Why China and India are locked in a dangerous stand-off

The death of troops during a confrontation between Indian and Chinese forces has thrown a fragile balancing act into question.

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Chinese and Indian troops have been locked in a tense confrontation along their disputed Himalayan border since early May, and the situation has taken a turn for the worse. In a brutal clash, at least three Indian soldiers, including a colonel, have reportedly been killed somewhere near the Galwan river in India’s Ladakh region. Subsequent reports from Indian officials suggest more than 20 Indian soldiers have died. (There are also believed to have been Chinese casualties, but no numbers have been released.)

This escalation is an unwanted surprise. A dialogue between the two countries was underway, and reports of a limited disengagement of troops had begun to circulate. The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is now in a quandary; India’s options are limited, but maintaining the status quo with China is not likely to be one of them.

Sino-Indian relations had been troubled since the late 1950s, primarily because of a disagreement over where their border lay. A series of skirmishes led to a month-long war in late 1962 in which Chinese forces trounced India’s. The war ended the hopes of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, that the shared colonial legacy of the two Asian giants would make the countries comrades in a campaign for a more just international order. It also tarnished Nehru’s legacy. The defeat remains an open wound in the Indian psyche, salted by the conviction that China had betrayed India. Time has done little to heal the relationship. 

The current confrontation began when Indian and Chinese troops came to blows along the banks of the Pangong Tso, an L-shaped lake at an altitude of more than 4,000m in the Himalayas. The Sino-Indian border is still largely not demarcated and the forces of the two countries are separated by a Line of Actual Control (LAC) that was formed in the aftermath of the 1962 war, dividing the Pangong Tso. But this line is disputed at several points.

As in other disputed areas, both armies would send patrols up to their interpretation of where the LAC crosses the lake. The two sides had established protocols for these patrols: no firearms were carried, and when patrolling troops met by chance, they would unfold banners claiming ownership of the territory and asking the other side to withdraw. Occasionally, this would end up in physical jousting or worse, but this would usually be settled by dialogue at higher levels. 

But the recent clash appeared to be different. Indian forces on patrol found that the Chinese troops had built structures, apparently in preparation to hold the area and prevent Indian troops from patrolling all the way to where the Indians considered the LAC to be. It also became apparent that this was not the only point of confrontation, with further stand-offs reported at four more points along the LAC. Details are hazy, but China appeared to have moved thousands of troops conducting an exercise in Tibet to several points along the LAC. India also quickly reinforced its forces, and now thousands of troops are arrayed on the two sides.

The confrontation has also widened from the Ladakh region. There have been reports in India of both sides reinforcing their positions all along the several thousand kilometres of their disputed border, from Ladakh in the west all the way to the easternmost sector, which borders Myanmar.  

China’s motivations are unclear. Previous clashes appeared to have been localised incidents, occasioned by local factors rather than directed from Beijing. But the confrontation this time took place at several points, and looks less likely to have been the result of an overenthusiastic local commander.

It could be that China has been provoked by India’s belated effort to improve its border infrastructure to catch up with China’s, though this work was being done inside India’s territory. Another possible factor is India's decision to change the status of the region: the central government had hived off the Ladakh region from the Jammu and Kashmir state in August 2019, and placed it under central rule. But it is unclear why this internal reorganisation, even of a border region, would be offensive to China. A possible explanation is that this is just a reflection of China’s recent belligerence towards many of its neighbours, not unlike its recent sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat and claiming of South China Sea islets. 

Several rounds of talks had taken place between diplomats of the two sides as well as between military commanders in the area where the confrontation was taking place. Some disengagement was supposed to have begun, though there appears to have been no agreement on the status of Pangong Tso. Still, that dialogue was continuing at multiple levels was hopeful. Surprisingly, the Galwan river area was generally thought to have a settled LAC, at least in the limited sense that both sides appeared to have accepted where the line was. This was also where the two sides had apparently agreed to disengage first. Both Indian and Chinese statements, released on 16 June, state that the two sides had agreed to a disengagement – while blaming the other for the escalation. 

It is unclear where this goes. Both countries are nuclear powers, but unlike in India’s frequent clashes with Pakistan, the nuclear equation has never been raised in Sino-Indian confrontations. Both countries have declared a "No First Use" nuclear policy, agreeing that they would use nuclear weapons only to retaliate to a nuclear attack. This reduces the threat of an escalation that would bring nuclear weapons into play, but escalation could be damaging to both sides well below this threshold. Unlike in 1962, India now has a sizable military force dedicated to the China border, but this is largely orientated to defend against a large-scale Chinese attack. It is ill-equipped to deal with China’s salami-slicing tactics, or to go on a military offensive. 

After the last serious confrontation in 2017 at Doklam, near the China-India-Bhutan trijunction, Modi engaged Xi Jinping in an "informal" summit at Wuhan in 2018, and at Chennai in 2019. Though New Delhi has been building a closer relationship with the US and its allies in Asia, it has also been trying to maintain some balance in its relationship with China. But if 20 or more Indian troops are dead, so, too, may be the balancing act. 

Rajesh Rajagopalan is a professor in the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India.

*Amended to correct typo in para 4.

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