On June 17, two days after a deadly clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers in Ladhak’s Galwan Valley, India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar held a phone dialogue with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi. The June 15, 2020 skirmish left 20 Indian soldiers, including an officer, dead, in a deadly hand-to-hand combat, the first of its kind in more than 50 years.
Altogether, 76 Indian troops were wounded, Reuters reported quoting government sources.
The clashes come after years of New Delhi grooming bilateral relations with the economic giant and expanding trade relations, where Chinese made goods have become a ubiquitous presence in India.
They also come, ironically, in the midst of recent seemingly successful talks ongoing and after a June 6 agreement was reached on de-escalation and disengagement along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). By Jan. 19, 2020, Beijing returned 10 soldiers captured during the deadly border clash, an Indian government source told Reuters, but meanwhile, in India, tempers were high with protests against China and calls for boycott of Chinese goods.
Ground commanders had been meeting regularly to implement the June 6 consensus throughout the week before the June 15, 2020 clash, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs noted. But Beijing continued to build a “structure” on India’s side of the LAC, which became a source of dispute, and the Chinese side “took pre-meditated and planned action” directly leading to the violence and casualties, New Delhi said. The clashes took place on a loosely defined border that stretches for 2,520 miles, at inhospitable freezing heights of 14,000 feet.
According to a Reuters report, satellite pictures taken by the U.S. company Planet Labs, show China may be constructing roads in the Galwan area possibly even damming a river. China meanwhile accused India of crossing into its territory in several places on the border.
“It reflected an intent to change the facts on ground in violation of all our agreements to not change the status quo,” Jaishankar contended, warning Yi that the “unprecedented” development, the first in 45 years, would have a “serious impact” on bilateral relations. He urged China to adhere to and sincerely implement the June 6 accord and refrain from unilateral action, something that, according to the Indian account, the Chinese leader agreed to. Nevertheless, the China’s People’s Liberation Army has claimed sovereignty over the Galwan Valley region and accused India of violating their agreement, noted the Carnegie Foundation.
“At the conclusion of the discussion, it was agreed that the overall situation would be handled in a responsible manner, and both sides would implement the disengagement understanding of 6 June sincerely. Neither side would take any action to escalate matters and instead, ensure peace and tranquillity as per bilateral agreements and protocols,” the MEA memo on the phone call says.
Military officials from both countries are continuing talks, but “The situation remains as it was, there is no disengagement, but there is also no further build up of forces,” an unnamed government source told Reuters.
Washington’s response came June 17, after questions at a daily briefing.
“So the President is aware of it. We’re monitoring the situation between Indian and Chinese forces along the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh,” said White House spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany, “So we’ve seen that the Indian Army statement that 20 soldiers died as a result of the confrontation today, and we extend our deepest condolences on that.”
In early June, President Trump had offered to mediate in the latest confrontation. But McEnany said there were “no formal plans” to do that, adding that “during the phone call on June 2nd of this year that President Trump had with Prime Minister Modi, they did discuss the situation not he India-China border.”
On June 18, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted his reaction.
“We extend our deepest condolences to the people of India for the lives lost as a result of the recent confrontation with China. We will remember the soldiers’ families, loved ones, and communities as they grieve,” Pompeo tweeted.
At a time when U.S.-China relations are at their lowest point in many years, Trump’s intervention of any sort, though uninvited by both sides, may not make any difference. Trump “is really appalled” by China’s behavior regarding the coronavirus and blames Beijing for the state of affairs, going by McEnany’s words.
Though it is just a few days since the violent incident took place and the situation continues to evolve, experts in the U.S. say Washington should make this a top priority and take a stand supporting India.
In a June 17 opinion piece on Foxnews, James Carafano, vice president of the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation, called the confrontation on the Himalayan border another in the list of “outrageous actions” by China.
While he did not expect the situation to go out of control, Carafano said, “… the U.S. ought to take a stand against China’s increasing bullying,” adding that “India is an important American partner for peace and stability in the region. Beijing out to have no illusions about where America stands. The U.S. stands with our friends.”
He laid the blame for the latest conflagration on the Chinese contending Beijing had been ratcheting up the frequency of combative events in a bid to get New Delhi to give in to its view of the LAC.
Alyssa Ayres, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, echoed these views, introducing however, a nuclear dimension to the dispute.
“It’s important, first of all, because these are two nuclear-armed powers,” that have not definitively demarcated the border despite twenty rounds of border talks,” Ayres said in an interview on PBS June 16.
While it’s not known what precisely led to the latest violent clash, Ayres said, the worry is about it escalating further. “When you have a standoff of this nature, when you have, again, two nuclear powers that have a border standoff, you always worry about what the possible path of escalation could be.”
She hoped the process of de-escalation would continue, “But I don’t think we should make any mistake about the fact that, when you see, suddenly, all of a sudden, after more than four-and-a-half decades, troop fatalities in this way, it does raise concerns.”
While neither India and China are looking at an interlocutor, and in fact, would shun any idea of Washington’s mediation because they had bilateral mechanisms for dealing with such situations, Ayres said, “… I do think the United States should signal that territorial assertiveness — we are seeing territorial assertiveness on China’s part around the whole region — is not acceptable.”
Ashley Tellis, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote about rising tensions days before the June 16 hand-to-hand combat. According to his rationale, China not only had little respect for India’s long-standing efforts to freeze the status quo, but was using India’s internal actions in Jammu and Kashmir as a provocation to expand its control over new parts of the Himalayan borderlands taking brazen actions to do so.
Even on the agreements the two sides have agreed to in the past, “Beijing has thus far consistently declined to follow through on its obligations,” Tellis said, taking bits and pieces of land in the Ladakh region to eventually control the entire Aksai Chin plateau.
Not only is the India-China border issue remained a thorn on New Delhi’s side for many decades, Beijing’s “anxieties” may have risen when the status of Jammu & Kashmir was changed in August 2019, and Ladakh became a Union Territory directly under the central government.
Carafano speculated that the Chinese were using the confrontation on the Himalayan border as a diversion from the internal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic decline. “Maybe China is worried about looking weak. Or maybe Beijing is facing more internal pressure than we suspected. After all, China’s economy has suffered a massive 6 percent drop in output, the first negative economic statistic in over 15 years,” he opined.
Tellis however, nixed this idea in his June 4 piece “Hustling in Himalayas: Sino-Indian Border Confrontation” where he believes the foray on the border with India was in line with general pattern of Chinese behavior elsewhere.
“According to this reading, signs of new Chinese aggressiveness along the Sino-Indian border is all of a piece with the new security law Beijing has enacted to control Hong Kong, the enunciation of new administrative structures in the South China Sea, and the new language on Taiwanese reunification used during the May 2020 National People’s Congress plenary session in Beijing,” Tellis said.
The recommendations from experts to censure China or at least lean on it, come in the midst of a firestorm between Washington and Beijing and major differences within the U.S. administration and with the U.S. Congress.
Among the many factors contributing to turmoil : A new book by President Trump’s former National Security Advisor John Bolton, where Bolton alleges Trump pleaded with President Xi Jinping to import more agricultural products and help him win the 2020 election, and endorsed the camps where millions of Uighur Muslims have been isolated; The potential sanctions order Trump signed June 18 against China over the incarceration of Uyghur’s; and the U.S. Congress passing a bill condemning the Uighur camps. These and the flare-up over China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in the early stages, could all condition whether the experts’ recommendations could sway Washington to be proactive on the India-China situation.
However, the almost unanimous vote for New Delhi’s membership in the United Nations Security Council, albeit as a non-voting member for two years, could provide another forum in which to negotiate or raise the issue of China’s posturing.