At least 20 soldiers have been killed in the Galwan Valley area of the Himalayan border between India and China, after clashes between both nations’ forces over the location’s disputed border. This border has been the location and cause of many skirmishes between soldiers of both sides since the Sino-Indian War of 1962, a war fought between the two nations that ended in a Chinese victory but a contested border ever since. However, the skirmishes (which have occurred occasionally since the war) have not ended in fatalities in 45 years, making this incident a notable potential turning point that could lead to larger engagement between the two countries.
Though China has not confirmed casualties of its own, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian placed the blame on Indian forces, stating that they crossed onto the Chinese side of the border multiple times and “provoked and attacked Chinese personnel.” Meanwhile, Anurag Srivastava of the Indian foreign ministry denied the Chinese claims; he instead asserted that “Indian troops are fully familiar with the alignment of the” border, and that they “abide by it scrupulously.” The end result of 20 deaths, if not more on the Chinese side, has worried onlookers and had scholars debating the potential of further escalation between China and India. According to Global News, “Michael Kugelman, a South Asia specialist at the Wilson Center, said that the two countries were unlikely to go to war because they cannot ‘afford a conflict.’”
Not only have both countries have insinuated that this skirmish was the other side’s fault, but the governments of both nations have downplayed this fatal interaction. India’s Prime Minister explained that “no one has intruded into our territory, nor taken over any post,” and China still has yet to elaborate on the injuries or fatalities of their forces. It is concerning that the Chinese and Indian governments are pushing this conflict to their foreign affairs back burners, instead of working towards a mutual agreement over the border that can ensure future peace in the region. Even if the probability of the two countries going to war over this border is low at the moment, more instances of violent or fatal skirmishes could build up to a war in the future. It is essential that these two nuclear powers commit to arranging distinct, clear borders throughout the Himalayas.
Since the Sino-Indian War in 1962, there have been many instances of confrontation between Chinese and Indian forces regarding their shared border, which have occurred almost yearly. Most of these standoffs are non-violent and involve small incidents such as rocks being thrown from one side of the border to the other. There has not been a single skirmish that has ended in fatalities, like last week’s confrontation, in about four decades. Although the Sino-Indian War ended in a technical victory for China and the establishment of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), or the official boundaries in the Himalayan/Nepalese area between China and India, the LAC has been scarcely followed. Frequently, Chinese or Indian forces conduct construction around the LAC in areas that are not technically part of their territory, and this construction or general presence is what usually leads to the confrontations.
The governments of China and India need to meet and establish a renewed version of the LAC to prevent future conflict and to ensure peace in the area around their shared border. Last week’s skirmish, which ended in more than 70 injuries and 20 deaths on just one side, is the only confrontation between the two powers that most closely resembles the actual Sino-Indian War, and continuing to ignore or downplay the tension in the area has intense potential to develop into a second war unless the powers commit to stopping it.