By Prachi Aryal
On June 15, 2020, Indian and Chinese troops were involved in an unexpected hand to hand combat in Galwan valley, resulting in at least 20 casualties. This confrontation doubtless has its roots in the 3,500km unmarked and disputed border shared by the two nations, that since the birth of both countries has been the site of successive minor clashes The Galwan valley incident marks a break with these more reserved skirmishes as it’s the first since 1975 that has resulted in loss of life. It has subsequently led to the deployment of thousands of soldiers by both sides, raising concerns of an unintentional war.
Galwan valley, in India’s Ladakh region, lies along the western sector of the Line of Actual Control (a line separating Indian and Chinese territory) and close to Aksai Chin, a disputed area claimed by India but controlled by China. Shivshankar Menon, former Security Adviser of India has warned that the militarization by either side of the border is troubling for the Asian region as it opens the possibility of a fully-fledged war between the two nuclear armed nations.
Speculation surrounding the clash suggests several micro-causes but underlying each are the powers’ competing strategic goals. Strategists assert that India’s growing economic development and global diplomatic influence have become impediments for their Chinese counterpart, thus the move to intrude into Indian territory was China’s attempt to disrupt the status quo in the region.
Experts assert that China’s strategy of modern conquest is that of fait accompli, a calculated risk to establish dominance by seizing small territories. This strategy often leaves the victim with few viable options to restore the previous status quo. Fait accomplis, allow unilateral gains of power and changes to the existing state of affairs; reminiscent, therefore, of China’s actions in the Aksai Chin, Spartly Islands in South China Sea, Doklam and the skirmishes with India.
The 15 June clash accentuates not just the strategic tensions but the more fundamental problems in the Sino-India relationship. China’s continued military assistance to Pakistan and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) initiative, on disputed territory claimed by India, has created an environment of mistrust between the two nations. Similarly, India’s opposition to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), coupled with historically sour relations stemming from India granting sanctuary to the Dalai Lama, has intensified bilateral tensions.
Many reports claim that the clash was triggered by India’s construction of the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DSDBO) road in the Ladakh region, which would give India the upper hand in accessing the Daulat Beg Oldi airstrip, thereby paving the way for easy transportation of troops and material during conflicts. Indeed, the occurrence of skirmishes and clashes have usually mirrored the construction of infrastructure around the disputed region. Both the countries view such projects as being imbued with strategic and tactical motives, leading to exacerbated skirmishes.
The growing public discontent surrounding India’s response to the situation in Ladakh poses a strategic difficulty for the government in New Delhi. Chinese retreat is unlikely as it has adopted a fait accompli strategy of land grabs with the purpose of intimidating and coercing nearby rivals in order to establish itself as a regional hegemon. India’s traditional approach of quiet diplomacy, whilst working to soothe domestic public sentiments, will provide China the space to continue with such land grabs. With limited military options, and an increased need to address public discontent surrounding the government’s inaction, India finds itself in a strategic quagmire. Its move to ban Chinese mobile phone applications, citing national security interests, is unlikely to have any effect on China’s position on the border.
Regular border skirmishes are fundamentally products of slapdash colonial cartography which imposed arbitrary and contested borders between the two nations. The Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has made repeated public statements reiterating that the only viable way of restoring Sino-India ties is by disengaging and de-escalating the military situation in the LAC (Line of Actual Control)LAC (Line of Actual Control) The regular cross-border clashes are contrary to the Wuhan spirit championed by the two nations, who had agreed to significant economic cooperation for development in the South Asian region.
China’s resort to military trespassing in the Galwan, as on 15 June, has created an atmosphere of mistrust and antagonism with its Indian neighbour. The frozen diplomatic talks compounded with China’s unchanged position and its fait accompli strategies of land grabbing are likely to create a geopolitical and strategic crisis in the Asian region. Sino-India relations in the future are likely to see mixed elements of conflict and cooperation as each side is driven, by their strategic objectives, to ever more aggressive actions. It is possible that, without a clear demarcation of the border, skirmishes like these can create destabilizing consequences for the Asian region.
Editor’s Note: There have been a number of recent events since the time this article was finalized for publication that impact this topic and region. The information contained in this article was current as of January 2021.
Prachi Aryal is a MA student in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Her research interest is inclined towards Gender, Human Rights, and Cross border conflicts in transitioning nations and how visuals from conflict zones play a role in communicating the realities of conflict to the broader world. She completed her BA in Journalism from the University of Delhi, India.