There is something peculiar about this year- each fortnight I say that the previous two weeks were possibly the most horrific and then, along comes another fortnight to prove me wrong. The ongoing Sino-Indian standoff along the borders has taken a bloody turn this week with reports of fatalities on both sides even as de-escalation measures were said to be underway. The Indian and Chinese foreign ministers spoke over a phone call on Wednesday this week in order to defuse the situation but both countries blame each other for the violent incident that took place in the Galwan valley in Ladakh on the evening of the 15th of June, on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control. Analysts say that China is now laying claim to the entire Galwan valley, which is consistent with its track record of incremental territory-grabbing in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
As reported in the previous iteration of this wrap, Chinese and Indian troops have been engaged in yet another faceoff in several sectors along the Line of Actual Control and the international boundary in the Sikkim sector, since the beginning of May. Both governments have been refraining from revealing any significant details about the crisis and keeping the messaging low-key; in fact, the Indian government had, until yesterday, denied reports of Chinese intrusion in its territory, with Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh maintaining that it was a matter of overlapping perceptions of the LAC. There were de-escalation talks taking place at several levels this fortnight, including between the militaries.
However, the latest skirmishes have forced both sides to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation and for the Indian government at least, to accept that the People’s Liberation Army troops have intruded and encamped themselves in Indian territory. As Ian Hall says, the latest crisis represents Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘biggest test’ to date. India blames China for trying to change the status quo in the region and for making ‘exaggerated claims’ over the region. China, on its part, has expanded the scope of its claims to assert sovereignty over the entire Galwan valley, demonstrating a clever use of its salami-slicing tactics. The situation is far from being resolved and remains extremely tense with reports of China bringing in hundreds of soldiers and heavy construction equipment to the site of the latest kerfuffle.
India has also been facing heat from Nepal in recent times, over a territorial dispute dating to colonial times. This week, the Nepalese parliament adopted a new map to reflect its claims over the Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura, areas that India contests as its own (and on which, it is currently building roads to strengthen its strategic position in the region.) The Narendra Modi government is said to be taking a tough stance, calling it a unilateral move by the Himalayan nation and refusing to enter into any talks to resolve the issue.
Earlier this fortnight, Australia and India upgraded their bilateral relations to a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’, signing seven important agreements on defence, maritime cooperation, cyber and critical technologies, critical and strategic minerals, and education and vocational training, among others during a virtual summit between the prime ministers. Importantly, the two sides concluded a mutual logistics support agreement increasing cooperation and interoperability between the two militaries. Also, Canberra and New Delhi have set up a foreign and defence ministerial ‘2+2’ dialogue. India has this arrangement with only two other countries: the US and Japan.
Moving on, North Korea demolished a joint liaison office with South Korea in Kaesong, on its side of the border following a recent dip in bilateral ties. Pyongyang even threatened military action at the borders. This follows what North Korea claims as inflammatory tactics by North Korean defectors and other activists based in South Korea, who were allegedly sending anti-DPRK propaganda leaflets, and balloons carrying rice and bibles across the border. Analysts say that this reflects growing North Korean frustration at the South’s stalling of economic projects to benefit the former, under pressure from the US. South Korea released a statement saying that it was unwilling to accept this ‘unreasonable behaviour’ from the North.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne gave a significant foreign policy speech this week, outlining the country’s imperatives during and post Covid. She emphasised Australia’s firm commitment to multilateralism and international cooperation, which some analysts perceived as a necessary course-correction from Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s ‘negative globalism’ speech at the Lowy Institute last year. Importantly, Payne called out China and Russia’s disinformation tactics during the pandemic after Twitter took down 30,000 Chinese Russian and Turkish accounts responsible for spreading disinformation and propaganda.
The US has deployed three of its eleven nuclear aircraft carriers to the Pacific Ocean this fortnight, perceivably in response to China’s growing adventurism in the South and East China Seas and vis-à-vis Taiwan. The Chinese government expressed its displeasure, as expected.
Chinese vessels have been spotted near the Senkaku islands, which are disputed between China and Japan, for the past 65 days in a row, making it the longest period since 2012 that they have been deployed in the region.
Meanwhile, the Filipino defence minister and officials visited the contested Pagasa or Thitu island last week, to inaugurate a beaching ramp to facilitate construction of infrastructure on the island, insisting that it would not be military in nature.
Closer to home, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has urged the Victorian government to reconsider its partnership with Beijing on the Belt and Road Initiative, saying it is ‘inconsistent’ with Australia’s foreign policy and national interest.
Australia-China ties deteriorated further this fortnight with the Chinese government warning its citizens of facing racism if they visited or studied in Australia. Trade minister Simon Birmingham refuted these allegations as ‘exaggerated’ and affirmed that ‘Australia holds ourselves to a far higher standard in these matters than any other country.’
China also sentenced an Australian, Karm Gillespie, to death this week for a drug smuggling offence dating back to 2013, leading to speculations about Beijing using this as diplomatic leverage against Australia.
Significance for Australia
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne has issued a statement on the Sino-Indian border clashes, expressing concern and calling on both sides to resolve the situation amicably, especially in the context of an ongoing pandemic.
Australia needs to walk a tightrope in this situation; while Canberra has rightly pointed out that this is a matter for the two countries to mutually resolve, it has reasons to be grievously concerned about the nature of China’s actions along the borders as well as the military build up taking place between the two nuclear powers in the region. A report by ASPI’s Nathan Ruser released today makes it clear that PLA troops have been transgressing the LAC at several points for a long time and that this is a clear attempt by China to annex territory.
The deployment of American aircraft carriers to the region will be welcomed Down Under as it signifies US resolve, even in the face of constraints caused by a global pandemic and a transactional president. China is pursuing a relentlessly aggressive strategy on several fronts, militarily and diplomatically, and the only serious deterrent likely to work is US military resolve.
In this volatile environment, a deeper partnership with India stands out as a bright spot for Australia in the Indo-Pacific. India, with all its problems of mismanagement, chaos and poverty, remains a strong democracy and an aspirational economy and therein lies its biggest attraction as a partner.
Aakriti Bachhawat is a Researcher with the Defence and Strategy team at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and Research Assistant at the Griffith Asia Institute.