India and China have a long history of border disputes
Tensions have been at an all-time high after deadly clashes between Indian and Chinese troops erupted along the disputed Himalayan border in June. For locals in the region, anxieties and fear over their pasturelands remain constant, report the BBC’s Aamir Peerzada and Rinchen Angmo Chumikchan.
On 16 June, officials said at least 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a physical altercation with Chinese troops in the Ladakh region.
China has not released any information about its casualties, but the hostile incident follows rising tensions. It is the first deadly clash in the border area in at least 45 years.
In the weeks leading up to the clash, there were reports of scuffles between the two militaries over the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the poorly demarcated border between the two nuclear-armed powers.Deadly brawl
Reports from May said that the Chinese forces put up tents, dug trenches and moved heavy equipment several kilometres inside what had been regarded by India as its territory. The move came after India built a road several hundred kilometres long connecting to a high-altitude forward air base which it reactivated in 2008.
Ever since, the two sides have held numerous talks to defuse the tension.
But for locals around Galwan Valley, where the deadly brawl was fought, there remains fear over their pasturelands, which they say are increasingly at risk.
These lands are pivotal for feeding livestock as even under normal circumstances, fodder for cattle in the mountainous Ladakh region is scarce, due to arid land and freezing temperatures.
And locals say that the recent tensions have put whatever grazing lands available at more risk, alleging that the Chinese encroach upon it every year.A map showing the disputed area
“Many of our grazing areas have been occupied by Chinese and there is a threat that they will occupy other grazing areas also,” says Konchok Stanzin, a local councillor.
“If our grazing lands are lost then the lifeline of the nomads will be gone and then there will be no reason for us to live here.”
Namgyal Durbok, a former councillor from a village near the LAC, says the surrounding areas are also feeling the aftermath.
“We used to free our horses for grazing in one of the pasturelands in Galwan Valley, but we don’t anymore because the Chinese are controlling much of the land,” he says.
“Earlier encroachment used to take place in inches and feet but now they have started encroaching in kilometres. It will become hard for us to stay there,” another local councillor in the valley, Gurmet Dorjey, says.’No encroachment’
But sources in India’s defence ministry tell the BBC that there has been no encroachment of land as there is no established boundary between India and China yet.
“There is no denying that traditional grazing areas have shrunk. But that is as much due to growth in population as it is due to India and China actively guarding their border territories,” the source at the ministry said.
Both sides have blamed each other for the recent conflict, but have since held talks to resolve the issue.
But in early May, when the first reports of skirmishes emerged, Indian leaders and military strategists were left stunned. To observers in Delhi, it was clear that this was not a routine incursion.
The two countries share a border more than 3,440km (2,100 miles) long and have overlapping territorial claims. Their border patrols often bump into each other, resulting in occasional scuffles but both sides insist no bullet has been fired in four decades.Local councillor Konchok Stanzin is worried about his pasturelands
Their armies – two of the world’s largest – come face to face at many points. The poorly demarcated LAC separates the two sides.
Rivers, lakes and snowcaps mean the line separating soldiers can shift and they often come close to confrontation.
But residents in Galwan Valley say that the most recent episode is worse than previous scuffles.
“I am concerned about the villagers, as some of our villages are only two to three kilometres away from where the face-off took place,” Mr Stanzin says.
Residents also say that their phone lines have been disconnected since the stand-off. To make a phone call, they would have to travel several kilometres to another village.
Local councillors in the region have written a letter to officials, pleading them to restore their phone lines. The letter states that this is even more important as India battles through the Covid-19 pandemic.’Fear among residents’
Further, those who live along the border are often among the first to report any incursions.
“The problem with the border areas is that if something happens they cut off the communication which is an issue for us,” says Sonam Angchuk, a village chief in the region.
He adds that there have been between 100 to 200 army vehicles passing through the villages everyday – a sight unusual enough to further fuel anxieties.
