Geopolitics

Old Tensions, Big Stakes In China-India Border Dispute

Guarding the border
Guarding the border
Tao Duanfang

On April 15th, India announced that an "intrusion" of around 50 Chinese military personnel had crossed onto the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh, and set up a tent camp. The Indian military immediately responded with tit for tat camp of tents nearby. Thus started the so-called “Tents Confrontation” standoff.

The Ladakh region belongs to Indian-controlled Kashmir, and is known for both its very harsh weather, and its historic place as part of the extended Silk Road. It has also always been the source of a sovereignty dispute between China and India.

Although in recent years both sides have acknowledged the principle of “not breaking up the status quo on the basis of the Line Of Actual Control” and the “peaceful settlement of disputes”, each country nonetheless holds very different views as to what the “line of actual control” specifically refers to -- in part because of the complex topography of the Ladakh region.

Since this Tents Confrontation started, the Indian-controlled Kashmir authority has raised the stakes, claiming that there had been a “Chinese invasion” and calling on Delhi to “fight back strongly.”

Ranjan Mathai, India’s Foreign Secretary, called in the Chinese ambassador to lodge a formal protest and demand an “immediate solution.” A. K. Anthony, the Indian Defense Minister, and the Chief of the Army Staff, General Bikram Singh, have both shown a tough stance, with the latter flying in to inspect the hotspot in person on April 24.

Since taking office in September, General Singh has spared no grandiloquence on his eastern flank, declaring that India “won’t allow the tragic failure of the 1962 Sino-India War to be repeated.” Others in New Delhi have also declared that India is capable of handling two fronts with Pakistan and China at the same time. All this leaves certain observers worried that India might use this incident to set off a military adventure and that the two most populated countries might end up having a large scale conflict.

The current confrontation coincides with frequent Sino-Japan disputes over the Diaoyu Islands. Meanwhile the Ya’an region adjacent to Tibet suffered a major earthquake so that regional military forces, equipment and attention has been diverted and constrained. It goes without saying that the waters around the South China Sea are not calm either.

Certain Chinese are convinced that India is either exploiting the disastrous situation China is facing, or is simply joining other anti-China forces as part of the “big conspiracy” aimed at containing China.

China and India’s border dispute is both longstanding and deep-rooted. With the halo of a “most vivid great power” and “Third World leader,” India was defeated by China in the 1962 war, a great blow to the nation's military image, and a lingering wound for the Indian government as well as its people. Despite progress in bilateral economic and trade relations in the past decades, as well as collaboration in various fields, the border issue and the war complex linger on.

After 14 rounds of bilateral negotiations, the two nations have yet to reach an agreement. Both sides still strongly distrust each other.

In recent years, India has spent an enormous amount of money in introducing advanced military hardware. From 2011 it also set forward a Sino-Indian border “five-year force-enhancing plan,” at a cost of $13 billion, reinforcing four divisions and two independent army brigades, a total of nearly 100,000 soldiers, as well as building high altitude airports, fortifications, roads, and adding light artillery adapted to the region’s terrain. The goal is to match China every step of the way.

High-stakes crossroads

Though Ladakh is a barren region, it is located at the hub between Tibet, Xinjiang, India and Pakistan, and much of the new deployment is concentrated in this region. Not only is it in the front line of the Sino-Indian confrontation but is also key to the India-Pakistan, as well as a thorn in the side of Kashmir’s armed separatists. The Indians are extra sensitive to any sign of trouble in the region.

India has long been building up China as its imaginary enemy, even as it is so often distracted by having to deal with the old enemy, Pakistan, and with nonstop armed violence domestically.

The rapid rise of China’s national strength as well as military force is making it harder and harder for India to keep up with the pace. Both countries are big countries with populations above one billion. Were a war to break out between the two, it would likely turn into a protracted conflicted. Even India’s war hawks are obliged to consider seriously whether they can afford conflict under such conditions.

Sounds of beating war drums include accusations of Chinese helicopters intruding into Indian airspace and intimidating Indian herders, as well as Kashmir’s local authority claims that “China is nibbling India’s territory inch by inch.”

India has spectacularly complex electoral politics. When elections come around, there are always politicians who incite voters’ nationalist sentiments in order to canvass votes.

But we should remember that, in the end, Indian authorities and military personnel much prefer negotiating to fighting. The bellicose attitude is mostly a way to create an environment that is advantageous for India in negotiations. Since the recent outbreak of the “Tents Confrontation,” the two parties have also been in close contact through numerous “flag talks” as well as hotline communication.

The Sino-Indian border issue is part of a bigger game at play. China and India are both big developing countries. Their border dispute makes it difficult to maintain decorum, but it is also difficult to be completely resolved

The “Tent Confrontation” may well wind up like previous incidents. Having flared up unexpectedly from nowhere, it may also disappear without warning. Both countries will remain vigilant, in any case, because there is no overstating how much is at stake.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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