China-India Border: Conflict, Causes, Concern

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Night of June 15-16, 2020

The desolate and tranquil Galwan Valley sits almost 20,000 feet above sea level, perilously divided by the loosely demarcated ‘Line of Actual Control’ (LAC) between Indian and Chinese administered territories. The area, where the the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and Chinese administered Aksai Chin meet, has long been part of a contested region. And now ,China has laid claim to the entire valley. Though the Line of Control (LOC) that demarcates Indian and Pakistani Kashmir may be more infamous, it is dwarfed by the LAC. While the former unofficially measures approximately 800 kilometres, the latter is estimated at 4,100 kilometres. With the 1962 Sino-Indian war leaving no clear border, the LAC has been utilised as a tenuous demarcation, but continued disputes indicate this is a failed resolution. The first deadly altercation in almost half a century occurred this past summer.

Accounts of events from the night are hazy, with each side aiming to downplay their aggression and fault. The most recent violent clash on the Sino-Indian border at Galwan Valley can be described as a barbaric and brutal affair. Due to a 1996 bilateral agreement (Article VI), neither side is permitted to use firearms in the event of an altercation. The casualties were the result of close combat with primitive weapons, including iron rods. After an Indian commanding officer was pushed and fell into a gorge, reinforcements were called by both sides and an estimated 600 troops engaged in a bloody brawl. The Indian military claims to have suffered approximately 100 casualties (including 20 fatalities); though the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has released no official figure, Indian media outlets report 43 seriously injured and killed.

Increased Chinese Presence

The impetus for this clash is equally muddy. CGTN (a Chinese state-controlled media outlet) reports that the incident was a result of Indian patrols on Chinese controlled territory, and came after months of provocation. A spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Defense claimed that since April of this year Indian troops have built bridges, roads, and other facilities on Chinese territory, and have impeded PLA patrols in the area.

In contrast, Indian officials see the clash as the result of Chinese transgressions. The Indian  Ministry of External Affairs claimed that the fatal altercation was the result of ‘premeditated and planned action’ by the PLA in the wake of Chinese construction on disputed territory.

Imagery collected by Planet Labs seems to corroborate the Indian story, as it reveals increased PLA activity and movement in the disputed area in the days before the clash. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s (ASPI) analysis of satellite imagery concludes that opposing troops were positioned within hundreds of metres, and the PLA had no positions in the valley until May 2020. Further, the ASPI highlights that the PLA has established several key positions in the area and has up to 1,000 troops in the valley. 

The ASPI satellite imagery analysis also has revealed that further south along the LAC in the Hot Springs area, PLA patrols have been crossing into Indian territory amidst increased military activity. Also along the LAC, at Pangong Tso, there have been significant increases in PLA troops since a filmed clash in 2017. Hot Springs and Pangong Tso are equally disputed areas that have been the site of conflict in the past and may very well host more violence in the future.

China Indian LAC PLA Border Modi Xi
Source: Skysat

Strategic Positioning

Recent developments from both sides have spurred increased military activity and deployments in the area. The Indian military has almost fully completed a road leading to their northernmost military base, Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO), that runs alongside the LAC passing by the Galwan Valley. The Darbuk-Shyok-DBO road will cut the travel time from Leh to DBO from 2 days to 6 hours, making the crucial airbase at DBO more accessible. DBO acts as an aerial supply base for the region and sits near the crucial Karakoram Pass, which leads into the western edge of Chinese controlled Akshai Chin. 

The Darbuk-Shyok-DOB road’s importance is derived from its ability to supply and reinforce DBO and other forward operating bases, at least during peacetime. However, its proximity to the Galwan Valley has increased tension in the area. While Indian forces have aimed to secure this section of the road by establishing infrastructure and troops in the valley, the introduction of PLA positions has made the road an open target. 

With the PLA assuming positions along the ridgeline of Galwan Valley, they seem to have established de facto dominance of the road. Should hostilities ensue, the PLA could utilize artillery to make the road unusable. Until the alternative planned road is constructed, China is in prime position to cut-off, or at least hinder, Indian positions north of the valley.

Escalation at Elevation

As demonstrated above, China and India have sought to solidify their positions along the LAC by increasing military activity, erecting troop facilities, building infrastructure for transport, and posturing strength in the region. China has largely been leading this dance towards destruction, and not just in the Galwan Valley.

Indian China LAC PLA Border Xi Modi
Source: ASPI

As with the Hot Springs and Pangong Tso areas, the Galwan Valley has become a zone of ever-increasing militarisation. The potential of conflict to erupt in these locations has only grown in recent years, and the events of June 15-16, 2020 should be viewed as a warning tremor. Disputes over the LAC should be considered as a barometer for Sino-Indian relations more generally, and current outlooks are grim. Recent events and developments are endemic of escalation between the two powers along the border. Thus, it is highly likely there will be more violence at hotspots along the LAC in the short term, unless diplomatic avenues are pursued more seriously. It should be noted that all of the current clashes have occurred  despite ongoing high-level diplomatic initiatives.

In the Hot Springs area, where troops are distanced further apart than in the Galwan Valley, dirt tracks seen in satellite imagery suggest that PLA patrols have been venturing as far as 1 kilometre into Indian territory. Indian forces are seemingly building a permanent fortification to overlook the LAC at Hot Springs, potentially stopping PLA patrols from crossing. 

