The Dragon vs The Elephant | Will Differences become Disputes?

MBC June Screened Blog -5 by Kartik Nair

Differences should not become disputes” – S. Jaishankar (India’s Minister of External Affairs, former Foreign Secretary)

Before straightaway diving into my blog on the 2020 India China border standoff, I would like to discuss with you, my reader, of something that has gained a high level of prominence or significance in today’s sphere. International affairs is today, more than a mere subject. It is different from history, even though it has a distinct overlap over the latter wrt. events of importance, or wars, invasions, treaties, etc. that have defined generations altogether. Simply put, for a layman, international affairs, is something he would relate with the way relations or alliances exist between various countries and happenings which define them, the causes for the same, etc. I, however, tend to believe that in the present interconnected world, it stretches far beyond traditional definition and encompasses all sorts of activities, be it geopolitics, trade, commerce, arts, science, culture, technology, etc. Just as humans have relations with each other, countries have it too, the only difference being one’s choices or interests at heart. Some might argue that’s the same case with humans too. 

You may be able to recollect your thoughts and go back to a 73 day period in 2017, sometime between June and August in the same year. A tense situation prevailed. Things had come to a standstill and a feeling of ‘Hindi Chini bhai bhai’ seemed to have disappeared into thin air. As you might have guessed it, the Doklam standoff was a brief period of tension between the world’s two most populated countries. It was resolved diplomatically after a 73 day standoff and dialogue. Things seemed to get back to normal, but what is it truly like? What was it truly like? Was it the first time? Why was this happening? And let me tell you, this is not the first time such an event has happened.

As I write this blog today (the 7th of June 2020), a high level meeting between senior commanders of the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army has been held at Chushul-Moldo, outcomes of which are unknown to me yet. The Indian Army delegation, led by 14 Corps Commander Lt. Gen Harinder Singh sought a return to ‘status quo as of April’ in his meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Maj. Gen Lin Liu, a meeting which lasted more than seven hours. However, the ongoing standoff may not return to normalcy with one military scale meeting. There might be high level diplomatic or political dialogues as well, in the coming days. 

This ongoing standoff, in the Himalayan border as well as the recently risen ‘Boycott Chinese Goods’ (or related activities) taking place in India right now, got me to think, do a good level of research and sit down and write a blog about the same. Today, it is about the gloomy story of a powerful dragon and a mighty elephant, both known for their powerful characteristics in a wide forest of nations, nation-state players and onlookers.


Unlike Indian and Pakistan which has an ‘agreed upon Line of Control’ (commonly known as Radcliffe Line) to demarcate their territories, the LAC, the Sino-Indian border is not clearly demarcated. It is evident that encounters and clashes are therefore unavoidable. Border skirmishes are not uncommon in the ~4000km LAC (most of which is disputed by China). There have been numerous instances where companies (units of soldiers) of PLA soldiers have marched into Indian Territory, only to be stopped and asked to politely return to their territory by soldiers of the Indian Army and the Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP). As a matter of fact, when the brawls were in its early phase, the Chief of the Indian Army, Gen. M.M. Naravane, was unworried. As stated earlier, a lot of temporary and short scale face-offs do take place. It was only after events started repeating that the set the alarm bells ringing.

The tensions that started to build up in April 2020 between Indian and Chinese troops in Ladakh ended up taking a physical form on May 5th 2020 near Pangong Tso Lake, located at 14,000 ft (4270m) above sea level in the Himalayan region of Ladakh. As was evident from videos and images seen on social media, soldiers from both countries engaged in fistfights and stone pelting at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), widely considered as the ‘de facto’ border separating the two countries. If that was not enough, a few days later, approximately 1200km East of the LAC, another fight erupted at the Nathu La Pass (Sikkim) between soldiers of the two forces. According to various sources in popular news media (at both national and global levels), approximately 80-100 tents have been spotted on the Chinese side and more than 10,000 PLA soldiers are believed to be camping near the Pangong Tso Lake, Galwan Valley and Demchok (Ladakh) and in Nathu La (Sikkim). Some Chinese troops have even penetrated 3-4km into the Indian border. In a nutshell, thousands of Chinese troops were reported to move into sensitive areas of the Eastern Ladakh border, bringing with them heavy defence equipment and machinery and vehicles for movement. The Indian Army responded by moving several battalions to areas along the border.

