The latest build-up on the China-India border has been described by experts as a new turn in the Great Game in Asia. China’s media has highlighted the fact that India is illegally trespassing and constructing defence facilities across the border into Chinese territory in the Galwan Valley region, leaving Chinese border troops no other option but to make necessary moves in response.
Some circles interpret the simultaneous breaking out of a high-voltage drama between India and Nepal over Kalapani as connected to the broader China-India contradictions in Ladakh and Sikkim. In the Chinese articulation, the India-Nepal border row seems to be the main plot, which has acted as a catalyst raising tensions along the disputed border between China and India.
India’s focus on the Durbuk-Shyok-Daulet Beg Oldi Road along the Galwan River — which runs more or less parallel to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and improves India’s access to the Karakoram Highway — is seen by some analysts as the trigger point for the latest flare-up between China and India. But China has also been concerned about the newly constructed 80-kilometer stretch from Dharchula to Lipulekh (the gateway to Kailash-Mansarovar, a site for Hindu pilgrimage in Tibet), completed on April 17 and inaugurated on May 8 by Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. It perhaps led Beijing to review the situation on the China-India borders.
From Beijing’s viewpoint, India’s construction activity in the disputed areas with Nepal has affected China’s border security in Tibet. By building the 80 km stretch (76 km has been completed recently and the last 4 km of the road to the Lipulekh Pass is expected to be completed by the year’s end), India has moved its frontier vis-a vis China, gaining direct access to the concrete highway in Purang County in Tibet, and has thereby changed the status quo in the region. China already has border defence roads in Purang County on the middle border and Cona County on the southern border with India and a Chinese airport in Purang is scheduled to be completed in 2021. China is concerned that India is planning to use Nepal’s geographical advantage to challenge its dominant position in the region.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian recently said that the India-Nepal differences over Kalapani are an issue between India and Nepal and that the two neighbors should properly resolve the disputes through friendly consultations and refrain from “unilateral actions.” However, there can be little doubt that China is completely aloof from the India-Nepal border dispute, and given Nepal’s strategic value to China, it cannot be a passive spectator. For, in essence, securing Nepal will mean securing China’s borders. Therefore, even if China does not directly send troops to intervene between India and Nepal, it is indirectly involved by building up pressure on New Delhi and thereby warning it to stay away from Nepal.
Observers have noted that the Chinese strategic community has lauded “Nepal’s first powerful counterattack and the first military confrontation against India in years” and encouraged the Himalayan nation to keep up the “tough stance” and “fight back and be uncompromising on its core interests.” Many even interpreted the Nepali actions as a part of Kathmandu’s promise of “not letting any force use Nepali territory for anti-China activities,” which it reiterated during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s maiden visit to the Himalayan nation last October.
Over the years, Nepal has enjoyed solid support from China, which has not only helped it to reduce its dependence on India through highways, railways, electricity, and communication networks etc., but has now added strength to its bargaining power vis-à-vis India by building up military pressure along the China-India border.
Of special significance in this context is the fact that China’s renewed focus on Nepal comes in the wake of the changing dynamics in South Asia’s security situation affected by India’s illegal annexation of the state of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019, which has disturbed the strategic balance in South Asia that has existed over the past half century. Already, China’s threat perception vis-à-vis India has changed in recent years, particularly after the Doklam crisis.
As noted by some analysts, China now sees India as “the biggest and the only destabilizing factor in South Asia,” “a country with wolf ambitions,” which is simultaneously provoking all the neighboring countries, irrespective of their sizes. The Chinese campaign in this regard projects India as an expansionist power in South Asia that has “dismembered Pakistan, annexed Sikkim, controls Bhutan, and is now trampling on the Nepali sovereignty.” China has now made it clear that it will ensure that Nepal does not become the next Sikkim.
It may be relevant to note here that, historically, Nepal enjoyed the status of a “vassal state” to the Chinese empires for thousands of years, before it fell prey to British India in 1816 due to the weakness of the Qing Dynasty. Under the Treaty of Sugauli, Nepal had to cede one-third of its territory to British India, a fact that feeds Gorkha nationalism and stokes the idea of Greater Nepal.
In the larger perspective, it is clear that the border standoff cannot be dismissed as an accidental border incident but marks a critical turn in China’s strategic calculations in South Asia.