China and India fight over the Himalayas

While the border between China and India has been a source of tension for decades, deadly clashes took place there in June 2020. Since then, the Indian and Chinese armies have been fighting over 3,500 kilometres of border in the Himalayan region. On the 9th of December 2022, Beijing and New Delhi clashed again. The death toll was reportedly around twenty Indian soldiers and an unknown number on the Chinese side.
A Chinese and an Indian soldier at the Nathu La border crossing in India’s north-eastern Sikkim state in 2008. Photograph: Diptendu Dutta/AFP/Getty Images
A Chinese and an Indian soldier at the Nathu La border crossing in India’s north-eastern Sikkim state in 2008. Photograph: Diptendu Dutta/AFP/Getty Images

Sino-Indian border, a conflicting legacy of colonial times

The incident on the 9th of December took place in the Ladakh region, in the Tawang area, near Bhutan. This area, known on the Chinese side as Aksai Chin, is claimed by China as an integral part of Tibet. This disputed area is strategic because it connects Tibet to Xinjiang, two autonomous provinces for the People’s Republic of China.

The border issue is a legacy of the colonial era. Indeed, in the 20th century, during the heyday of the British Empire, concomitant with the decadence of the last Chinese empire, the British made a push towards Tibet. As a result, in 1914, a meeting took place between the British, the Tibetans and the Chinese on the border issue. At the end of it, only the British and the Tibetans signed an agreement, which already predefined the future conflict. In the late 1950s and with Indian independence, the Chinese took over the area and locked in the short Sino-Indian war of 1962. At the end of this war, and after a unilateral ceasefire on the part of China, an effective Line of Actual Control (LAC) was set up, with Aksai Chin in China on one side and Ladakh in India on the other.

Clashes in 2020, a first in forty-five years

In the summer of 2020, when the last clashes in the region were in 1975, the disputed India-China border was the scene of a clash. This clash left more than 20 Indian soldiers dead, while China officially reported four deaths in its ranks. Despite the fact that there is a tacit agreement between the two countries that no shots are fired at the border, at this Line of Actual Control (LAC), footage of the clashes shows “fights with studded clubs”. 

However, the strategic situation is somewhat uneven, as geography favours China. The Chinese are on the upper part of the Tibetan plateau, while the Indians have to climb to reach the border. This explains in particular the multiplication of Chinese civil-military developments in order to modernise their strategic infrastructure in connection with the border, while the Indians, although in a more complicated geographical position, are strengthening their armed forces.

Since the incidents of this summer of 2020, there have been numerous diplomatic meetings between military commanders from both sides. But despite 13 sessions of military and diplomatic talks and an agreement signed in February 2021, the two countries have failed in their disengagement negotiations. The situation seems to be at an impasse with the unwillingness of both countries to resolve these border issues.

The Sino-Indian border in 2022, an echo of the Sino-American rivalry

After two years of implicit tension and military build-up on both sides, the Indian and Chinese armies clashed again with sticks, not breaking the mutual agreement on the non-use of firearms. Around 20 people were injured on the Indian side, while the number on the Chinese side is unknown.

The clashes reportedly took place on the night of the 9th of December when the Chinese army entered Indian territory, violating the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The stand-off comes after China objected to a joint US-Indian military exercise in the Himalayas, which Beijing considers a violation of border agreements. This exercise, part of the 18th annual joint drill, focuses on high-altitude warfare training at Auli, 95 kilometres from the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

Speaking about the joint exercises, a US Department of Defense spokesman told CNN that the partnership with India was “one of the most important elements of our shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region ». Moreover, he stated that “one important element of this broader effort includes exercises and training events and Yudh Abhyas is one such annual bilateral exercise designed to improve interoperability and improve our respective capacities to address a range of regional security challenges”.

Currently, the two Asian powers continue to deploy forces on both sides of the border.  More than 60,000 troops are stationed on each side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and a large amount of infrastructure has been deployed (bridges, roads, watchtowers, airstrips, bunkers, barracks). Negotiations are stalled because the Chinese refuse to return to the status quo and India is in denial about the Chinese advance into its territory.

The risk of military escalation

While India has also been busy defending its border in the Kashmir region from Pakistan for nearly 80 years, the international community is now concerned about Chinese pressure on the Himalayan border. The researcher at the Center for Policy Research in Delhi says that the Chinese army, ” by investing in a long-term military presence in one of the most remote places on Earth, has considerably reduced the time it would need to launch a military operation against India”. In June 2020, General Charles Flynn, who heads the US Army’s Pacific Command, described the Chinese army’s new infrastructure near the border as alarming. For experts, the risk of a military escalation between the two Asian giants, both nuclear powers, cannot be ruled out.

Happymon Jacob, a lecturer at Jawaharlal-Nehfu University, says India must urgently learn the lessons of the Taiwan situation: “Formulate red lines and sovereign positions in an unambiguous manner,” he says; “New Delhi must unambiguously point out the threat from China and the sources of that threat. Any lack of clarity will be cleverly used by Beijing to push Indian boundaries”.

The current challenge for India is to admit the intrusion of the Chinese army into its territory in 2020, and its occupation along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) since. This will allow India to point to China as the aggressor and mobilise the international community.

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