Sometimes border disputes can be a useful distraction from other pressing issues, used to whip up a bit of nationalistic sentiment from time to time.  On Monday August 30, India and China where at it again, with accusations from both sides that the other’s troops had illegally crossed over the disputed border high in the Himalayan mountains. As is usual with these things, it is often difficult to know where the truth lies mainly because the so-called Line Of Control separating the two countries is poorly delineated.

Vehicle-mounted gun-howitzers attached to a brigade under the PLA 73rd Group Army fire 155mm shells at mock targets during a recent round-the-clock live-fire operation. ( by Liu Tuo, Chen Kunfeng and Li Zhenjie )

Given the bleak nature of the terrain, it’s not entirely clear what is worth fighting about in such a remote region, but both India and China are continuing something of an infrastructure-building race in the area, with new roads and military posts under construction.  According to the Chinese government, Senior Colonel Zhang Shuili, spokesperson for the Western Theatre Command of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, urged that the Indian side should immediately withdraw its troops and avoid any escalation in the situation:

“We solemnly demand the Indian side to immediately withdraw its troops that illegally trespassing the borderline, strictly control and restrain its frontline troops and earnestly honour its commitments, so as to avoid further escalation in the situation.”

An opinion piece in the People’s Daily newspaper – a reasonable guide to how the Politburo is thinking – went somewhat further:

“India is now burdened with domestic issues, especially the coronavirus situation that has almost spiralled out of control. On Sunday, the number of new infection cases reached as high as 78,000, breaking the world record. The economy has been dragged into a sluggish state. By provoking tensions at the border, New Delhi also aims to shift domestic attention, which is a hooligan behaviour externally, and political flimflam internally.

“But it must be pointed out that New Delhi is facing a powerful China. The PLA has sufficient force to safeguard every inch of the country. Chinese people have shown support to the government, which won’t seek to provoke India, but does not allow it to encroach on China’s territory. China is strategically firm in the southwestern border areas and is also prepared for any circumstance. China welcomes it if India wants to co-exist in peace. If India wants to engage in competition, China has more tools and capabilities than India. If India would like a military showdown, the PLA is bound to make the Indian army suffer much more severe losses than it did in 1962.

A convoy of armoured vehicles comprised of main battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles is en route to a designated field at the foot of the Helan Mountains in the west of China. They are attached to a brigade under the 76th Group Army. ( by Li Zhongyuan)

“China is several times stronger than India, and India is no match for China. We must smash any Indian illusion that it can deal with China by colluding with other powers, such as the US. The history of Asia and the world has told us that any force keen on opportunism tends to bully the weak while fear the strong. India is a typical opportunist when it comes to the China-India border issue.”

The border war referred to in 1962 was a nasty and extremely violent series of clashes lasting for almost a month that saw China seize territory and cause the Indian army losses of about 5,000 soldiers.  China’s casualty figure was about one-tenth of that – and much larger PLA forces in the area demonstrated military superiority over the poorly prepared Indians.

The Indian government has been quiet on the issue, but the local media has stories accusing China of “salami-slicing” the border, encroaching further each time – tactics not dissimilar to how Beijing has achieved its goal of effectively controlling the South China Sea.  The Indians say that they aren’t going down that path – and they might follow a strategy of deliberately seizing parts of Chinese territory to force some sort of compromise deal. Interestingly, some sections of the Indian media seem to suggest that indeed it was the actions of their own troops trying to “outflank” Chinese detachments that has caused the current flare-up.

The best solution would be to demilitarise the entire area – but the notion of ordering Indian soldiers to deliberately seize Chinese territory would be extraordinarily destabilising and would just about guarantee a major armed clash.  If this were to occur, it is highly likely that China will once again prevail.

Both have huge armies with enormous reserves, but the reality is that China spends about four times as much on defence as its southern neighbour and that gives it a qualitative edge in a lot of hardware.  The PLA is also well trained and highly motivated, so India needs to tread cautiously because those who might be wishing for a rerun of the 1962 war are likely to see the same result.


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