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A seven-week military standoff between India and China escalated into a deadly conflict along their contested Himalayan border for the first time in more than four decades, signaling a sharp deterioration in ties between the two regional giants.

It’s unclear what sparked the clashes or how many died in Monday’s violence — so far India has confirmed 20 of its troops were killed. Zhang Shuili, a military spokesperson in China’s western battle zone command, said in a statement there were casualties on both sides, without elaborating.

Just two days ago it appeared efforts to lower the temperature on both the diplomatic and military fronts were working, with the two sides indicating they were pulling back forces while talks continued.

The uptick in tensions comes amid a rising din of nationalism stoked by both governments as the two powers jostle for regional influence. A further escalation could cast a shadow over a tripartite meeting planned with Russia this month.

India’s longstanding differences with neighbor Pakistan continue to simmer and this month relations with traditional ally Nepal significantly deteriorated, while Bangladesh is still smarting from New Delhi’s decision to adopt a religion-based citizenship law. Beijing is also under pressure as governments from the U.S. to Europe, Japan and Australia move to cut a dependence on China exposed by the pandemic, and it’s facing an international push to investigate the coronavirus, first identified in Wuhan.

It’s not in either country’s interests to be locked into a bloody border conflict, said Anit Mukherjee, assistant professor in the South Asia program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“This standoff — with a loss of lives — is a very serious development,” Mukherjee said. “In the days ahead, as the funerals of the fallen play out in public, it will lead to an emotional call for some sort of a response.”

Chinese troops hold a banner reading 'You've crossed the border, please go back' in Ladakh, India, in 2013. | AP
Chinese troops hold a banner reading ‘You’ve crossed the border, please go back’ in Ladakh, India, in 2013. | AP

Leadership test

At a regular press briefing in Beijing Tuesday, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian warned India against making any unilateral movement that could complicate the situation. A statement released by India said military leaders at the border were trying to negotiate a solution.

In a statement late Tuesday evening, India tried to defuse the situation and said it remained committed to peace on the border with China. The clash followed an attempt by the Chinese to alter the status quo in violation of de-escalation terms agreed to in recent talks, it added.

“We remain firmly convinced of the need for the maintenance of peace and tranquility in the border areas and the resolution of differences through dialogue,” Foreign ministry spokesman Anurag Srivastava said. “At the same time, we are also strongly committed to ensuring India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The escalation risks upending a scheduled meeting between Indian and Chinese foreign ministers at the Russia-India-China summit on June 22 and may set back diplomatic progress made during two informal summits between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the most recent taking place last October in India.

It will also test Modi’s leadership as he manages the twin crises of a surging coronavirus epidemic and an economy that’s set for its first annual contraction in more than four decades this year.

India and China — which together account for a population in excess of 2.7 billion, or one third of the world’s people — are no strangers to animosity, and fought a war in 1962 over their 3,488-kilometer (2,167-mile) unmarked boundary. But that was supposed to be behind them as economic and commercial realities took precedence.

The death of the soldiers come within days of the Indian army chief announcing easing of tensions. China, which has been facing criticism over its increased assertiveness across the region — from the South China Sea to Taiwan and Hong Kong — has blamed New Delhi for the escalation.

An Indian man burns a photograph of Chinese President Xi Jinping during a protest in Ahmedabad, India, on Tuesday. | AP
An Indian man burns a photograph of Chinese President Xi Jinping during a protest in Ahmedabad, India, on Tuesday. | AP

Nationalist fervor

China has not yet officially confirmed the number of casualties from the clash, yet nationalistic sentiment is already surging on social media.

The hashtag China-India border conflict has had over 110 million views on China’s microblogging site Weibo, despite limited coverage by China’s tightly-controlled media outlets.

Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the tabloid Global Times, warned India “not to be arrogant and misread China’s restraint as being weak” in a tweet and his own Weibo account. “China doesn’t want to have a clash with India, but we don’t fear it,” he posted.

The challenge now is to de-escalate what is “arguably the most serious India-China border spat in years,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Washington-based Wilson Center. “Contrary to what Delhi has suggested, this won’t be an easy ladder to climb down.”

While tensions are expected to eventually ease, they come at an especially tricky time for Modi, Kugelman said. “For an Indian government forced to confront its more powerful rival even while fighting a deadly pandemic and accompanying economic crisis, this is not what it wants to say the least.”

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