India-China relations expert Pradeep Taneja said the Indian public’s perception of China had deteriorated throughout the coronavirus pandemic and now threatened to force a wider military response to the border conflict.
“It is serious,” he said. “It’s really unprecedented in 47 years of relative calm on the border.”
Dr Taneja, an Indian-Australian academic who worked with the Australian government in China, said the escalation could be aimed at deterring India from closer ties with the US and its allies, including Australia – with whom it signed a comprehensive strategic partnership last week.
“The Chinese know in Asia, India is the only country that is comparable in terms of population, aspiration and the potential to develop economic and military allies,” he said.
The University of Melbourne lecturer said increasing hostility may have the opposite effect and push India towards the West. “There is a lot of anger in India at the moment,” he said.
Cricket superstar Virat Kohli issued a statement in support of the Indian army on Wednesday.
“Salute and deepest respect to the soldiers who sacrificed their lives to protect our country in the Galwan Valley,” he said on Twitter.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi waited two days to comment on the clash. Analysts said the silence suggested India, which has less military might than China, may be attempting to de-escalate the situation.
Mr Modi said on Wednesday that “India wants peace, but is capable of giving a befitting reply.” He has called a meeting of India’s major political parties on Friday to discuss the China situation.”
Priya Chacko, an Indo Pacific Fellow with the Perth USAsia Centre, said the Indian government faced a “really tricky balancing situation” between rising nationalist sentiment and its economic reliance on China.
“The conventional wisdom is you can win elections if you stir up trouble with Pakistan but not with China,” she said.
Dr Chacko, an international politics lecturer at the University of Adelaide, said high-level political talks were now crucial to resolve the dispute peacefully but that a meeting between the Chinese and Indian Foreign Ministers scheduled for next week was unlikely to go ahead.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne said she understood both sides were discussing ways to de-escalate at senior levels but Australia was closely monitoring the situation.
“During a global pandemic, it is more important than ever that all countries minimise tensions and avoid confrontation in long-standing disputes,” she said.
Australian National University expert Hugh White said it was tempting to infer a significant strategic importance from the casualty numbers.
“But it is impossible to judge whether what happened in Ladakh yesterday is a message or a mess,” he said.
The former Australian defence official said the difficult terrain of the Himalayas may help to avoid wider conflict.
“If you saw this sort of thing on the Korean peninsula then you would think the risk of escalation is quite high. But up in the Himalayas the terrain is so demanding it is hard for either side to commit large forces,” he said.
Eryk Bagshaw is the China correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Due to travel restrictions, he is currently based in Canberra.