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Clash in the Himalayas: Pulling back the curtain on the China-India rivalry
In the summer of 2020, soldiers from the world’s two most populous countries – both nuclear-armed and possessing tremendous economic prowess – fought hand to hand in the Galwan Valley in the Himalayas. In one of the most serious incidents of its kind, the clash resulted in at least 20 deaths on the Indian side, with the number of casualties on the Chinese side yet to be announced.
It preceded multiple prior clashes that had resulted in injuries on both sides, but this was the first time in 50 years that confrontations over the two sides’ disputed border region had resulted in deaths. The clash dramatically drew into perspective the territorial – and wider contestations – between the two Asian giants that go beyond border demarcations but are emblematic of a more consequential and even dangerous great power competition.
The 2,100-mile-long border stretches from the Indian state of Ladakh bordering Pakistan and China in the west to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh next to Bhutan, China and Myanmar in the east. Spanning many important rivers flowing into India from the Chinese side, the badly delineated border dates from the British Raj and has been a source of tension between the two sides for much of their modern-day existence.
At its nadir, the dispute resulted in a war in late 1962 that led to a total of 2,000 to 5,500 deaths on both sides, as well as the humiliating capture for New Delhi of 4,000 of its troops. In recent years, India’s construction of roads and airstrips close to the border, as well as the moving by Beijing of thousands of Chinese troops to the eastern Ladakh border, has exacerbated mutual threat perceptions.
Apart from increases in their military and other infrastructure in contested areas, other factors can be seen as crucial in having precipitated this most recent – and bloody – crisis. In particular, India's recent changes to its internal demarcations (that ended Jammu and Kashmir’ semi-autonomous status and split it into the two states of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh) has had an external consequence which spurred on China’s apparent initiation of the Galwan Valley clash.
Such a change was regarded as having changed the regional status quo, with the creation of Ladakh causing Chinese officials to note that the action “undermined China’s territorial sovereignty by unilaterally changing its domestic law. Such practice is unacceptable and will not come into force”. Around the same time, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi argued that “this land [Ladakh] is the land of the nationalists who are always ready to sacrifice for India”, which appeared to only serve to amplify China’s concerns.
Apart from pricking Chinese sensitivities about its territorial integrity, Indian ministers also suggested expanding India's territorial claims northwards from Ladakh to include Gilgit and Baltistan, which served to further threaten Beijing's substantial investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and crucial for the long-term development and modernization of its all-weather ally Pakistan.
In part reflecting how New Delhi currently significantly lags behind Beijing in both military and economic capabilities (and which analysts note prevented a stronger response in the former category), in June 2020 India banned 56 Chinese apps – including TikTok and WeChat – which were seen to be “stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data, … which ultimately impinges upon the sovereignty and integrity of India”. India is also expected to soon ban telecommunications firm Huawei from involvement in the country’s 5G network.
In recent months, India has also signed a deal with Australia to use each other's military bases and has been more vocal in its democratic credentials which not only appeals to western partners but is also a direct counterpoint to an increasingly authoritarian China. Such actions fuel Beijing’s fear of being encircled – and restricted to – East Asia, which would constrain its global reach and – ultimately – global ambitions. Crucially, such actions are vitally interlinked with the coronavirus pandemic, which an Indian official noted has made countries “more willing, privately, to talk about what to do with China in a post-COVID world; … we are all trying to figure out what the new world order is. India represents one path and China represents another". In these ways, tensions in China-India relations are about much more than territory.
Coronavirus may also have been a catalyst for China’s actions, whereby the pandemic acts as a “hyper crisis on a scale that the world has not experienced in generations, … (and which) provides an extended zone of opportunity during which a proactive great power can attempt to craft the world in their image".
With India – and its key international partner the United States – preoccupied with Covid-19's devastating domestic impact, their ability to respond effectively (diplomatically or otherwise) to international crises has been radically reduced. In conjunction with nationalist voices in China urging the country to be more assertive in its foreign policy goals (including regaining lost territory), its leaders have also been keen to distract from some of its initial shortcomings in dealing with the outbreak. As such, observers note how "Beijing knows it's taking a lot of heat for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, … this provocation [by New Delhi regarding its actions in Ladakh] gives Beijing an ability to showcase its strength and defiance", and claim pre-eminence over India.
Overall, the clash in the Galwan Valley has served to pull back the curtain on many of the key dynamics – and key tensions – that undermine contemporary China-India relations. In this way, the clash and the months leading to it stimulated major sensitivities in Beijing concerning the border with India but also China's economic ambitions and regional standing.
More tellingly, it also showed that Beijing has perhaps crossed the threshold into becoming a truly great power in the sense that it is willing to use a major crisis – the coronavirus pandemic – as an opportunity to test the response of a major regional rival, whilst proactively pursuing its interests. It has also confirmed New Delhi's weaker position in the regional balance of power. As the pandemic progresses, we can expect similar clashes to occur in the region and beyond.
Chris Ogden is Senior Lecturer / Associate Professor in Asian Security at the School of International Relations, University of St Andrews and is a PSA member. His latest book Great Power Attributes: A Compendium of Historical Data (Edinburgh: Fifth Hammer) can be downloaded for free here. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.