If the 2017 Doklam Standoff was due to the Chinese constructing infrastructure at the tri-junction point, this time, it is our infrastructure activities that have triggered the ongoing standoff. In the past couple of years, and more so recently, India has been aggressively pushing and constructing border infrastructure, with new roads, airbases and other means of strategic infrastructure coming up in border areas. That being said, Indian officials remain apprehensive about Chinese infra scaling activities in Ladakh near Daulat Beg Oldi (World’s highest airstrip) and Demchok (a strategic village). According to Ashok Kantha, a former Indian Ambassador to China (presently, director of Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi), incursions and border aggressions on the aggressively contested high-altitude border are ‘far from routine occurrences’. However, according to the Ministry of External Affairs, the issues would be resolved according to agreements on border management signed by both countries between 1993-2013.


Together, India and China account for over 2.7 billion people on this planet, which is slightly over one third of the global population.  India and China have both attained a good level of economic advancement in recent decades and are powerful countries in Asia, owing to their ambitions and clout over neighbouring countries and how Asia is seen as a powerhouse in the world.

India was one of the few earliest democracies to diplomatically recognize China in 1950. Things changed after the 1962 Indo-China War on the Himalayan front, with China administering some serious damage on India and taking hold of a few territories, before returning them and getting back to the LAC. China still claims over 35,000 square kilometres in the North East Indian front, including a large part of the state of Arunachal Pradesh. Relations were further strained between the two countries in 1959, when exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama fled Tibet (during a failed uprising against Chinese oppression) and took refuge, establishing a government in-exile in Dharamsala, India. In 1993, the two giants of Asia, signed an agreement on “Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility” along the LAC. 

If we look at the international scenario, China has forever blocked India’s entry as a permanent member into the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and has also conditionally blocked India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), demanding, rather insisting on Pakistan’s entry into the same. India, unlike a lot of her neighbours, has refused to be part of Beijing’s Belt Road Initiative (something which has not been well received by top officials in China). China has been constructing roads and other infrastructure in Pakistan occupied Kashmir as well, to further increase the ire of Indian officials. 

The Chinese media is to be left behind when it comes to highlighting Chinese dominance and authority over India or any other country it frequently engages with. On May 25th, the Global Times, a state run Beijing Newspaper stated that the Galwan valley region was a part of the Chinese territory. In every standoff that has occurred between the two countries, the Chinese Media has always portrayed their goals and agendas, asserting claims which are not mutually agreed or accepted upon. This is far from normal PLA behaviour. This time, the incursions are happening in areas China hasn’t previously claimed (The Galwan Valley was overrun by China after the 1962 war but handed back).


If you’ve read till here, you already know the answer to this question. No. And again, the Doklam standoff wasn’t the first one either. According to P. Stobdan, there have been standoffs previously at Depsand (2013), Chumur (2014) as well.  After the Dalai Lama visited Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh in 2009, China began issuing stapled visas for people from Arunachal Pradesh, as if they didn’t belong to the Indian Territory. For Chinese academics, China has no ‘dispute’ in the Western sector, indicating that for China, the valley means J&K and not Ladakh. Few PLA commanders even refused to travel to Leh for Confidence Building Measures (CBM) to avoid upsetting its relations with Pakistan.

In December 2010, when Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao visited India, Chinese state owned media carried reports describing the Sino-Indian border as only 2000km long, way too short than the ~4000km mark. In May 2015, when the Indian Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi visited China, the Chinese state owned television showed India’s map without J&K and Arunachal Pradesh. In 2017, after the Dalai Lama visited Tawang, a Chinese Ministry renamed at least six places in Arunachal Pradesh. In 2019, Chinese officials destroyed over 30,000 world maps which didn’t show Arunachal Pradesh or Taiwan as part of their territory. In April 2020, digital maps (Sky Map) in China showed various parts of Arunachal Pradesh as part of their territory. The last official border settlement China had was with Tajikistan in 2011, when it got over 1100 square kilometres east of Sarekole Mountains. The area was conveniently added by China to Tashkurgan. Well, before it seems like a normal geographic addition, Tashkurgan was formally an Indian Territory, a part of Shaksgam Valley.


