India, China face risk of ‘unintentional’ war

The long protracted military standoff between India and China could unintentionally slide into war, fear experts. Given the recent bloody standoff at Galwan, that is not a difficult scenario to envisage.

For 45 years, a series of agreements, written and unwritten, have helped keep up pretences of an uneasy truce along the border. But the recent manoeuvres by both nuclear-armed countries have made the situation unpredictable, raising the risk that a miscalculation from either side could have serious consequences that resonate beyond the cold arid region.

“The situation is very dangerous on the ground and can spiral out of control,” said Lieutenant General DS Hooda, who was head of the Indian military’s Northern Command from 2014 to 2016. “A lot will depend on whether the two sides are able to control the volatile situation and make sure it doesn’t spread to other areas.”

The two Asian giants have held several rounds of talks, mainly involving military commanders, without success. In a sign that the talks are now shifting to the political level, their defense ministers met in the Russian capital on Friday to try end the impasse.

Hooda said that while he doesn’t think either side is looking for full-scale war, the “real calamity” is the breakdown of existing agreements and protocols.

Wang Lian, a professor of international relations at Peking University in Beijing, said the possibility of open warfare is unlikely because both sides have shown restraint in recent encounters. But he also said that New Delhi is under pressure from domestic anti-China sentiment and has been emboldened by tougher US measures against Beijing.

“I don’t think (India) would go so far as to escalate military conflict of a larger scale, but I believe both sides are making some preparations,” Wang said.

But defence analyst Rahul Bedi said that India changed the rules of engagement along the border following the deadly June clash. He said local commanders have been given “freedom to initiate adequate and proportionate responses to any hostile acts” by Chinese troops.

Members of India’s strategic community, including defense analysts and retired generals, say China’s army is opening new fronts, deepening mistrust and delaying immediate disengagement before winter, when temperatures in the region can fall to minus 50 degrees Celsius (minus 58 Fahrenheit). They argue that the cost of deployments through the winter would be punishing for an Indian economy already decimated by the coronavirus pandemic.

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