An officer of the Indian Army and two Indian soldiers, as well as five Chinese soldiers, are  reported to have been killed in fights between India and China soldiers on the Line of Actual Control between Ladakh Province, India and Xinjiang Province, China.

Standoffs and confrontations along the Line of Actual Control have been extensive over recent weeks, most of which have passed peacefully.

An official statement from the Indian Army confirms the death of an Indian Army Officer and two Indian Army jawans.

During the deescalation process underway in the Galwan Valley, a violent face-off took place yesterday night with casualties. The loss of lives on the Indian side includes an officer and two soldiers. Senior military officials of the two sides are currently meeting at the venue to defuse the situation.

According to the Asia News Press, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has accused India of carrying provocative attacks. It did not confirm the casualties on their side.

Indian troops on Mon. seriously violated the consensus of the 2 sides by illegally crossing the border twice, carrying out provocative attacks on Chinese soldiers, resulting in serious physical clashes.

China has lodged solemn representations with the Indian side and urged it to strictly restrain its frontline troops from crossing the border or taking any unilateral action that may complicate the border situation.

The claims of Chinese casualties have not yet been confirmed. It is believed that the deaths did not involve shooting.

The Indian Army earlier said that Chinese troops had crossed the Line of Actual Control (LAC), a de facto border that has stood since the 1962 Sino-Indian Border War. The LAC has been the scene of regular pushing matches between delegations from the respective armies seeking to mark their claim.

Military Buildup

The casualties come following weeks of military buildup on both sides of the LAC over the past few weeks.

A Chinese propaganda video republished on 8 June 2020 shows a large debouchment of the Chinese Army in the border region with India.

Videos from from 9 and 11 June 2020 reportedly show the Indian Army moving tanks by train up towards the border area.

Another two-minute video showed a convoy of at least 54 military trucks moving through Ladakh.

Analysis

The recent confrontation forms part of an ongoing conflict over territorial issues between India and China.

China’s general approach to its foreign borders is the incremental assertion of control over its historic claims. Under Prime Minister Modi, India has sought resist this by improving infrastructure in the immediate vicinity of the Line of Actual Control.

While the troop buildup by both sides may appear impressive, it is certainly not yet sufficient to provide full deterrence to further military action in the area. High altitude mountainous areas are typically easy for local peoples to hold (consider the United States’s withdrawal after 19 years of fighting in Afghanistan, or the security provided by Switzerland’s Alpine redoubt), but a certain level of investment in arms and defensive infrastructure is required to render high-altitude locations militarily secure.

Given the extremely challenging terrain of Ladakh and the Tibetian AR and the long distances from major population centres, both sides may feel as though they have some latitude to assert their claims, even militarily, without the conflict morphing into a more generalised war. It would certainly be difficult for both leaders not to resist loss of territory that is de facto under their control, regardless of the competing claims to it. For Modi, in particular, there are political dangers in appearing soft in defence of Indian sovereign territory.

The best case scenario for peaceful resolution is that both sides use the focus on the border issue as an opportunity to conclude a treaty recognising the LAC as a pragmatic border without relinquishing their historic claims.

A middle course scenario would see a continuation of incursions and tit-for-tat confrontations on the border region with both sides refraining from engaging in more widespread armed confrontation along the border. (Such a situation is actually not unprecedented and exists on several borders throughout the world, such as between Artsakh  and Azerbaijan.)

A third scenario is that China and India do allow the conflict to expand into a more generalised border conflict in pursuit of their respective claims. From the 1969 Sino-Soviet Border Conflict it can be seen that China is able to pursue its territorial claims even against putative allies, so it would have no compunction about doing so against an India which has been happy to align itself with the United States geostrategically. Likewise, Pakistan and India have been bloodily contesting their border in Kashmir for decades, while resisting allowing the conflict to become an all-out war.

While the risk of war being declared between the two superpowers in the short to medium term is not entirely negligible (“World War 3” is currently trending on Twitter), the reality is that both Xi and Modi have considerable latitude to pursue their claims through means short of actual war.

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