India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh – a territory also claimed by China. The region is thousands of kilometers away from Ladakh in the western Himalayan region where deadly clashes in 2020 triggered the present standoff.
Last month China renamed 11 places in Chinese in Arunachal Pradesh which it refers to as South Tibet – it is the third time in six years that it issued new names for mountains, rivers and other points in the territory.
While India rejected the move, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Mao Ning defended it saying that Zangram (Arunachal Pradesh) is part of China and naming places in the territory “was completely within the scope of China’s sovereignty.”
It’s a tactic China has used in other parts of Asia to bolster its claim on disputed territories – it has also renamed locations in South China Sea and East China Sea.
In New Delhi, analysts saw it as another attempt by Beijing to coerce India. “Now with China taking a much more aggressive stand on Arunachal, there are concerns that China wants to put multiple pressure points on India if only to push India to resolving some parts of this dispute,” according to Harsh Pant, Vice president, Studies and Foreign Policy at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.
Concerned at the rapid pace with which China has developed both military and civilian infrastructure in its border areas, New Delhi is also building tunnels, roads and bridges in the state.
One of the key projects is cutting a tunnel through the mountains at an elevation of nearly 4000 meters in Arunachal Pradesh to facilitate troop movement to the border areas.
Indian Home Minister Amit Shah last month also unveiled a $570 million program to develop nearly 3,000 border villages in the northeast during a visit to Arunachal Pradesh. The project aims to beef up border security.
In New Delhi, there have been concerns about China developing border villages on its side of the border.
“As regards to these — what they (China) call “Xiaokang” villages or model villages that the Chinese are saying, there are a couple of them which are right opposite our borders,” Brigadier N.M. Bendigeri told news agency AFP. “It concerns us because of its closeness to the border areas and the way it has been constructed, we can’t rule out them being used by the PLA (People’s Liberation Army).”
“Our policy is clear that we want peace from everyone. However, no one will be able to encroach even one inch of our land,” Shah said in April.
India has also accelerated a program to modernize its armed forces — including ordering attack helicopters from the United States and a missile defense system from Russia.
Analysts say China holds a significant military advantage over India, but Indian troops, who have long confronted Pakistani troops in Kashmir, are more experienced in high altitude warfare. “China has the edge in high technology warfare. It can field more weapons such as drones and surface to surface missiles. While we are trying to catch up, it will still be a long haul for India to match their capabilities,” says a retired senior military officer who did not want to be named.
High-level political and military dialogues have failed to achieve a breakthrough as both countries have adopted diametrically different positions in their approach to resolve the conflict. India insists that Chinese troops should return to positions which they occupied prior to 2020 when the crisis erupted. Beijing on the other hand describes the situation on the border as “generally stable” and says both sides should move ahead to normalize ties.
That is why, say analysts, the Indian and Chinese defense ministers could not find common ground when they met on the sidelines of a regional forum recently.
Indian defense minister, Rajnath Singh, accused Beijing of eroding the entire basis of ties by violating bilateral agreements and said there could be no improvement in ties until the border row is resolved. His Chinese counterpart, Li Shangfu, called on India to take a long-term view and “promote the normalization of the border situation as soon as possible.”
“From New Delhi’s perspective, there is no sense it is getting about China really sincerely looking at this as a problem for Sino-Indian relations. With China unilaterally deciding to change the status quo along the border and then claiming that is the new normal, I don’t think India will accept this,” points out Pant. “That is why while negotiations at the military and diplomatic levels continue, the broader relationship continues to be in a lock jam, with India putting the onus on China to take it forward.”
Following multiple rounds of negotiations between their military commanders, troops have disengaged from four disputed points over the last two years.
But even that adds up to very limited progress. “Even there the disengagement has not really resulted in any demobilization of forces. They just have just taken a step back and created a buffer zone,” says Pant.
The volatility in the Himalayas is drawing India into a closer strategic alliance with the United States. Next month, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will head to Washington for an official visit that India’s foreign ministry said will underscore the growing importance of the strategic partnership between the two countries.