The disputed region of Kashmir, which is often referred to as a nuclear flashpoint between rivals India and Pakistan, is now a bone of contention for a third nuclear power: China. High in the rugged and uninhabited Himalayas, along the contested frontiers that separate China’s autonomous region of Tibet and Indian-controlled Ladakh, militaries of the two Asian giants have been engaged in a tense standoff for months, heightening fears of a Sino-India war for the first time in six decades.
On 15 June, at least 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a gruesome hand-to-hand clash with Chinese soldiers along the de facto border between the two neighbours in the western Himalayas region. The deadly skirmish happened during a “de-escalation process” in the Galwan Valley of the disputed Aksai Chin-Ladakh area, where Chinese troops had reportedly been building up a presence since September last year.
The Indian government termed the fighting a “premeditated” ambush of its troops by the People’s Liberation Army. India’s Ministry of External Affairs alleged the fighting was triggered after Chinese forces hindered the “normal, traditional patrolling pattern” of the Indian border troops on what it claimed was the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) – the de facto border in the region. Beijing accused Indian border patrols of instigating the fight after “violently” attacking Chinese soldiers.
During the violent face-off that lasted six hours, about 600 troops from both sides fought with fists, stones, iron rods and spiked batons. Neither side shot firearms, as it is customary for troops not to carry weapons to avoid any possibility of escalation. Many Indian troops reportedly fell to their deaths from the steep ridge. China did not disclose how many casualties its troops suffered. These are the first fatalities on the India-China border since 1975 when four soldiers were killed in a Chinese ambush at Tulung La in Arunachal Pradesh – India’s easternmost state also claimed by China.
While the two sides publicly declared they would pull back following the clash, both India and China have sent military reinforcements to the region, with one warning of unspecified “countermeasures” and the other saying it would not be browbeaten. In a public statement, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the Indian army has been “given a free hand to take all necessary steps” to protect its territory and that the country is capable of giving a “befitting reply”.
Beijing’s comments on the timeline differ from India’s version of events. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian said the Indian side had agreed to withdraw personnel from the area, which it did, and dismantled its facilities. “During the first commander meeting on 6 June, the Indian side committed to no trespassing of the Galwan Valley for patrolling and for building. The two sides agreed to set up observatory posts at the two sides of the Galwan River estuary, but the Indian side went against this agreement and asked China to dismantle China’s posts, and also crossed the LAC.” This, Lijian said, led to the fighting.
The roots of the dispute
The mighty Himalayas provide a natural, but unspecified, border between India and China. While Beijing and Delhi agree that they dispute the territory, they do not agree on the areas under dispute. China believes the disputed territory to be an area of about 125 000km while India recognises only 43 000km of this area as unresolved.
The Galwan valley in Ladakh, where the fighting occurred, is part of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state over which India and Pakistan have fought several wars. China and India also went to war in 1962 over their disputed border in this region, following which Beijing took over Aksai Chin, a territory in the northwest of Ladakh.
While no border was officially negotiated, the uneasy truce called after the 1962 war established a loosely demarcated line referred to as the LAC. Since then, both countries disagree over the position of this line. The formation of the LAC is mainly based on two foundations: the first is a clear natural boundary, while the second reflects historic use of the territory in terms of human activity and government management.
The genesis of territorial contestation stems from the lack of a consensus on cartographies as well as history. Beijing believes it to be a problem left over by British colonialists. Delhi argues that the disputes have been caused by both British colonialism and Chinese expansionism – of which India has been a victim.
The India-China boundary is usually trifurcated into three segments – the western sector covering areas of the Ladakh region with Tibet; the middle sector including the Indian states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh with Tibet; and the eastern sector, which includes areas of Arunachal Pradesh with Tibet. India’s claim in the western sector evolved out of Britain’s attempts to define and delimit the boundary of British India with China.
In the second half of the 19th century, the British commissioned several cartographic surveys to discern the limits of the Kashmir valley and adjoining regions that had come under its control. According to scholars, the need for defining the boundaries of Kashmir was in the context of the “Great Game” – referring to the rivalry between the British and Russian empires in Central Asia throughout the 19th century. Growing fears of Russian proximity to British India creeping in from Central Asia meant that the “inhospitable lands” to the north of Kashmir became the playground for this rivalry.
