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An Indian Army convoy at the Sringar-Ladakh highway, June 2020.
An Indian Army convoy at the Sringar-Ladakh highway, June 2020.

On June 15th, 2020, the Galwan River Valley in Ladakh witnessed the deadliest border dispute between the People’s Republic of China and India in the last 45 years. This conflict was precipitated by a 40-day border skirmish in which each country blamed the other for crossing the contested Line of Actual Control (LAC) and expanding road infrastructure and military installations in the area. In spite of commander-level de-escalation meetings, violence broke out along the LAC that resulted in 20 Indian soldiers killed, 75 wounded, and 10 captured.

The Asia Program and the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States hosted Nirupama Rao, India’s former ambassador to the U.S. and China, and Yun Sun, a senior fellow and co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center. Both experts discussed the fatal confrontation between Chinese and Indian troops, its potential causes, possible consequences, and its implications for China-India relations.

Ambassador Rao began by situating recent events in the broader history of the LAC, which extends from the west of the Karakoram Pass to the tri-border area of Myanmar, India, and China. Disagreements over this Himalayan border triggered the 1962 China-India war. Another border tussle ensued in the northern Tawang district when Arunachal Pradesh, where China claims 90,000 square kilometers of land, was integrated as a full state into the Indian Union in 1987. Despite efforts to reach an agreement, China and India have not yet negotiated a mutually-agreed upon LAC: India operates in accordance with the LAC carved out in 1962, while China abides by the LAC of 1959. This dispute continues to instigate border clashes and standoffs, including the recent confrontations. At the same time, China and India have managed to maintain a sense of order in the region, albeit one held in delicate balance. Multiple rounds of border talks since the 1990s and a series of bilateral agreements signal attempts to build confidence between the two countries. However, recent events may mark a “turning point” in the fragile peace India and China have fostered over the last four decades.

Regarding current border tensions, Ambassador Rao posed the question: what does India want? In response, Ambassador Rao noted that, first, India wants to restore a relationship with China, one that is built on “confidence, predictability, and transparency.” Second, it is in India’s interest that China help counter terrorism in Pakistan as well as support India’s emergence as a global power. Ambassador Rao also highlighted that India seeks a regional partnership with China, and does so despite China’s diplomatic ties with Pakistan. Lastly, in order to boost economic development and poverty reduction, India aims to cultivate alliances with Japan—to generate technology flows and strengthen infrastructure development— and the United States—to enable scientific investigation and coordinate counter-terrorism measures. Ambassador Rao contended that these are necessary steps to ensure “internal and external balancing” in India, and should not be interpreted as an anti-China position.

Regardless of American partnership, India’s strategic autonomy and non-alignment strategy frustrates the possibility of a strong China-India relationship.

Following Ambassador Rao’s opening remarks, Yun Sun introduced China’s perspective on the border crisis. Sun’s analysis underscored fraught relations between the two most populous countries in the world. On one hand, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense are keen on reinstating a sense of peace and tranquility. On the other hand, the prevailing view in China is that India has overturned the status quo in the region through its turbocharged “diplomatic opportunism and military adventurism,” as quoted by a Chinese expert. Furthermore, India’s role as an unreliable ally is cause for concern in China. First, growing relations between India and the United States threatens Chinese power, and also calls into question India’s non-alignment status. Second, regardless of American partnership, India’s strategic autonomy and non-alignment strategy frustrates the possibility of a strong China-India relationship.

Nevertheless, Sun pointed to signs of de-escalation in the days following the deadly battle, including a second meeting between military leaders, China’s decision to not publicize the number of Chinese casualties, and the trilateral meeting between China, India, and Russia. While China seeks to strengthen its relationship with India, particularly to thwart India-U.S. ties under the free and open Indo-Pacific vision, it will not do so at the cost of its territorial integrity and sovereignty. Add to this the fact that both China and India engage in nationalistic posturing and it is unlikely that either side will relinquish control over the contested border area. Moreover, given the intense international backlash that China has faced for its initial handling of Covid-19, the country is in a vulnerable position and has resorted to “wolf-warrior diplomacy” to project a muscular image and regain its global standing. In this context, Beijing has adopted a more aggressive stance in its relationship with India.

The tense face-off between China and India may have also been a reaction to the abrogation of Article 370 in the Jammu and Kashmir dispute, a move that China opposes. In November, Indian officials released maps claiming Aksai Chin as part of the union territory of Ladakh. Winter conditions may have prevented new operations from taking place in the region then. However, more recent military activity in the disputed region may have caused burgeoning tensions to come to a head in the last month.

The reconciliation of diplomatic and nationalistic impulses will prove to be a challenge for leaders in both countries. 

To recover a degree of normalcy in the China-India relationship, Ambassador Rao and Yun Sun suggested that both nations focus on the progress made in bilateral relations thus far. Sun put forth that top-leader diplomacy and summitry, as seen during the 2018 Wuhan meeting and the 2019 Chennai conference hosted by President Xi and Prime Minister Modi respectively, are key to reducing friction. Yet nationalistic sentiments in China and India impede the prospect of a mutually-agreed upon compromise. The reconciliation of diplomatic and nationalistic impulses will prove to be a challenge for leaders in both countries. 

Sun further stressed that while China does not wish to strategically alienate India, it has to balance different national interests. For one, if China were to cede disputed territory, it may be pushed to make further concessions to India. This calculus is informed by India’s use of issue diplomacy as well as Indian retaliation against China when Beijing resisted its demands in the past. Ambassador Rao also elaborated on some of India’s concerns regarding China, namely China’s response to terrorism and its relationship with Pakistan. In New Delhi, the dominant opinion is that China is “increasingly walking a very fine line” in its relations with Pakistan, although China continues to maintain a neutral position on the matter of Jammu and Kashmir. India also urges China to take a more “responsible attitude” towards Islamist terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir, which India sees as sponsored by the Pakistani state.

Another point of discussion was Russia and its potential role as mediator in China-India negotiations. In a trilateral meeting, the Russian foreign minister stated that Russia would not arbitrate the border dispute. Sun noted that this reaction follows the precedent set during the 2017 Doklam standoff in which Russia chose not to intervene. India and China have bilaterally resolved disputes in the past, and they will likely do so in the present circumstances as well. Ambassador Rao drew attention to the strong partnership between India and Russia, one that dates back to the Cold War, as well as growing cooperation between China and Russia in areas such as energy and connectivity. As such, the China-India-Russia triangulation provides fertile ground for advancing relations, peace, and regional growth. Ambassador Rao made the argument that India’s partnership with Russia should ease China’s concerns about India, as India and Russia have sustained close ties despite India’s unease over Russia’s relationship with Pakistan. Ambassador Rao drove home this point by quoting U.S. trade representative Robert E. Lighthizer: “Countries, like people, learn to compartmentalize.”

In her concluding remarks, Ambassador Rao underlined that current times present an opportune moment to renew India-China relations. Given that Prime Minister Modi enjoys tremendous support from his constituents, it is likely that Modi’s base will embrace his decisions on the border conflict. Sun echoed this point, noting that public confidence in President Xi has risen after his successful management of the Covid-19 outbreak in China. By this stance, both national leaders are well positioned to de-escalate tensions and reach a mutually agreed upon compromise that prevents further destabilization at the border.

Shruti Samala, a student at Wellesley College, is a staff intern with the Wilson Center’s Asia Program.

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The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2020, Asia Program. All rights reserved.

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