On the night of 15th June 2020, Chinese and Indian troops clashed in the Galwan Valley, where India’s Ladakh region meets China’s far west Aksai Chin region. At least 20 Indian soldiers died in the fighting, and China also suffered an unknown number of casualties.
These were the first fatalities along the Sino-Indian border since 1975 , and involved forces from two nuclear powers resorting to hand-to-hand combat with crude weapons including batons wrapped in barbed wire and iron rods studded with nails - no gunfire was exchanged. Despite a new agreement to "disengage" in the region, the loss of lives and the sheer brutality of this encounter is likely to escalate the tempo of a long-standing Sino-Indian rivalry.
Dr Manjeet Pardesi looks at the background to the recent conflict, and ponders what next in an intensifying crisis.
China and India share the world’s longest unmarked frontier. Indeed, the two sides cannot even agree on the length of their border.
While the Indians often refer to the border as being 3,488 km long, China’s state-run media refers to the border as being 2,000 km long. The discrepancy is probably the result of China’s refusal to include the nearly 1,500 km long border between Kashmir and China (Xinjiang and Tibet) due to that region’s disputed status between India and Pakistan.
At stake are huge chunks of territory. In the east, China claims a 90,000 square kilometre region corresponding with India’s Arunachal Pradesh state (and has been referring to it as Zangnan or South Tibet since at least 2006). In the west, India claims the 38,000 square kilometre region of Aksai Chin as a part of Ladakh.
India has been concerned about Chinese “transgressions” along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between the two countries for many years.
The LAC has been the de facto border between India and China since their 1962 war, despite the disagreements over it.
For example, the Indian government officially reported 334 transgressions in 2017, although the Chinese government is not known to have released any information related to what it perceives as India’s “violations” of its borders.
While most such transgressions in the recent past have been temporary and relatively minor, others such as the 2013 incident in Depsang and the 2014 incident in Chumar were serious events - though both were resolved peacefully with the restoration of the status quo.
By contrast, the current crisis is significant not only because of the bloodshed but also since India had “firmly conveyed” to China that “the maintenance of peace and tranquility in the border areas” was the pre-requisite to take the Sino-Indian relationship “forward in other areas” in the words of the then Indian foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale in 2018.
The Sino-Indian rivalry is not a mere territorial dispute. In fact, their rivalry began as a positional rivalry for status and influence in Asia in the late 1940s as modern India and modern China saw themselves as the leaders of postwar/postcolonial Asia, and viewed each other with suspicion.
Today, these factors are coming to fore again as China and India are expected to respectively emerge as the world’s largest and third-largest economies by 2030 in nominal terms (although the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic remains uncertain).
First, the presence of the Dalai Lama and approximately 95,000 Tibetan exiles in India along with the Tibetan government-in-exile based in northern India (not recognized by any government, including the Indian government) is a major sticking point in Sino-Indian relations.
The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile support the Indian position on the Sino-Indian border dispute ( the disputed region is linked to the historically ambiguous status of Tibet before 1950-51).
In 2011, the Dalai Lama gave up his political role as the head of Tibetan community to the democratically elected Tibetan government-in-exile led by a President (although he remains the community’s spiritual head).
Given his advanced age, the politics of the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation will have a significant impact on Sino-Indian relations.
The Dalai Lama has often described himself as the “son of India,” and has even hinted that his next incarnation may be born in India. However, a Chinese official informed visiting Indian journalists in 2019 that China will “reject” any successor to the Dalai Lama outside China.
In the meantime, no talks have taken place between the Dalai Lama’s representatives and the Chinese government since 2010, and China does not acknowledge the Tibetan government-in-exile.
This is concerning, because 156 Tibetans have self-immolated since 2009 as a form of protest against China’s repressive policies there.
Secondly, China’s relationship with Pakistan has been deepening, with China now referring to Pakistan as its “unique all-weather strategic partner"
Pakistan is central to President Xi Jinping’s flagship foreign policy project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and Beijing has committed $46-62 billion for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Not surprisingly, India has rejected the BRI in part because the CPEC traverses through Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region that is claimed by India as a part of the former princely state of Jammu & Kashmir.
In fact, a former Indian foreign secretary has even argued that “India's Pakistan problem is now a China problem.”
Third, China remains worried about the growing strategic partnership between India and China’s principal rival, the United States.
The 2017 US National Security Strategy described China as a “great power competitor” that “seeks to displace the United States from the Indo-Pacific region.", while welcoming the rise of India
Not surprisingly, China has been preparing for two “1.5 war scenarios” that include possible contingencies with India in the Himalayas or in the Indian Ocean in the event of a war with the United States in maritime East Asia. Meanwhile, India is preparing for a “two-front” war with China and Pakistan simultaneously.
It is in this larger strategic context that the recent Sino-India clash in Galwan is worrying, as this crisis also involves other hot-spots, including the Pangong lake and Hot Springs in Ladakh, and the Sikkim-Tibet border where there has been military build-up and small-scale skirmishes.
Military commanders on both sides have now agreed to "disengage" in the Ladakh region, but irrespective of whether or not the current crisis escalates, China and India remain locked in an intensifying structural rivalry for power and influence in Asia.