25 June 2020

Tensions between China and India in the aftermath of the Galwan Valley clashes

Border tensions between China and India which peaked due to the Galwan Valley clashes are unlikely to result in a conflict in the near-term; however, both sides will not scale back military activities along their shared borders.

By Ramya Dilipkumar

Tensions between China and India peaked after Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Indian Army (IA) forces on 15 June engaged in a deadly hand-to-hand combat in the Galwan Valley near Aksai Chin, an area where China and India have rivalling claims, located between China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region and India’s Ladakh. The clashes in which 20 Indian soldiers and an unconfirmed number of Chinese troops were killed, came after months of scuffles between PLA and IA over perceived territorial encroachments in the region. Since early 2020, IA troops have built roads in the Galwan Valley close to Aksai Chin to enable quick mobilisation of troops to border areas in Ladakh while the PLA set up military posts over suspicions that IA forces will re-occupy Aksai Chin, a territory that China annexed in the 1962 Indo-China war. The Galwan incident was the deadliest clashes between the PLA and IA in the last 45 years and led to the mobilisation of additional armed forces along the China-India border. However, leaders of both countries are unlikely to allow tensions to escalate to a full-blown conflict in the near-term, considering that such a blowout will bring major losses to China and India’s economies.

Diplomatic relations have remained strained between China and India since they fought two wars in 1962 and 1967, over their rivalling claims in China administered Aksai Chin and Indian administered Nathu La in Sikkim situated near the Line of Actual Control (LAC) - a military border which runs along China’s Tibet (Xizang) and Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous regions, and India’s Ladakh, Sikkim, Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh. Both countries have been wary of any infrastructure development near disputed areas which have periodically ratcheted tensions along the LAC. However, in recent years, China and India’s governments have avoided wars and focused on economic development, hence they signed the 1993 agreement to settle territorial disputes through peaceful means.

Both countries managed to avoid an armed conflict in 2017 through diplomatic talks when China’s construction of a road in Doklam - a strip located between China’s Tibet, India’s Sikkim state and western Bhutan but claimed by both Bhutan and China - triggered an 84-day armed standoff between the PLA and IA in Doklam; India had supported Bhutan’s claims fearing that the PLA may gain access to Sikkim through Doklam. The diplomatic talks resulted in a stalemate and the PLA and IA have continued patrols and building roads in Doklam. In a similar fashion, Chinese and Indian foreign ministry officials have been negotiating over possibly scaling back road construction activities along the LAC since the June 2020 Galwan Valley clashes.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are unlikely to engage in war at a time when both countries are grappling with the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak that has infected over 83,396 people in China and over 426,000 people in India. Due to the pandemic, the World Bank has forecast India’s economy to shrink by three percent in fiscal 2020 while China’s economy is forecast to grow by barely one percent when compared with 2019. Against this backdrop an armed conflict will devastate both economies. Moreover, China and India are unlikely to engage in a conflict which will destabilise South Asia given their own significant investments in the region. China has major investments in Pakistan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka while India has good bilateral relations with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan, Nepal, Afghanistan and the Maldives.

Heightened security measures which have restricted travel along the China-India border, including the LAC, are likely to continue in the near-term. An armed standoff similar to the one in Doklam in 2017 is likely to remain along the LAC as the Chinese and Indian governments have affirmed their sovereign rights over both regions. Both militaries are unlikely to scale back military posts or construction activities along the China-India border, given the years of mistrust over one another. However, the PLA and IA may temporarily halt their constructions while negotiations are underway to ease tensions, as a similar trend was witnessed during the Doklam standoff. China and India’s LAC border disputes are far too complex to get resolved anytime soon. Periodic scuffles and clashes between PLA and IA will be the new normal around their shared border areas for the foreseeable future.

Ramya Dilipkumar is an Australia-based political and security risk analyst covering South Asia.