On the night of June 15, Chinese and Indian troops in the Galwan area of Ladakh fought in the most serious clash between the two armies since 1967. No shots were fired but in the pitched hand-to-hand combat, up to 43 Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops and 20 Indian Army soldiers may have died. In addition, ten Indian soldiers were detained by the Chinese for a day. While the figures are not confirmed, these numbers still represent the highest number of casualties on the border – the Line of Actual Control (LAC) – that runs between 2000 kilometers to 3500 kilometers (China and India disagree on the length).
Precisely why, in the midst of troop disengagements from their eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, the two contingents should have battled each other in a massive melee at 16,000 feet is unclear. But what led to the ratcheting up of tensions in several places along the LAC in Ladakh beginning in early May 2020? Most of the explanations are to be found in the Indian and international media, where at least three major lines of analysis are evident. Here is a largely Indian-derived view of the confrontation.
Beginning in early May 2020 (some say as early as mid-April), China consolidated a military presence in at least four areas at the LAC in the Ladakh area. Beijing claims that those areas have always been part of China and that it has regularly patrolled them. Delhi claims that the areas are on India’s side of the LAC and that even if there were occasional Chinese patrols in the vicinity (because the LAC is not very finely defined), the PLA now looks to assert permanent control. China wants India to stop all road building and other activity in the area. India refuses to do so, arguing that Chinese infrastructure built in the 1990s and 2000s is superior, and Indian infrastructure construction is aimed at reducing the asymmetry and no more.
It is against this set of differences that the clash at Galwan occurred, ironically while both sides were implementing a local disengagement of forces as agreed during a meeting of senior officers on June 6.
The strategic importance of Galwan
The first explanation of China-India tensions focuses on control of the Galwan area. Beyond conflicting historical claims over ownership of Galwan is its strategic importance. While Chinese infrastructure in Tibet had grown in size and quality in the 1990s, India had lagged behind in the construction of logistical roads and bridges. Over the last decade, however, Delhi has sped up its efforts and more or less completed the 250-kilometer road that connects Leh, the capital of Ladakh, to Daulat Beg Oldi, the last Indian outpost before the Chinese border.
Essentially, the strategic gain for China is that from the Galwan Heights (Patrol Point 14) its forces look down at the highway and can monitor and interdict Indian forces with artillery fire, thereby negating India’s catchup. China argues that in building the highway India has violated an understanding on stability along contested areas. India counters that it is only trying to reduce the infrastructure asymmetry in this sensitive area by increasing connectivity on its side of the LAC.
The problem with this line of explanation of Chinese actions is that the road from Leh to Daulat Beg Oldi has been under construction for two decades and is hardly news to China. If Beijing were of a mind to disrupt or negate India’s advancing infrastructure capabilities, it could have done so much earlier.
China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy
A second explanation of the tensions is that they must be seen in the context of China’s increasingly aggressive posture towards various territorial and political disputes in Asia. Beijing’s assertiveness, in this view, can be seen in its changed language on reunification with Taiwan and its air intrusions in Taiwanese air space, the new national security law for Hong Kong, its recent military moves in the East and South China Sea, and even its economic and other moves against Australia.
Beijing’s belligerence in Ladakh is thought to form part of a pattern of signalling to rivals in the region including the US that despite the Covid-19 crisis and economic slowdown in China, it is determined to defend its interests. Indeed, it is determined to take advantage of the relative disarray let loose by the pandemic in the rest of the world to chart its rise, as it did after the 2008 global economic crisis. In the case of India, the rapid spread of the coronavirus and the country’s increasing economic difficulties presented an opportunity.
A rider to this explanation is that domestic politics in China has in part driven its new assertiveness. Observers in India, as elsewhere, have argued that the pressures on Chinese leader Xi Jinping due to his handling of an array of issues – his status within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), relations with the US, the economic slowdown, the Covid-19 outbreak – have attracted criticism. Internal dissatisfaction may have led him to try to distract attention by stirring up nationalist feelings over China’s external quarrels.
There are at least two difficulties with fitting India into this larger explanation of China’s recent foreign policy. First, Beijing is far more concerned with conflicts in East Asia. Even now, after the violence in Galwan, Chinese official statements and media notice of it have been quite muted and have not played up the crisis for both the external and domestic audience. Second, given the array of moves it has made in East Asia, and given tensions with Australia and the US, opening a front with India would seem only to complicate China’s strategic environment and distract it from its primary theatre.