The ‘Peaceful’ Rise of China – Not so peaceful in the South Asia after all.

Arpan A Chakravarty, Research Mentor, Internationalism & Urvashi Arora, Research Member, Indian Society of Artificial Intelligence & Law.

The tensions have been on a continuous rise in the South Asian region as these two nuclear power nations- India and China engage on border skirmishes with each other. The situation has escalated after both the countries employed diplomatic and military means to solve the issue. Both the countries blamed each other for the skirmishes which happened at the western sector of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) namely the Galwan Valley. This whole dispute has been prolonged for more than four-weeks, creating tensions in the region.

The current tensions have been one of the focal points and start at a very special timing with the looming COVID-19 Health Crisis which the countries around the world are battling with at this point in time. The expansionist behaviour portrayed by China tussling for the becoming super-power by dethroning the American domination across the world has been the reason as India being an instrumental ally for the United States. Australia, also one of the victims to China’s expansionist moves, has pledged that it shall not bow down to pressure created by China in the region. Japan, Viet Nam and other smaller Asian countries have been facing the heat due to the recent activities in the South China Sea.

This recent intrusion by the Chinese forces was surprising as no soldiers have ever been killed since 1975 on both India and China’s side, while taking 10 soldiers from Indian side in detention. Since then, the whole issue has been fueled and influenced by propaganda and strategic leaks which have influenced the international coverage of the situation of Galwan Valley. One of the major geopolitical shifts in the region changes came in when China decided to weaponise the “Upper Riparian Rights” agreed upon by India and China to enjoy equal privilege over the river at the border, there have been attempts to change the course of Pangong River.

While encountering the reasons behind Chinese repression, we can observe that the country adopts force and suppression to gain their benefits, especially when the other nation is in a vulnerable position. The current pandemic has given them an opportunity to carry out their mission intelligently and violate the Riparian rights, along with aggressive activities near the border. The India-China dispute in Galwan Valley dates back to 1962, when both the countries fought over the sovereignty of Aksai Chin, a territory claimed by India as a part of Jammu and Kashmir, whereas China claims it to be a part of Xinjiang.

The current standoff between the two countries could be in favour of China as it seems to apply the ‘two-step-forward-one-step-back’ strategy, which was widely discussed by Shivshankar Menon, India’s Ambassador to China (2000-2003). Ultimately, this will lead to altering the current status quo, by occupying the Indian acclaimed territory. A state of warning has been issued in the country. Another implication of such a move is that China can cut off the Indian rights to access Aksai Chin region in the east, Shyok Valley in the north and chip chap plains, thus deviating India’s rule and control to the west of the Shyok’s river. This is a way out for China to help itself to control the southern side of the Karakoram, which will gain their access to Siachen Glacier from the Depsang corridor. This indicates China’s seeking to divert the rivers of Shyok, Galwan and Chang-Chenmo into the region of Aksai Chin, to create even more issues in the region.

Amidst the LAC standoff, Indian Army completed the crucial Galwan river bridge that PLA has been trying to stall. Indian Army engineers have completed a 60-metre bridge over Galwan river in eastern Ladakh that would consolidate India’s hold of the sensitive sector by allowing Indian infantry to move across the cold mountain river and also protect the 255 km strategic road from Darbuk to Daulat Beg Oldie, the last military post just south of the Karakoram Pass.

The bridge was built by the formation engineers despite the PLA showing hostile moves in the area in an effort to force Indian Army to abandon the project. The construction of the strategic bridge was seen as one of the triggers for the aggressive manoeuvres by China’s People’s Liberation Army in eastern Ladakh that led to the stand-off between the two countries before Western Theatre Command of PLA made an “exaggerated” claim to the entire Galwan river Valley.

The four-span bridge is located three kilometres east of the Shyok river-Galwan river confluence with the contested Patrolling Point 14 a further 2 km east of the Bailey bridge. Patrolling point 14, which was the site of the June 15 fisticuffs, is close to the Y-junction where the Galwan rivulet joins the main river. An Indian army base camp, called ‘120 km camp’ is on the confluence of the two rivers and next to the DSDBO road. Despite the skirmishes, the Indian Army did not stop their operation as this happens to be a crucial strategic point. The Chinese tall claim of holding the entire Galwan river valley is an attempt to reduce the Indian claim line to the Shyok river. If this happens, then the Chinese can overrun the DSDBO road in times of hostility and cut the road to Dault Beg Oldie. This will allow them to open another road to Pakistan via Murgo, the last Indian village before DBO. The Bailey bridge built on concrete pillars gives India a major advantage in terms of access and military mobilisation and is considered vital to the protection of Indian strategic interests. With Indian Army vehicles now being able to cross the Galwan River, the troops now have other military options available against the aggressive PLA in case of the worst-case scenario. The bridge replaces a footbridge on the Galwan River.

China’s deliberate move to divert the waters of a 135 km long lake extending from India to Tibetan Autonomous region has lead to a mishap. The current standoff between the two nations will have severe consequences on India, whose riparian rights are being violated. According to the English common law, Riparian rights can be described as an equal right to use the water of lakes, streams and ponds by those who possess the land adjacent on its path.

While examining the possible reasons for such an intrusion at Galwan Valley and diversion of the lake, we conclude that the problem lies in the different understanding of where Line of Actual Control (LAC) passes. Border skirmishes between the two most- populous countries of the world have been taking place since 1962 Indo-Chin war, and it still continues because of the non-demarcated LAC. Both the countries have had different perceptions and claims of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), however, the instrument of violence and suppression has always been carried out by the People’s Liberation Army of China (PLA). The killing of about 20 Indian soldiers on 15th June 2020 is an example of brutality and violence by China’s PLA.

The significance of Pangong Tso lake and its control by the two nations have led to the current Indo-China dispute over it, in May 2020. About two-thirds of the lake is under the Chinese control, whereas only 45 km stretch is in the Indian territory; still, China seeks to expand its control over the lake and territory. There are about eight different points from where the lake is divided into 8 fingers. According to the past mentions in history, India controls finger 1 to 4, whereas China controls from 5 to 8. However, the Chinese claim that the LAC starts from finger 2, which has given them an incentive to build motorboats and use light vehicles to annex the finger 2 as well. This has increased the tensions and strained the relations of India and China. The strategic importance of Pangong Tso Lake can be linked with its location. It lies in the way of Chushal approach, which could be used by the Chinese military to force-attack on Indian Territory.

This recent act of the Chinese troops will make the country responsible for stopping the water in international law. The violation of ‘state responsibility’ could lead to serious consequences, and if such an act continues to persist, then the country is responsible for making reparation to the injured. In the above scenario, China has committed the act of diverting the water of a lake, that India has a right to use, therefore, it should be held responsible for the same. The restoration of the status quo should be the utmost priority for the Indian government and diplomats. Apart from this, it is necessary for India to make China realize the consequences if the recent intrusion continues to persist.

The Global Insight written by the authors is a part of the academic publications under the Indian International Law Project.

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