The forces of two nuclear weapons states have set about each other with clubs and rocks at one of the most forbidding flashpoints in the world, in a bloody incident that highlights the constant dangers posed by expansionist nationalism.
India has confirmed that it lost at least 20 of its men in a clash with Chinese soldiers near the disputed mountain border running along the Ladakh area of Kashmir. It is the first fatal confrontation since 1975 and the most serious since 1967, and so can be expected to have a powerful galvanising effect on the populations of both countries, already primed by a constant stream of nationalist rhetoric.
There is a long history of such encounters ever since the two nations fought a short war there in 1962. After that conflict a Line of Actual Control (LAC) was declared, but there is no agreed line and limited control, as the events of recent weeks have confirmed. Thus far at least, both Indian and Chinese forces have stuck to an agreement not to carry firearms on patrol near the LAC.
Beijing has put out a string of statements blaming India but giving no hint of Chinese casualties, estimated in the Indian press to total 43, including some deaths. In the past, such accounting has come decades later, if at all, from a regime that tightly controls information. For that reason, the only detailed accounts to have emerged so far have come from the Indian press.
What is clear is that there will be more of these clashes without a clear change of direction and an attempt to agree on where the LAC should be, and how both sides should behave around it. Both Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping have built their images as warriors for national greatness.
In his remarks on Wednesday, Modi warned the sacrifice of the soldiers would not be in vain and that India is capable of giving a “befitting reply” if provoked.
China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, after speaking to his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar on Wednesday, issued his own warning, that India should not underestimate “China’s firm will to safeguard territorial sovereignty”.
In the broadest terms the deadly brawl in the Galwan valley was the latest symptom of an increasingly aggressive Chinese policy on territory and borders, of the sort that has been playing out among the rocks and reefs of the South China Sea.
Over the decades China has been more assertive than India in building infrastructure around the LAC, with roads and bunkers. In recent years, India has been trying to catch up, in particular with a road to the Daulat Beg Oldie(DBO), the highest airstrip in the world, with feeder roads leading off it. China has been trying to push back against that Indian construction work, so that its creeping occupation of the Galwan valley goes unchallenged.
Since May, Chinese troops appear to have stopped their Indian counterparts from approaching areas where both sides have patrolled over the years. And Beijing has sent in reinforcements. What distinguishes the current confrontation from previous incidents is not just the death toll but the fact that there have been standoffs in multiple locations.
“This kind of territory is incredibly hard to hold, but also to move multiple troops over,” said Tanvi Madan, director of the India project at the Brookings Institution. “So it’s not considered to be something that just happened on the ground. It’s clearly a decision made by the Chinese at a more senior level.”
It is not just about bragging rights over crags. China has built a road, Highway 219, linking Tibet and Xinjiang, that passes through territory near the LAC that India considers its own. India’s foothold at the DBO airfield, on the other hand, allows its forces to look down at the Karakoram highway linking China and Pakistan.
The timing of the incident may be connected to the weather. The melting snows of spring provide an opportunity for aggressive moves. The pandemic may also have played a role. It led to India putting off military exercises, and an extra motive for Beijing to look for distractions from its own failures in governance.
The deadly clash happened at a time and a place where officers from both sides were trying to negotiate a disengagement of forces. Neither government wants this to escalate, and the foreign ministers on Wednesday agreed on resuming the disengagement process. But the fact that there has been significant loss of life, at least on the Indian side, makes the situation much harder to defuse.
“Now domestic politics and public opinion, especially nationalist pressure to avenge their deaths and escalate, becomes a dangerous force,” Vipin Narang, a security studies professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said. “It will be hard for India at least, with a relatively open media, to de-escalate as easily now.”