When people around the world are preoccupied with confronting intractable Covid-19, the troops of India and China had a violent clash in Galwan valley, Ladakh in the Himalayas on June 15. New Delhi reported that its military lost 20 soldiers including a Brigadier General, 76 were seriously wounded and about ten were missing. Surprisingly, the most well-equipped armies didn't use military hardwares. Instead, they fought with iron rods, rocks and stones. The battleground was about 14,000 feet above the sea level. According to military sources, the bodies were located at the terrains and believed to have been knocked down by their enemies. India blamed the conflict on Chinese attempt to change the status-quo in the area. China accused Indian troops of crossing the border known as "Line of Actual Control" to launch provocative attack.
India and China share a border of 2,200 miles long in the north high in the Himalayas. There had been clashes between the armies of the two countries in the past, but the casualties had never been of this scale. The military leaderships in the past would diffuse the tension through flag-meetings and diplomats would ensure that their countries would take steps not to escalate the situation. The casualties suffered on June 15 have come as a tremendous shock to Narendra Modi's government and there has been vigorous demand from the ruling party to launch a befitting military response.
India and China had first major skirmish at Ladakh in 1959. This happened a few months after Indian Prime Minister Nehru made an official visit to China. The leaders of both countries seemed conten with the status quo along the border though it was neither well marked on the map nor on the ground. Tibet was already integrated into China by that time and a large number of Tibetan population had taken refuge in India including its spiritual leader Dalai Lama. Beijing was not pleased at New Delhi's hospitality granted to Dalai Lama and his cohorts who were clamouring for self-rule, if not independence of Tibet. But Chinese leaders did understand the circumstances under which Nehru had granted asylum to Tibetan population and their leaders. It was, however, presumed that Nehru had assured Chou Enlai and Mao Tse Tung during his China visit that Indian territory would not be permitted to launch insurgency by the Tibetans.
China in 1962 claimed India's newly created Arunachal Pradesh as within its territory and launched an attack on the NEFA border. The attack was so swift and robust that Indian military could not hold on to their positions and retreated to safer locations. The war lasted for a few days, but it ended with a deep humiliation to India. The Chinese military, however, withdrew from Indian territory and returned to its earlier positions.
The routing of Indian military at Ladakh and at the north east border brought fundamental shift in New Delhi's diplomatic trajectory. Nehru, bewildered at the military setback, sought military assistance from the United States and its allies to equip Indian army with modern arsenals. This was a repudiation of the principle of the "non-alignment movement" that Nehru had proudly preached along with Egyptian President Jamal Nasser, Indonesian President Sukorno and Yugoslav leader Marshal Tito.
The Aid Consortium in June 1961 pledged $2.2 billion aid to India out of which the United States alone committed $1.49 billion. A few months later, the US President Kennedy and British Prime Minister Macmillan approved an arms aid plan for India amounting $120 million. On the following year, the US offered a loan of $80 million to finance Tarapur atomic power station, near Bombay. In August 1963, the Consortium increased its contribution to India's Third Five Year Plan from $915 million to $1.0 billion and the largest additional contribution came from the US. The Defence Secretary announced in March 1964 that the US planned to modernise the Mountain Divisions of the Indian Army. This massive economic and military assistance enabled Indian army to be in possession of the latest devices of military hardware.
While Indian army was being modernised with weapons supplied by the US and its allies, Pakistan in December 1962 announced it would sign a boundary treaty with China, much to the chagrin of Washington and New Delhi. The treaty allowed China access over "Sax Gram valley" (part of greater Ladakh) having an area of 5,000 square miles, to build Karakorum highway. Six months later, when Pakistan and China signed an Air Agreement, the State Department reacted angrily, "The air link could have an adverse effect on efforts to strengthen the security and stability of the sub-continent, which the Communist China want to prevent."
In the 1965 war against Pakistan, Indian army fought with modern weapons and scored considerable success. While it was able to halt infiltration into Kashmir valley and occupied Pakistani territory along the Waga border, near Lahore; Pakistan army penetrated deep into Indian territory along Sind border. China extended unconditional support to Pakistan and threatened to intervene "if India refused to end her aggression". In the meantime, the United Nations Security Council imposed a cease-fire and demanded the warring countries to withdraw their troops to pre-war locations. The war hardly brought any dividend either for India or for Pakistan.
The last standoff between China and India took place in 2017 when China embarked upon extending a road adjacent to spot in Ladakh where Bhutan, China and India met. At the obstruction of Indian troops, the road construction was suspended. Following two months of negotiation, the troops retreated.
The disintegration of Ladakh began during the British rule. The Maharaja of Kashmir occupied Leh, Kergill and Siachen Glacier of Ladakh in 1834 and subsequently, this area became a part of Indian territory after it gained independence in 1947. The northern portion of Ladakh, known as Aksai Chin, fell into China when it emerged as a socialist republic in 1949. As the border remained porous and un-demarcated, China claimed Demchok in east Ladakh, held by India, as its territory. Gilgit-Baltistan area has been under Pakistan's control since 1947. It's an irony that "Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh" once constituted a single geographical entity, subsequently fragmented into several parts and annexed by China, India and Pakistan in wanton disregard of the wishes of its people.
Galwan Valley, the site of deadly June 15 incident, seems to have returned to normal. Indian and Chinese leaderships have expressed readiness to diffuse tension through diplomatic discourse. In the recent past, delegates of both countries would meet and averted military confrontations. But the June 15 incident has been too painful to forget and leave behind. The cadres of India's ruling party have been burning Chinese flags and demanding retribution. They asked boycott of Chinese products and scale down trade with China. But China is the second largest trading partner of India and its biggest source of imports. India by contrast, does not figure in China's top 15 trading partners and is even lower on source of imports. It would not be a major challenge for Beijing to make up the loss resulting from New Delhi's trade embargo. Conversely, India imports about $60 billion worth of Chinese products per year and suspension of trade with China will hit India's economy adversely. Moreover, New Delhi is worried that a hostile China might divert the flow of water in the Galwan and Brahmaputra rivers, and should that happen, colossal ecological damage will happen to northern India.
Talks to ease tensions are underway at the military and diplomatic levels earlier this week. The Indian army said there was a mutual consensus to disengage from all friction areas. China also confirmed the two sides had agreed on this. Neither side gave details of disengagement, but some satellite images suggest China has fortified its installations at Galwan valley.
China has been in diplomatic offensive for the past thirty years. It enjoys excellent relations with Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. China has made robust investment in the infrastructure development in Nepal and enhanced bilateral trade. Last month, Nepal has redrawn its map encompassing about 320 square miles including Kalapani along its southern border which have been under Indian control for some time. The "redrawn map" has been approved by its parliament and Nepal government reiterated that it is pivotal to upgrading road network with external funding. New Delhi has expressed shock and dismay at Katmandu's mapping exercise.
Trump administration has made a measured response. It said, "The US is closely monitoring the situation between Indian and Chinese forces along the Line of Actual Control. Both have expressed a desire to de-escalate, and we support a peaceful resolution of the conflict." Despite Modi's and Trump's confluence in narrow nationalism, it is unlikely the US would be dragged into India-China's armed conflict and precipitate a global crisis.
Abdur Rahman Chowdhury is a former official of the United Nations