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The recent deadly border brawl between China and India could permanently damage the already tenuous bilateral relationship between the world’s two most populous countries

By NewsChina Updated Sept.1

Since the border clash between Chinese and Indian troops on June 15 in the Galwan Valley on the western part of the China-India border, which resulted in 20 Indian soldiers killed and at least 76 injured, the bilateral relationship has taken a nosedive.  

India responded by deploying three divisions, along with its most advanced weaponry including T90 tanks, and Mig-29 and Su-30 MKI fighter jets, to the border area. China conducted several live-fire drills on the Tibetan plateau following the incident.  

With anti-China sentiment running high, the Indian government decided on an economic offensive that included halting custom clearances for Chinese goods, banning the use of 59 apps from China-based companies, and mulling bans on Chinese tech giant Huawei - all casting shadows on the future relationship of the world’s two most populous countries.  

Deadly Clash
The Galwan Valley conflict is the latest episode in an ongoing dispute over some 3,000 kilometer-long border area between China and India that traces its origins to British rule in the region. While India considers itself the rightful heir to the imperial legacy left by the British in 1947, China sees the British annexations in the Himalayas, often made without the consent of China’s central authorities, as illegitimate. The two countries fought a short but bloody border war in 1962, from which China emerged victorious. 

Despite several summits held between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping about the ongoing dispute in the past few years, border standoffs have increased.  

But thanks to a bilateral agreement that forbids the use of firearms along the border signed in 1996, none were fatal. The latest clash marks the first deadly conflict between China and India in 45 years. Bound by the no-firearm agreement in the border region, soldiers on both sides fought with iron bars, sticks and rocks.  

Both China and India claimed that the conflict took place on their side of Line of Actual Control (LAC), with each accusing the other of being the aggressor. While the official numbers from India are 20 dead and 76 wounded, China has been tight-lipped about the casualties on its side. 

Citing three separate Chinese sources, a South China Morning Post report from June 24 said that China’s death count was much lower and Beijing had remained silent to avoid provoking New Delhi and escalating tensions.  

In an online post on China’s Twitter-like platform Weibo posted on June 24, Cai Xiaoxin, a military history scholar and son of Chinese military general Cai Changyuan, claimed that five Chinese soldiers were injured during the clash, two of whom later died from stab wounds. The post was later deleted and NewsChina could not verify the authenticity of the claim.  

Wu Qian, China’s defense ministry spokesperson, said at a press conference on June 22, that the June 15 skirmish took place after Indian soldiers “transgressed” on China’s side of the LAC at night and “provoked” Chinese soldiers, violating a previous consensus. “When Chinese soldiers approached to negotiate, the Indian soldiers suddenly attacked them. This started the violent clashes between the soldiers and resulted in casualties,” Wu said. “It was entirely the fault of India.”  

India insisted the incident occurred on its side of the LAC and offered more details in media reports, all of which alleged the clash began when Indian troops overtook and burned down a Chinese outpost allegedly on the Indian side of the LAC. According to oneaccount, Chinese reinforcements attacked the out-manned Indian troops.  

Another account by India Today said that Indian troops ventured further over the Chinese side after destroying the post and clashed with Chinese reinforcements. The report claimed that Indian troops inflicted heavy casualties, including 40 deaths, a claim that China’s Foreign Ministry dismissed as “fake news.” 

US President Donald Trump (R) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) shake hands after speaking to the press in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, June 26, 2017

Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) in Qingdao, East China’s Shandong Province, June 9, 2018

Different Mindsets
The current mechanism for border talks between China and India originated in the 1990s. As China shifted focus to economic development, it adopted policies to de-escalate border disputes and foster political trust with all neighboring countries, including India.  

According to Professor Lin Minwang, assistant dean at the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University and deputy director of the school’s Institute of South Asia Studies, these measures included designating a two-kilometer corridor on both sides of the border area that would be free of military activity.  

The strategy soon paid off. During the 1990s, China managed to settle territorial disputes with most of its contiguous neighbors, including Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos and North Korea. After signing agreements with Vietnam (1999) and Russia (2004) after longstanding border disputes, China had settled outstanding border issues with 12 out of its 14 contiguous neighbors. The exceptions are India and Bhutan, the small Himalayan kingdom widely considered by Chinese experts as a protectorate of India.  

While talks between China and India resulted in agreements that helped to stabilize the situation on the ground, negotiations to demarcate the border soon came to a stalemate.  

According to Lin, the primary reason is that given the sensitivity of the issue, Indian governments “lack either the political will or the political capacity” to engage in serious talks regarding settling the border disputes. “Over time, India shifted its focus to the demarcation of the LAC,” he said. 

But there are no fewer controversies surrounding the LAC either. China recognizes the line proposed by the late Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in November 1959. It was the first time the term was raised, which was rejected by the then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Under Nehru’s “forward policy,” Indian troops advanced into the border area, which eventually led to the China-India border war in 1962. 

Unwilling to admit defeat, India insisted on the LAC which was demarcated just before the war broke out in September 1962, which carves out for India some of the territories China recovered during the war, Lin said. “Most of the standoffs in the past years took place in the overlapping area of the two lines,” Lin added.  

