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Brawls in the Himalayas

A deadly border clash between Chinese and Indian troops has put relations between the two most populous countries in the world on a precipice

Brawls in the Himalayas

A member of India’s border security force keeps vigil inside a bunker next to the ­highway leading toward Ladakh. (Idrees Abbas/SOPA Images)

China has had an eventful 2020. It stoked the world’s ire with its initial cover-up of the coronavirus. It reneged on its promise to grant Hong Kong autonomy. It aggressively combated any international inquiry into its detention of more than a million Uighurs in reeducation camps. Economic espionage, intellectual property theft, and territorial claims in the South China Sea have tanked U.S.-China relations.

Yet the only international conflict involving China that has caused the loss of life this year occurred in the remote, snow-capped Himalayas between China and longtime “frenemy” India. On the ridges of Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh, 14,000 feet above sea level, Indian and Chinese soldiers fought hand-to-hand and with archaic weapons: Indian soldiers said the Chinese used boulders, rocks wrapped in barbed wire, and wooden logs covered with nails. Many soldiers died after being pushed off ledges and falling into the Galwan River in subzero temperatures.

The June 15 clash—which remained gunless because of a 1996 agreement—left 20 Indian soldiers dead and at least 76 injured. China did not announce its casualties, but Indian sources estimate about 40 were seriously injured or killed. It came a month after China began enforcing its claim to disputed land and claiming as its own the Galwan Valley, which had previously been acknowledged as Indian territory.

Conflict between the two countries could have worldwide implications. China and India are the world’s two most populous countries, the second- and fifth-largest economies, and two nuclear powers that share a more than 2,100-mile-long border. The border clash, the deadliest in 45 years, sparked a fierce backlash in India against its neighbor, leading the government to deny contracts to Chinese companies and ban Chinese apps. Talks between the two countries have resolved little, and the conflict opens the door to India’s greater cooperation with the United States and the formation of a larger anti-China alliance. 

“I would say that the Chinese have lost the trust of 1.3 billion Indians in one go,” said Nitin Gokhale, founder of India’s Strategic News Global. “India now realizes its largest challenge is not Pakistan, but China.”

After the skirmish, Indians took to the streets, stomping on pictures of Chinese President Xi Jinping, burning Chinese flags, and smashing Chinese-made televisions. 

“India wants peace,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a televised address June 17. “But if provoked, India is capable of giving a befitting reply.”

INDEPENDENT INDIA and the People’s Republic of China formed only two years apart and fought a war over disputed borders in 1962. Today there are 23 disputed and sensitive areas along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto boundary. 

British negotiator Henry McMahon proposed the border between Tibet and the northeast region of India—known as the McMahon Line—at the 1914 Simla Convention. Tibet and Britain agreed to the border, but China’s government didn’t. The border became an increasingly contentious issue after the People’s Republic of China occupied Tibet in 1950, ridding the two countries of a de facto buffer. China’s territorial claims also expanded in the west as it built a road connecting Tibet and its Xinjiang province through the disputed area of Aksai Chin by Ladakh in Kashmir.

Although India was one of the first non-communist countries to recognize the People’s Republic of China, relations soured as China blamed India for supporting the violent 1959 Tibetan uprising and allowing the Dalai Lama and Tibetans to escape to the Indian city of Dharamshala. China began constructing roads and infrastructure to transport troops to the border, while India initiated the Forward Policy in 1960, setting up outposts along the border. On Oct. 20, 1962, as the United States was caught up with the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Chinese began artillery barrages along the McMahon Line along the disputed area of Arunachal Pradesh in the east as well as in the west by Aksai Chin.

Chinese troops easily overtook small Indian outposts lacking supplies and ammunition. The rocky roads up to the border and India’s poor infrastructure in the region meant supply lines were dangerous and soldiers poorly equipped. In contrast, the well-prepared People’s Liberation Army easily pushed south into Indian-administered territory, leading then–Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to call on U.S. and Russian aid. 

Before aid arrived, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai told the Indian ambassador that the Chinese had agreed to a ceasefire and would withdraw all its troops to 12 miles north of the LAC. The war was over. China had not captured any new land, and none of the territory disputes were resolved. 

