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China-India Border Dispute: A Shift Eastward Means More Than Just Territory

Along the 2,100-mile border shared between southwest China and northeast India, disputes have escalated again in a seemingly never-ending cycle of tension. The border, known as the Line of Actual Control, has been a source of contention for over 60 years. The latest clash, taking place on January 20th, involved a Chinese patrol allegedly entering Indian territory. The patrol was forced back by Indian troops and serves as another example of the failure to quell the tensions between the world’s most populated countries. The violent clash was the latest in a chain of events that has resulted in casualties on both sides for decades.

This most recent skirmish, however, is significant because it indicates the conflict’s move eastward. Most of the clashes have been on the Line of Actual Control’s western end over the area of Aksai Chin, near the Indian region of Ladakh. Nevertheless, the most recent dispute occurred more than one thousand miles east from Ladakh in the region of Sikkim. If the trend continues eastward, it could affect even more citizens, specifically in the culturally ample and controversial region of Tibet.

Stemming back from British control of India, the border between China and India has had three main areas of conflict; the regions of Aksai Chin, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh. The aforementioned January conflict took place along India’s Sikkim state, which until 1975 was an independent state known as the Kingdom of Sikkim. An anti-monarchist coup, aided by Indian forces, overthrew this government and resulted in the population of Sikkim voting to join India. This settlement has maintained largely due to a 2003 agreement between China and India. In the agreement, India agreed to recognize Tibet as Chinese territory, and China agreed to recognize Sikkim as Indian territory. This deal seemed to be holding together well enough until January 20th, where the region was the backdrop for the violent encounter between Indian and Chinese forces.

Details on the most recent event are being heavily downplayed by Indian officials, with the Indian army stating it was only a “minor face-off.” Indian forces seemed to insinuate that the actions taken upon the Chinese patrol were routine, resolved “as per protocols.” As leader of India’s main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, Rahul Gandhi criticized the Indian prime minister for staying relatively silent on the Chinese expansion into Indian territory. Citizens in the area also expressed their criticisms for the Indian government’s handling of this clash as well as the border conflict as a whole. Taro Bamina, a member of a local youth group, stated that, “we wanted to tell the Indian government of India. ‘Why didn’t you take care of that?’”

Meanwhile, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, did not directly comment on the violence, but instead just stated that Chinese troops were “committed to upholding peace.” He also advised India to “refrain from actions that might escalate or complicate the situation along the border.” In downplaying or refusing to candidly remark on the violence, it seems as if both China and India are attempting to maintain a facade of friendly relations. It is possible that they do not want these clashes to undermine the small diplomatic efforts that are underway in the form of militaristic talks between the two countries.

For the two countries, 2020 was wracked by a range of border disputes. In June, in the region of Ladakh in northern India, 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese troops were killed, even though no shots were fired due to a 1996 agreement between the two countries that prohibited the use of guns and explosives along the border. In August, India accused China of “provoking military tensions at the border twice within a week.” Then only a month later, China accused India of firing shots at Chinese troops in the region of Ladakh, while India accused Chinese troops for firing into the air and provoking Indian forces. The multitude of clashes that have taken place over the course of 2020 and into 2021 contradict the claims made by both governments that they are pursuing diplomatic efforts to quell the fighting.

On February 20 2021 the two countries did hold talks in response to the most recent border clash. Yet, these talks seem mainly concentrated on the western region of Ladakh, rather than the region where the clash actually took place, in the eastern region of Sikkim. These meetings appeared to be somewhat productive, as disengagement around Ladakh began soon after, with both countries pulling back their frontline troops. The de-escalation, however, does not address the conflict’s most recent shift eastward and thus did appear to be particularly helpful for addressing the moment.

With the recent shift east, it is entirely plausible that China could go further than Sikkim and make Arunachal Pradesh as the new region of desire. Arunachal Pradesh lies to the east of Sikkim and China claims almost all of that region as South Tibet. Arunachal Pradesh is particularly important to China because the region is inhabited by many Tibetan Buddhists. With Tibet already vying for full autonomy from Beijing, China could be looking to assert its complete dominance over the region. If China was to hold the region, it could potentially exert even more influence over Tibet by not allowing its independence and by controlling the process of choosing the next Dalai Lama.

With the Dalai Lama’s age ever increasing, control of Arunachal Pradesh and the Tibetan Buddhists “could potentially determine where the next Dalai Lama will be found.” China has been trying to select the next Dalai Lama and has exercised its control over Tibet in the process. Control over the selection process would erode the traditional process of the Panchen Lama choosing the next spiritual leader. The diminishment to Tibetan culture, however, is nothing new for China. The Chinese government exiled the current Dalai Lama from Tibet and has “chang[ed] the face and ethnic make-up of cities across the breadth of Tibet” through “government subsidies and huge infrastructure projects” that has resulted in a large amount of Chinese citizens migrating into the region.

Chinese construction in the area has also demonstrated their disregard for the inhabitants of the region, with local leaders in the region saying that “Chinese forces have been slowly but steadily cutting away small pieces of Indian territory.” Tungpo Mra, the leader of a local ethnic group in Arunachal Pradesh, vocalized their disdain for the increased Chinese presence by stating that their “place” is “now China’s control.” The future of Tibetan culture and identity seems to be, unfortunately, tied to whoever controls the region and China knows this. Thus, the India-China border conflict’s eastward action could directly affect the Tibetan cause and whether independence from China will ever occur.

Although the fate of the India-China border conflict’s new eastern dimension remains ambiguous, this dispute seems like another effort by China to establish its “sphere of influence” in Asia. China’s attempt to create a strategic chain of control has already been demonstrated by their engagements in Bhutan and the South China Sea. The most engagement in the Sikkim region represents one more region China seeks to use in its efforts for global influence. Even though these efforts have not been fully realized, one thing is for certain. Any resolution to the India-China border conflict will require extreme Chinese cooperation, a kind of cooperation that appears largely at odds with Chinese global ambitions.

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