The Himalayan Struggle Between China and India
Sometime during the night of 15 June 2020, on a mountainside overlooking the Galwan river in the cold desert of Ladakh, hundreds of Chinese and Indian soldiers fought each other for hours using sticks, stones and clubs reinforced with barbed wire. Some reports said bayonets and Shaolin swords were also used. Not a single shot was fired in this medieval battle between the two nuclear-armed neighbours, but twenty Indian and an unconfirmed number of Chinese soldiers were left dead.
In recent years, there has been a steady stream of reports in the Western press about the possibility of an armed clash between China and its eastern neighbours, usually centred on Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province, but also with Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, all of which have disputes with China over territory in the South China Sea. Even the name of that sea is a contentious matter. Vietnam calls parts the East Sea, the Philippines the West Philippine Sea, and Indonesia has renamed some sections the North Natuna Sea. Competition for control of the small islands in the waters, its busy shipping lanes and untapped oil and gas reserves drive the disputes. The region has come to be recognised as a potential global flashpoint, a place where World War III might begin. But the Himalayan border between India and China receives comparatively little attention. The tyranny of distance, which cannot be measured in miles alone, relegates it to the corners of the collective global imagination. These borderlands are remote in a way that the busy seas off the eastern seaboard of China are not.
For almost the entirety of known history, the barren, icy desolation that is the western edge of Tibet, where the latest clash between the Indian and Chinese armies took place, has been uninhabited. To get there from the Chinese side you have to cross the Aksai Chin white desert, a territory under Chinese control that appears in Indian maps as part of Ladakh. The territory on the Indian side, Ladakh, was part of Tibet until 1842, when it became part of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. Possession of Jammu and Kashmir has been the core of the conflict between India and its estranged cousin Pakistan since 1947; different parts of the territory are now held by India, Pakistan and China.
In August 2019, the government of India, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, redrew the map of Jammu and Kashmir, carving out Ladakh as a separate Union Territory. The Indian government asserted that this was entirely India’s internal affair, but Pakistan and China did not see it that way. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang told a press conference in Beijing that India’s unilateral move was a challenge to China’s sovereignty. Pakistan was less diplomatic. The country’s minister for science and technology, Fawad Chaudhry, called India’s ruling Hindu Right-wing government a ‘fascist regime’ and threatened war. The Pakistani government suspended bilateral trade, asked the Indian High Commissioner in Islamabad to leave, and withdrew its own High Commissioner from New Delhi. A year later, on the anniversary of India’s map-making, it issued a new official map, showing all of Jammu and Kashmir as part of Pakistan. For good measure, it also included a bit of Mr Modi’s home state, Gujarat. There’s no line separating Ladakh from Tibet in the new Pakistani map. Instead, the words ‘frontier undefined’ are written in capital letters across the lands where the Indian and Chinese soldiers clashed.
Despite the strong words from both Pakistan and China, nothing much happened on ground in the closing months of 2019. Winter, which is bitterly cold at 14,000-18,000 feet above sea level, set in. The Chinese made their move after the melting of snows this spring, while the world was reeling under the effect of the global coronavirus pandemic. In India, the government had just imposed the harshest lockdown in the world on its 1.35 billion people, given them just four hours’ notice to comply, and was scrambling to deal with the resulting chaos. Intelligence about Chinese incursions across the ‘Line of Actual Control’ – the military line that serves as the de facto border between the two countries – seems to have passed largely unnoticed by decision-makers in Delhi. By the time they woke up to the problem, Chinese troops had already occupied hundreds of square kilometres of Indian territory.
The first intimation of trouble came in May from a place called Pangong Tso, a lake in Ladakh at an altitude of close to 14,000 feet that is shared by China and India. It is 134 km long and lies almost perpendicular to the line of the border, and for years it featured Indian army bases at one end and Chinese military presence at the other. On 5 May, patrol parties of Indian and Chinese troops got into a fistfight on the banks of this lake. The incident did not make the news. Then, on the night of 10 May, a more serious fight took place. This time, a number of troops had to be rushed to the hospital.
