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New trends and developments in border tensions between China and India

Ladakh India
Ladakh, India. Photo: Lionel Borie/Pixabay.

While de-escalating the over one month-long stand-off in disputed areas in the Himalayan region, Chinese and Indian troops clashed again on 15 June. Even though the servicemen did not use firearms, the violence caused dozens of casualties on both sides. The clash took place when China and India were defusing the latest border tensions that had emerged at the beginning of May 2020. A pullback of troops had begun after the 6 June meeting between Maj Gen Lin Liu, commander of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s South Xinjiang Military District, and Lt Gen Harinder Singh, commander of the Indian Army’s Leh-based 14 Corps, where the two generals had agreed to ‘peacefully resolve the situation in the border areas’. However, this recent violent backlash shows that the peaceful solution of territorial disputes between China and India does not seem to be a near-term possibility. Worrying trends point to an increase in the intensity of tensions between the two states and an acceleration in their broader strategic competition connected to regional developments.

The most recent crisis has been taking place in May and June along the line of actual control (LAC), which separates the Chinese and Indian controlled territories of the former principality of Jammu and Kashmir. Despite the lack of official explanations for what happened in the lead-up to the 15 June incident, the media reported multiple incidents between military patrols in the eastern Ladakh region (the part of Kashmir administrated by India), causing light injuries and the temporary detention of personnel. Unlike previous stand-offs between China and India, which occurred in 2013 at Depsang (northern Ladakh), in 2014 at Chumar (eastern Ladakh) and in 2017 at Doklam (Chinese–Indian–Bhutanese border), the current crisis has become more intense. It is taking place in various locations in eastern Ladakh: Galwan Valley, Hot Springs, Pangong Tso lake and Demchok. It also involves more troops: according to Indian media reports, Chinese forces reached 3400 in the Galwan Valley and 3600 in the Pangong Tso lake area. This build-up reportedly surprised the Indian side. However, India was able to ‘mirror’ deployment in the disputed areas, even if it contradicted measures limiting the mobility of the armed forces due to coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

Indian media reports on the diplomatic-level talks and military negotiations that have taken place have shown that the two sides were unable to agree on military measures to prevent similar incidents in the future. The reported outcome of Chinese and Indian efforts in this regard sends a mixed message. On the one hand, the mechanisms created after the bilateral agreements of 1993, 1996, 2005 and 2013 do work. Both sides acknowledge that these have helped to keep channels open in periods of military escalation. During this year’s crisis in eastern Ladakh, China and India have held a dozen rounds of talks between local commanders, three rounds of negotiations at major-general level, one diplomatic video call at department-head level and one meeting at lieutenant-general level. On the other hand, the prospects for resolving these territorial disputes are becoming even more cloudy, for four main reasons (similarly relevant to China and India). In summary, these are the continued construction work in the disputed areas, the rise of the strategic significance of these areas, the introduction of strategic facilities and capabilities to the Himalayan region, and the adaptation of more proactive military postures.

First, China and India cannot remove the central cause of the recent tensions in the border areas, which is the continued construction of military and dual-use infrastructure in Chinese- and Indian-controlled territories. These developments are mainly related to the remote areas that previously lacked even roads. New facilities allow more active military patrolling, but they also provoke the other side to create obstacles for patrols and attempt to destroy the facilities.

Second, China and India have recently experienced strategic developments in the nearby neighbourhood. Specifically, the Chinese presence in the former principality of Jammu and Kashmir became more visible after 2015, when several economic projects were announced under the auspices of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). In 2015, top-level Indian officials objected to the infrastructural projects of the CPEC in Gilgit-Baltistan, which is the administrative territory of Pakistan claimed by India. The objection, raised by the Indian Ministry of Defence in 2018, was focused on passing the CPEC-related infrastructural projects through the Kashmir territories controlled by Pakistan but claimed by India.

From the Indian perspective, adding the Chinese developments to the long-standing Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan, it is clear that the disagreement ceased to be a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan. As M. D. Upadayay from the Indian Centre for Joint Warfare Studies states, ‘the Chinese presence and interests in POK [Pakistan-occupied Kashmir] added a new dimension to the long drawn Indo-Pak dispute over the state of Jammu and Kashmir. It has transformed the Kashmir dispute into a trilateral dispute with China being the third stake holder’.

Pakistan seems to welcome the growing role of China in the region, but it is unclear if it sees this role more in military than economic terms. There is no public statement from China or Pakistan about the military dimension of the CPEC and related joint activities in the Himalayan region. Nevertheless, a large number of joint military exercises shows that both countries are developing capabilities for joint operations. For instance, China and Pakistan conducted joint ‘Shaheen’ (‘Eagle’) air force exercises in 2011 and each year in the period 2013–19. The cooperation between China and Pakistan casts a shadow on the territorial disputes of the former with India, even though this cooperation is not openly directed against India.

Third, after the necessary infrastructure that is being built in the disputed areas, China and India are also moving facilities and systems of strategic significance to this region. For instance, a few years ago India deployed 100 BrahMos cruise missiles with 5 launchers in the bordering state of Arunachal Pradesh. The Chinese reaction was unequivocal: ‘India deploying supersonic missiles on the border has exceeded its own needs for self-defence and poses a serious threat to China’s Tibet and Yunnan provinces.’ However, there are also China’s reported developments in Tibet that have strategic significance, including missile drills and deployments. When introduced to the disputed areas on both sides, such systems may be a two-edged sword: they can prevent armies from escalating border standoffs to larger armed conflicts, or their deployment in the region makes their use possible if the above-mentioned mechanisms (e.g. channels of communication) are unable to de-escalate border tensions.

Fourth, in addition to building up their capabilities, China and India are also demonstrating more proactive postures of military use. The most visible examples of this change are China’s military actions in the South China Sea and India’s military strikes against targets in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. In both cases, strategic patience seems to be downgraded in political and military policies. So far, this change is less visible in the border tensions between China and India. Their standoffs remain low-intensity in terms of the weapons involved and casualties caused. How long this situation will continue in the Himalayan region is unclear, however, when taking into account China and India’s new facilities and capabilities.

There are, of course, other issues casting a shadow on the developments between China and India, including the COVID-19 crisis. Because of the pandemic, the two sides have had to execute some channels of communication virtually instead of in person. This effect of COVID‑19 did not make these channels useless, but it did decrease their effectiveness, as China and India lacked face-to-face negotiations on a high level.

The recent tensions between China and India should not be regarded as routine engagements in the disputed areas in the Himalayan region. There are indications that they represent a new stage in the strategic competition between these two nuclear-armed states, with China and India raising their stakes in border disputes and building up their military capabilities.


Dr Petr Topychkanov is an Associate Senior Researcher in the SIPRI Weapons of Mass Destruction Programme.