The India-China Border Dispute: What Happened and Why it Matters
India and China have always had a tense geopolitical and economic relationship, especially over their long-disputed border. So it came as no surprise when reports of a skirmish surfaced in early June, detailing an armed attack between Chinese and Indian forces on the border between the two countries. Known as the Line of Actual Conflict, the border is a source of tensions between the two nations as they fail to agree on its location. Tragically, the June 15th attack led to more than forty deaths. Given the high number of casualties, and the duration of peace between the two nations (this is the first violent attack in over forty years), it is imperative to consider the June 15th attack in the context of a larger, ongoing border dispute.
The border dispute started back in 1914, when British India and Tibet were in contention over the location of the McMahon Line, a 1,000 km border that India claims. Unfortunately, China disagreed, leading to over a century’s worth of disagreements and battles. The Sino-Indian War, fought in 1962, led to China redrawing the border for its own benefit, while the second war, fought in 1967, concluded with India redrawing the border once again. The tug-of-war between the two nations has, up until now, stayed below the threshold for violence in order to risk inciting another war. In 1996, the two countries agreed to ban firearms from the area to maintain peace. While this agreement was a valiant attempt at maintaining uneasy peace, it didn’t prevent soldiers from getting creative with their attacks, leading to Indian and Chinese soldiers throwing rocks back in 2017 over escalating tensions concerning China’s construction of a highway in Bhutan. However, the June attack was unique in its level of casualties, and its implications for the following years.
On June 15 in Ladakh, India, soldiers from both sides wrapped fence posts and clubs in barbed wire, and proceeded to fight for hours, bludgeoning each other to death. In the course of a day, twenty Indian troops were reported dead (while China has not released any official numbers, unconfirmed reports estimate that close to forty people were dead). With the potential to be a catalyst for future battles, the June 15th attack marks a critical boiling point for months of tensions. Given the rise of anti-Chinese sentiments following the outbreak of coronavirus, the June 15th attack comes at a time of nationalism and distrust, and both nations refuse to engage in descalatory measures. Following the attack, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi argued that the weak cannot establish peace and that “India’s enemies have seen his country’s fire and fury”. Modi’s history of nationalism has influenced his foreign policy, and the June 15th attack is no exception. His aggressive approach to national threats have already led to an increase in tensions, with store owners in the region calling for the boycott and ban of Chinese goods. However, with his campaign promises of increasing nationalism, coupled with the pressure from citizens and government officials, as well as media attention, Modi is forced to play an aggressive hand in the issue regardless of any wishes to de-escalate. Part of this is due to India’s one-sided relationship with China. Even prior to the June 15 attack, Modi has called for a decrease in Indian reliance on China, who is one of India’s top trading partners and importer. As Modi and India shifts away from Chinese goods and towards local products, it is unlikely to make a difference to China, who doesn’t consider India to be a major trading partner. This economic imbalance makes Modi’s aggressive response to the attack an overcompensation, given that the military and economic superiority of China makes it hard for India to retaliate.
While India has placed the attack into the national spotlight, China, on the other hand, is severely downplaying it. Given that China is focusing on more pressing issues, from international disputes with the U.S. to coronavirus criticism, the skirmish received little media attention. This is in part due to China’s perception of the border: compared to the ongoing disputes over Taiwan and the South China Sea, Ladakh is arguably far less politically important for China, making the potential international fallout an unnecessary risk for Beijing.