On the evening of June 15, hundreds of Chinese and Indian troops clashed in the Galwan Valley, a remote part of the disputed border between the two countries. Twenty Indian soldiers and an unconfirmed number of Chinese soldiers were killed in medieval hand-to-hand combat involving stones and clubs, some wrapped with barbed wire. The fighting marked the first deaths on the long-disputed boundary in 45 years—and the deadliest clash between the two Asian giants since 1967.
Beijing and New Delhi are now attempting to de-escalate tensions, but they have sent reinforcements to the border and eye each other warily. The series of events that led to the clash seems to have begun with China’s move into a portion of the Galwan Valley, raising questions about Chinese motives. Provoking India could push New Delhi to pursue closer ties with Washington at a time when US-Chinese relations are on a downward spiral. It also risks undermining China’s efforts to strengthen relations with India over the past two decades—in part to prevent the formation of a US-led coalition of states that might balance Chinese power.
Some speculate that China’s more aggressive posture toward India in the past two months is part of a campaign to divert Chinese public attention from criticism of Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and a rapidly slowing economy. But the party-state media have largely avoided covering the standoff since it began in earnest in May and even after the clash this month. Xinhua, the state news agency, has published only a handful of terse reports, suggesting that the Chinese government is making no effort to mobilize domestic public opinion against India.
Rather, the pandemic appears to have increased Beijing’s sensitivity to questions of sovereignty, from Hong Kong and Taiwan to the East and South China Seas—and to the rugged Himalayan border with India. Facing pressure at home and criticism abroad, China wants to telegraph strength. Chinese officials worry that moderation and restraint might signal weakness both to domestic elites, who might question the leadership of President Xi Jinping, and to foreign countries embroiled in disputes with China. This heightened sensitivity to any challenge to its territorial claims has shaped China’s bristling response to what it views as an Indian provocation in their long-standing dispute.
Much ado about sovereignty
The clash in June was the product of a standoff between Chinese and Indian forces in several locations in the “western sector” of their contested border. This area, known as Aksai Chin, comprises roughly 33,000 square kilometers and is under Chinese control. (The “eastern sector,” roughly comprising the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, is 90,000 square kilometers and under Indian control, while the much smaller “middle sector” of around 2,000 square kilometers is under more or less evenly divided control.) Starting as early as mid-April, and definitely by early May, China moved large numbers of troops up to the “line of actual control” (LAC)—the de facto border separating Chinese and Indian forces—in three areas in the western sector. Reports vary, but the scale of China’s advance was unprecedented both in terms of the number of troops—around 5,000 soldiers—and in terms of location, with the People’s Liberation Army moving into areas in which it previously had not been active or maintained a strong presence. Chinese soldiers reportedly crossed what India views as the LAC at several points, including at the Galwan Valley, where the June 15 clash occurred.
Any understanding of these recent actions must start with the more strident approach to sovereignty that China has adopted since Xi Jinping became the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. In early 2013, Xi linked sovereignty with the accomplishment of his “China dream,” proclaiming that “no foreign country should expect us to trade away our core interests” or expect China “to swallow the bitter fruit” of encroachments upon its “sovereignty.” In 2018, Xi more pointedly told US Secretary of Defense James Mattis that China “cannot lose even one inch of the territory left behind by our ancestors.”
In practice, Xi’s renewed emphasis on sovereignty is evident in China’s actions in its neighborhood. China has reclaimed large swaths of land atop reefs to build military bases in the South China Sea while instituting patrols by its coast guard vessels within territorial waters it disputes with Japan in the East China Sea. Beijing has also sought to tighten its grip over Hong Kong while gradually increasing pressure on Taiwan and curbing the island nation’s ability to participate on the international stage.
Xi’s emphasis on sovereignty is evident in China’s actions in its neighborhood.
Border standoffs with India occurred in 2013, in 2014, and famously at Doklam in 2017. Back then, India moved troops across an international boundary to block China from building a road in territory that was under Chinese control but was also claimed by India’s ally Bhutan. This measure prompted a standoff that lasted over 70 days. India’s actions surprised China, especially because India had no claim over the area where it deployed troops.
Despite a temporary cooling of tensions on the border after the Wuhan Summit in early 2018, China appears to have closely watched Indian activities in contested areas. China does not want to be surprised again. Perhaps for this reason, recorded instances of Chinese “transgressions” across what India views as the LAC reached their highest level in a decade in 2019, indicating much greater Chinese monitoring of the disputed border. By patrolling up to the limits of its understanding of the LAC, China could more easily observe and deter Indian activity in these areas.