Pangong Tso on a summer’s day is a sliver of preternatural blue. On both sides of its narrow length, icy peaks stand guard like sentinels. The landscape all around is bare. It is typical of a land where, as former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru remarked in 1959, not a blade of grass grows. Yet these barren fastnesses became a battleground between the Indian and Chinese armies in their brief border war of 1962. The fighting started in the Galwan river valley, the place where Indian and Chinese soldiers clubbed one another to death in June of this year. In May 1962, the Indian army established a border post there, which was promptly besieged by Chinese forces who saw it as a threat to a new road they’d built on what they perceived as their side of the disputed border. Over the following months, attempts to resolve the situation through diplomacy failed, matters escalated, and scattered border skirmishes blew into full-fledged war. On 20 October 1962, Chinese forces captured Galwan valley, Pangong Tso and Chip Chap Valley in Ladakh. More than 1,000 kilometres to the east, Chinese soldiers simultaneously entered into and occupied tracts of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. The Indian army was caught unprepared, outgunned and outnumbered. It was a military disaster.
The problem has festered since. China withdrew unilaterally after its swift victory in 1962; maintaining an army and the long supply lines required would have been logistically impossible through the Himalayan winter. The territorial dispute remained unresolved. The area in contention is vast, over 127,000 square kilometres – an area almost the size of England. Of this, about 38,000 square kilometres crosses Ladakh and Aksai Chin, regions administered by India and China respectively. Most of the territory is claimed by India but controlled by China. The situation is reversed further east. There, the 83,000 square kilometres comprising Arunachal Pradesh are controlled by India but claimed by China, which calls the place southern Tibet. Chinese claims in that sector also include over 6,000 square kilometres of the neighbouring Indian state of Assam.
Five agreements aimed at keeping the peace have been signed following resumption of ambassadorial-level diplomatic ties in 1976, and twenty-two rounds of talks aimed at settling the border dispute once and for all have been held between the two countries since 2003. Collectively, these have achieved only paltry progress towards a negotiated settlement – but in one respect they have been successful. The outside world, and even the Indian and Chinese public, have become used to ignore the tension, because in effect the border remained peaceful.
One reason the stalemate has extended for so long is the wall – far greater than the Great Wall of China – that has forever separated the Indian subcontinent from its northern neighbour. This is the wall of Himalayan peaks that stretch in a line from the far end of Arunachal in the east all the way up to Ladakh in the west. Only water, here and there, finds its way through the barrier. The best route for any army south of the Himalayas is along the river valleys. The most significant of these are the valleys of the Siang, Lohit and Dibang, which combine at the foothills of Arunachal Pradesh to become the Brahmaputra, arguably the largest river in Asia by volume.
This vast river has shaped the landscape and ecology of the valley named after it, the Brahmaputra Valley. For thousands of years, life in that valley has revolved around its seasonal ebbs and flows. Now there are concerns that the days of the river, one of the last great free-flowing rivers on earth, may be numbered. The geostrategic competition between India and China threatens to dam this ancient waterway. Water has become a strategic resource. The ideas that shape attitudes towards rivers are based solely on the calculation of utility and profit.
China has built three ‘run of the river’ dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo, as the Siang is known in Tibet; one more is under construction. So far, these have not done much harm to the Brahmaputra further downstream, but anxieties over water security have been fuelled on the Indian side by speculative reports that China may steal the whole river by diverting its flow. Politicians and businessmen in India, seeing opportunities for vast gains in building contracts, have been pushing for at least 142 dams to be built on the Brahmaputra and its tributaries on the Indian side. An important reason cited by Indian proponents is that they would establish prior usage of the waters on the Indian side, a consideration that carries weight in international disputes. These dams would be in Arunachal Pradesh, the area that Chinese maps show as South Tibet, adding to concerns in Beijing that India is strengthening its hold on what it considers its land. The growing competition to secure water resources has become an important new dimension in the strategic conflict between the two countries.
