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June 18, 2020

CHINA/INDIA: No war, but deadly skirmish is a major blow to bilateral relations

BY Aditi Phadnis, Gabriel Wildau

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( 4 mins)
  • The deadliest border clash since 1967 has sharply escalated bilateral tensions, though both sides are now seeking de-escalation.
  • Chinese forces may have seized a strategic area that threatens Indian military access to a newly-built road meant to increase India’s capabilities in the region.
  • China’s propaganda apparatus has downplayed the incident, but Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces pressure to respond – though a non-military response is most likely.

India’s army has confirmed at least 20 deaths from clashes with Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley, a contested border region in the Himalayas, on 15 June. The incident marks the deadliest border clash since 1967 and the first deaths of any kind since 1975. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) confirmed an unspecified number of casualties (using a term that could refer either to injuries or deaths) but has not confirmed Indian media reports of around 43 Chinese deaths.

The deadly skirmish was the culmination of a weeks-long standoff, but the incident comes as a surprise, since the two sides appeared to be seeking de-escalation following earlier, non-lethal incidents. No shots were fired in the most recent incident, but deaths resulted from stoning, clubs wrapped in barbed wire, and exposure to extreme cold at high altitude.

India and China’s accounts of what occurred do not tally, but there is no doubt the skirmish has escalated tensions in the disputed region. India’s claim over significant territory, including the strategically important Darbuk-Daulat Beg Oldie road linking India to the Karakoram Highway, is under threat. As previously discussed, India’s construction of this road was an important cause of the standoff because it increased the Indian army’s operational capabilities in the region. The PLA reportedly discovered an unguarded but highly strategic spot along the so-called Line of Actual Control and occupied it, enabling the PLA to threaten India’s use of the road.

Both sides now appear to be seeking de-escalation. Talks between the two militaries occur regularly, but now dialog has escalated to senior civilian leaders. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke to Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar by phone on 17 June. The two sides agreed to strengthen communication and coordination and to resolve differences peacefully. But in a readout from the call, Wang said that India “deliberately provoked and even violently attacked” Chinese soldiers and violated an earlier agreement to withdraw from the area. Jaishankar’s readout blamed China for a “premeditated and planned action” that was directly responsible for the resulting violence and casualties.

Chinese social media commentary on the dispute has surged, reflecting grassroots nationalism, but Beijing’s propaganda apparatus appears disinclined to actively encourage such sentiment. People’s Daily and PLA Daily, the official newspapers of the Communist Party and the PLA, respectively, did not mention the skirmish at all on 16 June, and the aggressively nationalist Global Times only covered it on a back page. Beijing may be content to consolidate its gains while seeking de-escalation, but this may be easier said than done. The Indian side says the current military standoff has unilaterally altered the status quo and that India will not settle for anything less than restoration of the situation that existed on 5 May, before the Chinese intrusions occurred.

Modi has promised a “befitting reply,” but this will likely be non-military, given the risks of escalation and a balance of military power that favors China. Many Indian commentators are calling on the country to boycott Chinese goods, and New Delhi has reportedly instructed state-run telecom carriers not to purchase equipment from Huawei and ZTE, China’s two leading vendors. In the medium term, Modi may also face domestic political pressure to recover the strategic position that is at threat. Some Indian commentary has suggested that the incident represents a failure by the home ministry’s Indo-Tibetan Border Police, who were supposed to guard the area

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