In recent weeks, Chinese and Indian soldiers have been fighting on their long-disputed border. USIP’s Vikram Singh says these skirmishes are not new—but that the latest hostilities echo China’s aggression in other parts of the region, saying, “It seems like China is flexing its muscle in every direction.”
On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.
Tim Farley: The Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has spoken out about China moving its forces along what's called the Line of Actual Control, or LAC, with India. Several areas along that LAC have witnessed some major military buildup. And Secretary Pompeo said, “We see even today increasing forces of China moving up to the North of India on the line of actual control there on the India border.” He was speaking with Marc Thiessen and Danielle Pletka of, of AEI, American Enterprise Institute. They have a podcast called What the Hell is Going On. So, let's find out what the hell is going on, if I could borrow the phrase. Joining us now to give us a better sense of what is happening there on the border is Vikram J. Singh, senior advisor of the Asia program at the USIP, the United States Institute of Peace. The tweet handle, the Twitter handle is @VSJ_policy. Vikram, Vikram Singh, welcome back. Thanks for being on POTUS today.
Vikram Singh: Hey, I'm glad I could join you.
Tim Farley: So, tell us what we need to know about the Line of Actual Control and the tensions?
Vikram Singh: So, this is the border between India and China that has never been agreed to ever since India’s independence from Britain back in the 1940s. So basically, you have a historically disputed border and it’s in some of the most inhospitable terrain you can imagine. We're talking about high, highest elevations in the Himalayas, you know, often over 14, 15, 16,000 feet in elevation. And both sides over the years have had flare ups where their troops come face to face there, and then they sort of, they tend to settle down.
It often takes a few months, and this is one of the bigger flare ups we've seen in a long time. The last big one was in 2017. So, you know, two nuclear powers, it is, they fought a war in 1962 over their borders. And so obviously, it's something that’s concerning, and it comes in the context of China kind of pushing with neighbors all around, not just in the Himalayan mountains, but down in the South China Sea, out with Japan, harassing Japanese fishing boats, over with Taiwan. So, it seems like China is sort of flexing its muscle in every direction right now.
Tim Farley: The secretary did, in that podcast I referenced, say we see these same kind of things with them attempting to build ports around the world as part of their Belt and Road Initiative, places where they can move the People's Liberation Army Navy. We've seen their continued effort to expand militarily. It's not just over the past six months. We've seen over the past number of years, continued Chinese buildout of their military capabilities. So is this a broader part of the Chinese plan, if you will, as in an imperialistic move?
Vikram Singh: I mean, what's changed really dramatically over the past 20 years is that China has developed by far the most capable military in Asia. And it has also, you know, had the economic wherewithal to make tons of investments all around the neighborhood to do major infrastructure partners. So you know, China has a lot of carrots and a lot of sticks now that it can use in its interactions with countries in the region. And I think that has been a challenge for every country that's neighboring China. And even for India, which itself is a pretty big economic power and has a very major military. If you look at both sides and these disputed border areas, one of the things they do is they build up infrastructure. So they build roads, they put in new outposts, and do things like that. And in this case, the Indians had been building new infrastructure and the Chinese might be using that as an excuse to sort of say, “Hey, we're worried about what you're doing.” And look for some little changes on the ground. You know, a lot of times we're talking about a few meters or a few kilometers here, not large amounts of distance or territory.
Tim Farley: I wonder this, you know, India is no stranger to having border uprisings or problems, obviously with Pakistan, too. I mean, it just seems like this is another part of a, I don't know if, this is very different, obviously from Pakistan, but it does, it seems like it must be kind of frustrating to have those, those arguments going on with people across the border.
Vikram Singh: I mean, I think one thing that's difficult for India in general is that it's, it's had, it has very, it's had, it has disputes all around on its periphery. So, it has border disputes of Pakistan, border disputes with India. Also, you know, it's not totally solid and agreed with Nepal, also with Myanmar, and so all around, India has had these border issues. In general, they have some pretty good mechanisms in place for managing them. And with Bangladesh, for example, India actually resolved most of its outstanding, all of its outstanding border issues several years ago, including ones at sea. So even in this case, the Chinese and the Indians have specific like lines of communication. So, you're going to see three-star level military talks on June 6th about this, and they have diplomatic channels, and they have diplomats on both sides who are dedicated to addressing these issues. So, it's not like they don't have the mechanisms for talking and trying to deescalate, but it does show how India is having to contend with a more assertive China, just as other countries in the region are.
Tim Farley: Vikram Singh with us, senior advisor to the Asia program at the United States Institute of Peace. Has the language, the rhetoric being used by the secretary of state, and I guess other U.S. officials, struck you as particularly harsh at this point? Is it appropriate in tone? How would you read between the lines for us?
Vikram Singh: I think the, I think the administration is expressing a pretty appropriate level of concern on this particular issue. You know, a lot of people have noted that the president did offer to mediate. That is not an offer that's going to be accepted by either China or India. Like I said, they have robust bilateral mechanisms for talking about these things, but you know, in general, the administration has been putting it in the broader context of China's pushing the limits, you know, all around.
And they've referenced all these other areas where you see the Chinese being more assertive and basically saying, “Hey, it's our way or the highway,” to a lot of their neighbors who certainly don't have any way, to at least physically or militarily, stand up to China. And so, I think they're being appropriate. I think it is an issue of concern. You know, how does China want its neighborhood to function? Does it want a rules-based order and its periphery? Does it want people, you know all disputes to be resolved through peace and discussion and diplomacy? I think that's really something that people are starting to wonder more and more about based on Chinese actions.
Tim Farley: Finally, how does this play for Narendra Modi, and how does this play for Xi Jinping?
Vikram Singh: Well, if it turns into a, more than a skirmish, I think it plays badly for both. So, there should be an incentive to find a face-saving way out for both leaders because you know, war at this altitude doesn't, does generally, is very difficult. And in the Chinese case, I think they're going to look like they were the aggressors probably in this case. You know, even if they don't like the fact that India is building new roads on the, on the border and the Indians don't have a, you know, a great experience of fighting with China. They didn't do well in 1962, and I don't think they want to have that tested. But it's you know, with the modern media environment, you know, both sides, it'd be going nationalistic pretty fast. So, there's a lot of anti-China sentiment in India now. And so, the political pressure could be on, but I think in both cases, they would like to find a face-saving way to get back to the status quo.
Tim Farley: Vikram Singh, thanks for being on the show today.
Vikram Singh: Yeah. Glad to join you.
Tim Farley: Vikram J. Singh, senior advisor to the Asia Program at the United States Institute of Peace. Long line of experience looking at these things. He was a leader in innovation, in public policy, global affairs at the Department of Defense, the State Department and advises the USIP on all aspects of peace and stability in Asia, including some of the regions we were just discussing. His Twitter handle is @VJS_policy.