High in the Himalayas, things have taken a worrying turn. After weeks of squabbling and brawling along their long-disputed border, hundreds of Indian and Chinese soldiers engaged in a deadly clash Monday (June 15, 2020) in a river valley that’s part of the region of Ladakh. Indian authorities reported at least 20 soldiers killed, the first time since 1975 that any Indian soldiers have been slain in border skirmishes with China. Military officials in Beijing acknowledged the incident and an unspecified number of Chinese casualties. Reports in the Indian media said at least 43 Chinese soldiers were wounded or dead.
The details remain murky, given the remoteness of the location and the absence of independent ways to corroborate military reports. The rugged mountainous border between the world’s two most populous nations – and nuclear-armed neighbors – has seen the almost-routine flaring of tensions over the decades. But past spats cooled down after withdrawals and rounds of hurried diplomacy between New Delhi and Beijing.
This week’s events mark a major inflection point, ending a period of almost half a century where lingering animosities never translated into bloodshed. “Chinese troops have crossed several kilometers into territory that India claims at several points, according to analysts and media reports,” wrote my Washington Post colleagues. “In particular, reports say, they have occupied an area in the Galwan River valley that overlooks a strategically crucial road for India.” Chinese authorities, meanwhile, blamed the escalation on “provocative attacks” by Indian troops.
Though it seems no shots were fired, scuffles between Indian and Chinese forces hurling stones at each other and wielding improvised melee weapons like clubs and iron rods reportedly led to a situation where dozens of soldiers fell down a gorge and died of injuries and their exposures to the elements.
“Sino-Indian relations can never go back to the old normal,” said Ashley Tellis, an India scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They will reset with greater competitiveness and in ways that neither country had actually intended at the beginning of the crisis.”
Tensions are rising on the 38th parallel, as well. On Tuesday, North Korea destroyed the liaison office it jointly operates with South Korea in the city of Kaesong, just north of the demilitarized zone that separates the two countries. The move was seen as the latest indication of Pyongyang’s declining interest in the diplomatic thaw engineered by center-left South Korean President Moon Jae-in, as well as exasperation with the peace process pushed by President Trump.
The facility, which operated as a de facto embassy for both sides to meet, had been closed since January with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s hard to see how such behavior will help the Kim regime get what it wants from the world, but clearly such images will be used for domestic propaganda,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, told my Washington Post colleague Min Joo Kim. “So, Seoul needs to impose additional costs demonstrating to Pyongyang that its threats are counterproductive.”
Another escalation is likely. “Under the cover of its increased nuclear capabilities, Pyongyang may seek to torment Seoul for concessions and leverage,” wrote analyst Ankit Panda. “In this sense, the demolition of the inter-Korean liaison office may be the start of a much darker period in the inter-Korean story.”
The smoldering atmospherics provide an uneasy backdrop for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who on Wednesday will meet his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi for a rare face-to-face sit-down in Hawaii. Not much is expected from the meeting, given the depth of ill will between Beijing and the Trump administration, which has made China-bashing a signature theme in its reelection campaign. Pompeo and Trump have largely abandoned talk of making further breakthroughs in trade negotiations with China, while it looks like Trump’s “historic” summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may ultimately be remembered as largely ineffectual photo-ops.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, meanwhile, is at the helm of a state that’s growing more aggressive, from its hostile rhetoric toward Taiwan to its clampdowns on civil liberties in Hong Kong, to its assertive stance in the Himalayas.
“China must decide whether to try to get its way as an unencumbered major power, prevailing by dint of its sheer weight and economic strength – but at the risk of strong pushback, not just from the United States but from other countries, too,” Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien-Loong wrote in a June essay for Foreign Affairs. “This approach is likely to increase tensions and resentment, which would affect China’s standing and influence in the longer term.”
India is one of those countries that is starting to push back. “India is anxious over China’s growing economic and political clout on India’s periphery – in Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – and over the influx of Chinese warships into the Indian Ocean,” the Economist’s Shashank Joshi explained. “In response, successive Indian governments have tilted closer to America, with which India signed a $3.5bn arms deal in February, and China’s rivals in Asia, such as Vietnam.”
There is a “new edge” to China’s attitude, Nirupama Rao, a former Indian ambassador to China, said to my Washington Post colleagues. “This assertiveness, this readiness to throw [away] internationally accepted behavior to advance their claims and interests, it’s worrisome for so many countries.”
“Best case, this incident on the disputed India-China border – the bloodiest in over half a century – shocks both governments into initiating a process to resolve the border once and for all,” tweeted Vipin Narang, an MIT professor and analyst of Asian geopolitics. “Worst case, the nationalists on both sides double down and pressure for serious escalation.”