Battle in the Himalayas Strains India-China Relations

Where is Ladakh? When conflict on the disputed mountain border between China and India broke out last summer, international spectators took quick notice. But the remote nature of the obscure Himalayan region left many asking why the area matters so much.

Ladakh is a disputed region administratively divided between India, Pakistan, and China. In India, the territory is a part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, an area entirely disputed by Pakistan and rife with ethnic conflict. Beginning last year, the Indian government vastly increased its military presence in Kashmir and repeatedly instituted widespread internet blackouts, locking down the region to quell alleged insurgent activity. The aggressive footing of India’s central government raised tensions across the borders with Pakistan and China, where hostile troops have faced each other down for more than fifty years.

The people of Ladakh are diverse and unlike the larger populations of any of the disputing countries. Ladakhi culture is most closely related to Tibetan culture. Of the Indian territory, 46 percent of residents are Buddhist, 40 percent are Muslim, and 12 percent are Hindu. [1]

Though Ladakh is home to dozens of picturesque valleys, including the Indus River Valley, it also boasts mountainous and formidable terrain. Military convoys traverse mountain roads at 15,000 feet to resupply bases along either side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto division between Chinese and Indian territory. The LAC spans nearly 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles) of impassable Himalayan frontier. Almost all of it is disputed.

In Ladakh, the LAC divides the two nations at such high altitudes that even the air is hard to breathe. But the difficult conditions have not been enough to prevent serious and repeated clashes between Indian and Chinese troops. Though both sides typically respect a de facto border code not to use firearms, hand to hand combat between soldiers has left dozens dead on either side.

In June, the most drastic brawl in years resulted in the death of 20 Indian soldiers and an indeterminate number of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces. [2] In September, China alleged that Indian troops had fired warning shots at Chinese soldiers, the first aggressive use of firearms along the border in decades. [3] India denied the incident had taken place. 

Conflict over the Himalayan mountain border has erupted in the past. In October 1962, in response to aggressively positioned Indian troops, China launched a massive military push into Ladakh. Taking Indian forces by surprise, the PLA soundly defeated the Indian defenders and pushed well into Ladakh. Chinese forces also captured several towns in North-East India. After just a month, the Chinese declared a unilateral victory and withdrew to the current Line of Actual Control. The conflict, termed the Sino-Indian War of 1962, left a total of 2,000 dead by Indian accounts. The PLA counted nearly 6,000 deaths, including 4,897 Indian soldiers. Thousands more were wounded on either side. [4]

After more than half a century of military modernization, the risks of a conflict between the two nations, both nuclear powers, are greater than ever. The leaders of the two nations, India’s Narendra Modi, and China’s Xi Jinping, are both nationalistic strongmen. Both countries paint the other as a grave threat, and neither leader wants to look weak.

Recent tensions have caused both sides to significantly increase their presence in the disputed region. In response to altercations in May and June, satellite imagery showed significant construction activity around Chinese bases near Pangong Lake, right on the Line of Actual Control. [5] Both sides have fielded hundreds of soldiers and several tank platoons which are supported by artillery positions along the lake’s “fingers,” eight mountains jutting out into the water. [6]

Though India and China have maintained communication through both military and diplomatic channels, neither seems ready to back down. In June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi accompanied India’s military leadership on a visit to a remote base in Nimu, Ladakh. Addressing soldiers, he chanted “long live mother India” and bragged that “enemies of India have seen your fire and fury.” [7]

While Indian nationalists took the internet, blaming China for Indian deaths and promising to boycott goods made in China, their Chinese counterparts decried the conflict as evidence of an  aggressive and dangerous India. By November, India had banned more than 200 Chinese apps, including TikTok, in a direct response to the border skirmishes. Though the region is sparsely populated and largely inhospitable, conflict along the Ladakhi border remains a powder keg with the potential to define Sino-Indian relations for decades to come.


References

[1] Kamaljit Kaur Sandhu, “Government Planning to Redraw Jammu and Kashmir Assembly Constituency Borders,” India Today, June 4, 2019, https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/government-toys-with-delimitation-commission-in-j-k-1542446-2019-06-04.

[2] Jeffrey Gettleman, Hari Kumar, and Sameer Yasir, “Worst Clash in Decades on Disputed India-China Border Kills 20 Indian Troops,” The New York Times, June 16, 2020, sec. World, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/16/world/asia/indian-china-border-clash.html.

[3]  Jeffrey Gettleman, “Shots Fired Along India-China Border for First Time in Years,” The New York Times, September 8, 2020, sec. World, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/08/world/asia/india-china-border.html.

[4] Larry M. Wortzel, “Concentrating Forces and Audacious Action: PLA Lessons from the Sino-Indian War,” in The Lessons of History: The Chinese People’s Liberation Army at 75, ed. Laurie Burkitt and Andrew Scobell (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2003).

[5] Jin Wu and Steven Lee Myers, “Battle in the Himalayas,” The New York Times, July 18, 2020, sec. World, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/18/world/asia/china-india-border-conflict.html.

[6] Wu and Myers, “Battle in the Himalayas.”

[7]  Aijaz Hussain, “Modi Visits Military Base Close to China Amid Standoff,” AP News, July 3, 2020, https://apnews.com/article/5e140c3d91bd2e38d153cb4fc391264e.