China–India border crisis reaches new heights

The latest crisis to engulf China and India erupted over their disputed border in early May 2020, when India discovered the presence of a large number Chinese forces in its claimed territory. It became quickly evident that China had occupied several areas on India’s side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in western Ladakh, as well as a portion of territory in the Indian state of Sikkim.

The ongoing China–India border crisis has its roots in history. India inherited unsettled borders from the British when it gained independence in 1947. Due to the absence of a clearly delineated boundary, there were several bloody clashes between Chinese and Indian forces in the 1950s and 1960s, including a full-scale war in 1962. Another bloody clash in 1967 claimed hundreds of casualties, albeit on a lower scale and intensity than in 1962.

The last time fatalities occurred on the Indian side was in 1975 at Tulung La along the LAC, although it is unclear whether it was the result of an accident or an ambush. Another crisis erupted in 1986 when China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) occupied territory at Somdurong Chu, leading to a massive Indian counter-mobilisation. Although this crisis did not result in bloodshed, the face-off lasted seven years before culminating in the 1993 Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity Agreement and Chinese forces withdrawing from the area. A 1996 agreement on confidence-building measures sought to prevent further tensions.

Despite these mechanisms, a violent clash occurred between the Indian and Chinese armies on 15 June 2020, causing the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and an unspecified number of PLA casualties.

The territorial claims made by each side defy easy resolution, and both Beijing and New Delhi have mobilised large forces across the entire stretch of the LAC — notwithstanding limited de-escalation in the Galwan Valley, Hot Springs, and Gogra in Ladakh. Though the central sector of the LAC adjacent to the Indian state of Sikkim was previously stable, the Chinese are believed to have made a two-kilometre incursion in an area known as Naku La. It is not evident that the PLA has yet vacated this area.

The territorial claims made by each side defy easy resolution, and both Beijing and New Delhi have mobilised large forces across the entire stretch of the LAC — notwithstanding limited de-escalation in the Galwan Valley, Hot Springs, and Gogra in Ladakh.

China is also escalating the situation by laying claim to territory under Bhutan’s control. Beijing is claiming Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in eastern Bhutan — close to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh that Beijing also claims. China appears to be attempting to drive a stronger bargain in negotiations with India through these expansive claims.

There are several potential pathways to a resolution, but none may have sufficient traction. The first would be New Delhi accepting China’s change of the status quo as a forcible eviction of the PLA might prove well-nigh impossible. These small territorial grabs are primarily tactical on China’s side, targeting minor areas where the chances of success are greatest. But for India, conceding to China’s territorial seizures would only legitimise Beijing’s ill-begotten gains and leave India a diminished power within the region and the wider Indo-Pacific. Its credibility would suffer and New Delhi would run the risk of being tested by its smaller neighbours.

A second pathway is more protracted. Both sides could remain mobilised as happened at Somdurong Chu. Even in such cases, precedents exist for a diplomatic resolution. Both Beijing and New Delhi might see wisdom in adhering to the foundational agreements concluded in 1993 and 1996 — and more limited agreements concluded in 2005, 2012 and 2013 that provide protocols for managing differences along the LAC. But the context of the resolution at Somdurong Chu was vastly different to the situation today. China was a much weaker power, and Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin were more cautious than current Chinese President Xi Jinping.

A third pathway towards resolution is by way of military means. New Delhi could decide to escalate symmetrically by confining a military response to the areas where China entered Indian-claimed territory. This option is likely to be costly and a failure — and more importantly, it does not prevent China from escalating things further. India would also find it difficult to escalate the confrontation to new areas as Chinese forces will now be far more alert. In either case, political will and a readiness to run risks would be essential for the Indian government get a public buy-in.

India and China could also settle for a compromise that involves China withdrawing from specific ridges along the Pangong Tso Lake — a key hot spot — while retaining a few others. This might be replicated across the areas of contention, but this face-saving formula is likely to leave India without a complete restoration of the status quo, posing a domestic political challenge for Indian policy makers.

India and China could also settle for a compromise that involves China withdrawing from specific ridges along the Pangong Tso Lake — a key hot spot — while retaining a few others. This might be replicated across the areas of contention, but this face-saving formula is likely to leave India without a complete restoration of the status quo

This border crisis has fundamentally ruptured the trajectory of China–India relations. Himalayan geopolitics seems to have entered a new, more volatile phase.


This commentary originally appeared in East Asia Forum.

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