The LAC at Pangong Tso is an even more distressing situation. Last month, China and India publicly accused one another of escalating tensions in the area. Both sides alleged shots were fired by the other and that their territory was encroached upon. Experts on both sides recognise the importance of Pangong Tso Lake, potentially providing Indian forces the ability to attack a crucial Chinese mountain road and allowing the PLA a route to capture the regional hub of Leh. 

There is a pattern unfolding along the LAC. Without an official delineated border, the PLA and Indian army have sought to consolidate their claims. For China this seems to be a continuation of the encroachment seen in the South China Sea, unilateral attempts to change the status-quo. This is not to imply that ipso facto India is entirely without fault. However, one would be remiss to not acknowledge China’s history of geopolitical bullying.

Nationalism and Jingoism

China’s strongman playbook has been evidently effective in the South China Sea, but on land- where one cannot merely create territory- it is a different story. Prime Minister Modi is quite confrontational in regards to the LAC. In 2019 Modi acted to remove the ‘special status’ of Jammu and Kashmir, nullifying agreements of limited autonomy in the region. This was treated as a provocation by both Pakistan and China, and signalled to all that Modi was willing to slug it out on the issue. The Indian Prime Minister has also been marked as a considerable risk to geopolitical stability, largely due to his party’s nationalist approach. Though not many predicted the border clashes, Modi’s actions only reinforce this analysis. Modi in some ways has pursued strength before sense. In an attempt to reassure the nation in the wake of recent events in the Galwan, Modi seemed adamant that no one ought to worry as Indian territory was not encroached upon by the PLA, surely implying his own countrymen were in the wrong.

Nationalism has been used to stoke flames among the more hawkish on both sides, and jingoistic rallying cries have been more present since the events of June 15-16. As both India and China approach LAC disputes with hubris, there is little room for diplomacy. China and India both condemn violence and further transgressions, while the UN has urged a maximized effort to reduce tension, but lip service is not going to stop conflict. As demonstrated, both sides seem happy to stick with their preferred narrative, and in doing so have helped whip up nationalistic pride and hawkish mentalities. The escalatory nature of actions on both sides, in tandem with swelling national attitudes, has created a milieu akin to late 19th, early 20th century Europe: militarism meets nationalism by way of disputed territory.

India has long been wary of China in the 21st century, and China likewise is not keen to have a rising regional power as a neighbour. Ergo, suspicion and strained diplomatic ties are the status-quo. However, as India and China seek avenues to vent these sentiments of fear and not-so-passive aggression, the LAC has become the choice venue. Though ramifications have rippled beyond the ‘pitch’, i.e. the miniature trade war that has erupted, the LAC remains the issue to be solved.

As Xi Jiping and Modi seek to consolidate power domestically this seems unlikely. With a waning belief in their strength at home, both are seeking an opportunity to prove their might. The LAC may provide the chance for both to do so. Xi Jiping has long sought to solidify and recenter the CCP on its Maoist roots. While Modi seems to have taken Nehru’s playbook for Sino-Indian relations: all misgauged fluff diplomacy. Lest us not forget the figures these two are emulating (in some regards) were at the helm during the Sino-Indian War of 1962. Mao used the Sino-Indian War in part to strengthen his regime and ‘bounce back’ after the failed Great Leap Forward. Nehru cultivated a personal relation with Mao that did not reflect reality, and led to naive faith in the Forward Policy to curb Chinese encroachment. History rhymes.

China Indian LAC Border PLA Modi Xi

What is next for India and China?

As stated, further violence along the LAC is highly likely. With continued escalation and militarisation over the past year, there is no longer a bulwark, as untenable as the situation was prior. As diplomatic channels evaporate and both sides acknowledge only their respective ‘truths’, resolution will be elusive. Though a UN Peacekeeping mission may be able to hold the two fighting dogs at bay until a more durable agreement can be reached, a Security Council veto from China is all but guaranteed. Normalising relations seems far-fetched currently, but actions now could lead to better relations in the medium term. Otherwise, there is the possibility for a limited war between the two regional powers over the LAC in the shorter term, though as said more violent clashes in the immediate future are very likely.

Here the ineffectiveness of the international system is shown, China can veto any attempt at moderation, possibly leading to greater reconciliation. Therefore, China will likely continue to encroach and expand its reach, as has been seen in the South China Sea. In turn, India will likely persistently increase its military presence and capabilities in the area to stop Chinese efforts. 

Again, a classic example of the security dilemma gone awry, and without any international organization to impose order there is no stopping the inevitable conclusion: a clash. Though there is the possibility of a more limited war over the LAC, it is highly unlikely this would spiral into a larger conflict. With violence in some form on the horizon, however, a prudent option may be international arbitration or an attempt to rely on diplomatic means. The current assessment sadly does not bode well for diplomacy. With both leaders leaning into nationalistic vitriol and willfully pursuing greater esclation, only paying ‘peace’ lip service, the strained tethering of the LAC is likely to fray further until it snaps. China has stepped onto the Himalayan playground as a reinvigorated bully, and India is hoping to assert itself as a regional security powerhouse. Let us hope we only see scraped knees.

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