BEIJING – China on Wednesday insisted India withdraw its troops from a disputed plateau in the Himalayan mountains before talks can take place to settle the most protracted standoff in recent years between the nuclear-armed neighbors who fought a brief but bloody frontier war in the area 55 years ago.
India must pull back its troops “as soon as possible” as a precondition to demonstrate “sincerity,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters at a daily news briefing.
His comments came after weeks of saber-rattling in New Delhi and Beijing, as officials from both sides talk up a potential clash even bloodier than their 1962 war that left thousands dead.
A signboard is seen from the Indian side of the Indo-China border at Bumla, in the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. (REUTERS)
The confrontation could spill over into the G-20 summit in Germany later this week where Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi are expected to meet at a gathering of leaders from five emerging economies on the sidelines of the main event in Hamburg.
The month-long standoff — and unconfirmed reports of troop buildups on both sides of the border — has also underscored the swiftly deteriorating relations between the two Asian rivals.
China claims about 90,000 square kilometers (35,000 square miles) in the Indian province of Arunachal Pradesh, referred to informally by some Chinese as “Southern Tibet.” India says China is occupying 38,000 square kilometers (15,000 square miles) of its territory on the Aksai Chin plateau.
More than a dozen rounds of talks have failed to make substantial progress in the dispute, although there have been relatively few confrontations in recent years.
China appeared frustrated that India refused to sign on this year to its continent-wide “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure initiative, which includes a component in Pakistan and a part of Kashmir that is contested by India.
China also complained bitterly when Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in India, visited Arunachal Pradesh in April, something India said amounted to interference in its internal affairs. Yet India also formally joined the Russian and Chinese-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organization this year alongside Pakistan.
The latest dispute flared up in June after Chinese teams began building a road on territory also claimed by Bhutan. Although China and Bhutan have spent decades negotiating the precise border without serious incident, the tiny Himalayan kingdom sought help this time from its longtime ally, India, which sent troops onto the plateau to obstruct Chinese workers.
China then retaliated by closing a mountain pass that Indian pilgrims use to reach Mount Kailash, a sacred Hindu and Buddhist site in Tibet.
Since then, videos have emerged of Indian and Chinese soldiers blocking each other with their arms and physically jostling without coming to blows. After Chinese officials said India should learn “historic lessons” from its humiliating defeat in the 1962 war, Indian Defense Minister Arun Jaitley shot back by saying that “India in 2017 is different from India in 1962,” in a reference to its improved military strength.
In an editorial headlined “India would bear brunt of new border clash,” China’s outspoken nationalist tabloid Global Times ramped up the rhetoric Wednesday by saying that China was in no mood to make concessions.
“The Indian military can choose to return to its territory with dignity, or be kicked out of the area by Chinese soldiers,” said the paper, which is published by the ruling Communist Party flagship People’s Daily.
Meanwhile, the more mainstream China Daily suggested that some in the Indian military were seeking payback for the 1962 war.
“Perhaps its defeat in that war was too humiliating for some in the Indian military and that is why they are talking belligerently this time,” it said.
Although the Doklam Plateau is not part of Indian territory, India’s Ministry of Externals Affairs has called Chinese actions in the area a move with “serious security implications for India.”
Former Indian ambassador to Beijing C.V. Ranganathan said that Doklam is a strategically important area that can provide access to the vital Siliguri corridor —also known as the “Chicken Neck” — that connects India’s northeast with the rest of the country. But he said he was “baffled” as to why the dispute flared up now.
“The fact that this has lasted so long is not a good sign,” he said. “India and China’s relationship has been on a downward trend recently and this in fact is yet another example.”
China, India Border Dispute Bubbles Over Once More, But No One Is Quite Sure Why
A usually quiet stretch of land in the desolate mountains of the Himalayas that separates China and India has grabbed international attention this week, as tensions escalated over a fresh border dispute between the rising Asian powers.
Although it remains largely unclear what exactly happened along an unmarked border in the remote tri-junction of Sikkim, Tibet and Bhutan, as many as 3,000 troops have been deployed by each side in a “virtually eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation”, Indian media reported, citing army sources.
Diplomatic observers from both countries said they were surprised that China’s building of a road in the Donglang area, also known as Doka La, so quickly turned into the biggest military stand-off between the two armies in years.
The incident happened at a delicate time in the bitter, long-running territorial dispute between the world’s two most populous nations. It has lasted for half a century, and includes a bloody war in the 1960s and sporadic skirmishes since.
Analysts believe the face-off once again shows the complexity of the border disputes, which remain a major source of instability in bilateral ties. It also underlines the tense relations amid deep-rooted mistrust and hostility between China and India as they jostle for dominance in the region.
A heated war of words broke out over the past week, with both sides accusing each other of trespassing into their territory and stirring up tensions.
Beijing confirmed it has closed the Nathu La pass, a route for Indian pilgrims opened in 2015 to visit Tibet’s Mount Kailash and Lake Manosawar, both sacred to Hindus and Buddhists, due to the situation.
At over 4,300 metres above sea level, the Nathu La Pass in Sikkim was first opened for trade in 2006 as one of three border posts between China and India.
The fact that the troop face-off occurred just days ahead of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington was hardly a coincidence for many pundits.
“There is actually a lot of confusion as to where this incident happened. It is not even clear if it was on the Sino-Indian border,” said Rajeswari Rajagopalan, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.
But the timing of the incident “cannot be a mere coincidence”, she said.
While similar border flare-ups have occurred during high-profile bilateral visits between India and China, the latest, which came so close to Modi’s visit to the US, is probably unprecedented.