Bertil Lintner, author of China’s India War, noted that at the time China wanted to dethrone India as the leader of newly independent Asian and African nations, and the 1962 Sino-Indian war had attained its goal. China succeeded in becoming the new leader of the Third World. India’s defeat humiliated Nehru, feeling tricked by the Chinese friendship, and he died two years later. 

The war was not fought over “control of some remote mountaintops in the Himalayas,” Lintner wrote in his book. Rather, it was a “clash of civilizations” between a growing democracy that had taken on the British system of governance and an authoritarian system that had little regard for international law. 

Debarchan Chatterjee/Abaca/Sipa via AP

Indians protest against the Chinese incursion on June 15. (Debarchan Chatterjee/Abaca/Sipa via AP)

THE CURRENT BORDER CONFLICT echoes the earlier war—a power play by China rather than any real desire to occupy barren landscapes. Since the 1980s, China and India have met more than 20 times for border talks. To prevent escalation, the two sides promised not to engage each other’s patrols or to open gunfire or use explosives. But they didn’t agree on a definitive border. The ambiguity has led to skirmishes through the years.

In May, China began to enforce its presence in the disputed zones and build structures. By Pangong Tso, a high-altitude lake between India and Tibet, Indian and Chinese soldiers engaged in fistfights and stone-throwing. Skirmishes continued, culminating in the Galwan Valley clash on June 15. 

The skirmish didn’t surprise Varaprasad Dolla, professor of Chinese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, India. But the timing did surprise him, he said. Indian Prime MinisterNarendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping had a good relationship, holding several summits in both countries. 

So why now? Experts point to a few reasons: First, India’s move in 2019 to revoke the limited autonomy granted to Jammu and Kashmir state, which includes the disputed area in the Ladakh region, caused an angry backlash from China. China believes that changed the status quo of territorial claims along the border. 

Also, India had been constructing roads and rail lines and updating airfields along the LAC, and it had just completed a new 140-mile road to the high-altitude Daulat Beg Oldi airbase in Ladakh. This would allow the quick transportation of soldiers and equipment into the area. Some believe China acted more aggressively because it felt threatened by India’s infrastructure buildup.

But India said it was just catching up with China, which has already built a network of air bases, an extensive railroad network, and physical infrastructure along the border. India’s construction has hit numerous delays due to difficult terrain, budget constraints, land acquisition problems, and bureaucracy, according to the BBC

Meanwhile, international alliances are shifting. Dolla noted China is concerned about India’s growing relationship with the United States, which India sees as a way to counter China’s growing threat. China has not responded to India’s demands for more balanced bilateral trade relations, as its trade deficit with China was around $50 billion in 2019. Meanwhile, India is increasing trade with the United States and purchasing U.S. defense equipment. During President Donald Trump’s visit to Modi’s home state of Gujarat in February 2020, the Indian prime minister called the United States its most important partner. 

China is also concerned about the informal Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad) between India, Japan, Australia, and the United States. The Quad shares information and holds summits and military drills. This summer India indicated it would allow Australia to join the annual trilateral Malabar naval exercise with the other three countries in the Indian Ocean. India avoided inviting Australia in past years to avoid upsetting China.

“The recent attempts at strengthening relations is one issue … causing the Chinese to send a signal to both the West and India to make sure that your bonhomie, your cooperation, doesn’t become successful,” Dolla said. 

The India-China border clash also distracts from the negative attention China has received over its handling of the coronavirus. The United States and other Western countries have called for investigations into the origins of the virus and China’s complicity in covering up the outbreak during the crucial early days. The clash also came as most Indians were stuck inside their homes during COVID-19 lockdowns, and India faces an economic downturn caused by the pandemic. More than 64,000 Indians have died from the coronavirus.

SOON AFTER THE JUNE border skirmish, Indian officials called for a boycott of Chinese goods, a tall order as China is India’s largest trading partner and has invested millions in Indian tech startups. 

