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Nuclear powers, a disputed border and an uneasy truce: Explaining the India-China conflict

A border clash between the two nuclear armed neighbors has drawn the world's gaze to a disputed region in the Himalayas.
Image: Galwan Valley
Galwan Valley, which lies between China's Tibet and India's Ladakh regions on Tuesday. 2020 Planet Labs, Inc. / AFP - Getty Images

High up in the Himalayas, Indian and Chinese armed forces warily eye each other across a disputed border region that has become the scene of a tense standoff between the two nuclear powers.

The conflict in the remote Galwan Valley that spans their shared border sparked into life Monday with the killing of 20 Indian soldiers, the first reported deaths in 45 years. China has not disclosed whether its forces suffered any casualties, according to a report in its state-run newspaper, the Global Times.

The deaths have drawn the world’s gaze to a region that the two most populous countries have been contesting for decades. The implications go far beyond the lonely snowcapped mountains of this geopolitically complex region.

Image: Burning posters of Chinese President Xi Jinping
Siliguri Youth Congress activists burn posters and effigy of Chinese President Xi Jinping during an anti-China protest in Siliguri, India on Wednesday. Diptendu Dutta / AFP - Getty Images

Chinese and Indian forces clashed along the 2,100-mile-long Line of Actual Control, a demarcation line established after a war between the two nations in 1962 that resulted in an uneasy truce.

No shots are reported to have been fired since 1975, according to the Indian press, but troops occasionally engage in hand-to-hand scuffles and throwing rocks.

So what happened this week?

The details of exactly what happened Monday remain in short supply.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a phone call with his Indian counterpart, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, on Wednesday that Indian troops had crossed the line of control to “deliberately provoke and even violently attack” Chinese officers and soldiers, the Chinese foreign ministry said.

Meanwhile, on the same call Jaishankar accused China of seeking to erect “a structure” in the Galwan Valley on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control, the de facto border.

“The Chinese side took premeditated and planned action that was directly responsible for the resulting violence and casualties,” India’s Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement. “It reflected an intent to change the facts on ground in violation of all our agreements to not change the status quo.”

Why is this happening now?

Thousands of troops have been camped either side of the Galwan Valley, in the mountainous region of Ladakh, for weeks.

The tense standoff started in early May, when Indian officials said Chinese soldiers crossed the boundary in Ladakh at three different points, erecting tents and guard posts and ignoring verbal warnings to leave, according to The Associated Press. That triggered shouting matches, stone-throwing and even fistfights between the two sides, much of it replayed on television news channels and social media, the news agency reported.

What are the possible motivations behind the clashes?

Under India’s Hindu-nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, the country wants to be seen as strong, according to Gareth Price, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, an international affairs think tank in London.

“The one country that doesn’t respect India to the degree India would like is China,” he said. “India wants to be seen as an equal to China and talks about a multipolar Asia, but then it sees China as wanting dominance in Asia.”

However, Price said he thought it was unlikely that India would want to provoke China potentially to war particularly in the midst of a pandemic.

“It also knows China is bigger,” he said.

China on the other hand may have possible reasons to provoke a confrontation with India, Price said, although he cautioned that an overriding motivation there also remained unclear.

Among the reasons raised by analysts include China’s objection to India’s construction of a road through the Galwan Valley connecting the region to an airstrip, New Delhi’s increasing close alliance with Washington, and Beijing’s support for Pakistan in its dispute with India over the Kashmir region.

Image: An Indian army convoy
An Indian army convoy moves on the Srinagar-Ladakh highway at Gagangeer, north-east of Srinagar, India, on Wednesday. Mukhtar Khan / AP

Others also pointed to China’s increasing assertiveness in the region as a potential broader explanation.

Walter Ladwig III, a senior lecturer in international relations at King’s College London, pointed to its more forceful conduct in the South China Sea and Hong Kong in recent months.

“There definitely is a clear sense that China is much more forceful at the moment than it has been in the past,” he said.

“They’re throwing their weight around a lot more in all theaters, both domestically and in terms of their foreign relations,” said Nick Reynolds, a research analyst at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in London.

How dangerous is the clash?

India has said both sides had agreed not to “escalate matters and instead, ensure peace and tranquility.”

Modi echoed this but also underlined that India would give a “befitting reply” to any provocation. “India will firmly protect every inch of the country's land and its self-respect,” he said.

The Chinese foreign ministry also said both sides agreed after Monday’s clash to “cool the current situation” as soon as possible and “safeguard peace and tranquility in the border areas.”

The stakes are high. In the past year, China has increased its nuclear arsenal from 290 to 320 warheads, and India from 130-140 to 150 warheads, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or SIPRI.

Experts say the broader dispute itself is not going away any time soon and Price points out that an agreement between New Delhi and Beijing after clashes in 2017 did nothing to stop this week’s deaths.

“No troops have died on this border since 1975, so this is kind of new territory,” he said.

Both Price and Reynolds said it would be difficult for either government to be seen to back down, considering their domestic politics. But Reynolds said international pressure may help and Price said there may be a way for both countries to claim victory but at the same time mutually back away.

“The elevation and terrain of this area means it’s highly unlikely this could escalate large scale,” Ladwig said. “But there’s plenty of opportunity for small-scale mistakes, skirmishes, accidents.”