[Analytics] China and India: how many soldiers must die before they get a border?

Indian soldiers guard a highway leading to the Ladakh region. Photo: DPA. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

The Galwan Valley incident shows that soldiers continue to be used as cannon fodder to make up for a decades-old political failure. The two countries’ refusal to draw a line on the ground gives the lie to their grand declarations of peace. Debasish Roy Chowdhury specially for the South China Morning Post.

It was only last Saturday that India’s army chief sought to assure everyone that the “entire situation along our borders with China is under control”. As grisly details emerge on the bloody free-for-all in Ladakh, it is now amply clear that the “border” has been anything but. Not least because there is no “border” between China and India, which leads to the situation the two find themselves in today.

From the reports we have so far, 20 Indian soldiers died at the hands of Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley area of Ladakh, 14,000 feet above sea level. Literally at the hands of Chinese soldiers, as there was no exchange of fire, in keeping with the border management protocol. They were said to have been clubbed to death during hand-to-hand combat on a ridge, where Indian and Chinese soldiers fought a pitched battle, causing many to fall onto the rocks and into the freezing Galwan river below and die of concussion and hypothermia. Seventy-six other Indian soldiers were injured while 10 were taken prisoner and released on Thursday. These included a lieutenant colonel and three majors.

Unconfirmed reports from an Indian agency say there were substantial Chinese casualties as well, but Beijing had made no official announcement of any Chinese toll at the time of going to press. Citing a source close to the People’s Liberation Army, the South China Morning Post reported that Beijing was “very sensitive” about military casualties and that the numbers had to be approved by President Xi Jinping before being released.

The confrontation followed weeks of reports in the Indian media on Chinese troop movements into Indian areas in Ladakh and elsewhere. After initially dismissing the reports as alarmist, the Indian authorities began talks with their Chinese counterparts to defuse the situation. Plans to “disengage” were announced, before the sudden bust-up erupted, bringing to a climax a period of heightened tension between ground forces.

The deaths have revived the spectre of all-out China-India hostilities as a carefully calibrated detente between the two countries that went to war in 1962 now seems to be coming undone.

In India, public pressure has been mounting on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to reverse the process of incremental economic interdependence that has been the cornerstone of China-India relations. There is no telling what the reaction will be in China if and when its government decides to share with the public the details of Chinese losses, if any. The state-controlled Chinese media’s reaction has been muted so far, playing down the incident, a sign that Beijing is not looking to whip up public anger and escalate the crisis.

The unprecedented fatalities – the first in 45 years – have come as a shock all round. They shouldn’t have. Given that China and India do not actually have a border, it is a miracle that the frontier has been fairly peaceful this long. It is a measure of the success of jointly developed patrolling techniques and protocols to maintain peace. But well thought out and rigorously implemented as they are, these are still not a substitute for an international border and the sanctity of mutual recognition and global obligations that a formal border embodies. The historical ambiguities inherent in what passes for a border are but ticking time bombs that have now begun to go off.

What India and China have is an unofficial border, a Line of Actual Control, or LAC. It’s a fuzzy demarcation line based on actual ground control of the two sides. Fuzzy, because in several parts along this line, each side has its own perception of where that line lies. They are also working off different maps for most parts of the LAC, and refuse to even exchange maps, meaning the two sides are not even on the same page, so to speak, on the exact extent and location of the other’s claim. It is this lack of clarity on where India ends and China begins that leads to friction between the troops on the ground.

Every time the “border” flares up, political and military leaders are at pains to explain this technicality of “difference of perception” that causes soldiers to stray into areas claimed by the other side. The inflamed public, justifiably, can’t make head or tail of this abnormality that has been normalised in China-India border management. They cannot comprehend why, after nearly three quarters of a century as sovereign countries, two neighbouring nuclear-armed states do not have a border. Why two countries most fluent in the rhetoric of a rising Asia can’t sit down and draw a line on the ground. Why two countries so deservedly proud of their civilisational histories expose their soldiers to the barbarity of lynching by refusing them not only a clear line to defend, but also the permission to use modern weaponry to defend it with.


