Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 111, 17 June 2020

Violence escalates along the India-China border in Ladakh; 20 killed on the Indian side
D Suba Chandran

In the news

On 17 June, the Hindu reported the loss of 20 military personnel by India along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh. According to the Global Times, there were casualties on the other side confirmed by the Chinese military, but the latter did not release any numbers.

Both sides at the military and diplomatic levels made statements on the need to maintain peace and tranquility along the LAC, but also expressed their commitment to safeguard "sovereignty and territorial integrity." Both referred to an earlier meeting in June, and have accused the other of breaking the promise of disengagement.  

Both sides did not fire a single shot, but used iron clubs and rocks in the violent exchange, the first in the last many decades.

Issues at large

First, the challenge of border disengagement. According to the recent talks (6 June 2020), both troops were to disengage from the recent confrontation in two areas in Ladakh - the Galwan Valley and the Pangong Tso. The former is a narrow valley along the Galwan river that flows from Aksai Chin (under the Chinese control) into Ladakh (under the Indian control) before joining the river Shyok (an Indus tributary). The Galwan valley has been under the Indian control; the Chinese side now claims the entire valley.

Second, the failure of 6 June talks leading to disengagement. These talks were held at the military levels led by the Commander of the 14 Corps based in Leh on the Indian side, and the Commander of the South Xinjiang military region on the Chinese side. At the LAC level, this meeting should be considered as a senior-level one. Both sides agreed to disengage; a week later, with the latest round of violence, it appears that Commander level meeting has not yielded the results.

Third, the need for the political leadership to step in, before jingoism and nationalist sentiments step up the military casualties. While India has announced the military casualties, China has not yet. The casualties and body bags will raise the popular fervour, that needs to be avoided. The Indian media has been talking about teaching Chinese a lesson, banning the Chinese goods and "2020 is not 1962." According to the Global Times editorial, China "does not and will not create conflicts, but it fears no conflicts either. This policy is supported by both morality and strength. We will not trade our bottom line with anyone."

Fourth, is the need to settle the border differences, and convert the Line of Actual Control (LAC) into a bilateral border. The border dialogue has been going for a long time; there is a perception on both sides to prolong the dialogue and bid more time. It is the differences over where the border lies along the LAC that has led to provocations and whether one side can build infrastructure on its side or not.

In perspective

India and China have to minimise the military interaction at the border level immediately and maximise the political interactions at the bilateral level.

Trump has announced earlier his intention to intervene; this is what Beijing fears –  India falling into the American orbit or the US using India as its Asian pivot. New Delhi has to convince Beijing, the two bilateral ties (with the US and China) are independent. New Delhi also has to convince Beijing that the recent measures in J&K (revocation of Article 370 and administrative reorganization of J&K) are not targeted against China and is a part of an internal strategy.

Outside the LAC, India also has to look into what is happening along the borders with Pakistan, China and Nepal. There has been violence across all three borders in recent weeks. What was discussed as a two-front war, is becoming a three-front one. It is not in New Delhi's interest to allow China to intervene in India's neighbourhood, and has to convince Beijing to avoid that temptation.

Furthermore, all the above have to be done politically. And bilaterally. With China. And also with Nepal.

D Suba Chandran is a Professor and Dean at the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS)

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