Bilatera tensions between China and India over a border dispute reached new heights on Monday, when armed forces from both countries accused each other of firing warning shots.
A spokesman for China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in a statement on Tuesday alleged that Indian forces had crossed the Line of Actual Control (LAC) illegally and fired warning shots at Chinese troops on Monday.
Meanwhile, India’s Ministry of Defense issued a statement on the same day, accusing the PLA troops of closing in on Indian troops stationed along the LAC and stressed that it was the PLA troops that fired warning shots into the air in an effort to intimidate the Indian troops.
The warning shots fired on Monday were the first gunfire exchange between the two countries over a border dispute since 1975, when four Indian soldiers were killed while patrolling the border area.
Despite ongoing negotiations between top military officials and diplomats from both countries in Moscow, both sides have mobilized troops to the border area in recent months in preparation for possible military clashes.
As China has faced increasing military standoffs against the United States in both the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait in recent months, political analysts speculated that India decided to take a more aggressive stance in the border dispute against China because New Delhi was betting on Beijing making compromises to avoid military confrontations on different fronts.
However, Chinese political analysts argued that history has shown that Chinese rulers have not usually shied away from military conflicts on different fronts because they needed to project a strong image for the domestic audience to protect the legitimacy of their rule.
"This is part of China’s cultural traditions. No matter if it was during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, or during the rule of the Nationalist Party, the rulers were never afraid of fighting wars on different fronts against both domestic rebels and foreign enemies at the same time," Ni Lexiong, a military expert at the University of Politics and Law in Shanghai, told Sputnik.
The scholar illustrated how previous Chinese rulers reacted under similar situations.
"During the Ming dynasty, the rebel army led by Li Zicheng almost took over half of China. But when the Manchurian army arrived at the Shanhaiguan, the Ming court fought against them at once. During the Qing dynasty, forces of the Taiping Rebellion occupied a number of key provinces and established a capital in Nanjing. But that did not stop the Qing court from fighting with the British and French troops during the second opium war. During the era under the Nationalist Party, the government was fighting a civil war against the communist forces, but never stopped resisting Japanese armies when they invaded China," he said.
The expert noted that domestic challenges, such as the continued protests in Hong Kong and the recent protests against new Mandarin classes in Inner Mongolia, would force Chinese leaders today to present a strong image when facing foreign enemies like India.
"When facing domestic rebellions, the Chinese rulers would have to prove legitimacy of its rule. That is why when facing foreign enemies, they would have to take a firm stance and prove that they are the legitimate guardian of the country. That is why they can not make compromises when facing a foreign enemy like India. That is how they can maintain their domestic rule," he said.
Ni pointed out that the experiences of Chinese President Xi Jinping when he was a teenager would also likely lead him to be tough against India.
"I believe Xi would choose a firm stance. I think this is part of his character, because he was also a zhiqing like myself. This generation of Chinese leaders are mostly zhiqing, who were sent to the countryside when they were teenagers during the Cultural Revolution. When we were zhiqing, we were always involved in fist fights in groups and would never shy away from confrontations. That is why I think Xi has similar passionate personality," he said.
The expert argued that China could go as far as to deploying nuclear weapons in a military conflict with India, because defending a country’s sovereignty was the key purpose of the nation’s nuclear deterrence capabilities.
"I believe China could even use nuclear bombs. That’s because violence always tends to escalate. Why would I [China] hold nuclear bombs in my hands, while giving up a large chunk of my territory to you [India]? Had any nuclear power signed unequal treaties and handed over pieces of its territory? When you talk about using nuclear weapons, it always sounds very ugly. But you can not give it up as an option when it comes to defending a nation’s sovereignty," he said.
Ni added that both China and India should lay out all possible military options during their bilateral negotiations, which could help lead to a compromise between both sides to avoid catastrophic military clashes.
Fist Fights Over Gunfire
Nevertheless, other Chinese political analysts argued that both China and India had no intention of engaging in military conflicts with each other.
"I think both countries know very well that neither side wants to fight a war against each other. Otherwise, why would troops from both countries engage in large group fist fights? Such fist fights were a clear sign that neither side wants to start a war. Once shots are fired, it would definitely lead to a war. That’s why both sides wanted to avoid firing shots as much as possible," Li Datong, a Beijing-based political analyst who served as an editor at the Communist Party newspaper, China Youth Daily, told Sputnik.
Despite Monday’s warning gunshots, images circulating on social media showed Chinese troops on the frontline mostly carrying long spears and machetes. Fist fights between troops from both countries in the Galwan Valley in June killed more than 20 Indian soldiers, while China did not disclose the number of casualties among PLA soldiers.
Li noted that the border area in dispute could have more value to India than to China.
"I believe this [the border dispute] could be a bigger threat to India. That area is too far away from China’s key strategic centers. But that area is only a few hundred kilometers away from New Delhi. That is why India could be more worried about strategic value of the border area. But for China, that area has almost no strategic value," he said.
Despite the border area’s low strategic value for China, it would be unlikely for Beijing to offer more concessions to India because of the transparency of the social media age, Li added.
"It is impossible for China to ignore India’s actions in the border area, because the domestic audience would never accept that. In the social media age, any changes in the area would appear on the internet at once. Even for someone like me, I have already seen the footage of the group fist fights between troops of the two countries. This is unimaginable before. That is why it is impossible for the authorities to hide any compromises," he said.
Li believed domestic issues could have been the driving forces of India’s aggressive stance in the border dispute with China, as Xi is unlikely to face major domestic challenges until the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2022.