There are about two dozen points of dispute along the LAC, which is broadly divided into eastern, western and middle sectors. In the eastern sector, China claims some 90,000 sq km of land that India controls to the south of the McMahon Line, a demarcation line agreed to by Britain and Tibet in a secret deal in 1914 but never recognised by China. India considers this territory as its Arunachal Pradesh state. The McMahon Line works as the LAC in this sector.

In the west, India claims 38,000 sq km of Tibetan deserts known as Aksai Chin, which China controls. Apart from a few odd fissures in the eastern sector, notably the Buddhist town of Tawang that China lays claim to, the McMahon Line more or less holds. So does the LAC in the middle sector, barring a handful of flashpoints. Maps have been exchanged only in the middle sector, which lies along the north Indian states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh.

It is the western sector, the site of the latest high-altitude brawl, which is the most contested and has the maximum points of divergence, and consequently sees the greatest number of conflicts. When these break out, they are reported as incursion or border transgression, even though they can simply be cases of troops marching up to their own perceived border line as stated in their maps. With greater infrastructure building on the LAC by the two sides, patrols have increased in recent years, and so have face-offs, given the overlapping claims.

But incursions can also be intentional as a way of deliberate power projection if the local commander wants to flex his muscles or is under instruction from higher powers to kick the tyres of the other side to check its readiness or convey a wider political point. This is what the Indian Army accuses the Chinese troops of increasingly doing of late, rather than inadvertently straying into Indian areas.

As the geopolitical tensions between India and China mount – from differences over China’s Belt and Road Initiative to India’s pursuit of a strategic partnership with the United States amid a US-China trade war – so do the “border” face-offs, and discerning a correlation is not far-fetched. But even without these wider, and conjectural, externalities, local jockeying for turf is enough to trigger violent blow-ups like Galwan because of the lack of a proper border that would leave no room for discrepancy.

Conflict is inevitable when culturally dissimilar armed young men animated by patriotic duty come face to face asserting their rights over the same piece of land. Serving in some of the world’s harshest terrains, and posted thousands of miles away from their families, their nerves perennially on edge, trained to think of the other side as the enemy trying to steal their land, and with no common language to communicate during these fraught moments, it is a measure of the soldiers’ restraint that these encounters do not degenerate into brawls, or worse, more often.

And, when they do, such is the level of the discipline of the forces that even under these extreme circumstances, they do not reach for the firearms they carry because they are forbidden to do so – as part of the protocol to minimise the risk of escalation. States that put soldiers in this situation clearly have no respect for their lives.

The elaborate gun salutes and funeral honours for dead soldiers are a sham if states fail in the responsibility of giving a firm, unambiguous border to die for, a line whose violation by the other side automatically implies legal consequences and military retaliation.

Reports of the soldiers’ death have triggered a fresh wave of nationalistic fervour in India. The opposition is demanding tough action. Social media is buzzing with calls to boycott Chinese goods and companies. A government minister who recently made a name for himself by urging people to chant “Go Corona Go” to drive away the coronavirus, is now calling for a boycott of “Chinese food”.

India’s belligerent television anchors – in the manner of men who will never have to go to war – are demanding that India give China a bloody nose.

Op-ed writers are speculating whether India should move closer to the US to protect itself from China (even as a former Donald Trump aide is telling the world that the US president was pleading with Xi to help him win re-election). Border settlement, the root of this crisis, finds no mention in this din.

That is not entirely surprising. By now people have sort of given up on the border ever being settled. Following the 1962 war, China and India officially re-established diplomatic relations in 1979, and have held innumerable rounds of border negotiations since. In 2003, the talks moved up a gear with far greater focus under special representatives appointed by the two sides, and, by all accounts, they made enormous progress. But still, nothing came of it.

