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Maio 19, 2020, 02:41:34 pm »
Fistfighting in the Himalayas: India and China Go Another Round
On May 5, the two sides came to blows on the banks of Pangong Lake, where Ladakh meets Tibet, and where the two sides have registered multiple confrontations in recent years. On May 9, dozens of soldiers from both sides tussled along the Sikkim-Tibet border, resulting in injuries on both sides. In both cases, tensions were quickly defused, forces disengaged, and local commanders opened lines of communication. Nevertheless, the incidents draw attention to, and raise questions about, the apparent uptick in volatility along the disputed boundary.
The 2,167-mile China-India border, by some estimates the longest disputed border in the world, has witnessed ongoing friction since a short but intense war in 1962. The Line of Actual Control (LAC), as the perceived boundary is known, is far calmer than the one separating Pakistan and India in Kashmir, where deadly artillery shelling and kidnappings occur regularly. Yet the mostly desolate and mountainous LAC is the site of frequent “transgressions” by Chinese border patrols, regular face-to-face meetings between patrolling units from both sides, and occasionally violent or prolonged confrontations.
On May 9, Chinese and Indian forces reportedly engaged in a separate clash where the Indian state of Sikkim meets Tibet. Four Indian and seven Chinese soldiers suffered injuries in a scuffle that involved roughly 150 soldiers in total. The Indian press has carried reports of other, more minor incidents along the border the last few weeks as well, including ongoing Chinese tent-building and construction near the Galwan River in Ladakh.
Which brings us to the second point. While it’s unclear whether infrastructure development was a catalyst for the recent confrontations, it played a part in the 2013 and 2014 incidents in Ladakh. Last year, the Chinese military constructed a new bunker and underground facility 30 miles from the site of the 2014 standoff. Last month, India completed construction of a new bridge near a sensitive border point in Arunachal Pradesh “to enable faster movement of troops and artillery.” Meanwhile, India continues to construct and modernize over 60 “strategic roads” along the LAC, with an expected completion date of 2022. As India attempts to negate China’s substantial infrastructure advantage at the border, the opportunities for friction increase. Still, this doesn’t fully explain why tensions would flare at multiple noncontiguous points along the border in such a short time span.
The United States also formally recognizes India’s territorial claims in the border dispute, at least in the Eastern Sector where Arunachal Pradesh meets Tibet. This suggests that, were Chinese forces to engage in hostilities across the LAC in Arunachal, it would be viewed by the U.S. as an attack on India, not a skirmish in a disputed territory — a potentially consequential distinction.
Perhaps most significant, in recent years the United States has been a source of intelligence for India during border incidents with China. Washington reportedly provided the Indian government with “information on [Chinese] troop reinforcements and deployments” during the 2017 Doklam standoff. Indian interest in strengthening those intelligence-sharing arrangements was reportedly one impetus for Delhi signing a key “enabling” military agreement with the United States in 2018. The Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) facilitates the exchange of encrypted communications and equipment between the two militaries.
Just as the U.S. looks to India to play a more active role in balancing China’s growing power and influence — including taking more forward-leaning positions on issues like the South China Sea and Taiwan, the Quad, and the Indo-Pacific — India is looking to the U.S. to help shore up its own vulnerabilities vis-à-vis China, not least at the disputed border. The United States has already helped the Indian military make considerable strides with the acquisition of world-class U.S. attack helicopters, surveillance and heavy lift transport aircraft, and artillery. Should there be another prolonged Doklam-like incident at the border or inadvertent escalation, India will likely again be looking to the U.S. for diplomatic and intelligence support, and calibrating its Indo-Pacific strategy accordingly.
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