Conflict deep in the Himalayas

Originally Published on Domino Chinese Blog, June 2020

On June 15, tensions between India and China erupted when fighting broke out between soldiers deep in the Himalayan mountains. The fighting results in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and an unconfirmed number of Chinese  casualties. 

These fatalities, the first since 1967, occurred in sub zero temperatures without either side firing a single shot, as the soldiers in the skirmish beat each other with clubs and batons adorned with spikes, nails and barbed wire.


India-China Border Conflict

This is not the first time Indian and Chinese soldiers have clashed deep in the Himalayas. The region, which has been contested since the partition of the British Indian Empire  in 1947, has seen tensions fester at different sites along the disputed border, known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Pakistan also contests areas along the LAC resulting in three nuclear-armed countries vying for control over various parts of Kashmir.

Fatalities in previous occasions were considerably worse that this recent clash. The first Indo-China war occurred in 1962 , shortly after China seized Tibet, and resulted in the deaths of over 1,000 Indian soldiers. Five years later, the second Indo-China war (1967) resulted in the loss of 88 soldiers’ lives.

What happened on June 15?

The fighting on June 15 was triggered by a disagreement over Chinese tents and observation towers which Indian officials argued had been built on the Indian side of the LAC. An Indian patrol visited the disputed area to verify Chinese claims that their troops had moved back. The Indian patrol found tents and observation posts left behind by the Chinese and began demolishing them. As the Indian officials were demolishing the Chinese tents and posts, a group of Chinese soldiers arrived and confronted the Indian troops. 

The two sides soon clashed, using bare fists and iron batons spiked with nails and wrapped in barbed wire. Soldiers used this crude weaponry due to the 1996 border agreement  which bans firearms and explosives within 2km of the LAC. 

A video that circulated online showed some soldiers falling into the icy river deep in the valley. After the violence, wounded soldiers had to endure sub-zero temperatures at an altitude of 4,300 metres, as they waited to be rescued by helicopters in the dark of night. Commenting on the clash, VK Singh, a former army chief,  claimed China lost at least 40 soldiers in the clash, although Chinese authorities have made no public announcement regarding casualties.

Why now?

Political analysts believe there are two primary reasons for these deadly clashes taking place at this time.

Firstly, the Indian parliament’s decision last year to repeal Article 370  of the Indian constitution angered both China  and Pakistan and was strongly denounced  at the UN Security Council. The measure had previously granted autonomy to the Himalayan states of Jammu and Kashmir (which included the disputed areas in the Ladakh region). China and Pakistan interpreted the Indian government’s move to revoke this region’s autonomy as Delhi effectively seizing direct control of the region. 

Secondly, India and China have been investing billions of dollars engineering infrastructure projects close to the LAC. China and India had a military stand-off in 2017 because India accused China of building a road in the disputed area. This time China is challenging India’s construction of a road leading to an airfield at Galwan which could boost Delhi’s military capability in case of conflict. China views the 255km Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie road as a threat to its interests in the region, with the Ladakh region crucial  for China’s access to Central Asia and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in which Beijing has invested over 60 billion dollars.

What will happen next?

Officials in Delhi and Beijing have insisted tensions along the LAC will not escalate further. 

However, India’s leaders are under pressure to ‘stand up to China’, with national media fervently providing opinions about what should be done. As such the ball is very much in India’s court, because not only were all the confirmed casualties Indian, but China is still pushing ahead with ambitious infrastructure projects which will cut right through the Himalyan region.

Unfortunately for India, there are few good ways to punish China , as Ashley Tellis, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, explains, the situation only leaves India with “painful” choices.  

All-out war is out of the question (China’s military prowess  will soon match that of the US) and most economic sanctions would harm India as much as they would China. India could exclude Huawei  from the country’s 5G networks, something that would delight Washington but anger Beijing. 

In the meantime, the Indian government has taken the decision to ban over 50 Chinese apps , including the highly popular TikTok app, a symbolic move that is unlikely to concern the Chinese leadership much.

The other repercussion from this incident is India’s decision to invest in more arms and military upgrades. Last week, the Indian government pushed through a proposal to acquire 33 new warplanes for US$2.4 billion and upgrade 59 of the Indian Air Force’s figher planes. India has also agreed to a US$5 billion deal for S-400 air defence missile systems. Russia has been the main arms supplier to India for the past 40 years and these recent weapons deals are also with Russia.

Prolonged Tensions along the LAC

While there is unlikely to be an all-out conflict in the Himalyan region, the area will nevertheless continue to be very turbulent over the coming years, as both countries continue to push ahead with strategic infrastructure projects. 

A concern for both countries is the sitution on the ground getting out of control, and troops along the border taking matters into their own hands, as appeared to have happened last month. 

Further ‘unauthorized’ conflict between ground troops, will leave leaders in Delhi and Beijing with onerous decisions. 

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