On 15th June 2020, Chinese and Indian troops clashed over disputed territory in the Galwan Valley, in the Himalayas.  The border is demarcated, and there have been troops on both sides since the 1960s, but firearms and explosives have been banned since the conclusion of the Sino-Indian war in 1962.  Despite the ban, the June 2020 conflict resulted in 20 fatalities on the Indian side.  Fatalities on the Chinese side are difficult to ascertain, as the Chinese government does not comment publicly on its military fatalities.  Such heightened tensions between the two countries may have a dramatic impact on international relations as both India and China have experienced significant growth and economic development over the last few decades and they are two of the most populous countries in the world. That warning shots were fired in the region for the first time in decades raises legitimate concerns that a full-scale military conflict may soon break out.

So What Has Happened?

The clash concerns disputed territory around the Line of Actual Control (LAC), a de facto border established between China and India after the end of the Sino-Indian war in the 1960s.  The 1960s war involved a border dispute that spilled out into the Ladakh region in the same area, and ended in an uneasy truce between the two sides.  Since the conclusion of the war, troops from both nations have guarded the disputed territory, and both sides agreed not to attack each other with firearms.  Some commentators have noted that the conclusion of the war left many in India resentful.

In May 2020, tensions mounted in the region, when India accused China of erecting military infrastructure on what Indians regard as their side of the disputed border territory.  The Indian Foreign Ministry commented at the time that “the Chinese side sought to erect a structure in Galwan Valley on our side of the LAC.”  There are satellite images to support this claim, revealing infrastructure building on both sides of the border.

China alleges that Indian troops crossed into territory China perceives as its own, and that these troops provoked and attacked Chinese military personnel, which led to the physical dispute on 15th June.  The Chinese foreign ministry commented that “Indian troops seriously violated the consensus and crossed the LAC for illegal activities.  They provoked and attacked Chinese personnel, which led to fierce physical confrontation.”

India has disputed this claim, with Indian media outlets pointing to satellite imagery that they believe refutes the claim Indian troops crossed the border.  Images of weapons allegedly used in lieu of firearms by the Chinese have circulated on social media, with a senior Indian military official stating to the BBC that “they [the Chinese] hit our boys on the head with metal batons wrapped in barbed wire.  Our boys fought with bare hands.”

China further escalated the conflict in the last week, by announcing on 29th September that India’s designation of the region along the disputed border as an Indian federal territory is illegal. Whether this will be used to justify further military conflict remains unclear.

Why Does This Matter?

This isn’t the first time in recent years India and China have clashed over disputed border territory.  Further east, at the joint border between Bhutan, China and India there were clashes in 2017.  Following the joint agreement between China and Bhutan concerning the border in the 1880s, both parties were due to renegotiate in 2017, but China instead opted to send its forces to destroy Bhutanese territory.  India opted to defend Bhutan.  It’s notable that this border region is inhospitable, contains no natural resources and few inhabitants, so the region does not provide tactical advantage to any of the nations involved in the dispute. So military aggression may exist to show might or power to bolster internal nationalist sentiment more than to fulfil any kind of long-term tactical goal.  Both India and China are run by nationalist governments.

Whatever the truth, the two largest nations on earth seem to be inching towards military conflict.  This is bound to have a major impact on International relations, if these border disputes escalate.

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