For the past several weeks hundreds of Indian and Chinese military personnel were steadfast on opposite sides of an arbitrary line in the middle of the Himalayan mountains. This arbitrary line has been the point of conflict for the better part of fifty years and has defined India’s foreign policy with multiple neighbours for years. Pakistan, India’s noted rival, has been embroiled in a long border dispute with neither India nor Pakistan conceding an inch. Nepal, who has been historically friendly with India has been at odds over their border as well.
Much like Pakistan, China has been contesting India at the border as far back as the 1950s with a war occurring in 1962. This has been the basis for the persistent border conflict, but this conflict is more accurately compared to dogs barking at each other. However, the events of June 15th saw multiple dead on both sides after a skirmish; so why was this conflict one that ended in bloodshed?
With tensions on the rise in early June, India and China decided to call a conference and mutually decided to mitigate the ongoing rhetoric and tensions at the border, by withdrawing troops further away from the Line of Actual Control, or the LAC. The LAC can be broadly understood as the invisible line that marks the hard border of each country; this is the line that you see on maps that denote where one territory ends and the other begins.
Alyssa Ayres raises interesting points regarding the LAC between India and China, particularly the portion that runs through where the skirmish occurred in the Ladakh Valley. Ayres writes that the LAC in this specific area has never been officially surveyed by a cartographer and instead still uses rough estimates from when India was under colonial rule. The fact that this area has never officially been surveyed using present-day cartography techniques is the basis for the deadly skirmish on June 15th.
The LAC had been marked using natural landmarks as well as a few of the sparse structures, thus making the estimate relatively consistent. These natural and unnatural reference points had been mutually recognized and was the point of contention that led to the skirmish. The agreement that was reached with the goal of toning down the rising tension involved China backtracking from the LAC to pose less of a direct threat.
During this movement off of the LAC an Indian patrol group witnessed Chinese personnel tearing down towers and other structures, which the Indian military subsequently perceived as China altering the unnatural border markers in order to redraw the LAC in China’s favour. As a result, the Indian patrol initiated an attack killing an undisclosed number of Chinese soldiers, although the number of casualties is estimated to be in excess of forty. The Indian forces suffered a confirmed twenty casualties in the same skirmish.
The response given by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi elicited a sentiment that India will not pushover anymore to Chinese demands. Modi is quoted saying, “India wants peace. But on provocation, India will give a befitting reply” during a television address on the skirmish. China on the other hand, is fully blaming India for not obliging by the agreement reached and finds India unilaterally responsible for the first deaths seen as a result of the border dispute in decades. China also denies trying to change any evidence on the ground regarding the LAC.
The response of the Indian population at large has been rather nonexistent. Joanna Slater and Gerry Shih who write for the Washington Post note this lack of outrage by Indian citizens and juxtapose that to the overwhelming outrage following a conflict with rival Pakistan. Perhaps this paints a promising picture that no further escalation will occur, and tensions will slowly ease. What steps will likely follow a conflict of this magnitude around an issue that clearly China and India both are willing to not concede to the other on?
In order to achieve the most peaceful path forward it is necessary to understand why the Sino-Indian border is such a problematic region to begin with, in other words, why is this region important? Dating back to the border war in 1962 this region has been an important route for China to export goods to central Asia. At that particular time (1962) China had not yet begun to reinvent their economy and become a massive player on the world stage, however the access to the trade roads running through the Ladakh region certainly helped China establish consistent regional trade. India in 1962 had only been an independent state for fifteen years but even in the infancy of their state they still defended the borders that the British had established. The war led to an era of steady relations where China did not try to annex any territory and India did not bolster border defenses.
During the next forty years, China had been meddling in the affairs of other Asian countries while building their superpower portfolio with India only being a blip on their radar. However, in this same period India has been industrializing, raising their GDP, and arming themselves with nuclear weapons, thus firmly inserting themselves into the world stage as a power player. Now India is showing their new capabilities by building infrastructure and establishing military bases and airstrips along the border where they recognize the LAC to be, which is obviously disputed. This has subsequently led to China taking reactive measures to assure their grip on the region does not loosen.
Going forward from this skirmish, that left dozens dead on both sides, is no easy task and could set the foreign policy agenda for the foreseeable future as India cements themselves as no longer a pushover. India has expressed their intent to go tit-for-tat with China if transgressions continue to occur, while the Indian public is calling for a boycott of Chinese goods. This strategy may not be within India’s long-term interest as they are still trying to grow their economy and China provides a large percentage of both imports and exports. In fact, a trade war may worsen relations that could lead to more violence.
One democratic path that I see would be to transform this portion of the Sino-Indian border into a cooperatively operated economic zone, that allows for both India and China to access the roads that each side has created in order to trade with central Asia. Since the border dispute seemed to be economic in nature this seems to be a solution that would ensure China’s central Asian trade interests be maintained as well as allow India to more easily access new and existing markets. This solution would also allow China to focus on other regional concerns and have less of a focus on their nuclear armed neighbor.
Perhaps this was a calculated move on China’s part to see if India had any bite to go along with their bark as they climbed in prevalence on the world stage. Seeing as how the skirmish went and Prime Minister Modi doubling down with his remarks and intent to defend the Indian border, China must be aware that India is on their way to parity. The coming days and weeks will determine how China and India choose to go forward with policy regarding the border. The more than fifty military personnel who were killed on June 15th were the first to die in more than a half century as a result of the border; India and China must pass the necessary legislation to create a peaceful border and ensure those casualties are the last.