India and China aren’t in a shooting war, just a savage one


Ladakh. Photo by Steven Lasry on Unsplash

The video posted on Twitter by a journalist in western India is astonishing in its savagery. A television set is flung over a balcony, then beaten severely with sticks by a group of men, who proceed to dance on it in triumphant rage. The television set, it turns out, is made in China. The men are in Ahmedabad, capital of Gujarat, a prosperous state that also happens to be the home turf of India’s prime minister Narendra Modi.

It’s a snapshot of the charged situation between India and China, nuclear-armed neighbours whose troops engaged this week in their first deadly skirmish since 1975.

That incident too was marked by savagery. The clash — on a narrow mountain ridge more than 14,000 feet above sea level — claimed at least 20 lives. India has admitted its soldiers were killed and the Indian media has reported Chinese fatalities but this has not been confirmed by Beijing.

According to accounts, soldiers used batons wrapped in barbed wire and rocks to bludgeon each other to death.

Not a shot was fired but the barbaric encounter is surely worse in some ways.

It speaks to a dangerous escalation in the long-running dispute between India and China over territory and borders.

From 1947, when India won its independence from Britain, there has been little clarity about the precise location of its border with China. Without a border ever having been officially negotiated, a jagged 2,100-mile so-called Line of Actual Control serves as an ad hoc demarcation.

Both countries went to war in 1962 over their contested border. India lost and the defeat is seared into its national memory as a humiliation. In the years since, both countries have navigated an uneasy peace with occasional bouts of rhetoric about closer ties.

But the brawl high up in the mountains in Ladakh, a territory at India’s northernmost tip, ends the stalemate. It marks a new phase in the troubled relationship between the Asian giants, as well as the significant geopolitical recalibration underway in the past decade or so.

India has been increasingly anxious about China’s growing economic and political influence in its neighbourhood, especially with Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. China is wary of India’s tilt towards America and its membership of the so-called “Quad” of China-sceptic countries — the US, Australia and Japan.

The violence in the Himalayas signals the intensity of emotion on both sides and how difficult it will be to regain equilibrium.

Ashley Tellis an India scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says “Sino-Indian relations can never go back to the old normal. They will reset with greater competitiveness and in ways that neither country had actually intended at the beginning of the crisis.”

What does the clash at the China-India border mean for the countries’ plans to disengage? How could the conflict impact the future of Chinese-Indian relations?

– Carnegie Endowment (@CarnegieEndow) June 16, 2020

Nirupama Rao, a senior Indian diplomat and former envoy to China, acknowledges “a worrisome and extremely serious turning-point in our relations with China”.

But she also acknowledges the “clear asymmetry of power” between the two countries. It’s a reference to China’s superior military, which India isn’t keen to take on.

But China too doesn’t want a broader clash as it grapples with the coronavirus crisis, its slowing growth and the sharp face-off with the US, its main competitor on the world stage.

So what happens next?

Probably not outright war. Not a shooting war, anyway.

Originally published at