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India and China engage in deadliest border clash since 1960s: What the issue is all about?

Many soldiers were reportedly killed on either side of the border after they clashed with stones and clubs in Galwan Valley region of eastern Ladakh on June 15
Narendra Modi with Xi Jinping (Getty Images)
Narendra Modi with Xi Jinping (Getty Images)

At least 20 Indian Army personnel and 35 Chinese troops were killed on either side of the India-China border along the Himalaya mountain range in the Ladakh region where troops from the two giant Asian neighbors clashed this week. This is the first fatal clash since 1975 and the most serious since the 1960s when the two went into a war resulting in China’s victory. The clashes broke out on Monday (June 15) evening when an Indian patrolling squad came across Chinese forces on a narrow ridge.

According to a report in the Guardian, one Indian commanding officer was pushed and he fell into the river gorge and soon, troops from the two nuclear-powered neighbors clashed with rocks and clubs, resulting in the deaths. Thirty-five were killed on the Chinese side in the clash in the Galwan Valley, according to American intelligence sources, though Beijing did not confirm the exact number. The media of both nations blamed each other for the initial transgression of the border. The editor-in-chief of China’s state-run Global Times conceded that there were Chinese casualties but added that the People’s Liberation Army wanted to avoid “stoking public mood” by comparing the number of casualties. 

The timing of the escalation

China has been facing flak from across the world over the origin of the coronavirus pandemic which has paralyzed the planet. Its leadership has chosen to lock horns with a number of neighbors in this time, including Hong Kong and Taiwan besides India. The border tensions have been escalating since late April when China mobilized its troops into the disputed territory along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). According to analysts, Beijing has been more assertive in putting up infrastructure in the region and is worried that India could also upgrade its own military infrastructure there. The two countries have a history of border tensions flaring up from time to time. In 2017, troops from both sides came face to face in Doklam over China’s construction of a road there near a trijunction border area between India, China, and Bhutan. The stand-off, however, did not go out of control despite the troops seeing eye to eye for 73 days. 

In the Galwan Valley tussle, China’s refusal to vacate the disputed areas led to the skirmishes. Last month, too, there was a huge brawl between the patrolling parties but no death was reported. Earlier in June, senior military leaders from both sides met and committed to disengage. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping have met each other on a number of occasions, including an informal meeting in Wuhan in April 2018, but yet the latest confrontation shows that the relations have not gone much too ahead. 

History of India-China conflict

In 1962, India and China had a war over their contested border in the difficult terrains of the Himalayas. India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru was in office then, while Zhou Enlai was the premier of China. The huge borderline of more than 2,500 miles often lacks clear marking which increases the chances of disputes. The 1962 war ended in a truce and the formation of the de facto boundary called the Line of Actual Control (LAC). But occasional skirmishes along the border have remained a regular occurrence, including those of 2013 and 2017. The two neighbors have not negotiated an official border and China has often challenged Arunachal Pradesh’s status as an Indian state. The region where the current clashes have occurred is a hostile one at a high altitude and with a sparse population. Ladakh is a popular tourist destination. 

What do India and China look for?

Both nations have looked to establish their claims to the territory by mobilizing the military. Both have upgraded their respective infrastructure in the border areas by building new roads, airstrips, outpost stations, etc and regular patrolling happens along the disputed border. China claims more than 90,000 square kilometers of area in the eastern Himalayas and another 38,000 square kilometers in the west and they are being challenged by India. 

What are the consequences?

The border clashes between India and China have far-reaching consequences, not just for the region but for the world. The two countries -- the most populous in the world and also emerging economies that are often dubbed as the next set of world leaders -- are run by strong nationalist forces. They are members of key world platforms like BRICS and SCO that aspire to set up an alternative world order. Chinese products have a considerable influence on Indian markets and Beijing is known to be an all-weather friend of Pakistan, the other hostile neighbor that India has. China also sees India as an ally of the US through which Washington is trying to counter-balance its influence in Asia. Though Modi and Jinping have made a number of efforts so far to reclaim the lost ground in the two nations’ friendship, the Ladakh clashes prove that they still have miles to go before their normal relationship is restored.