In the 1860s, a civilian surveyor from British-colonised India, William Johnson, set out to map the frontiers of Kashmir under Captain Thomas Montgomerie of the Great Trigonometric Survey – a decades-long project that aimed to measure British India. The expedition headed from Ladakh towards Tibet and Turkestan, what is now the Chinese province of Xinjiang. Johnson’s survey proposed a northern boundary for Kashmir, and in 1897 this was formalised as the Ardagh-Johnson line. It placed all of Aksai Chin within Kashmir’s limits. The versions of Johnson’s map became independent India’s position.
Other British planners proposed other boundary lines and complicated the perception of boundaries, such as the 1899 Macartney-MacDonald line, which was accepted by Beijing till the late 1950s. The Macartney-MacDonald line placed much of Aksai Chin in China, which gave the Chinese access from Xinjiang to Tibet, in China. Both India and China agreed to shelve the border question in the mid-1950s, but the contestation remained over Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh.
After armed clashes broke out in 1959, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai suggested a territorial swap to India’s then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1960. Enlai asked India to recognise China’s right to the western sector in exchange for Beijing relinquishing claims to the eastern sector. India’s leadership did not share Zhou’s pragmatism and Nehru declined the offer, paving the way for the 1962 Indo-China war.
Several explanations have been put forth to rationalise Chinese aggression against India in Ladakh. Many argue that Beijing is unhappy with Delhi’s move in August 2019 to end Kashmir’s autonomy, one result of which was the creation of the Union Territory of Ladakh. China deemed Ladakh’s changed status “unacceptable”, saying it undermines its “sovereignty” – even raising the issue at the informal meet of the United Nations Security Council last year. Delhi responded by saying Ladakh’s new status was an “internal matter” having “no impact” on the LAC status.
India’s Union Home Minister Amit Shah had, however, vowed to “take back” Aksai Chin, further fuelling China’s resentment. “From a military operational perspective, laying claim to Aksai Chin translates into a strategic intent to sever Tibet’s link with Xinjiang,” argues journalist Ejaz Haider, asserting that Beijing’s action should be seen in the context of Delhi’s move to “illegally bifurcate and annex the occupied territory of Jammu and Kashmir, including Ladakh”.
Echoing similar sentiments, Happymon Jacob, who teaches national security at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, writes that it is clear that by “inventing” a rhetorical position around the issue of Aksai Chin, Delhi seems to have aggravated the existing Chinese sensitivities on it. “India’s infrastructure-building activities on its side of the LAC and China’s China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) connectivity to Pakistan were already on a collision course, and it seems the reorganisation of Jammu [and] Kashmir on 5 August last year, and the rhetoric surrounding it, may have finally triggered a conflict that was building up for a long time,” he underlines.
Former Indian Army commander Lieutenant General HS Panag also argues that Beijing has been extremely suspicious of India as it believes that India’s strategic aim is to restore the status quo before 1950 by recovering Aksai Chin and other areas secured by China. “India’s alignment with the United States, the presence of Tibetan government-in-exile in India, and the aggressive claims on Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan – through which the prestigious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor passes – only strengthen China’s suspicion,” he notes.
India has also been wary of military and economic cooperation between China and Pakistan, and publicly raised its reservation about the CPEC under which China plans to build roads in the Pakistan-controlled Kashmir region. India fears that the CPEC will eventually integrate China’s interests into Pakistan’s, resulting in China either consciously or involuntarily ending its diplomatic neutrality between India and Pakistan.
India, in response, has been building roads and airfields to improve connectivity and narrow the gap with China’s far superior infrastructure. Some observers argue that Beijing perceived India’s recent road construction work in the regions as a change in the status quo and a challenge to its strategic position.
China’s problem with India is not only about India’s claims over its territory, but also arises from the historic support of Delhi for “rebellious” Tibetans, notes Jiadong Zhang and Qian Sun, who teach at Fudan University and Shanghai Ocean University, respectively. “India’s attempt to inherit the British empire’s colonial legacy in Tibet was an important reason for the deterioration of China-India relations even before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949,” they highlight, emphasising that when the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, Delhi not only allowed him to form a government in exile, but also funded an anti-Chinese insurgency and recruited exiled Tibetans for the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, which patrol the Indo-China border, to irk Beijing.
There is also a belief among some commentators that China’s “bullying” is an attempt to punish India for deepening strategic ties with the US. Some also argue that Beijing is taking advantage of the distraction caused by Covid-19 to aggressively assert its territorial claims in the disputed region with its neighbours and distract from its alleged part in the global pandemic.