According to Lin, following a period of relative stability in the 1990s and 2000s, there has been a surge in border region standoffs since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power in 2014.  

“India seems to have adopted a different mindset in handling border disputes now,” Lin told NewsChina, “While China’s priority for border disputes is crisis control, India has entered and laid claim to previously undisputed territories under China’s control.”  

Lin said that this explains why standoffs in recent years typically took place on the western part of the border where the majority of the disputed territory is under China’s control.  

By comparison, the eastern part, where most disputed territory is under India’s control, is rather quiet “because China does not seek tochallenge India’s de facto control,” Lin added.  

The most noted example is the 2017 standoff in the Doklam region. India sent hundreds of troops beyond the undisputed part of the border into China-controlled territories along its border with Bhutan. It took over more than 70 days of negotiations before New Delhi withdrew its troops. 

‘Inevitable’ Outcomes
According to Lin, the recent clash signals that China has run out of patience as it becomes increasingly frustrated with India’s border policy. From China’s perspective, the agreements, including the one that forbids the use of firearms in border areas, not only have failed to produce the stability and mutual trust China had hoped, but have allowed India to adopt more aggressive and opportunistic tactics.  

“China has now realized that it can only curb India’s aggressiveness by adopting a tougher policy of its own,” Lin said.  

Liu Zongyi, secretary general of the South Asia and China Center of the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, agreed, saying that the conflict is an “inevitable” result of the “offensive defense” policy of the Modi government, which Liu compares to Nehru’s “forward policy.” 

In the past years, India not only hardened its stance toward China, but has intensified its border conflicts with Pakistan, revoked Kashmir’s special status in 2019, and more recently engaged in border skirmishes with Nepal.  

According to Liu, under the “offensive defense” policy, also known as the “Doval doctrine,” named after India’s hawkish national security advisor Ajit Doval, India’s border soldiers and officers are rewarded for aggressive action, which results in competition between rotating troops to outdo one another. Also, recent improvements to India’s infrastructure mean that soldiers are more mobile along the border. These issues pose serious challenges to China’s border troops. 

“Bound by the trust-building measures in place, Chinese border troops are without effective counter-measures, which further emboldens Indian frontline forces,” Liu said, “It is only a matter of when and where such an incident would take place.” 

For Major General Jin Yinan, a professor at the PLA National Defence University, the Galwan Valley incident can serve to deter India and prevent more serious conflicts.  

“If you keep tolerating [India’s aggressiveness] and retreat, by the time you find there is nowhere else to retreat, the result is an all-out border war,” Jin told Central China Television (CCTV) during a live interview on June 23. “By engaging in a small skirmish and making your stance clear, it could help the Indian leadership regain some rationality so a larger conflict can be avoided,” Jin added.  

A joint anti-terrorism training drill between the Chinese and Indian armies kicks off in Chengdu, capital of Southwest China’s Sichuan Province, on December 11, 2018

The US Factor
But given the vehement reaction from New Delhi, some experts warn that China’s tougher stance could be counterproductive and risks pushing India into the orbit of the US.  

Zheng Yongnian, former director of East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore, argued that China should be careful to prevent a formal US-India alliance in the region amid a possible “newCold War” between the US and China.  

“If the border crisis between China and India results in a closer alliance between the US, Japan and India, it would have dire consequences for China,” Zheng said.  

In an opinion piece in the South China Morning Post on June 24, Anit Mukherjee, an assistant professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, warned that “China may have gained a tactical advantage on the ground, but it must ponder the long-term costs.” 

But for other experts, the deadly clash is the result of closer ties between the US and India. 

Playing a pivotal part in the Indo-Pacific strategy launched under the administration of US President Barack Obama, India has taken part in bilateral and trilateral military cooperation with the US, Japan and Australia.  

In past years, New Delhi and Washington have signed several keynote agreements. Compared to the abstract “strategic partnership” established between India and China during the Xi-Modi summit in 2018, US-India ties emphasize defense and security.  

In 2016, India signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the US to provide reciprocal military logistics support. In September 2018, India and the US signed the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), which allowed the US to share high-end encrypted communication and satellite data.  

During US President Donald Trump’s high-profile visit to India in February, the two countries agreed to work toward the early conclusion of a third military pact, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA), which would grant India access to US satellite and topographical data for long-range navigation and missile targeting.  

According to Liu, the notion that China could not afford for India to join the US camp may have emboldened New Delhi and its border policy. “India’s policymakers seem to believe that under pressure from the US, China would have to restrain itself from reacting to New Delhi’s offensive strategy,” he said.  

What’s Next?
After the initial tough responses, the two sides have resumed talks at the operational level. On July 9, Zhao Lijian, spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, said that the dialogue mechanism between the two sides remains in place, and that both sides have begun the disengagement process at contentious locations along the disputed areas.  

But there is no sign that New Delhi will back down from its tough stance on other issues. On July 12, India assigned a senior diplomat previously handling Indo-US relations as its new representative to Taipei, a move widely considered as “playing the Taiwan card.”  

So far, Beijing has not reacted strongly to New Delhi’s retaliatory measures. But in a world mired by a global pandemic and geopolitical rivalries, the dynamic between the world’s two most populous countries could become an additional source of uncertainty in the foreseeable future.