Despite bilateral military talks between Chinese and Indian officers, tensions remain high along the "Line of Actual Control" border between China and India, where military clashes occurred in May and June 2020. Both countries have reinforced their air and ground assets. China has advanced fighter jets at three air bases within striking distance of Indian military positions. Pictured: An Indian army convoy travels towards Leh through Zoji La, a high mountain pass bordering China on June 13, 2021 in Ladakh, India. (Photo by Yawar Nazir/Getty Images)
Chinese missile-laden bombers flew over a contested border area with India recently, following the breakdown of bilateral talks between Indian and Chinese regional military commanders.
The near-simultaneity of the collapse of military negotiations and the threatening fly-over by People's Liberation Army Air Force bombers underscores China's willingness to punish India for having resisted Beijing's territorial claims and aggression in the region.
China's aggressive stance may also be, in part, motivated by Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping's testing of the U.S. effort to develop strategic cooperation among America's Pacific allies in order to curb Chinese expansionist policies. China is most likely also attempting to weaken the resolve of the non-U.S. countries of the so-called Quad -- India, Australia and Japan -- to rely on American promises to defend them.
Military clashes between China and India occurred in early May 2020, continuing until mid-June, along the "Line of Actual Control" (LAC) border near India's Eastern Ladakh region, which abuts the Chinese territory of the Tibetan (Xizang) Autonomous Region. After these clashes, China and India implemented a three-tiered negotiating system between field-grade officers, colonel-level officers, and general officers of the two sides. This bilateral de-confliction apparatus, called the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) between Chinese and Indian Corps Commanders, collapsed in acrimony during the WMCC's 13th meeting in New Delhi.
During the hiatus period between WMCC meetings, China's Air Force, in a clear warning to India, dispatched H-6K bombers to the disputed border. Subsequently, on November 18, China and India's foreign ministries agreed to hold a 14th WMCC session in the near future, in an apparent effort to restore border stability. During the months that followed the deadly clashes in 2020, during WMCC sessions, both sides withdrew forward-deployed heavy weapons in the Gorga and Pangong Tso (Pandong) glacial lake disengagement areas. But in the bitterly contested Eastern Ladakh area of Hot Springs, concentrations of bilateral troops remain dangerously confrontational and proximate.
Despite these bilateral military talks between Chinese and Indian officers, tensions along the LAC remain high. While working talks have resumed, both China and India have reinforced their air and ground assets. China has advanced fighter jets at three air bases within striking distance of Indian military positions. In Ladakh, India has deployed Apache attack helicopters, and MiG-29 and SU-30 fighter aircraft. India also has deployed air defense weapons near the LAC and reportedly plans to purchase Russia's most advanced deployed S-400 surface-to-air missile system.
The latest political moves by both China and India also indicate that border tensions between the two nuclear-armed rivals will continue. Indian diplomats have loudly denounced a recent land border law passed by the Chinese national legislature, the National People's Congress, which makes it mandatory for China's leaders never to negotiate away one inch of professed Chinese territory. The legislation referred to China's sovereignty and territorial integrity as "sacred and inviolable." China also has underscored its inflexibility by constructing extended civilian housing along the Line of Actual Control, thereby defying Indian counterclaims that these future habitats are being built on territory seized by China.
It is likely that China will again initiate armed skirmishes along disputed border regions to test the Biden Administration's will to defend U.S. allies.
China will doubtless factor U.S. responses to its attacks on allied countries in the Indo-Pacific region into its decision-making calculus on how best to seize Taiwan.
Dr. Lawrence A. Franklin was the Iran Desk Officer for Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. He also served on active duty with the U.S. Army and as a Colonel in the Air Force Reserve.