In 2017, Dai Bingguo, a special representative, told the media a settlement was within grasp. Dai put the onus on India, which, in turn, objected to what it saw as the new Chinese insistence on claims in the eastern sector. Each side typically blames the other for delaying a settlement, but one gets the sense that residual problems on the border issue are not insurmountable.

The former Indian national security adviser Shivshankar Menon, Dai’s opposite number in the talks for several years, made it clear as far back as 2012 that the nitty-gritty of a border agreement was ready.
All the difficult work had been done, he said, and all that was needed was a political decision.

Any border solution entails give and take. Both China and India will have to be prepared to give up some land they currently claim to keep what they control.

And this is where it gets far trickier than merely negotiating the alignments of a line on the ground running through ravines and ridges. Try drawing a map of India or China minus their claimed areas and you will see why. It’s here that the political leadership takes over, as politicians are the ones who have to sell the shrunken map to their people.

As settling a territorial dispute in itself may not be incentive enough to entice politicians to embark on an enterprise as inherently dangerous as giving up sovereign land, a border settlement typically also requires additional sweeteners on a whole range of other issues, from economic to defence agreements, that politicians can present to their people as wins. It is the political leadership, again, that has the authority to push through such wide-ranging state policies. It’s not the border per se that is difficult to settle, it’s all the rest that goes with it.

Modi and Xi have had two informal summits so far. It’s understood that these were mainly aimed at maintaining peace on the border, but could also have been attempts to probe the range of issues China and India can get on board with for that elusive grand bargain. Because of the confidential nature of the summits, little is known about what was on the table and how much progress they made. Clearly, not much, going by what’s going on along the “border” and beyond.

China sees Modi’s tightening embrace of the US as part of the design to contain its rise, while India’s widening power asymmetry with China makes it even more sensitive to China’s tough posturing in the region. In the past few days alone, Chinese ships have attacked a Vietnamese fishing boat in the South China Sea and Chinese warplanes repeatedly hovered over Taiwan.

But purely on the issue of the border, one hasn’t seen any real effort in either China or India to inform public opinion on the possibilities and the implications of a settlement. The 1962 war, in which India was dealt a humiliating defeat, for example, continues to fester in Indian memory. Neither China nor India has ever made an honest appraisal of the role either of them played in precipitating that war, and the underlying issues that led to it. The territorial differences that sparked that war are as relevant today as they were then.

Instead, China and India chose to set aside their grievances and restart relations, hoping that greater contact would eventually lead to greater understanding. That good economics would lead to good politics. It hasn’t.

China is today India’s biggest trading partner. In the last six years alone, since Modi came to power, bilateral trade has risen by a fifth. Many of the bestselling consumer goods in India, from cellphones to air conditioners, are Chinese products. Of the top 30 unicorn start-ups in India, 18 have Chinese investments. Indian films do a roaring business in China and Indian professionals are increasingly becoming a part of the Chinese corporate landscape.

All good, but what about the border? It is criminal to keep putting soldiers in harm’s way with a pseudo-border in the Himalayas while doing million-dollar deals in Shanghai and Mumbai, and then to fetishise dead soldiers as martyrs.

It also betrays a pathetic ignorance of history. Just as the Hindi Chini bhai bhai (India and China are brothers) euphoria of brotherly love dissipated in gunfire in the high mountains 58 years ago, the carefully cultivated bilateral relations in the last 40 years are now at risk of being laid to waste.

China and India have somehow managed to convince themselves that they can carry on doing business with one another and ignore the one thing that is foundational to their relationship. How many more soldiers will have to die to expose the folly of this conceit?

In Modi and Xi, the two countries have two of their strongest leaders ever, and the best shot at settling the border and ensuring lasting peace. If China and India can’t settle the border now, it can only mean they do not want to – and should stop with the charade of trying to.

The 22nd meeting of the special representatives was held in December in New Delhi. A government press note after the event dutifully reported, as they always do, that the two sides had “agreed that an early settlement of the boundary question serves the fundamental interests of both countries”, and “resolved to intensify their efforts to achieve a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution”. Let’s mean it this time.

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