Over the next two months, India banned more than 100 Chinese apps in retaliation, claiming they pose a threat to national security. The most notable app on the list was TikTok, which had 200 million users in India, its largest overseas market. Local Indian apps competing with TikTok such as Roposo and Bolo Indya saw a large number of downloads. Facebook has also benefited from the ban: Its own app and Instagram—which launched a TikTok-like platform called Reels—saw a 30 percent surge in user engagement after the ban, according to research firm Kantar. 

India’s quality control agency has also delayed the approval of goods from Chinese companies such as electronics companies Xiaomi and Oppo, according to Reuters. These two brands make 80 percent of the smartphones sold in India. It also restricted Chinese investments in India’s technology, power, and critical infrastructure sectors, including in 5G. Visas for Chinese businessmen, academics, industry experts, and advocacy groups will require security clearances, reported Bloomberg. The government is also reviewing Indian universities’ relationships with Chinese institutions to reduce Chinese influence. 

The Indian public has been largely supportive of these moves. An August Mood of the Nation poll by the India Today Group found that 84 percent of Indians believe India cannot trust China because Xi betrayed Modi. A whopping 91 percent said it was the right move for the government to ban Chinese apps and deny contracts to Chinese companies.

Mukhtar Khan/AP

An Indian army convoy heads to Ladakh following the deadly confrontation. (Mukhtar Khan/AP)

AFTER MORE THAN 10 ROUNDS of high-level talks, China has withdrawn in some parts of Galwan Valley and Pangong Tso yet has not agreed to India’s demand to return to its pre-May positions. In late August, India’s Ministry of External Affairs acknowledged gaps remained between the two sides, but they both “will continue to sincerely work towards complete disengagements of troops.” The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs agreed, saying it hoped the discussions would “further cool down the border situation.”

In early September, tensions heated up again as India and China accused each other of provocative incursions by Pangong Tso and firing warning shots, the first exchange of fire in 45 years. Days later the two countries’ foreign ministers met for the first time and agreed in principle on a five-point plan to end a standoff at the border, though they admitted they still hadn’t reached final agreement as several differences still remain.

Satellite images by Stratfor, a U.S.-based intelligence platform, show China has continued to build, adding 50 new encampments, support bases, and heliports on the Chinese side of the LAC in Ladakh. India sees this as violating a commitment to maintain peace, according to The Hindu: A 1993 agreement between the two countries vowed to “keep its military forces in the areas along the line of actual control to a minimum level compatible with the friendly and good neighborly relations between the two countries.”

As talks continue, tens of thousands of troops along the border have a new hostile enemy to contend with: the harsh winters in the Himalayas, where temperatures can drop to minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Gokhale said that’s an advantage for India: More of its troops are acclimatized to the weather. There are hints that the troops may decide to withdraw for the winter on humanitarian grounds. 

Gokhale noted that the clash has in one fell stroke undone 40 years of engagement between China and India and will have a “chilling effect” on how the border is managed. “Galwan Valley has shown us that Chinese forces can’t be trusted,” Gokhale said. “They lost the opportunity to settle the border.”

The recent crisis has also aligned India closer to the United States, where suspicions toward Chinese influence and security concerns have grown. The Trump administration has recently taken similar steps in banning Chinese apps such as TikTok and investigating Chinese ties to U.S. campuses. India-U.S. relations are at their best in years, Gokhale noted, as the two countries strengthen their defense cooperation.

But India doesn’t want to simply do the United States’ bidding in trying to contain China in Asia. It also desires to maintain strategic autonomy in foreign policy: The United States and India have differing views on countries such as Russia, Iran, and Pakistan. 

Gokhale said China’s plan to prevent India from getting closer to the United States and other like-minded countries seems to have backfired. Instead it has strengthened India’s partnership with Quad members and led to New Zealand, South Korea, and Vietnam joining the Quad in the Economic Prosperity Network. While the latter is an economic alliance, Gokhale noted it could turn into a military alliance if China continues its aggression in the region.

“It’s showing a lot of aggression toward all countries big and small,” Gokhale said. “The ball is in China’s court to stop progress toward an anti-China alliance in Asia.”  

WORLD has updated this story to clarify that Narendra Modi is India’s prime minister.

June Cheng

June Cheng

June is a reporter for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and covers East Asia, including China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Follow June on Twitter @JuneCheng_World.