Himalayan pullback: The tense history of India-China border

Himalayan pullback: The tense history of India-China border

Why We Wrote This

Fraught face-offs between two of the world’s most populous countries keep escalating the risk of more serious conflict. What do Beijing and New Delhi see at stake as they try to dial back tension?

Dar Yasin/AP

An Indian army convoy moves on the Srinagar-Ladakh highway at Gagangeer, northeast of Srinagar, Sept. 9, 2020. Last week, India and China accused each other of sending soldiers into each other’s territory along their disputed border and fired warning shots for the first time in 45 years.

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September 14, 2020

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Late last week, India and China pledged to de-escalate the tensest standoff along their border in decades. Hand-to-hand fighting in June caused the first combat deaths along the border since 1975, and both countries accused each other of firing shots earlier this month.

“The current situation in the border areas is not in the interest of either side,” said the statement from their foreign ministers, signed in Moscow. 

But deep distrust and rising nationalism on both sides, coupled with tens of thousands of troops arrayed along the border, mean the escalation will not completely dial down overnight. China may be asserting itself for the same reason it has taken more aggressive stances recently toward Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the South China Sea – to show that it remains strong, despite internal challenges from the pandemic and economic slowdown.

“The countries desperately prize their sovereignty … so even losing a sliver of unimportant land carries a lot of political weight,” says Arzan Tarapore of Stanford University’s Asia-Pacific Research Center. “There is a political significance to this high, barren land that isn’t amenable to economic or strategic analysis.”

Beijing and New Delhi are taking steps to prevent recent clashes along their disputed border from escalating out of control. But deep mistrust and nationalism, coupled with tens of thousands of troops now arrayed along the remote frontier, make that challenging.

Why has fighting erupted?

Tensions have long simmered along India’s disputed border with China, but the latest clashes mark an unusual escalation. The bloody, hand-to-hand fighting in June caused the first combat deaths along the border since 1975. Twenty Indian soldiers were killed, and India said China also had casualties, but Beijing has offered no details. Both countries accused each other of firing shots in September, the first time since the 1975 skirmish.

Back in May, India accused Chinese soldiers of crossing the de facto border known as the Line of Actual Control and of building encampments, while China countered that India had crossed the LAC and provoked attacks. India was building roads and other infrastructure that Beijing may have viewed as threatening to the status quo, experts say.  

A core issue is a disagreement over where the border lies. British India and Tibet signed a treaty establishing the frontier as the McMahon Line in 1914, but China never accepted that as the official legal border. In 1962, Chinese troops crossed the McMahon Line and pushed deep into Indian territory in a monthlong war that left more than 1,000 Indians and several hundred Chinese dead. China then redrew the border unofficially to reflect these gains, calling it the Line of Actual Control. India pushed back in a second conflict in 1967, which left scores dead on either side. Today, New Delhi and Beijing disagree on the LAC’s location.

What efforts are underway to resolve the conflict?

India’s external affairs minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met in Moscow and issued a five-point statement on Sept. 10, pledging that forces on both sides should “continue their dialogue, quickly disengage, maintain proper distance, and ease tensions.” They also agreed that the forces should abide by existing agreements on military border patrols, which include a prohibition on the use of firearms. “The current situation in the border areas is not in the interest of either side,” the statement said.

 

Bai Xueqi/Xinhua/AP

India’s external affairs minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar (left), and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stand together on the sidelines of a meeting of foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Moscow, Sept. 10, 2020. The ministers agreed that their troops should disengage from a tense border standoff and maintain proper distance.

The agreement is a significant step to prevent the conflict from spiraling out of control, but it does not guarantee de-escalation, Asia experts say, noting that earlier plans by both sides to disengage have been followed by clashes. “There is an absolute dearth of trust on both sides, especially on the Indian side,” says Arzan Tarapore, a South Asia research scholar at Stanford University’s Asia-Pacific Research Center. Doubts over compliance, coupled with the current militarization of the border – with an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 troops positioned there by each country – mean China and India are unlikely to return to the status quo. The border will “look different in 2021 than it did prior to this crisis,” he says.

From India’s perspective, China has raised the stakes by ordering its military to occupy Indian territory – essentially a quick land grab – instead of making a temporary incursion as in the past, says Dr. Tarapore, who is also a senior nonresident fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research. To prevent such tactics, India dispatched special forces soldiers to occupy some strategic high ground on India’s side, complicating future moves by China, he says. For its part, China denies its military crossed into Indian territory.

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What are the longer-term implications?

China may be asserting itself along the border with India for the same reason it has taken more aggressive stances recently toward Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the South China Sea – to show that, despite internal challenges from COVID-19 and an economic slowdown, it remains strong. “It’s a warning to the Indian side,” says Oriana Skylar Mastro, an expert on China’s military at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. India has also moved in recent years to strengthen territorial controls on its periphery, experts say.

Rising nationalism plays an important role for both China and India – a factor that makes the conflict over the desolate Himalayan territory so vital for each side, and so difficult to resolve. “The countries desperately prize their sovereignty … so even losing a sliver of unimportant land carries a lot of political weight,” says Dr. Tarapore. “There is a political significance to this high, barren land that isn’t amenable to economic or strategic analysis. It’s about national pride and national sovereignty. It’s about what it means to be China and what it means to be India.”

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