A recent skirmish between Indian and Chinese border guards resulted in fatalities for the first time since 1975. Despite the aggressive rhetoric and military posturing, both sides will continue to seek a diplomatic resolution, writes Darren Davids.
Since 5 May, Chinese and Indian troops have engaged in several skirmishes along their 4,056 km disputed border, known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC). These clashes have mainly manifested as minor scuffles, such as rock-throwing and fist fights. However, tensions between the two countries quickly escalated on 15 June, after border patrol personnel engaged in a violent confrontation that resulted in multiple fatalities and injuries. At least 20 Indian soldiers were killed and more than 70 others were injured, while Chinese casualties have not been confirmed. China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) also captured 45 Indian soldiers, but released 35 soldiers after the clash. Three days later, the PLA released the remaining 10 hostages, following negotiations between the two states.
The 15 June escalation represents the first time since 1975 that soldiers have been killed during border clashes. Both states have since stated that they remain committed to finding a peaceful resolution to their ongoing border dispute and have discussed steps to disengage. However, this rhetoric contradicts recent Chinese efforts to bolster their forces with additional personnel and equipment, as indicated by satellite imagery. This, coupled with the fact that the 15 June clashes took place while implementing a previous commitment to disengage, has prompted concerns that heightened tensions may drive a military escalation, prompting more skirmishes over the coming months. Yet, precedent suggests that both sides would prefer a diplomatic solution.
STRATEGIC INTERESTS UNDER THREAT
India and China are engaged in longstanding disagreements over the disputed border area. Such tensions have predominantly manifested as diplomatic spats, with occasional moves – and retaliatory actions – to extend control through bolstering forces, building infrastructure, or claiming sections of disputed land. Most recently, the dispute has centred on India’s construction of roads in the Galwan Valley region, along the Shyok River to Daulet Beg Oldi. China perceives India’s roadbuilding – which connects a high-altitude air base to the region – as an attempt to further assert territorial control in the disputed area. The road will also provide India with the ability to quickly mobilise troops and military machinery in case of a conflict. This prompted China to retaliate by deploying thousands of personnel, equipment, and weapons near the border in an apparent warning to India.
Prior to the current standoff, tensions over the shared border resurfaced in August 2019 when India revoked the special status of the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region, stripping it of its limited autonomy, and redrawing Kashmir’s map to claim the Chinese-administered Aksai Chin. Senior figures in India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have also hinted at their desire to capture Pakistan-administered Azad Kashmir. This is highly unlikely to happen, as any attempt to do so will almost certainly trigger a major war with Pakistan. China views these developments and associated instability as a potential threat to its USD 60 billion investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which forms part of its Belt and Road Initiative. As such, China’s recent incursion into the Galwan Valley can be viewed as part of its strategy to reinforce its presence and protect its interests in the area.
While India and China continue to argue over territorial delineations and other grievances in the foreseeable future, both sides will maintain troops and other infrastructure along the border.
DE-ESCALATION AMID LONGSTANDING TENSIONS
China and India have disputed territorial claims in the region for over four decades. Ongoing efforts to resolve boundary issues are often mired in other longstanding grievances. These include India’s hosting of the Dalai Lama; India’s growing ties with the US; and China’s expanding economic and military ties with other South Asian countries. Respective heads of state also often need to contend with various domestic stakeholders involved in the decision-making process. It is unlikely that these issues will be resolved in the coming months, despite several closed-door meetings and a high-level phone call between Ajit Doval, India’s National Security Advisor, and Wang Yi, China’s State Councillor and Foreign Minister.
While India and China continue to argue over territorial delineations and other grievances in the foreseeable future, both sides will maintain troops and other infrastructure along the border. It is therefore feasible that scuffles between border guards will continue, as patrols encounter one another along the LAC. However, these incidents are typically resolved through diplomatic channels before they escalate into widespread, sustained confrontations. For example, in 2017, India and China engaged in a similar 73-day standoff in Doklam, Donglang, after Indian military forces mobilised to prevent China’s construction of a road through Bhutan. The incident ended following discussions between Chinese and Indian officials.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping will continue de-escalation talks in private, despite their aggressive public rhetoric. Both seek to present themselves to their respective domestic audiences as strong leaders, uncompromising on national interest. But, in reality, neither side is in favour of a major and costly military escalation. They would rather prioritise economic recovery following the devastating Covid-19 outbreak, which increased unemployment and reduced exports. As such, while more scuffles between border guards are anticipated in the coming months, diplomatic efforts to reduce tensions is a more likely outcome than a widespread and sustained border war.