ON JUNE 15, fights broke out between Chinese and Indian soldiers over a historically uncertain and disputed Western Himalayan border called Galwan River Valley. This border region is high enough to be called as the roof of the world. In the weeks leading up to the clash, there were reports of scuffle between the two armies over the Line of Actual Control, a very poorly demarcated border between the two countries. The term LAC is a misnomer as there is no agreement on where the line is. There also is no mutual agreement between the two countries clearly delineating the territory under the LAC.
The confrontation came after tension has escalated in recent months over a new road that India built in Ladakh along the LAC which prompted China to deploy troops to safeguard its border. China also accused that Indian troops had crossed the border twice. The situation went out of control during a tense meeting of officers from both sides and escalated into deadly clashes.
While no arms were used, during the brawl some soldiers fell into the fast-flowing River Galwan in sub-zero temperature. At least 20 Indian soldiers were killed, but there were no officially confirmed Chinese casualties. Analysts say that China has refrained from publishing its casualty so that Indians cannot make comparison to further inflame ultra (Hindu) nationalist sentiment that has gripped India since the Hindu supremacist Bhartiya Janata Party has come to power in 2014.
At the same time, Indian officials brushed aside that any soldiers had been in Chinese captivity. Meanwhile, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson did not directly address media reports that said that China released Indian soldiers, including a lieutenant colonel and three majors, who were detained on June 18. Instead, the spokesperson said, ‘My information is that at present there are no Indian personnel detained on the Chinese side.’
China and India have had numerous border clashes since the early 1960s. The root of the conflict lies deep into the British colonial rule in India and the strategic manoeuvres of the Great Game at the turn of the 20th century when the British wanted to delineate their sphere of influence from Tsarist Russia expanding into central Asia towards Tibet. This would create a European rival next door. This triggered the Great Game between these two European rivals.
The British considered that this border was one of their most vulnerable borders and went ahead with reformulating the border in its favour disregarding any historical record by drawing the McMahon Line, named after Henry McMahon who proposed the border, encompassing the present-day eastern frontier between China and India to safeguard their colonial interests in India which itself is a British colonial construct like the McMahon Line itself. But China never recognised the line.
As India got its independence from the British colonial rule in 1947, China was founded as the People’s Republic of China in 1949 under the leadership of Mao Zedong. Since birth, they have been at odds with each other over the border issues. Tension started to rise throughout the 1950s culminating in the 1962 war. Chines troops crossed across the McMahon Line into India and took position and declared a ceasefire, unofficially drawing the line where Chinese troops took position, thus establishing what is now known as the Line of Actual Control.
To prevent any further border skirmishes, the Indian prime minister Narasimha Rao signed an agreement accepting the de facto border by ceding some territories to the west of the border in 1993. To further buttress the 1993 agreement, another agreement was signed in 1996 which banned the use of firearms during any border conflict except in the cases of military exercises. Another agreement was signed in 2005, renewing the continued willingness of both the countries to abide by the previously signed agreements.
However, since the Hindu supremacist Bhartiya Janata Party under the leadership of Narendra Modoi came to power in 2014, Indian has taken a very muscular stance on the border issue. Of particular concern to China is India’s change of constitutionally guaranteed status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The constitutional change was primarily designed to give a demographic solution to the Muslim-majority state to turn it into a Muslim-minority state. However, there is a collateral issue involved in this constitutional change where Ladakh is separated from Jammu and Kashmir.
However, China’s focus is on Ladakh. The River Galwan Valley is in Ladakh, close to Aksai Chin, a disputed area claimed by India but controlled by China. India considers Aksai Chin as part of the Indian territory of Ladakh which was carved out of India-occupied Kashmir on August 5, 2019 when the said constitutional change was enforced. China saw the recent construction of roads in the area as a change in the status quo and a challenge to its strategic position. This Indian claim to Aksai Chin has no legal validity as numerous UN resolutions identify Jammu and Kashmir, including Ladakh, as a disputed territory.
India’s claim to Aksai Chin — official Indian maps show Aksai Chin as part of India — is a demonstration of India’s strategic intent to delink Tibet from Xinjiang province. The New York Times also suggested that India’s home minister Amit Shah played a role in aggravating things by vowing in a speech in 2019 to take back Aksai Chin. By controlling the Galwan River ridge line, China can keep India’s claims to the Aksai Chin plateau in check. Therefore, to maintain the current LAC is of utmost strategic interest to China in forestalling any threat to its geographic integrity.
China considers the valley as part of Tibet which had been a Chinese protectorate of the Qing empire since the early 18th century and Xinjiang province. Further to the east, China claims Arunachal Pradesh as southern flank of Tibet and describes it as South Tibet. These are the two major areas of frontier disputes between the two countries.
Neville Maxwell in his book India’s China War noted that when the then Chinese premier Zhou Enlai visited New Delhi after successfully renegotiating the same boundary line with Myanmar, which was part of the British India at the time the border line was drawn, China could not achieve a successful outcome as India held the view that the McMahon Line cannot be renegotiated. China also successfully reached a border agreement with Nepal. In fact, India’s continuous border disputes with its neighbours have intensified in recent days.
India’s such rigid stand on border with its neighbours is designed by its colonial history. India being a British colonial construct, it assiduously and instinctively feels compelled to hold onto the territory bequeathed to it by its colonial master. As Perry Anderson in his book The India Ideology points out, Jawaharlal Nehru in his final dispute with China invoked the Mahabharata as proof that North East Frontier Agency had been part of Mother India from time immemorial. India’s drive to recreate mythical India is also the root cause of its bullying behaviour with its smaller neighbours. However, the relationship with China is a very different case.
Both China and India have mobilised substantial forces in the conflict zone. India has now discarded the previous restrictions on the use of firearms to respond to ‘extraordinary situations’ and definitely, China would also respond in a similar fashion. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi visited the conflict zone recently on a moral boosting mission, while local commanders appear to be trying to reach an agreement to disengage. Diplomatic initiatives are also under way to de-escalate the situation, but the situation still remains tense. The standoff could have destabilising consequences for the region. India by seizing this border conflict with China is trying to whip up the public display of ultra-nationalistic fervour. Seeking to further strengthen its ties with the United States through the QUAD will also only enable India to graduate as a client state like Japan and Australia. So, kowtowing to the United States will only serve the interest of the United States, not India’s.
China and India have had border conflicts in the past without leading to a total war. China is now rising as an important power. If India feels daunted by, the use of border conflicts as a pretext to start a wider conflict would hardly alter the fact on the ground. It would only serve the strategic interest of the United States that who would prefer neither China nor India to rise economically.
The productive economic engagement that India already has with China is beneficial for both the countries as well as for the South Asian region. This relationship is definitely under serious stress now in the wake of the recent border clash which has triggered an ultra-nationalistic fervour in India to boycott Chinese goods and services. De-escalating and resolving border issues by abandoning any military option is the only realistic way forward which would also pave the way for a more engaged economic relationship between the two countries.
Muhammad Mahmood is an independent economic and political analyst.