Beijing has also been alarmed by certain shifts in Indian domestic policy. In August 2019, the Indian Parliament repealed Article 370 of the country’s constitution, which had guaranteed the autonomy of the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir. Fulfilling a campaign pledge, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi cleaved the state into two federally administered union territories to be ruled directly from New Delhi. One of these new territories, Ladakh, nominally includes both Chinese-controlled Aksai Chin and some Pakistani-administered areas of Kashmir. In remarks in Parliament in August 2019, Indian Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah described Aksai Chin as “occupied” and underscored that “we will sacrifice our lives for it.”
China likely viewed the Modi government’s measures as altering the status quo along the border and as a signal of greater Indian resolve to press its claims in the dispute with China. At a closed-door session of the UN Security Council that August, the Chinese representative noted that the creation of Ladakh as a union territory challenged China’s sovereignty and “violated bilateral agreements on maintaining peace and stability in the border area.” In October, the Chinese Foreign Ministry again stressed that by “placing part of Chinese territory under Indian administration,” India was harming China’s “sovereign rights and interests.”
The creation of Ladakh as a union territory cast India’s ongoing efforts to improve military-related infrastructure along the LAC in a harsher light. Also in 2019, India completed construction of a new strategic road in Ladakh, called the DS-DBO road, which linked key military facilities near the border and improved India’s military and logistical capabilities. A wider network of Indian border roads is scheduled to be completed by 2022 as part of an effort to match the infrastructure China has built on its side in the past two decades.
Even though China has enjoyed a dominant position on the border since the 1962 war between the two countries, it remains sensitive to Indian efforts to improve its position, even more so now under Xi. India’s construction of a feeder road in the Galwan Valley, which ran from the DS-DBO road toward the putative border, helped provoke the standoff that began in May. China likely viewed this move as a potential danger, seeing the Galwan Valley as a back door into Aksai Chin. In response to this perceived threat, China moved its forces beyond its own roadhead to block India from moving any farther into the valley. China also likely wanted to create a post to more easily observe Indian forces along the new roads.
These actions led to the clash on June 15, when detachments of Chinese and Indian soldiers wrangled over the advanced location of a Chinese post. China’s aggressive posture is in large part explained by its sensitivity to the assertiveness of Indian troops along the border.
End of an era
The deadly clash, and the brutality of the fighting, could be a turning point in India-China relations. Since the mid-1990s, and especially since India became a nuclear power in 1998, the two countries have worked hard to develop their bilateral ties despite the persistence of the territorial dispute. That diplomacy has been a remarkable accomplishment—ongoing territorial disputes tend to dampen cooperation between states. Successive Indian and Chinese leaders have been able to insulate ties from the abiding tensions of the disputed border. Bilateral trade has increased from $2 billion to over $90 billion in the past two decades, while the two countries have institutionalized cooperation in forums such as the BRICS grouping (which includes Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) to advocate for the interests of developing states.
But thanks to this latest clash, the territorial dispute could return to the center of the relationship, heralding an end to an era of greater Indian-Chinese cooperation. Indian views of China, already worsening in recent years, will likely deteriorate further. Already there have been calls within India to boycott Chinese goods, block the use of 5G equipment on India’s mobile networks, limit Chinese investment, and generally adopt a much harder line toward China. As a result, the Indian government will face increased public pressure to prevent a recurrence of what happened at Galwan, which will mean blocking China from altering the status quo elsewhere along the LAC. Even if a temporary disengagement is reached over the current areas of tension, India will be much more vigilant and suspicious.
The clash may also steer India closer to the United States. As the India-China relationship becomes more competitive and fraught than at any time in recent decades, the United States is a logical partner for India in balancing China. Hopes for greater security cooperation between Washington and New Delhi, however, have never produced swift or meaningful results even if there is renewed impetus to do more. After all, Russia, not the United States, is India’s main supplier of weapons for its armed forces, and New Delhi may not want a close alignment with Washington.
China appears to hope that its relationship with India will return to the way it was before the clash, calling on the two sides to “follow the important consensus” reached by Xi and Modi. But China’s concerns about sovereignty are just as unlikely to abate, suggesting that its territorial disputes will remain a source of friction with and concern for its neighbors. Ironically, even though China set in motion the events that led to the clash in the Galwan Valley, it may be up to India to decide where relations between the two powers go from here.
M Taylor Fravel is Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science and Director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.