High drama: India and China square up in the Himalayas

Soldiers from nuclear-armed China and India have fought hand-to-hand high up in the Himalayas, as a border dispute threatens the uneasy truce between the world’s most populous nations.

India’s military commanders are meeting today to discuss the escalating tensions, which came to a head when stone-throwing and fist fights broke out between the Indian and Chinese armies near Pangong Lake (pictured above), which straddles the border, on 5 May.

Another brawl, involving 150 soldiers, erupted a few days later, and Indian TV station NDTV yesterday broadcast satellite images that appeared to show Chinese military jets at a recently expanded airport near the disputed territory.

Although such incidents are not uncommon, “we should be worried” about these latest skirmishes, says Foreign Policy.

“The theory that Sino-Indian clashes are flashes in the pan and unlikely to lead to more extensive fighting has become a widely held consensus,” the news site reports. “Recent events, however, suggest that escalations are highly possible.”

A long, cold border war

As The Economist explains, “thanks in part to slapdash colonial cartography, the boundary between India and China is undefined”. 

The two sides fought a “brief but bloody border war in 1962, ending in a ceasefire that established the Line of Actual Control demarcating the boundary”, says Newsweek.

However, India and China “have different views about the exact location” of the de facto border they now patrol, adds The Economist.

As a result, their soldiers often encounter each other high in the Himalayas, on icy mountain passes that each regard as their own territory. “Sometimes stand-offs involve chest-bumping, pushing and shoving, and throwing stones at each other,” reports the BBC.

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In 2017, a serious military clash appeared to be “a distinct possibility”, when the two armies squared up to each other across a remote mountain pass for 73 days, before “that particular crisis abated”, says Foreign Policy.

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Why now?

The latest dispute has been brewing for some time, as both China and India flex their muscles on the world stage.

“While Beijing has asserted its vast claims to the South China Sea,” says Newsweek, “New Delhi has consolidated control over semi-autonomous Kashmir”, changing the region’s legal status to bring it into line with other Indian states.

This move has “infuriated rival Pakistan and also angered China” – two antagonists of India that have close “economic, political and defence ties”, the magazine reports.

India, meanwhile, is “building strong strategic partnerships with China’s other rivals, especially the United States and Japan”, says Foreign Policy. “Beijing sees New Delhi as the principal impediment to the realisation of its ambitions to dominate Asia.”

Covid diplomacy

The coronavirus pandemic has also contributed to the renewed tensions, and drawn Nepal into the dispute between its two giant neighbours.

Nepalese Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli told his parliament this week it was “very difficult to contain Covid-19 due to the flow of people from outside”, adding that the “Indian virus looks more lethal than Chinese and Italian now”.

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The same day, India accused Oli’s government of an “unjustified cartographic assertion” after it published a map laying claim to a patch of land that India considers its own. Without directly mentioning China, the head of the Indian army said Nepal might be acting “at the behest of someone else”.

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Uncertain future

Despite all the posturing in Beijing and New Delhi, “no bullet has been fired over the border in the last four decades”, says the BBC. And many observers believe both sides are willing to maintain their imperfect truce.

China said today that the situation at the border was “stable and controllable”, The Times of India reports. India has characterised the situation as “serious but not alarming”.

But not everyone is convinced by such diplomatic language. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi this week met with his three top military officials to discuss “bolstering India’s military preparedness to deal with external security challenges”, according to government sources.

“Both sides have substantial – and growing – military deployments along a mostly disputed border,” says Foreign Policy. “Peace can no longer be taken for granted.”



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