Until the twentieth Century, most of the Arunachal hills appeared as blanks on everyone’s maps. Wild speculations circulated about what lay there. Tibetan Buddhists told stories of a magical place called the Pemako in the upper reaches of the Siang river valley. Western experts recorded tales of cannibal tribes further south. No one really knew, because no one went there.
Even now, these places are not easy to get to. The two roads that snake up the Siang river valley from the town of Pasighat at the foothills are winding dirt tracks cut into the sides of high hills. The river is a ribbon of green and silver far below. The hills, teeming with a green profusion of chaotic wilderness, are the opposite of barren Ladakh. Travel is difficult.
Driving up there in a four-wheel drive jeep a few years ago, a friend and I managed to traverse a straight-line distance of roughly forty kilometres in a whole day of driving, from dawn to dusk. The first road we took, the usual bumpy single-lane mud track cut into the hillside, was blocked. Work on road-widening was in progress. We found this out only when we reached a site where dynamite was being used to blast a section of the hillside down in front of us. We had to turn around and go back the way we had come, taking the alternative route on the other side of the river.
Nightfall caught us well short of our intended destination, the last town on the Indian side of the ‘Line of Actual Control’, a place called Yinkiong. There are no hotels or wayside stops on the road, no street lights or mobile signals, nothing but the odd village. We made our halt at one called Pangin. At the only tea shop in the village the next morning, a cabin made of rough planks of wood nailed together, I met Oyar Gao. Gao is a farmer from the local Adi tribe, who has spent decades opposing the building of dams on the Siang. All the major Indian political parties have backed dams on the river, he said. Every chief minister of the state going back to 1980 has cleared project proposals. But none of them have yet been completed because of the fierceness of local opposition.
‘This has always been no-man’s land,’ Gao said. The Adis historically traded with the Tibetans to the north, and raided their southern neighbours in the plains of the Brahmaputra valley, but they had never been part of the kingdoms on either side. It was a different world then. There were no roads and no motor vehicles, no electricity and nothing that ran on it. There were no maps, no written documents, and no nation states. There was, in these lands that time had forgotten, no India and no China.
The new world launched its invasion of the Adi lands in the early years of the twentieth Century. The Adis, true to form, resisted. A British-Indian expedition in 1911 came to grief, its members cut down by tribesmen. A second punitive expedition was sent with columns of mainly Gorkha soldiers under British commanding officers. They completed their task; it was machine guns against bows and arrows. But it was not easy.
‘Such pathways as did exist were mere animal tracks, while the best “roads” were the chasms through which the rivers flowed,’ wrote Angus Hamilton in his account of that second expedition. ‘When the traveller was not wading waist-deep through these, he was crawling along narrow ledges cut out of the face of high precipices. Now and again he came to places where there was no ledge, while the path, such as it was, was continued by a rude gallery contrived out of the face of the cliff, or he found himself compelled to climb perpendicular cliffs with the aid of cane ropes.’
Nonetheless, the men of the British Indian government, with their armed escorts of soldiers and their armies of porters, continued to push into the hills. The future of Tibet was then being decided, and it was necessary to establish where the border between British India and Tibet might lie. The Qing dynasty in China had collapsed, and the thirteenth Dalai Lama had expelled Chinese troops from Lhasa. In 1914, representatives of the British Indian government, the Dalai Lama, and the newly established Republic of China met in the Indian hill town of Shimla, the summer capital of the British Raj. It was there that a controversial agreement called the Simla Convention was signed, and a border tracing the Himalayan watershed between Tibet and India was drawn. The line of the border between India and China in the eastern sector, meaning the portion east of Bhutan where Arunachal Pradesh meets Tibet, bears the name of the man who led the British delegation at that conference, Henry McMahon. The McMahon Line is a line that China does not recognise.
