Two and a half years after bloody border clashes, Chinese and Indian soldiers clashed again on Friday at a point on their long common border; a sign of the continuing tensions between these two rival Asian giants.
A border incident occurred between the two countries, which have a combined population of nearly three billion, are both nuclear-armed and have a long-standing rivalry. The incident resulted in only a few injuries.
It happened last Friday in the Himalayan mountains, at a point of contact along the 3488 kilometers border between China and India. According to the Indian defense minister, who yesterday accused several hundred Chinese soldiers of having crossed the border and attacked an Indian garrison. Beijing claims that it was the Indians who blocked the path of a Chinese patrol.
The two armies have an old agreement that forbids their soldiers on the border to carry firearms, which fortunately limits the toll. A short video released in India shows Indian soldiers pushing back the Chinese with sticks, a surprising scene for an over-equipped military power.
Since then, calm seems to have returned, but the incident shows that nothing has been settled since a much more serious border clash in June 2020, which left dozens dead.
An old border dispute between India and China has been going on for decades, and led to a war in 1962. Since then, a provisional delineation, the “Line of Actual Control”, awaits a permanent solution that is not coming.
But the rivalry is more global between these two Asian giants, who can not overcome their mistrust, despite several attempts. In 2019, Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi posed in casual attire in a beautiful setting to mark their understanding. But the following year their troops clashed, and the Cold War atmosphere was back in Asia.
The most surprising aspect of these new tensions is that the war in Ukraine has changed the game. India refused to condemn Russia, its old Soviet-era ally and main supplier of arms and hydrocarbons. In a way, India was joining China, Russia’s main strategic partner against the United States. But between friends and enemies, the border is not so simple.
India seems determined to play its own card. It sees itself as an emerging power where China has already become a superpower, with its good and bad sides. New Delhi is trying to attract investments frightened by the Chinese political context, like Apple, which has set up a second industrial base in India.
And India sees itself as an autonomous regional power, capable of being the ally of the United States in the “Quad”, with Japan and Australia, to confront China; but it can also say “no” to the Americans on Russia.
However, this autonomous emergence is hampered by rivalry with China, by Beijing’s privileged relationship with its feared neighbor, Pakistan, and by an increasingly tense Asian geopolitical context. What the repeated border incidents tell us is that if one day India has to choose sides in an Asian polarization, it will not be China’s.