Tensions rise again along the Sino-Indian border as both countries increase the number of troops

Over the last week, news about China and India increasing the number of troops along the border region has increased concerns about the possibility of another military conflict along the disputed border. However, experts hold different opinions about the likelihood of another major military conflict.

On June 28, Bloomberg reported that India has sent an additional 50,000 troops to its border with China and it has triggered debates about whether the two major regional powers will kick off another round of military conflict.

The Wall Street Journal reported on July 2 that both China and India have sent tens of thousands of troops and advanced military equipment to the disputed border.

According to the report, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has increased the number of its troops from 15,000 to 50,000 over the last few months while India now has around 200,000 troops and advanced artillery around the border region.

In fact, three days before news about India’s decision to increase the number of its troops became public, both countries have engaged in another round of negotiation regarding the possible de-escalation of tension along the border.

Yogesh Joshi, a research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, said it is common for both sides to show they have the resources and political will to carry on the conflict until the other side compromises or both sides reach a compromise.

“For India, this is particularly important because, over the last year, there is a lot of distrust in Beijing, since last year’s conflict happened at a time of the pandemic,” said Joshi. “India doesn’t have the room to be passive when it comes to China and Chinese movements along the border. You need the number of troops not only to deter, as their basic minimum is they can’t lose any more territory.”

Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor in Chinese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in India, said judging from the perspective of modern warfare, India’s move to add an additional 50,000 troops to the border region isn’t strong proof that the country has turned its position from defensive to offensive.

Apart from increasing the number of troops, India also needs to send a large number of offensive weapons to the border region, as it will show that the country is preparing for a large-scale military conflict.

“China has deployed all of the offensive weapons and troops, but India didn’t do that,” said Kondapalli. “China transitioned from a defensive position to an offensive position while India is still in the defensive mode. This area is made up by mountainous terrains, and in mountainous terrains, the advantage lies with the defender.”

China downplays the tension with India

On Monday, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the situation at the China-India border maintains general stability, and the two sides are resolving the boundary issue through negotiation. “Against such background, the words and deeds of relevant important military and government officials, and military deployments should be conducive to deescalating and cooling down the situation, and to enhancing mutual trust, rather than the opposite,” he said.

Liu Xiaoxue, an associate research fellow at China’s National Institute of International Strategy, said even though western media has reported that India’s move to send an additional 50,000 troops to the border region could enhance the tension between China and India, since the Chinese government didn’t have a huge reaction to the news, she thinks it could be a mutually acceptable move.

“If it is a move that violates the mutual consensus and has a long-term threat to the border region’s stability, I think Beijing will respond to it strongly,” she said. “The Chinese Foreign Ministry didn’t have a strong reaction to the news but western media continues to highlight the information. I think we should pay more attention to how the Chinese government and the Indian government respond to the news.”

India moves its military focus to the northern border

Joshi said in fact, India already had about 200,000 troops around the border region in the latter half of 2020, but since China and India announced they have reached a consensus to withdraw troops from part of the disputed border, some of the 200,000 troops are not in areas right around the border region.

Compared to China, Joshi said India can still send troops to the frontline much faster. “India’s military focus has now shifted to the China border and that is a major change in India’s military posture,” he said.

“Most of the time, the strike goals are close to the Pakistan border. Now that orientation has shifted from the west to the north. There is a consensus that it is not Pakistan so much but it’s China that India has to be ready for,” he added.

Joshi said almost every Indian military is gearing up for actions from China and the fundamental shift has something to do with China’s improved military capability. Compared to 10 or 20 years ago, China’s military capability has increased a lot so armed forces also want to be part of the strategy to defend the country against China.

Could there be another border conflict?

Even though China and India reached the consensus to withdraw some troops from the area around the Pangong Lake, subsequent negotiations have not ensured that troops will start to be withdrawn from other disputed border regions.

Kondapalli thinks it’s possible that the recent moves made by China and India around the border region will further increase tension in the area. “India does have more number of troops but these are not on the Line of Actual Control and these are far from that area,” he said.

“We did see last June that the escalation has resulted in the killing of soldiers. Since the escalation control mechanism is in China’s hands right now, they could escalate and they could de-escalate,” he added.

Joshi said the real challenge is how do China and India handle the tension when their soldiers come face to face with each other. It is important to observe whether they can implement the confidence-building measures or not.

“Beijing’s tactics are always killing the chicken and scaring the monkey, so I don’t think they really want to escalate the situation,” he said. “Both sides should basically understand that there is a lot at stake here and there won’t be any easy victories. If both sides understand that, the conflict doesn’t appear to be a very attractive proposition.”

Joshi reiterated that while both sides are negotiating about how to de-escalate the tension along the border region, military strategies and deployment should be part of the negotiation. It will prove to the other side that they have assets in the region as well and it’ll be unwise for either side to provoke.

“I think much of the military posturing should be seen in that regard,” he said. The more troops you have, the more firepower you have, there are more possibilities of escalation.”

This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.

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William Yang

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.