As we drew closer to that imaginary line, signs of deep insecurity in the national security apparatus of the Indian state began to reveal itself. In Yinkiong, the last place on the Indian side that may be called a town, we bought tickets for a ride on a shared jeep taxi to Tuting, the last administrative post before the contested border. Our driver had an absurd confidence in the idea that human bodies were almost infinitely elastic, and squeezed us in as tightly as possible before we went rattling and bouncing up the dirt track. The man seated next to me, almost on my lap, began asking a few gently probing questions. Where are you from? What work do you do? Why are you heading to Tuting? It subsequently emerged that he was an employee of India’s domestic spy agency, the Intelligence Bureau. His reaction to my answers revealed nothing of whether he believed me or not.
For the next couple of days and nights, whenever we stepped out, for breakfast, lunch or dinner at one of the little Tibetan shops in the one-street marketplace in Tuting, a man would inevitably saunter up and ask the same questions. It would emerge, on every occasion, that he was from the local Intelligence Bureau office. There are not many visitors to Tuting. The office there, seemingly overstaffed and underworked, made the most of our presence. We were on our way out of Tuting on foot, towards the border village of Gelling, when a small group of men fell in step with us. They were not locals; they were men from the mainland of India. Where were we from, they asked us again. Why were we there? Where were we headed? They were, of course, from the local Intelligence Bureau.
We left them at the gate of their office, which by then we knew well, and continued our journey towards the McMahon Line. There’s hardly any traffic there. A military truck of the Border Roads Organisation gave us a ride part of the way. Then we managed to hitch a ride on the back of a dumper truck transporting a Buddhist monk and his cargo of sand and cement towards the border. A new monastery was under construction near Gelling. We never saw it. Our long and arduous journey, all the way up the Siang valley, came to an abrupt end at the outskirts of Gelling village. The road ahead was blocked by a convoy of Indian military trucks. As soon as we disembarked, we were surrounded by rows of soldiers in full battle gear. They seemed on edge; to our misfortune, we had arrived on a day when their commanding officer was doing a recce of the area. They asked us the same questions that the Intelligence Bureau men had asked so many times, but they were less accepting of our answers. Our Inner Line Permits, issued by the civilian authorities of the Arunachal Pradesh government, certifying that we were allowed to be there, were ignored. So were our identification documents and our press IDs. We were confined to a corner of road by a few armed guards while the truck finished unloading its cargo. Behind us, barely a couple of feet away, was a sheer drop to the silver ribbon of the Siang far below. Then we were asked to get back onto the truck and return as we had come.
The ridge of the hill in front of us was the McMahon Line. The other side of that hill was China.
Until the independence of India, there was no permanent military post, Indian or Chinese, anywhere along the McMahon Line, or on the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh. There was no border worth the name, just a vague zone of transition, and the transition was not from India to China – it was more local. In large parts of these lands, especially in Arunachal Pradesh, there was no administration, Indian or Chinese. No government, no offices, no schools. The arrival of nation-states, maps and borders drawn on pieces of paper that had then to be translated into reality on ground – that is all barely a hundred years old in these highlands. The larger identities that go with those inventions are often no older.
After India and China emerged as modern nation-states in the late 1940s, both set about extending their rules to the farthest reaches of their conflicting maps. They began the task of making good Indians and Chinese out of the Khampas and Membas, the Adis and Mishmis, and all the many peoples who inhabited lands on both sides of the contested border, now divided by nationalities and maps for the first time in history. Besides the transformation of local cultures and identities, another by-product of this process has been a conflict between the two countries, slowly building up over the decades. It is a case of nation-states stretching out to fill all the territory they claim, a process made irresistible by the death of distance.
