The Sino-Indian Face-Off: Violence and Death in the Himalayas

17 June 2020 Lindsay Hughes, Senior Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

Background

The heightened tensions that permeated the ongoing standoff between Chinese and Indian troops along their common border have devolved into clashes and the deaths of twenty Indian soldiers. In a statement on Tuesday, 16 June, the Indian Army announced that three of its soldiers had been killed in fighting, albeit without the use of firearms, with Chinese troops. That number very shortly thereafter was upgraded to twenty. According to China’s Global Times newspaper, ‘A further 34 Indian soldiers are also missing, believed to have died or been captured, the Telegraph reported on Tuesday, citing senior Indian Army sources.’

Comment

The trouble began, according to one report, when Chinese troops began building an outpost within the mutually-agreed buffer zone between the border (known as the Line of Actual Control or LAC), and the junction of the Galwan and Shyok rivers. When Indian troops objected to that outpost, the situation quickly devolved into fighting, during which iron rods and clubs with nails embedded in them were used. The fatalities are the first to be publicly acknowledged since 1975, when four Indian soldiers were killed by Chinese forces.

That could have major ramifications. First, it is likely that both sides will enact further measures to de-escalate the tensions between them. Neither side wants, nor can afford, for the situation to devolve further. There will, undoubtedly, be posturing, claims made and recriminations from both sides but, overall, they will work to ease the situation. They will both recognise, however, that in the medium to longer terms, this incident can only add to the sense of grievance felt in both New Delhi and Beijing.

Second, the incident will likely play its part in driving India to seek a closer partnership with its Quad stablemates, especially the United States. That would be ironic, seeing that India’s growing relationship with the US was likely one of the reasons that China turned against India in the first place. If that is indeed the case, Chairman Xi would appear to have made a strategic mistake, which could embolden his critics, especially those in the Jiang faction of the Chinese Communist Party, in Beijing.

Third, at a time of heightened nationalism in both countries, China can expect to see a backlash against its products, especially mobile phones, that are sold in India. Calls have begun for commercial agreements made with Chinese companies to be scrapped. At a time when Chairman Xi, furthermore, faces increased domestic criticism because he is seen to be weak in regard to President Trump’s tariffs and other measures against China, he cannot afford to be seen as weak against Prime Minister Modi as well. Mr Modi, similarly, cannot appear to be weak against India’s main antagonist.

Fourth, when troops are situated in a physically- and mentally-draining location and ordered to watch a perceived enemy closely day after day, it is only natural that they will react violently against that enemy. When they witness their brothers in arms being killed by that same enemy, it is natural for them to wish to avenge those deaths in one form or another. There will be further violence.

As a consequence, the growing rift between China and India will further widen and we can expect to see more similar incidents, probably of growing ferocity, in the future.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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