WHEN INDIAN and Chinese soldiers brawled at Pangong lake in Ladakh earlier this month—a punch-up serious enough to leave many in hospital—General M.M. Naravane, India’s army chief, was unworried. Such “temporary and short-duration face-offs” happened from time to time at such remote stretches of the two countries’ 3,500km border, he said. Both sides had “disengaged”. But a week later he dashed north to the headquarters of his 14th Corps in nearby Leh, the state capital, suggesting that something more serious was afoot.
According to Indian press accounts, Chinese troops have crossed the disputed border with India at several points, some reportedly penetrating 3-4km over punishing Himalayan terrain. Many are said to have destroyed Indian posts and bridges, and dug in with tents and trenches. Incursions have been reported in at least three spots: the confluence of the Galwan and Shyok rivers; the Hot Springs area; and the northern bank of Pangong lake, the site of the original scrap (see map). On May 27th Donald Trump, America’s president, offered to mediate in what he described as a “now raging border dispute”.
There is considerable uncertainty over the precise size and location of the forces involved, but Ajai Shukla, a former army colonel now with the Business Standard, an Indian newspaper, estimates that three PLA brigades—each comprising thousands rather than hundreds of soldiers—are involved, one several hundred kilometres to the south of Ladakh near the separate Indian state of Uttarakhand. Though this might evoke images of an invading land army, the bulk of troops are likely to be to the rear, on the Chinese side, in support of intruders nibbling at smaller packets of territory.
General Naravane is correct to say that face-offs are not unusual. Because the border between India and China is undefined, encounters between patrols on the “line of actual control” (LAC) are common. Beyond the demarcation issue lie vast, intricate and unresolved territorial disputes that led to a war in 1962. What makes the present imbroglio unusual is three things. One is the scale of forces involved. Another is the fact that encounters have twice deteriorated into fisticuffs in the past month; first at Pangong lake, and later at Naku La in Sikkim, over 1,000km away in the eastern part of the border.
Third, and perhaps most important, some of the alleged land-grabs seem to have occurred in the Galwan river valley area, beyond China’s own claim-line, i.e. in territory which was not thought to be disputed. The valley is fraught with historical baggage: it was overrun by China in the lightning war in 1962, though later handed back. On May 25th the Global Times, a state-run tabloid in Beijing, stated baldly that “the Galwan Valley region is Chinese territory”.
One reason for China’s ire may be the uptick in Indian military construction on its side of the border in Ladakh. India has been upgrading border roads and improving infrastructure, making it easier to send patrols further forward. In particular, an Indian road running north to Daulat Beg Oldi, the world’s highest-altitude airstrip, and the site of a Sino-Indian standoff in 2013, was completed last year—a triumph of engineering in forbidding conditions.
The road, which runs along the Shyok river to the west of the Chinese positions in the Galwan valley, “appears to greatly strengthen India’s ability to move forces laterally across the disputed border in Ladakh,” says Taylor Fravel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. India’s construction of a smaller feeder road, branching off the main one, towards the LAC, might have triggered the Chinese incursions. P. Stobdan, a former Indian diplomat, notes that a Chinese advance into eastern Ladakh would be “disastrous for Indian defence”, possibly threatening India’s grip on the Siachen glacier, which is disputed with Pakistan.
It is the most serious crisis in India-China relations since a stand-off over Doklam, a site at the junction of India, China and Bhutan, in 2017. On that occasion Chinese road-construction in a disputed area was blocked by India, leading to a tense 73-day impasse. China eventually halted construction, but strengthened its military presence in the area. The lesson drawn by Indian leaders was that the best way to deter Chinese aggression was to stand firm.
Although China vastly outspends India on defence, the local military balance is more even. India’s armed forces in Ladakh are in a strong position today, having built up airfields, troops and tanks over recent years. “China is regularly operating with a permanent Indian conventional force advantage along its border areas,” note Frank O’Donnell and Alex Bollfrass in a recent study published by the Belfer Center at Harvard. “A limited conflict in eastern Ladakh is no longer a viable proposition for the PLA,” notes Arjun Subramaniam, a retired Indian air vice-marshal. “[The] costs for the PLA will be unacceptable.” Even resupplying its current forces through winter would be a challenge.
On May 26th Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, held a meeting with his national security adviser and service chiefs to consider the next steps. The problem for Indian leaders is that digging their heels in will not recover slivers of land that may have been lost in recent days and weeks. Should India push back, China might apply pressure in the eastern part of its border, which spans Sikkim, where the second bout of scuffles took place on May 9th, and Arunachal Pradesh. Its military position there is stronger, notes Mr Fravel. Meanwhile, accidents or misunderstandings can cause inadvertent escalation. India and China are both operating warplanes, helicopters and drones in the area. At the end of April, a helicopter carrying a senior Indian commander was reported to have been confronted by a pair of Chinese choppers. Foggy aerial jousting carries obvious risks.
For now, both countries are keeping their powder dry. Neither Indian nor Chinese officials are keen for Mr Trump to wade in; on May 27th they activated a high-level diplomatic channel for defusing tensions on the border, for the first time since last summer. China’s state-run newspapers, which struck a bellicose tone during the Doklam crisis, have been relatively subdued. Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, did not even mention India in his annual press conference on May 24th, and Chinese diplomats in Beijing and New Delhi struck emollient notes in the following days. On May 25th Ram Madhav, the national general secretary of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, insisted that the “the situation is almost normal at this juncture”. That seems improbable. But it suggests that Indian leaders, who are also embroiled in a separate border dispute with Nepal this month, would also prefer to settle the problem quietly to whipping up a nationalist frenzy. That, at least, is good news.