A border clash between the world’s biggest nations. What could go wrong?

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shake hands as they visit the Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan, Hubei province, China April 27, 2018. China Daily via REUTERS/File Photo

China’s ongoing border clash with India may seem remote, but it has global impact. Reports say thousands of troops moved into the disputed area 14,000 feet up in the Himalayas after skirmishes broke out on May 5 near Pangong Lake in Ladakh and then on May 9 in North Sikkim, leaving more than 100 soldiers injured.

Amid the global coronavirus pandemic, assessing exactly what is happening in this dispute between the two most populated countries on Earth is difficult. Much of the border region is closed to the press, so reporters have to rely on statements and leaks.

Many accounts suggest that aggressive Chinese patrols in the area known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC) were to blame – or, in what may not necessarily be a contradiction, that Indian construction in the region had been interpreted as an aggressive challenge to Beijing’s Belt and Road infrastructure project.

Ultimately, India and China’s border problems are not new – it’s the circumstances surrounding them that have changed. Both Beijing and Delhi are led by governments in the thrall of nationalistic ambition. The pandemic has further pushed many nations into pro- or anti-China positions, camps that were already forming amid a global trade war that has lasted years.

The United States, locked in its own squabble with China, has voiced terse support for India’s position and offered to mediate. Hu Xijin, the outspoken editor of China’s party paper the Global Times, seized on the conflicting messages, mocking President Trump and arguing that the United States “seems to be the beneficiary of China-India border tension.”

India and China’s relationship is based on their status as two giant, wary neighbors. They share a 2,167-mile-long border. Together, their populations are around 2.7 billion, more than a third of the world. Both have achieved rapid economic development in recent decades and increased their territorial ambitions. Both have nuclear weapons.

India was among the first democracies to recognize the People’s Republic of China in 1950, but border disputes between the two increased as Beijing took control of Tibet. In 1962, they fought a month-long war on the Himalayan border, with China inflicting serious casualties on India before withdrawing to the LAC.

There were skirmishes over the border for years. In 1988, after one incident in the Sumdorong Chu Valley in Arunachal Pradesh, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi traveled to Beijing to meet his counterpart Deng Xiaoping. The two nations, both undergoing a wave of economic development just as the Soviet Union began to collapse, put aside their differences out of pragmatism.

Now, that pragmatism is being tested. China, whose economic development has dwarfed India’s, has a gross domestic product of roughly $14 trillion, compared to India’s less than $2.7 trillion. “While India has risen as an economy and a global power in the past three decades, its relative strength to China has in fact greatly declined,” Sumit Ganguly and Manjeet S. Pardesi wrote in Foreign Policy.

China’s close relationship with Pakistan, an unequal partner in the Belt and Road project, and lingering disagreement over Tibet have soured relations with India further. The tension between the two nations spilled over in 2017 in the Doklam area of the Himalayas after Indian troops moved in to prevent the Chinese military from building a road into territory claimed by Bhutan, an ally of India.

Over two months, the two powers flooded the area with military personnel. The threats, especially those from China, were apoplectic. “India will suffer worse losses than 1962 if it incites border clash,” the Global Times wrote.

The Doklam dispute ultimately fizzled out. Both sides withdrew troops in late August of that year and issued vague remarks about a resolution. Exactly what was decided behind the scenes was unclear, though reports that China had halted construction of the motorway suggested that Beijing had backed down.

Some Indian analysts have suggested that the current situation will end similarly, pointing to a number of conciliatory messages from Chinese officials. “We should never let differences overshadow our relations. We should resolve differences through communication,” China’s ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, said Wednesday.

But another inconclusive end to a standoff will fail to address the root of the problem. The Indian government has claimed that the Chinese military crossed into Indian territory 1,025 times between 2016 and 2018 (the Chinese government has not released comparable figures).

India and China are both in the throes of aggressive nationalist movements, each displaying their own brand of “wolf warrior” foreign policy. Under President Xi Jinping, China has moved from subtle pushes to strong shoves to bring the city of Hong Kong under Beijing’s sovereignty, while also applying pressure in the South China Sea and against Taiwan.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi entered his second term in power bent on changing many norms of Indian policy. The long-disputed territory of Kashmir has been under lockdown for months, while last year India and Pakistan were drawn into their most serious military escalation in decades. Reuters reported this week that Modi’s plans to build 66 key roads by the Chinese border, including one to a new air base, had probably drawn Beijing’s anger.

In the past, this might have remained a bilateral dispute. But now, anything that involves China seems to involve the United States too. The Hindustan Times reported Wednesday that Trump’s offer to mediate was “part of [a] growing anti-China juggernaut.” Under such a juggernaut, ambiguity may not exist.

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