First Troops killed on Himalayan Border in 45 Years

Talks in progress to avoid further conflict between nuclear powers

By: John Elliott

Troops have been killed for the first time in at least 45 years during clashes on the undefined Line of Actual Control (LAC) that divides India and China. The confrontation took place in Ladakh, high in the Himalayas, and led to 20 confirmed deaths of Indian soldiers, and possibly more than 40 Chinese according to unconfirmed reports.

The deaths happened during hand-to-hand fighting, which is not uncommon on the 3,488-km-long LAC. Indian media reports say that the weapons included clubs made of bamboo armed with nails, barbed wire and stones. There were suggestions that some deaths occurred when troops fell from a narrow ledge into a freezing river at the 16,000 ft high location.

This was not a war situation between the two nuclear powers, nor were shots fired, but urgent diplomatic and military talks have been held between the two sides in an attempt to avoid further conflict.

The confrontation graphically illustrates the precarious state of security and international relations on India’s borders, especially at a time when Xi Jinping, China’s internationally ambitious president, is increasing his country’s territorial and other claims.

There are regular firings and deaths on India’s (defined though not permanent) Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan, but Indian and Chinese politicians and army chiefs have been proud of the fact that no shots have been fired, nor deaths caused, on the 3,488 km LAC since the early 1970s. It looks as if this week’s clashes were not pre-planned at a senior level, though this is not clear.

For more than six weeks there has been a standoff at three locations along the LAC after China established posts in the disputed border area. Both countries moving additional troops to the area and there were skirmishes like this week’s at two locations in Ladakh and Sikkim last month. The main focus has been at the Galwan River where Monday night’s confrontation took place, and at the Pangong Tso glacial lake at 14,000 ft in the Tibetan plateau. The Galwan River was one of the early triggers of the 1962 India-China war, when India was humiliatingly defeated.

Military talks, supported by diplomatic contacts, last week led to an agreement that the two sides would disengage from their confrontational positions. India said China had withdrawn from some positions at Galwan. It was apparently during this exercise that the fighting broke out, with China later claiming Indian troops had crossed the border for “illegal activities.”

China has objected to India building roads and airstrips in the area, including the Galwan Valley. A Chinese military spokesperson on June 16 claimed “China always owns sovereignty over the Galwan Valley region.” On May 5 when Beijing accused the Indian army of trespassing into its territory in its “attempt to unilaterally change the status” of the border in Sikkim and Ladakh.

India countered that it was not trespassing, but carrying out routine infrastructure-development activities along its side of the disputed LAC. It blamed China for its aggression in building up bunkers on its side, hindering normal patrolling by Indian troops.

The last serious confrontation between the two countries took place three years ago in June-July 2017 with a 73-day stand-off – the longest ever – at Doklam, a Himalayan plateau in Bhutan at a border tri-junction. Chinese troop movements and road construction on the plateau threatened the security of India’s adjacent narrow Siliguri corridor that connects its north-eastern states with the rest of the country. That prompted India to move its troops onto the plateau to block China’s advance, triggering the standoff.

Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, stood firm and eventually after more than two months there was an understanding that enabled both sides to claim an advantage, though nothing was settled and China established a permanent position on the plateau.

Modi and Xi Jinping held a historic summit in April 2018 at Wuhan, made famous this year for starting the Covid-19 pandemic. This was intended to secure a basis for avoiding conflict and was followed by a similar meeting in India last October.

The current potential crisis needs to be seen against the backcloth of increased aggression by China internationally. Nepal, which borders both countries and is increasingly coming under China’s influence, this week passed legislation that changes its maps and lays claim to land that is part of India.

On a wider front, Xi Jinping has been conducting aggressive policies ranging from a security clampdown on Hong Kong to trade differences with Australia, while also pushing its territorial claims in the South China Sea and over Taiwan.

Narendra Modi and defense minister Rajnath Singh

With India, Xi’s aim may be to teach Modi a lesson for growing too close to the US and possibly siding with other countries, including Australia, over setting up an international inquiry on the Wuhan sources of Covid-19.

Relations between the two countries are usually stable providing India does not grow too close to the US and its allies. Modi has tried to strike a balance between increased defense and other co-operation with the US, and stable economic and diplomatic relations with China. He will be even more anxious to do this now when the country is coping with rapidly growing cases of COVID-19 and serious economic problems.

He is struggling with a precarious form of diplomacy, especially at a time when President Trump expects loyalty, not balanced relations, and Xi Jinping does not want a US ally on China’s border. The deaths on the LAC show how precarious that is.