In Other News: China-India Border Clash, North Korea-South Korea Tensions & More – June 19, 2020

June 19, 2020

A border clash between Chinese and Indian soldiers this week killed at least 20 and raises the specter of escalating conflict over a long-unresolved dispute. The Actual Line of Control, established to end a 1962 border war between the two countries, has been the site of frequent small-scale brawls, but this marks the first fatality since 1975. All 20 confirmed dead were Indian, and China has since released 10 captured Indian soldiers. While Indian media has claimed that more than 40 Chinese soldiers were also killed in the fighting, China has yet to confirm any losses.  Official statements from both countries accuse the other of instigating the incident – about which very little is known – and anti-China protests have broken out in India along with calls to boycott Chinese goods (a difficult feat to pull off, as China is India’s second-largest trading partner). The two sides are moving to defuse tensions through negotiation and will likely head off any severe escalation in the near-term, but the incident ratchets up bilateral tensions and elevates the risk of future confrontation. China has shown a clear pattern of aggressive behavior of late targeting a number of the territories and countries in its vicinity, including harassment of ships in the South China Sea and brazen violation of its commitment to “One Country, Two Systems” with regard to Hong Kong. There is ample cause for concern that China may continue to seek to advance its position at the Indian border. If that happens, the situation could grow much more volatile.

North Korea blew up the liaison office near the North-South border that had been used to hold talks between the two sides, effectively scuttling South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s dogged efforts at improving ties. The explosion follows a statement by North Korea the previous week that it was cutting off all communication with the South. Ostensibly an act of retaliation for distribution of anti-regime leaflets in the North by defectors to the South, consensus is that these showy displays are meant to distract from domestic challenges, including the impact of sanctions and Covid-19. However, continued provocations are likely. North Korea has already hinted that it plans to send its army into the Demilitarized Zone. Any provocation will be intended to fall short of crossing any red lines that might provoke a military response, but also raises the risk of miscalculation and escalation.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with China’s seniormost diplomatic official Yang Jiechi in Hawaii this week amid steadily rising tensions across all facets of the relationship – commercial, diplomatic, and military. The latest slight comes from the U.S. with the passage of a law sanctioning Chinese officials over the mass detention of Uighurs – a predominantly Muslim ethnicity in the western part of the country. This follows a period of sustained, harsh U.S. criticism of China over a variety of issues since the outbreak of Covid-19 went global, including covering up the origin and trajectory of the virus, its legal maneuvering to limit Hong Kong’s autonomy, and its harassment of neighboring countries’ ships in disputed areas of the South China Sea. China, for its part, has been equally harsh in its verbal attacks on the U.S., and has capitalized on widespread U.S. protests against racism and police abuses to accuse the U.S. of hypocrisy in its criticism of China’s human rights record. Little information has been provided about the substance or outcome of the meeting. Although a face-to-face, diplomatic meeting between senior leaders is a sign that the two sides are continuing to communicate, the nature and tenor of their various disputes leaves little room for a real easing of underlying tensions in the near term.