New technologies of travel and communication developed in the nineteenth and early twentieth century enabled territorial control on state peripheries at a scale that had been impossible before. Telephones, telegrams, railways, steamships, the motor car and aircrafts proliferated alongside the new idea that the world was composed of contiguous nation-states, each having sovereign control of territory extending to its boundaries. The old territorial arrangements in the days of empires rested on a concept called ‘suzerainty’, a sort of half-way house between full independence and full subjugation. These ideas no longer applied. As a result, the entire stretch of Himalayan borderlands, which had a pyramid of local rulers in various custom-made relationships of suzerainty with the greater powers of Beijing and Delhi, found themselves losing their autonomy.
Tibet was among the kingdoms affected by this shift. It had accepted some form of Chinese suzerainty since 1724 – but it was never a part of China. The basis of China’s territorial claims in the Himalayan borderlands is rooted in its historical suzerainty over Tibet. The areas it claims are places that it says were under Tibetan suzerainty. Since Tibet was a tributary of China, they argue, it had no power to sign treaties with other countries. The Indian claim rests on the Simla Convention, by which the McMachon Line was drawn as the border between India and Tibet, and endorsed by representatives of both. A committee of the International Commission of Jurists examined the issue in 1959–60, and concluded that between 1913 and 1950 Tibet was in fact independent, implying that the McMahon Line was legally valid. China does not accept this decision.
When the Chinese People’ Liberation Army invaded and occupied Tibet in 1951, a group of Tibetan representatives from the Dalai Lama’s administration went to Beijing to sign the Seventeen Point Agreement by which the Tibetan people promised to ‘return to the family of the Motherland of the People’s Republic of China’. They travelled back to Lhasa by the easiest and quickest route – by sea to Calcutta, India, and then overland via what was then the independent Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim. That journey from Beijing to Lhasa, which used to take the better part of a month, is now a ride of two days by train, or four and a half hours by air. The Himalayan buffer states of Tibet and Sikkim have disappeared. Tibet became part of China. In 1975, Sikkim became a part of India. Roads have now been built in the remotest reaches of Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. China and India have stretched out towards their remotest corners, and they have finally bumped up against one another.
The border war of 1962 was sparked by a dispute over construction of a new road across the Aksai Chin desert by China. It was a road that the Chinese needed in order to reach Tibet from Sinkiang; a crucial military route. But the road ran across territory that Indian maps, based on claims inherited from the Maharaja of Kashmir and the British Raj, showed as Indian – Chinese maps, of course, showed it as Chinese. Cartographic possession had never translated into more than occasional, seasonal reality for either side, for possession means presence, and presence for an army for any length of time, in the freezing high-altitude desert of Aksai Chin, was humanly impossible. The construction of that road over what had been no-man’s land meant that the situation had changed. As both sides began establishing forward bases and military posts, the cartographic dispute finally became a physical battle.
In 2017, there was another episode of tension between India and China. It had to do with the Chinese building a road at Doklam, near the trijunction of China, India and Bhutan. Armies of both countries faced off for seventy-three days on the remote plateau. Today’s conflict along the border region is also over a new road. This time it has been built by India, in Ladakh, leading to the highest military airfield in the world, 16,700 feet above sea level at a place called Daulat Beg Oldi, which was reactivated by the Indian Air Force in 2008 for the first time since the 1962 war. The Chinese, for their part, have now blocked Indian access to part of the nearby Depsang Plains and built a new helipad at Pangong Tso.
To make matters worse, the ideology of nationalism is thriving in both countries. India is led by a Hindu nationalist, Narendra Modi. The public relations spin surrounding his persona, in trying to paint him as a strongman, often refers to his ‘56-inch chest’ – a fictional size, but one that conveys to his legions of devoted supporters that he is the muscular champion of their interests. China effectively has a new emperor in Xi Jinping, the most powerful ruler the country has had since Mao Zedong. His authority is absolute, and he leads a country that has clearly abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s famous dictum to ‘hide one’s capabilities and bide one’s time’. China’s actions around the world seem to indicate that Xi believes his country’s time has come.
