Beijing, New Delhi tensions escalate after border clash

By Roy Landersen
July 6, 2020

In their deadliest clash in almost six decades, Indian and Chinese troops, using improvised hand weapons, battled over a disputed border region high in the Himalayan mountains June 15. Tensions between the rulers of the world’s two most populous countries are increasing, with both looking to defend and expand their interests as the crisis of world capitalism deepens.

Washington hopes that in the face of regional assertiveness by the Chinese regime, the Indian rulers will be drawn more deeply into an alliance with U.S. imperialism.

In the latest clash in the Galwan Valley, some 600 soldiers fought hand to hand on a mountainside for several hours. By a 1996 agreement, neither side carries firearms in the area, so the weapons used included rocks, barbed wire wrapped sticks and nail-studded steel bars. In recent weeks, both sides have increased the number of troops along their 2,170 mile border. Each side blames the other for initiating the violence. 

Some 20 Indian soldiers were killed. Chinese officials have admitted to casualties, but not to any deaths. The Indian news media and U.S. intelligence sources claim even more Chinese soldiers died. Beijing said it was not releasing figures in order to avoid “stoking the public mood.”

Chinese forces released 10 captured Indian soldiers June 18.

Long-standing contention

Despite its remoteness, the frontier has been in contention since the 1800s when the rival rulers of Britain, Russia and China claimed various parts of the region. The bloody Pakistan-India war in 1947 left the border between China and India in dispute. The invasion and occupation of Tibet by Beijing in 1950 brought Chinese territory to the mountainous Indian border.

Beijing and New Delhi have rival claims over the Aksai Chin plateau that borders both China’s Xinjiang province and Ladakh in northeast India. In 1962, the rulers of India and China fought a border war in which Indian troops suffered the most casualties.   

Last year Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi formally separated Ladakh from occupied Jammu and Kashmir, after revoking the predominantly Muslim region’s special status.

The latest conflict comes amid broader disputes between Beijing and other regimes in the region, as well as with Washington. Recent moves by the Chinese rulers to expand their reach and influence in South Asia, both economically and militarily, have raised alarm in the Indian ruling class.

Near the area of the clash, Beijing is building a transport corridor between China and Pakistan under its Belt and Road Initiative. The whole region is riven by ongoing disputes: Beijing’s continued occupation of Tibet; the Chinese rulers’ brutal oppression of the Uighurs, a Muslim people, in Xinjiang; and sharpening conflicts between the rulers in Pakistan and India over divided Kashmir.

The Indian rulers have deepened their appeal to economic nationalism in response to Beijing’s growing influence. After the most recent frontier fight, protests broke out across India calling for a boycott of Chinese goods.

The Chinese economy has gone from equal in size in 1985 to that of India to nearly five times today. Beijing’s military spending, on a par with New Delhi’s in 1989, is now three times larger.

India-China trade has grown massively from $3 billion in 2000 to more than $95 billion in 2018, with the trade deficit heavily in Beijing’s favor. But in 2019 the U.S. replaced China as India’s largest trading partner.

Steps to alliance with Washington

In April New Delhi tightened its foreign investment laws aimed at Chinese capital. In November last year, the Modi government pulled out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, Beijing’s Asian trade bloc. The Indian government said it also plans to cancel a huge railway contract with a Chinese company.

Like other U.S. allies, the Indian government is set to deny Chinese tech companies like Huawei access to construct the country’s new 5G communications network.

The U.S. rulers and their allies in the region are looking to pull New Delhi into collaboration in confronting Beijing. The rulers in India and Australia have just signed a military agreement allowing Indian forces to use Australian bases and vice versa. The Australian navy is expected to participate in planned joint exercises by Indian, U.S. and Japanese forces. This show of force is intended to serve as a warning to Beijing’s increasing projection of sea power in the Indian Ocean.

Indian officials compared Beijing’s new aggressiveness on the Himalayan border with their buildup of military installations on islets in the South China Sea.