“There is also fear among residents because there is huge movement of soldiers in the area,” Mr Stanzin says. “We’ve never seen a sight like this since the 1962 war.”
NEW DELHI/ BEIJING (Reuters) – India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew on Friday into the northern border region where Indian and Chinese troops are locked in a stand-off, and said the military stood ready to defend his country.
His comments prompted Beijing to call for restraint at the tense border area in the northern Himalayan region of Ladakh.
Modi, making his first trip to the Ladakh region since the Indian army lost 20 soldiers in a clash with Chinese soldiers last month, said his country’s commitment to peace should not be seen as a sign of weakness.
“Today India is becoming stronger, be it in naval might, air power, space power and the strength of our army. Modernization of weapons and upgradation of infrastructure has enhanced our defence capabilities multifold,” he said in a speech to soldiers near Leh, the regional capital.
India says Chinese troops have intruded across the Line of Actual Control, or the ceasefire line separating the two armies in the high altitude Ladakh region, and the clash on June 15 occurred because Chinese troops sought to erect defences on India’s side of the de facto border.
China says the whole of the Galwan valley where the clash occurred is its territory and that it was frontline Indian troops that had breached the border, which is not demarcated.
China’s foreign ministry said on Friday the two countries were holding talks to reduce tensions.
Spokesman Zhao Lijian, responding to a question about Modi’s visit to the border region, said both sides were in communications through diplomatic and military channels to ease the situation.
“In these circumstances, neither side should take actions that might complicate the border situation,” he said at a daily news briefing in Beijing.
The most serious crisis on the India-China border in years has erupted while Beijing is embroiled in disputes over the South China Sea, Taiwan and its tightening grip over Hong Kong, which have all fanned fears of an expansionist policy.
Modi referred to expansionism in his speech to soldiers, saying it caused problems.
“(The) Prime Minister said that the time for expansionism is over. This is the era of development,” the Indian government quoted Modi as saying, in a press release. “He recalled that it is this mindset of expansionism that did great harm.”
In a separate development, India’s power ministry stipulated that Indian companies will need government permission to import power supply equipment and components from China, amid rising military tensions between the two countries.
Additional reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal, C.K.Nayak and Fayaz Bukhari in Srinagar; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani, Robert Birsel, Susan Fenton
A military border stand-off between nuclear-armed neighbors India and China in the Himalayas escalated into deadly clashes on June 15, constituting the worst fighting between the two countries in over five decades and leaving scores of dead and injured soldiers on both sides.
The latest round of blows signifies a major escalation in a border confrontation between the two most populous nations and largest armies, especially since the mutually-respected rules of engagement, having prevented a single casualty for forty-five years, were finally broken. India has now accused China of violating these rules in a “premeditated” attack on its troops in the strategically important Galwan Valley in Ladakh.
Relative Peace and Troubled Waters
Despite ongoing disputes, both sides maintained relative peace and built upon their complex relationship. So much so that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping met a whopping eighteen times since Modi’s election in 2014.
Unfortunately, these meetings that were meant to build this relationship now serve as mere images, seared into the minds of angry Indians, of the two leaders swinging cozily on the banks of the Sabarmati river in Ahmedabad during Xi’s visit to Modi’s home state of Gujarat. The violent standoff has shocked the country and raised questions on what Modi’s diplomatic efforts and alleged bonhomie with Xi have achieved.
For Indians, history stands as a painful reminder when it comes to China. India’s crushing defeat at the hands of the People’s Liberation Army during the 1962 border conflict with China was a turning point in India’s foreign policy vision—it led to a massive strategic shift from idealism to realpolitik and forced India to prioritize and embrace hard power aspects such as military modernization, in addition to developmental and other national concerns.
This idealism pushed by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru at the time, under his Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai (India and China are brothers) rhetoric, has evoked a bitter sensation of déjà vu for Indians. As the old saying goes, “Once bitten twice shy.” But as China betrayed India in the 1960s, fast forward to 2020, and it seems China has once again stabbed India in the back.
