Four Indians and 13 Chinese were injured when over 150 soldiers entered into a fierce hand to hand combat and stone pelting in the Naku La Pass area on the India/Sikkim-China border on Saturday, Indian news reports said. The news was disturbing especially because this area had not seen clashes for a long time though the border here is disputed.

The situation was diffused locally, but there could be more to it than meets the eye.

China, which is coming under heavy criticism in India and the West for alleged negligence in containing the coronavirus which eventually spread far and wide, has been reacting very sharply and aggressively to the barbs hurled at it. The Naku La incident could well be a rap on the knuckles for criticisms against China made by private individuals and institutions in India.

Recently, two court cases were filed by Indians demanding that China pay a hefty compensation for the damage done. Ashish Sohani, a Mumbai lawyer, had filed a petition at the International Criminal Court (ICC) against China, alleging that it had failed to contain the coronavirus and allowed it to spread to the rest of the world, where it is now “destroying lives like wildfire”. In his 33-page plea, Sohani demanded Rs 190 lakh crore from China as damages, on behalf of the Government of India.

Another plea filed in the Indian Supreme Court by Madurai-resident K.K.Ramesh sought a direction to the central government to approach the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and file a case for a compensation of US$ 600 billion from China alleging that the coronavirus pandemic was "deliberately created" by it destroy the Indian economy and kill hundreds of it citizens.

While the Indian government has been quiet, a senior Indian diplomat S.Akbaruddin had said that, one day, China would have to answer for the trauma that the world is going through due to COVID-19. More recently, India took strong objection to Pakistan’s bid to hold Assembly elections in Gilgit Baltistan, thus further integrating that area into Pakistan when, as per India’s claims, Gilgit Baltistan is part of original Jammu and Kashmir which had acceded to India wholly and completely in 1947.

To signify its claim, the Indian government ordered public TV broadcaster Doordarshan to include in its daily weather bulletins, reports on towns in Pakistan-held Kashmir including Gilgit Baltistan.

But what India probably overlooked was that China has a growing economic and strategic stake in Gilgit Baltistan. China’s flagship project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), enters Pakistan from China at Gilgit Baltistan and goes down to the southern port of Gawadar in Baluchistan. The U$ 60 billion CPEC is a vital link between China and Pakistan and is the backbone of Sino-Pak ties. Its security, hinging on political peace in Gilgit Baltistan, is of vital concern to Beijing.

Already, there are security threats to CPEC posed by the secessionist movement in Baluchistan. Beijing does not want a similar security situation to develop in Gilgit Baltistan, the entry point of CPEC. China is aware that while the people of Gilgit Batistan are eager to integrate with Pakistan irrespective of whether Kashmir is with Pakistan or India, they are desperately wanting human and democratic rights, denied to them for the past 70 years by successive Pakistani regimes.

Though there is an elected Gilgit Baltistan Assembly, the Gilgit Baltistan Council sitting in Islamabad and chaired by the Prime Minister has all the powers. Furthermore, Gilgit Baltistanis have lost exclusive power over their lands which they had under the Maharajah’s rule from 1927. After abrogating the land rights, successive Pakistani governments have been settling outsiders in that area – a phenomenon which has increased since the advent of CPEC.

However, since the regime of Benazir Bhutto, the people of Gilgit Baltistan have been getting their rights albeit incrementally. The latest decision to hold elections to the Gilgit Baltistan Assembly by September 2020 is seen as a progressive step by all except India.

China would be happy with this step, but India took it badly as a grave attack on its sovereignty which, it says, extends to Gilgit and Baltistan. Given India’s disapproval of CPEC and its refusal to become a partner in it, the latest protests have irked China. And it is likely that the ugly incident in Naku La is an expression of that annoyance.

China’s aggressive action at Naku La is of a piece with its aggressive response to criticisms about its role in the spread of the coronavirus. According to a Western news agency, from Asia to Africa, London to Berlin, “Chinese envoys have set off diplomatic firestorms with a combative defense whenever their country is accused of not acting quickly enough to stem the spread of the coronavirus.”

The tougher approach has been building up under President Xi Jinping, who has, in effect, jettisoned former leader Deng Xiaoping’s approach of hiding China’s ambitions and biding its time, the agency says.

“The days when China can be put in a submissive position are long gone,” said an editorial in Global Times, a state-run newspaper known for its outspoken views. The Chinese people, the paper said, “are no longer satisfied with a flaccid diplomatic tone.”

China’s Ambassador Gui Congyou belittled journalists in Sweden, comparing them to a lightweight boxer seeking to go toe-to-toe with heavyweight China. “Using this epidemic for political purposes, waging ideological attacks and spreading lies in the name of ‘freedom of speech’ will only lead to self-sabotage. It’s like lifting a rock and dropping it on your own toes,” Gui said.

“If anyone tries to attack China on this issue, China will resolutely fight back,” said Shi Yinhong, Professor of International Studies at Renmin University. “Chinese leaders may think if China doesn’t fight back, it will hurt China even more.”

Chinese diplomats are increasingly posting their aggressive responses on Twitter and Facebook, following in the footsteps of Zhao Lijian, a pioneering firebrand whose tweets while stationed in Pakistan attracted a huge following and also led America’s former Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, to call him a “racist disgrace” who should be dismissed.

In Sri Lanka, the Chinese embassy attacked a leading media house, Wijeya Publications, for airing American charges against China through an interview, a report and a comment. Twitter suspended the embassy’s account but when the embassy accused the tech giant of “double standards,” Twitter restored the account the next day.

“We’ve approached the center of the world stage like never before, but we still don’t have full grasp of the microphone in our hands,” said Hua Chunying, the foreign ministry’s chief spokeswoman. “We must assert our right to speak.”