China and India earlier this month experienced the worst clash between their armed forces since 1967. The two nuclear-armed neighbors share a 4,056-km border that has not been fully demarcated, triggering military confrontations virtually since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. That enduring flashpoint has assumed new significance as the two countries battle the COVID-19 outbreak and their political leaders steer two deeply nationalist publics through multidimensional crises. The current crisis could prove to be a defining moment for Asia.
The border has been a source of constant strain in the China-India relationship, one that includes nearly one-third of the world’s population and two of its most important countries. Its precise contours are uncertain; its name — the Line of Actual Control (LAC) — reflects that ambiguity.
Beijing and New Delhi began talks over the border dispute in the 1980s, but 21 rounds of negotiations yielded no results. The two militaries have tested each other — a daunting proposition at over 4,000 meters of altitude — but most incidents were settled peacefully, although the two countries fought a month-long war in 1962 that resulted in some 2,000 deaths and thousands more soldiers injured or reported missing.
The Indian government charges that the Chinese military entered Indian territory 1,025 times between 2016 and 2018. China denies the allegations and instead insists that India crossed the line. The last serious confrontation was in 2017, when the two militaries had a two-month confrontation in the disputed area of Doklam, claimed by China and Bhutan (India intervened on Bhutan’s behalf).
The recent crisis began in early May, when dozens of soldiers skirmished at Pangong Lake in the Ladakh region; a few days later, the two militaries again squared off at another site over 1,500 km away in the eastern part of the Himalayas. Military and diplomatic officials smoothed things over until mid-June, when a real fight again broke out in Ladakh.
The Galwan River Valley is a strategic location for both countries, providing access to key transportation links; consistent with its importance, both countries have construction projects on their side of the LAC. Some 5,000 Chinese soldiers have been dispatched near the LAC in recent months.
While incursions across the LAC are regular occurrences, Indian observers charge that this time China built structures — bunkers and observation posts — on Indian territory that overlooked a vital road and, despite agreeing to withdraw the troops, left the structures in place. When Indian forces returned and tore them down they were confronted by Chinese troops. A brawl with nearly 900 soldiers ensued. The two sides engaged in bloody hand-to-hand combat, using batons, iron rods, rocks and fists. No shots were fired, consistent with a protocol agreed decades ago that forbids the use of firearms within 2 km of the LAC.
When the dust settled, 20 Indian soldiers were dead. Chinese authorities acknowledged “fierce physical conflict, causing casualties,” but reported no deaths; other sources estimate the number of Chinese casualties (dead and wounded) at several dozen. Ten Indian soldiers were seized by China; they were released after 60 hours in custody after three rounds of negotiations between the two militaries.
Chinese sources blamed India for a provocative attack on the Chinese side of the LAC while Indians insist that China seeks to “change the status quo” in the contested area, an accusation that follows construction of the facilities and a statement by Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian that “China always owns sovereignty over the Galwan Valley region” and India must show restraint if conflict is to be avoided.
Negotiations appear to have calmed the situation — Indian sources report “a mutual consensus to disengage” — but real and permanent damage may have been done. Chinese actions have had a profound impact on Indian thinking about its neighbor. Suspicions and anxieties have calcified as Indian strategists align this clash with Chinese muscle flexing toward Taiwan and in Kong Kong; some observers draw parallels between the steady creep of Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea to four incidents on the LAC since 2012. Warming ties between China and Pakistan are confirmation in New Delhi of Beijing’s readiness to use every lever to pressure the South Asian giant. A former Indian ambassador to China sees “a new edge” in China’s attitude, a readiness to throw [away] internationally accepted behavior to advance their claims and interests …”
Strategically, Beijing’s behavior makes no sense. It is inflaming Indian nationalism, reinforcing the hardline views of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and undercutting personal diplomacy by Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping that sought to put a floor on bilateral relations between the two countries. Indian nationalists have called for boycotts of Chinese goods and investment.
The dispute is pushing India closer to Japan and the United States, countries that share dark suspicions about Chinese intentions, at a time when China is weakened by the COVID-19 outbreak and should be making friends, not antagonizing them. In an editorial, The Times of India called on New Delhi “to work more closely with Indo-Pacific democracies trying to balance Chinese power across the region.”
In China, India’s increasingly hard line is seen as proof that it is moving inexorably closer to the U.S. As this occurs, Chinese decision-makers have concluded that only a firm stance will convince India, and other governments, that resistance will by more painful than beneficial.
Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank, argues in a recent analysis that Beijing believes it cannot back down, pointing to the coronavirus and deteriorating ties with the U.S. as reinforcing the need to stand strong. Conversations with Chinese analysts convinced her that they believe India, emboldened by stronger ties with the U.S., is trying to exploit a distracted Beijing.
At the same time, Washington has forced China into a dilemma: acquiescing to territorial losses or appearing aggressive. Writing on the national security site War On The Rocks, Yun concluded, “COVID-19, U.S.-Chinese strategic rivalry and China’s self-perceived vulnerability all contributed to a sense of insecurity in Beijing.” This “aggravated China’s response to what would otherwise have been a relatively common interaction in the disputed border.”
In theory, the solution to this conundrum is resolution of the territorial dispute and creating a border, rather than a mere line of control. But Yun argues that “Chinese see the clarification of the LAC as an impossible, lost cause because the two sides simply do not share the same historical records or perspectives.” In addition, China considers India to be an unreliable partner and sees value in bogging New Delhi down in the border dispute, spending precious capital, showing its limits and distracting it from broader ambitions. Finally, the two sides have asymmetrical demands: India seeks hard answers — a border — that are hard to reverse. Chinese demands are more ephemeral — India’s neutrality in China’s dispute with other democratic powers — and easier to undo.
If that is an accurate reading, then this is a moment of truth for both countries. If this doesn’t push New Delhi into closer strategic ties with Washington and Tokyo, then likely nothing short of armed conflict will. If Beijing prefers to force that choice on New Delhi, then there is no escaping the conclusion that nothing short of force will get China to change course — a lesson that must be internalized by all countries in the region.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of "Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions."