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China and India are in a dangerous standoff over a hotly contested border

It’s about much more than a border. It’s about power in Asia.

In this May 18, 2019, file photo, road maintenance workers from India’s Jharkhand state and Ladakh region head back to their respective campsite and homes after a day’s work.
Xavier Galiana/AFP via Getty Images

India and China are currently engaged in a tense border fight that some fear could spark a military conflict — a precarious situation that President Donald Trump has haphazardly offered to mediate.

For about 80 years, India and China have quarreled over a roughly 2,200-mile frontier spanning the Himalayas, occasionally going to war over their competing claims. Despite 20-plus rounds of negotiations, the world’s two most populous countries haven’t come close to agreeing on most of the boundaries, providing a continuous source of tension between Beijing and New Delhi.

It’s unclear what, exactly, started this latest flare-up. India’s government says that earlier this month, unprovoked Chinese troops threw rocks at Indian soldiers in the western Himalayas. Beijing counters that claim, instead blaming Indian forces for illegally walking into Chinese territory. Whatever the reason, a combined 100-plus soldiers from both sides sustained injuries during two skirmishes on May 5 and May 9.

No shots were fired and no one was killed, but that hasn’t stopped both nuclear-armed nations from escalating the standoff since the initial squabbles.

Thousands of troops are now camped on either side of the Galwan Valley, a contentious territory in the high-altitude Ladakh region. Chinese and Indian soldiers have dug new defenses and shipped more military equipment to their outposts. With the harsh winter giving way to spring, experts fear it could be months before the two powers pull back, potentially rekindling violence that led to a large border war in 1962.

“An overzealous commander on the Chinese or Indian side could lead to an aggressive order, which could lead to a countermove resulting in a horrible spiral,” Sumit Ganguly, an expert on India’s foreign policy at Indiana University Bloomington, told me.

But the current situation is about much more than the decades-long border dispute. It’s also about the increasingly bitter rivalry for power in Asia.

China, especially under President Xi Jinping, frequently uses its military might to bully neighbors and claim more territory for itself, including along the mountainous frontier. India, meanwhile, has been building roads and air strips along its border with China in an attempt to exert more control, piquing Beijing in the process.

When it comes to the current impasse, then, “Both sides think the other is the aggressor,” said Adam Ni, a board director of the China Policy Center in Australia. It’s perhaps for this reason that Trump on Wednesday offered to mediate an end to the standoff.

Experts note there’s still a long way to go before a shooting war begins. They point to ongoing diplomatic efforts to solve the scuffle and say neither side actually wants a war with the coronavirus raging.

The problem is that it could be a long time before either China or India decides to settle the matter peacefully — which means an already bad situation might get much worse.

The long China-India border fight, briefly explained

The seeds of the current flare-up were planted during British colonial rule of India.

In the late 1800s, the British drew two borders to formalize the yet-undefined frontier between India and China, one in the “Western Sector” in Kashmir and the other thousands of miles away in the “Eastern Sector.” But China — along with a then-independent Tibet — didn’t agree to the British proposals, leaving demarcation an open question for decades.

After India gained independence from Britain in 1947, its leaders said the British-drawn boundaries were firm and claimed some of the disputed territories — including the Aksai Chin region near the Galwan Valley — for itself. Though it initially accepted some of India’s stances, China changed course over time. In 1957, for example, the Chinese built a road in the “Western Sector” through parts India said it controlled.

Ties between the two countries remained cordial, but they frayed over the next few years in part due to the border problem. Skirmishes between Indian and Chinese patrols first began in 1959 but grew more frequent and violent until October 1962, when Chinese troops invaded India over the disputed border.

After 32 days of fighting, China had gained more control in the “Western Sector” and pushed the ill-trained and ill-equipped Indian troops back about 12 miles in the “Eastern Sector.” It was a humiliating loss for India that haunts the country to this day.

To semi-officially separate the two, a “Line of Actual Control” (LAC) was finally adopted by both countries, marking the disputed claims along the thousands of miles of land — but it was by no means definitive. Much of the LAC was, and remains, porous, noncontiguous, and unmarked, and thus did little to resolve the competing claims between the two countries. The two nations don’t even agree on the actual length of the LAC.

Simmering tensions have persisted despite the pseudo-border in place, sometimes rising to a boil.

Just days before Xi’s first visit with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in September 2014, over 200 Chinese troops entered Indian territory in the western Himalayas to build a road. Indian troops challenged the Chinese soldiers, pushed them back, and reportedly destroyed the road.

In 2017, Chinese engineers tried to build a road through the Dolkam plateau, also an area in the Himalayas claimed both by China and Bhutan, a small country wedged between the two larger powers. Indian troops on their side of the border directly intervened and pushed the crew back.

Weeks of negotiations between Beijing and New Delhi finally ended with India agreeing to pull back troops from the area and China agreeing to end its project (though Chinese leaders vowed to keep patrolling the area). Satellite images released the following year by the independent intelligence firm Stratfor showed that both sides had continued to build up their forces near Dolkam, with India placing attack helicopters at an airfield and China deploying a fighter jet and missile system to its air bases.

That activity continues to this day. “Both China and India are ramping up activities in the Himalayas — building infrastructure, sending military assets — to have more control in the region,” said the China Policy Center’s Ni.

The incursions continue, too. According to the Indian government, China’s forces crossed into Indian territory more than 1,000 times between 2016 and 2018. However, neither side has shot at the other since 1975, abiding by agreements both countries signed in the 1990s to not use weapons in these skirmishes.

Still, continuous provocations meant another fight was likely.

“It’s not a minor skirmish”

Michael Kugelman, an expert on South Asia at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, DC, said he remains in the dark about what really happened at the disputed border earlier this month, as do regional analysts. “The reasons for this standoff aren’t completely clear, and as always, when it comes to border clashes in remote areas the truth tends to remain elusive,” Kugelman told me.

Some of the fuzziness, though, is coming into focus.

On May 5, Indian and Chinese forces scuffled by the Pangong Tso lake in Ladakh, near the site of the 1962 war. Both countries have competing claims over the body of water, making it a flashpoint whenever one side patrols there. That seems to have happened in this case, with Chinese troops unhappy about Indian soldiers in the area. It’s still unclear, though, exactly how the squabble started or who acted first.

Four days later, Indian and Chinese soldiers threw rocks at each other and got into a fistfight at the Naku La region near Tibet. One Indian officer was airlifted to a hospital, while dozens of others sustained less serious injuries. No one, as far as anyone knows, died. According to Foreign Policy magazine, some reports indicate that the skirmish broke out because Chinese forces wanted Indian soldiers to go back to their outpost, but that largely remains unconfirmed.

Since then, the situation has escalated substantially.

China has placed at least 5,000 troops and armored vehicles along the Ladakh portion of the border, but India claims Beijing’s forces have done much more than that. Unconfirmed reports say that up to 10,000 Chinese troops have pushed roughly 2 miles past the LAC into Indian territory. There is also widespread speculation in India that China aims to invade the Galwan Valley, though there is no official confirmation of such plans yet.

However, new satellite imagery published this week in the Indian press appears to show construction work at a Chinese base only 120 miles away from the border, including a new runway for fighter jets.

“China is committed to safeguarding the security of its national territorial sovereignty, as well as safeguarding peace and stability in the China-India border areas,” China’s foreign ministry said in a statement this week.

At the same time, India has added a similar number of forces as well as artillery guns. Modi on Tuesday met with his defense staff to discuss “bolstering India’s military preparedness to deal with external security challenges,” government sources said in a statement.

For Indiana University’s Ganguly, this is quite the escalation. “There’s a series of incursions that have taken place. Both sides have taken to pretty aggressive patrolling,” he said, adding that unnamed Indian sources have told him that Chinese troops have gone nearly 2 miles over the line. “It’s not a minor skirmish.”

Ashok K. Kantha, India’s former ambassador to China, made a similar case to the Guardian on Wednesday. “This escalation is serious; I don’t think this is just a localized incident,” he said. “China’s behavior is more aggressive this time, backed up by a fairly large number of troops, which is not typical of this border where troop levels tend to be low on both sides.

“It could be a territorial claim or part of a wider messaging to India that they need to be more mindful of China on sensitive geopolitical issues,” the former top diplomat continued.

This is really all about China and India’s larger rivalry

There’s a lot more to this border dispute, according to the experts I spoke to. Sure, it’s obviously about the years of animosity that has built up at the undefined frontier. But it’s really about each side sending a larger message to the other.

China wants greater control along the LAC and parts of South Asia, but India’s size and coziness with the United States makes it hard for Beijing to achieve that. Starting a fight along the border “is a way for Chinese to signal to the Indians that they can make life pretty bad,” Ganguly said.

India, meanwhile, wants to send its own signal that it won’t be pushed around by its powerful neighbor, especially in the same area where it lost a brutal war just a few decades ago.

And New Delhi wants to stake its claim even further as the country invests billions in infrastructure in the region, aiming to build 66 roads along the Chinese border by 2022. One of those roads connects to a military base in the Galwan Valley.

As long as the regional rivalry continues and the border issues remain unsolved, skirmishes will likely persist. “This is a new normal that we’re likely to see play out a lot in the coming months and years,” Kugelman said.

The good news, experts note, is that neither side actually wants a full-blown war. Both nations, of course, have their hands full dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Beijing is also preoccupied with growing animosities with the US and seizing more control in Hong Kong, while New Delhi knows that challenging China militarily would likely end badly for India.

Breaking such a stalemate could require America’s help, some analysts told me, especially if the US were to tell China to back off. But those same people fear that Trump, who has offered to step in, is not the leader to take on such a challenge.

“He’s just so fucking clueless,” said Ganguly. “He’s made no headway with North Korea, and now he’s going to mediate this crisis without knowing where the border is?” Ganguly was nodding to a Trump-Modi meeting during which the US leader mistakenly said that India and China don’t share a frontier.

Asked about Trump’s offer on Thursday, External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava sidestepped the question, saying that the country is “engaged with the Chinese side to peacefully resolve this issue.”

The hope is that the latest fire goes out on its own before it becomes a larger international concern. But if it continues to roar, the start of this crisis will feel small compared to what could come next.