Trouble in Ladakh: The Sino-Indian Stand-Off

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

Background

An FDI Strategic Alert that was published recently noted that twenty Indian soldiers had been killed in clashes with Chinese troops in the Galwan River area of India’s newly-created union territory of Ladakh. That Alert also noted that Chinese troops had used iron rods and clubs wrapped with barbed wire and embedded with nails to attack the Indian soldiers. It now transpires, according to at least one report, that the Chinese also dammed several rivulets and, when the Indians tried to cross those downstream, released the water, which surged, causing the Indians to lose their balance. The Chinese, additionally, charged the Indians, pushing several into the Galwan River and letting hypothermia do the rest.

Comment

The anger felt across India was, understandably, palpable. Prime Minister Modi made a very strong statement, saying that India sought peace but would defend its territorial sovereignty. He also placed the Indian Army’s and Indian Air Force’s assets that are positioned in the vicinity of the Sino-Indian border on high alert. He praised the country’s armed forces, saying that India was proud of their valour and noted that they had always shown remarkable courage and steadfastly protected India’s sovereignty. ‘We never provoke anyone’, he said on national television. ‘There should be no doubt that India wants peace, but if provoked, India will provide an appropriate response.’

India appears to have also decided to hit China economically. Mr Ram Vilas Paswan, the Consumer Affairs Minister, called for a boycott of all Chinese-made goods and announced that India would block “sub-standard” imports from China. That followed a decision by Indian Railways to cancel a $90 million contract for signalling equipment that had been signed with a Chinese firm. The Department of Telecommunications, in turn, had decided to direct the state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd corporation not to use Chinese telecommunications equipment in its 4G networks. It is possible that New Delhi may seek to curb the sales of Chinese mobile phones in India through indirect means. Were that to happen, it would be a major loss for Chinese mobile phone manufacturers Xiaomi, Vivo, Realme and Oppo, which together account for 76 per cent of all mobile phone sales in the world’s second-largest phone market. It is also reported that India plans to impose higher trade barriers and raise import duties on around 300 products from China and elsewhere. The reason given: to encourage domestic production.

On social media, Indians have likened Chairman Xi to the rather rotund Winnie the Pooh, a comparison that he particularly dislikes. Mr Xi dislikes that comparison so much, in fact, that the cartoon character is banned in China. The comparison arose when Mr Xi was photographed with then-President Obama of the US.

In China, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said the situation turned violent after Indian soldiers ‘crossed the line, acted illegally, provoked and attacked the Chinese, resulting in both sides engaging in serious physical conflict and injury and death’. Unlike India, China has not disclosed the number of casualties that it suffered, although Indian sources claim that 43 Chinese personnel were killed in the fighting (see, for instance, here, here and here). One report noted that ‘A source close to the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) told the South China Morning Post that Beijing was “very sensitive” about military casualties, saying all numbers had to be approved by President Xi Jinping, who heads the Central Military Commission, before being released.’

India has stated that its Minister for External Affairs, S. Jaishankar, will participate in the previously-scheduled 23 June video conference with the foreign ministers of Russia and China. There could be little doubt that the issue of the fighting in the Galwan Valley will be discussed. Elsewhere, on 17 June, the UN General Assembly elected India, together with Mexico, Norway and Ireland, as a non-permanent member of the Security Council for 2021 and 2022, thereby placing New Delhi at the same table as China. India will undoubtedly use that position to confront China diplomatically.

The clash at the Galwan Valley will almost surely escalate from being a localised event to one that will be played out by China and India in other venues.

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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