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Why India and China Are Fighting in the Himalayas

NEW DELHI — On a freezing December day on a remote Himalayan mountain ridge, Indian and Chinese soldiers fought with sticks, stones, clubs and bare fists. Scores were bloodied and injured. The incident, according to the Indian authorities, occurred on Dec. 9, when about 300 soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army of China attempted to occupy Yangtse, a mountainous border post on the disputed India-China border in the Tawang area in northeastern India.

Soldiers from China and India, nuclear-armed Asian neighbors, have been clashing on their disputed border with an alarming frequency owing to the rise of aggressive nationalisms in President Xi Jinping’s China and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s India. Insecurity is also growing in New Delhi and Beijing over intensified construction of border infrastructure by both countries. And mutual suspicion is deepening as China contemplates the increasing strategic cooperation between the United States and India as competition and conflict between Washington and Beijing intensifies.

China and India share a disputed 2,100-mile border, which has neither been settled on a map nor marked on its difficult mountainous and glacial terrain. Broadly, it runs between China’s Tibet Autonomous Region and the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh in the northeast, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, and the federally administered territory of Ladakh in the north. Neither the colonial British authorities nor the leaders of independent India were able to agree on the detailed alignment of a border with China.

A few years after China invaded Tibet in 1950, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India ordered official maps of India’s borders to be updated, and India laid claim to the alkaline desert of Aksai Chin, which lies between its northern Ladakh region and China’s Xinjiang province. China contested India’s claim by displaying its control and possession of Aksai Chin, where it had completed a strategic highway linking Tibet with Xinjiang by 1957.

With no apparent way of settling conflicting border claims, India and China fought a war in 1962 in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, which created the Line of Actual Control, or LAC — the de facto border between the two countries. Both countries interpret its alignment to suit their conveniences. With little human habitation along the China-Indian border, there are few land or revenue records — traditional ways of establishing ownership. Chinese and Indian border troops assert their territorial claims by patrolling up to their claimed boundary line and sometimes end up clashing in places where they make conflicting claims.

Throughout the 1960s and the ’70s, India’s military, traumatized by China’s comprehensive victory and fearful of setting off another conflagration, deployed well to the rear of the border, which was covered only by long-range patrols. In the early 1980s, the Indian military leadership came to be dominated by a new generation of bolder commanders and New Delhi greenlighted a move forward, much closer to the Line of Actual Control.

This set off a confrontation between Indian and Chinese troops in the Tawang area in Arunachal Pradesh in 1986-87, which forced Beijing and New Delhi to engage. In 1988, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India traveled to Beijing to meet China’s leader, Deng Xiaoping, and they set up a joint working group for dialogue and confidence-building measures to keep the peace.

Between 1989 and 2005, the Indian and Chinese sides had 15 meetings and no blood was shed for 30 years. After the Gandhi-Deng meeting, the two sides signed an agreement in 1993 for restraint and joint action on the disputed border whenever Indian and Chinese patrols differed on the alignment of the LAC. It was followed by four more pacts, aimed at keeping the peace on the border.

Minor Chinese intrusions in Ladakh in 2008, 2013 and 2014 were resolved through dialogue. A major escalation followed in June 2017 in the Doklam Plateau in the Himalayas, where India, China and Bhutan meet. The Chinese military was building a road into the area, which is claimed by both China and Bhutan.

The plateau is close to “Chicken’s Neck,” a narrow corridor of Indian territory that connects mainland India to its northeastern states, an area the size of Oregon, where 45 million people live. India saw the Chinese incursion and construction as a dangerous move toward control over the Doklam Plateau, and it reawakened New Delhi’s fear of China cutting off northeastern India in a war by taking over Chicken’s Neck.

Indian soldiers blocked the Chinese. After an intense face-off for 73 days, both sides withdrew, but in the past five years the People’s Liberation Army has moved back into the area and continued building border infrastructure. A few years later, the most lethal confrontation on the disputed border occurred in the northern Ladakh region in June 2020 when Chinese soldiers killed at least 20 Indian soldiers with wooden staves and nail-studded clubs, and the Chinese military seized more than 40 square miles of territory controlled by India.

After the Dec. 9 clashes, the border agreements between India and China lie in tatters. Indian strategic planners, traditionally preoccupied with the Pakistan threat, now face a more complex security calculus. After the lethal clashes in Ladakh in 2020, India reinforced its defenses there with an additional 50,000 troops. Indian military planners worry that sufficiently reinforcing the border with China might come at the cost of their ability to deter Pakistan.

For New Delhi, China’s new aggressiveness presents a clear dilemma: Should India continue to build strategic and military relations with the United States and the partnership of America, Australia, Japan and India — known as the Quad — even though Beijing has made it clear it sees the Quad as an anti-China grouping? While the Quad, and its more overtly militaristic version, the AUKUS (Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States) alliance, constitute a viable deterrent to China in the maritime Indo-Pacific theater, India is the only partner that confronts China on its land border.

From New Delhi’s perspective, the Chinese military aggression on the disputed border is the price India is paying for joining hands with the Western alliance. New Delhi takes pains to portray its independence, even turning down an American offer of assistance against China at the time of the 2020 intrusions in Ladakh. New Delhi has restricted Indo-U.S. cooperation to the realm of intelligence and privately asked Washington to lower the rhetoric over China. This is unlikely to change.

Within India, Mr. Modi’s strongman image has taken a dent from the confrontation with China. His insistence that India has not lost territory to China provides ammunition to his supporters, but the numbers of his blind supporters have dwindled. The Chinese military’s most recent aggression shows that Beijing continues to fuel the confrontation, and relations between India and China face a negative spiral without a predictable end. The political cost to Mr. Modi, it seems, will eventually be decided in Beijing as much as in New Delhi.

Ajai Shukla, a retired Indian Army colonel, is a consulting editor for the Business Standard newspaper in New Delhi.

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