India today stands at a critical juncture as it can no longer avoid making serious choices and difficult diplomatic decisions. Amidst efforts to de-escalate, one thing is certain—the scale of recent killing ensures that business-as-usual is no longer an option.
America in the Wings
Unlike in the 1960s when India did not gravitate towards the United States during the Cold War, India now finds itself in a more favorable position, with Uncle Sam waiting in a long-overdue embrace.
America’s desire for stronger ties with India is no secret. It has long wooed and courted India as a security and economic partner and counterweight to an expansionist and assertive China. But in line with its Cold War hangover of non-alignment, India has demonstrated reluctance to align as explicitly as America wishes for fear of provoking its more powerful neighbor.
Even under Modi’s energetic diplomacy, India continued to tread with balance and caution in its foreign relations. Scholars argue that India’s Cold War-era strategic thinking persists and “non-alignment” has simply become “multi-alignment”—both essentially implying an aversion to alliances.
And yet over the past several years, India has heightened its geniality towards the United States. As part of broader efforts to balance China’s growing power, India joined several security groupings, including QUAD and JAI with like-minded democracies America,
Japan, and Australia. Just recently, Australia and India signed a major defense agreement, granting access to each other’s military bases. India’s relationship with Israel—one of America’s staunchest allies—underpinned by its “sky is the limit” rhetoric is already a favorite of the Modi administration.
But the road has often been rocky—trade issues and unrealistic expectations dampened outcomes. Even so, India has slowly but steadily moved closer to the American camp.
As nations fumed at China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and China-U.S. tensions peaked, India too jumped on the bandwagon of global backlash, albeit in a more subtle way. While officials behaved with nuance and steered clear of blame games regarding China’s coronavirus response, Indian media peddled an anti-China narrative, urging the boycott of Chinese products.
Political figures critiqued China’s lack of transparency and authoritarianism, going so far as questioning the Chinese model of governance. India, along with Australia and the European Union, imposed certain restrictions on Chinese investments in their countries, further demonstrating this subtle approach.
None of these actions went unnoticed. Wary of closer Indo-American ties, the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece Global Times news outlet published editorials cautioning .
India from involving itself in U.S.-China tensions and serving as an American pawn against China. Picking up on this notion, Brookings scholar Tanvi Madan believes closer India-U.S. ties triggered the border standoff, with Beijing intending to show India its rightful place.
Instead, China’s deadly actions might have achieved exactly the opposite—cementing New Delhi’s strategic tilt towards Washington.
The deadly standoff between the two Asian giants is India’s starkest test yet and will spark a mammoth change in India’s attitude towards China going forward. With India’s 2020 military budget of $74 billion, relatively small compared to China’s $179 billion,
the asymmetries of power between the two countries—both economically and militarily—are significant. As Samir Saran, head of India’s Observer Research Foundation opines, a sustained response to Chinese aggression means India will have to utilize its military, economic, and political options.
Likeminded partners are equally important for India in this context, and the standoff could be the catalyst India needs to finally shed non-alignment in its traditional sense and align its interests with those of the United States, with lesser qualms or hesitations.
As former Indian foreign secretary Gokhale recently stated, “In the post-COVID age, enjoying the best of both worlds may no longer be an option.” As the tragic events along its border with China have shown, India may have finally learned this lesson the hard way.
Shairee Malhotra is the 2020 South Asia Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, and Associate Researcher at the European Institute for Asian Studies (EIAS) in Brussels. A graduate of Queen Mary University of London where she received her MA in International Relations,
Shairee has over six years of experience in think tanks in Mumbai and Brussels and has also worked with the European External Action Service (EEAS) – the official foreign policy arm of the EU. Previous examples of Shairee’s work can be found in Haaretz here and here, and in the Diplomat here.