Since that bloody night in the Galwan valley this past June, both sides have moved artillery guns, tanks, missiles, fighter aircraft and tens of thousands of soldiers in a series of escalating, matching deployments across the Line of Actual Control. But while troops continue to mass, the rhetoric has been uncharacteristically subdued. In October 1962, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru publicly ordered the Indian army to oust the Chinese from a post in Arunachal Pradesh, pushing the conflict into outright war. This time, Prime Minister Modi, despite his strongman image, has avoided any mention of China occupying Indian territory. Instead, in a recent televised speech he told an all-party meeting that there had been no Chinese intrusion, to the astonishment of all.
When this obviously false statement – satellite images showing Chinese military presence in Ladakh had appeared in sections of the press – was greeted with a storm of criticism, the Prime Minister’s Office clarified that ‘the Prime Minister’s observations that there was no Chinese presence on our side of the LAC pertained to the situation as a consequence of the bravery of our armed forces’. The story spun for domestic consumption was that the Chinese had attempted an incursion and been foiled by Indian forces, resulting in heavy casualties on their side. To show that the misadventure was being punished further, the Indian government then banned 118 Chinese smartphone apps. The country’s raucous news TV channels, most of which have functioned as cheerleaders of Hindu nationalism since Modi came to power, loudly celebrated this, before moving on to spend the next few months vilifying a young Bollywood actress, Rhea Chakraborty, for the death by apparent suicide of her actor boyfriend Sushant Singh Rajput. All other issues, including Covid and the Chinese incursion, were swept out of the headlines.
Away from the glare of the media, efforts to de-escalate the situation have been continuous. So far, they have come to nought. Seven rounds of talks to work out a schedule for disengagement have been held so far between military generals of the two sides. The only concrete thing they have achieved is an agreement that both sides will stop sending more troops to the border, and ‘refrain from unilaterally changing the situation on the ground’. Since the situation on the ground is that China is occupying a fairly large slice of territory recently held by India, the promise of good behaviour by both sides means that the Chinese may retain their gains.
Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar said the bilateral relationship between the two countries is ‘profoundly disturbed’, and the massing of troops has created a ‘very critical security challenge’. The Chinese may disagree on who’s to blame, but they evidently share this assessment. Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece Global Times warned India that provoking China was ‘like doing a handstand on the edge of a cliff’.
A meeting between defence ministers of the two countries in Moscow yielded nothing. A subsequent meeting produced a joint statement reiterating a platitude, that the two countries should not allow ‘differences to become disputes’, and would ‘avoid any action that could escalate matters’. Neither side has shown any real sign of stepping back, which means that the situation remains precarious. Other powers are lining up. The US has shown its support for India with Defence Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arriving in Delhi less than a week before the country’s 3 November presidential elections to sign an agreement expanding the sharing of military satellite information. Naval exercises planned around Indian waters for November will see participation from USA, India, Japan and Australia, which together constitute an informal alliance called the ‘Quad’.
The logic of territoriality and sovereignty, the pride of the clashing Chinese and Indian nationalisms, and the ongoing problem of conflicting maps means that the strategic conflict is not likely to be resolved any time soon. The two largest armies in the world have no choice but to jostle for space at the roof of the world. No force in history has tried to deploy through winter in the inhospitable, barren Himalayan heights where India and China meet. For the first time ever, soldiers of the Indian and Chinese militaries seem prepared to do so. If no further progress is made in the ongoing negotiations, the amassed troops of both countries will spend the rest of this winter ready for combat at heights of over 14,000 feet, where temperatures fall to thirty or forty degrees below zero Celsius.
The men at Galwan Valley who clubbed one another to death on the night of 15 June did their countries a great favour. They did not use firearms. It might take only one soldier being shot across this 3,488 kilometre border for a war to begin. The howitzers, tanks, missiles and fighter jets on both sides are lined up, ready and waiting for action. In 1962, neither China nor India was a nuclear power. But now, each country has enough munitions stockpiled to destroy the world.
Image © Intrepid Wanderer