The latest Chinese incursion can be against the backdrop of India’s cartographical changes made in November 2019, following the bifurcation of J&K into two separate union territories, J&K and Ladakh. That being said, this also seems to be a move by the PLA to assert territorial claim over the Aksai Chin Plateau. The division of J&K into two territories was considered by Beijing as ‘unacceptable’, one which undermined its sovereignty. It even raised the issue at the UNSC. For China, any attempts to alter the Ladakhi demography is seen as a threat to its sovereignty. For them Aksai Chin is a part of China and India claiming Ladakh as its territory would be seen as harming its strategic interests in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. Under the Chinese President Jinping, China has also tried to assert control over Hong Kong, Taiwan and make its presence strongly felt in the South China Sea.

For India, the road which runs along the Shyok River to the west of Chinese positions in the valley, it is more than a matter of mere strategic importance. This enables India to move troops for patrols or reinforcements in the area, to respond to skirmishes or crises. India’s strategic intent has been firm since ever. Off late, she has reclaimed the entire PoK in accordance with the February 1994 Parliamentary resolution. India has also shown serious interests to regain her physical position in Gilgit-Baltistan.  Unlike China’s, India’s assertion comes mainly from thwarting tribal or Taliban advancement into India from the Wakhan corridor to gain illegal access into India. Ladakh now has a 100km long border with Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province. The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) included areas of PoK and Gilgit-Baltistan in its daily weather forecasts. This comes days after Pakistan Supreme Court permitted the federal government to hold elections in Gilgit. For India, Ladakh’s new status is an internal matter, not having an impact directly on the LAC status. However, if China manages to enter the Shayok valley and establish a base there, India’a access to the Karakoram Pass and Siachen could be a massive challenge. The Modi-led government plans to build more than 60 key roads by the Chinese border, including a new air base, and this is, as I think enough to fuel the wrath of the dragon. Again, US President Donald Trump’s offer to mediate is part of an ever growing anti-China narrative.

One thing is for certain. India is being pushed by China in all sorts of ways to make the first military move. This would certainly alter the relational dynamics between both the nations. For both the nations, the border problem is not new. The only difference lies in the circumstances surrounding them. As we know, a nationalistic wave drives both the countries. This pandemic has taken a heavy toll on China as well, pushing many countries to the anti-China narrative.


Before ending this blog, I will also attempt to throw some light about the recent ‘Anti – China’ narrative that we’ve all been hearing or witnessing in some or the other way. Is it practical? I will state a few facts and will leave you, my reader, to make the choice for yourself. Where can I start? Chinese products are cheaper compared to products made anywhere in the world and more than the quality, our minds are trained to look at the cost of a product before making a purchase. More than 70 percent of global mobile phones are made or assembled in China. Your popular brands like Xiaomi, Vivo, Oppo etc are all made in China. We, Indians are the biggest users of Tik-Tok with over 460 Million users. China only has 170 Million Tik-Tok users for that matter. To add to it, technical issues in its servers make the app vulnerable to hackers thereby compromising your data. And this is one such app. In India, popular Chinese apps have, at an average more than 10 Million downloads per app. If we look at economics and trade India has a trade deficit by almost over 4.2 lakh crore to China. So, even if China is playing by its book and is pestering India in making the first move, how successful will it be? How will this boycotting of goods further aggravate the already strained relationship between both countries?Beijing has to deal with more serious issues at this point. That does not mean that this standoff is any less serious. It has to deal with its economic recovery, and has to do a lot to mend ties with the US, Australia and the world. India’s support for Tibet and its ever growing ties with the US, Japan and Australia have raised the dragon’s eyebrows. Further, China’s increasing relationship with Pakistan and Nepal is not a soothing news to the Elephant. How far will the nations go this time? With the Elephant and Dragon flexing their muscles for more regional and economic control, one can only wish that these differences don’t end up becoming disputes.

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  1. I thoroughly enjoy your blogs. They are very informative as well as accurate unlike most newspaper articles.
    Thankyou for sharing.

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