IT HAS BEEN nearly half a century since there has been a deadly clash along the disputed Himalayan border between India and China, despite regular jostling between the forces of both sides.
Tensions have been elevated in recent months but the Indian army’s announcement that 20 of its soldiers died as a result of a skirmish with PLA forces in the Ladakh region of Kashmir at the start of the week is a shock for two reasons.
First, the two sides had agreed a week earlier to respect the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that runs through the remote Galwan Valley. Second, local reports say the Indian soldiers were bludgeoned to death in a fight involving clubs and rocks.
China has not confirmed Indian claims of casualties on its side, as is its won’t, but said in a statement published on the official Weibo account of the PLA Daily that Indian forces had crossed the border, provoking the skirmish.
India has accused China of sending thousands of troops into the valley and says it occupies 38,000 square kilometres of Indian territory. In May, it accused Chinese forces of setting up a tented camp and moving heavy equipment onto the Indian side of the LAC adding another 60 square kilometres.
However, the proximate cause of the latest tensions appears to be India’s construction of a new road along the LAC, a belated tit-for-tat for an attempt by China in 2017 to extend a border road through a disputed area, which is the world’s longest disputed land border.
Indian and Chinese officials are meeting to defuse the latest incident, but broader talks on settling the border are probably needed to de-escalate the situation. The history of repeated break-downs of such discussions is not encouraging, however.
If this is Beijing using the cover of the Covid-19 pandemic to push a foreign policy agenda more nationalistically, just as it appears to be doing with Hong Kong, in the South and East China Seas and with Taiwan, then the prospects of de-escalation are further reduced.
Meanwhile, there is no physical evidence that China is backing away. Its heavy weaponry remains at the border. For its part, India would lose face if it stopped its road-building in the region, although it could slow it down as an olive branch if it so chose.
Separately but no less worryingly for Delhi, Nepal’s parliament has approved a controversial new map that shows disputed territories along the India-Nepal border as belonging to Nepal, a cartographical land grab that some in India see China’s hand behind.
India’s offer of new credit deals to Sri Lanka and Mauritius looks ever more like an effort to steer both island nations away from pro-China positions as India hardens its anti-China stance.