Although it is generally believed that neither China nor India wants the sporadic spats between their frontier troops to escalate into a full-scale conflict, Indian soldiers again crossed the Line of Actual Control on Monday and “threatened the Chinese border defense patrol officers”. The Chinese Defense Ministry said it was a “grave military provocation”, and according to the People’s Liberation Army Western Theater Command, the Chinese troops were forced to take corresponding countermeasures to stabilize the situation.
The incident may not have been as worrying had it not involved the firing of weapons, albeit reportedly into the air, and had the two countries’ defense ministers not just met and reiterated their respective commitment to peace along the LAC. That shared commitment clearly wasn’t fully and faithfully adhered to by the frontline troops.
It is particularly worrying as the firing of weapons breaks the consensus that the border troops would not use any firearms should there be any coming together. It is to be hoped this is an isolated incident and it does not herald bloodshed to come.
Encouragingly, despite the rising tensions and both sides’ military buildup in the border areas where the recent clashes have occurred, decision-makers in both countries seem intent on keeping a lid on the tensions. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has repeatedly stated China is committed to border peace and friendly relations with the country’s key southern neighbor. And Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said border peace and tranquility are the foundation for the two nations’ relations, while calling for “very, very in-depth dialogue” at political levels to resolve the border situation.
Talks have been and are being held at various levels — from frontline commanders to defense ministers, and soon to the two nations’ chief diplomats — for the single purpose of preventing potential unmanageable escalation and spillover.
And these endeavors have worked to some extent, at least in terms of putting an immediate brake on what might otherwise have proved to be inflammable emergencies.
But the latest developments in the China-India border areas indicate that as negative feelings on both sides accumulate against the other, the risk of such seemingly insignificant frictions triggering more damaging confrontations can’t be ruled out.
There has been no official Indian response to the Chinese warning that Indian troops had violated agreements reached by the two sides, and their actions could “easily cause misunderstandings and misjudgments”. Nor to its appeal to Indian troops to withdraw and for an investigation of liabilities. The rising nationalism in India may make any conciliatory messages difficult to deliver without seeming like appeasement.
So while timely face-to-face communication between the commanders of the border forces are instrumental to avoiding misunderstanding and misjudgment on the ground, it is imperative political leaders get involved to calm the situation.