Fresh tensions on India and China’s shared border have left bilateral ties at their worst level since 1962. As Antoine Levesques explains, author of the following analysis for the iiss.org, diplomatic efforts so far have not kept pace with the risks.
On 29 August, Indian troops led a nocturnal operation to occupy elevations offering a superior view of Chinese positions on the shores and outer rim of the high-altitude Pangong Lake. India said the operation was to ‘pre-empt’ a move by China to stage a dig-in, as India did earlier this year, both on the opposite shore of the lake and 130km north in Galwan, which in June had led to a bloody clash. Indian media has released photographs purporting to show Chinese soldiers armed with spears at Pangong. Meanwhile, the killing of a Tibetan-Indian soldier by a landmine on 30 August was the first concrete evidence of India’s assertive use of special forces on the border since 1962.
On 4 September, Indian and Chinese defence ministers met for the first high-level talks since the start of this year’s tensions. But these failed to improve matters and military signalling continued. India and China accused each other of firing warning shots in the air, undermining their previous proud claim that no bullet had been fired on the border since 1975.
Since a meeting on 10 September at which the countries’ foreign ministers agreed five principles to manage tensions, no new local military manoeuvres have been reported. But while each side is reinforcing its positions with thousands of new troops, blame-trading continues between China and India, whose defence minister twice addressed parliament on the matter in three days.
What is the strategic significance of the Pangong Lake area?
Pangong Lake and its barren surroundings were the site of a bloody battle between India and China in 1962, which India lost before going on to lose that year’s short conflict altogether.
After 1962, Pangong Lake became one of several contested locations along the de facto border. It is the subject of annual efforts by Chinese and Indian military patrols on foot or in surface crafts to stake national claims to the territory. In the 2010s, both India and China grew more assertive in the patrolling of their claims in such locations.
More frequent patrols have resulted in scuffles and injuries among troops in the so-called ‘fingers’ area of the lake, where the countries’ territorial claims overlap and ground occupations are nearing. In recent years, China has built access and shoreline roads, and erected semi-permanent patrolling infrastructure in the border areas. It denies reports that it has laid secure military communications cables.
Until the events on 29 August, diplomats had refrained from publicly and specifically discussing the situation at Pangong Lake. But successive rounds of military-led talks have not yet led to any meaningful de-escalation or disengagement.
Both sides have made high-profile pledges to defend their territorial integrity. India’s foreign and security establishment has publicly warned that India would not seek diplomatic accommodation or appeasement, with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar asserting that ‘the state of the border cannot be delinked from the state of the relationship’.
Having learnt from a standoff in 1986–87, both militaries have started preparing this year’s new forward deployments for the possibility of months-long face-offs through the harsh Himalayan winter. As this nears, the window for continued military manoeuvres rather than patrols is closing.
What are India and China’s end goals?
India and China’s successive leaders have all shared a strategic understanding that peace between their large countries is crucial to national economic prosperity, as well as that of the wider region. Unlike in 1962, today India and China possess nuclear weapons and are committed to credible strategic deterrence, not least through no-first-use doctrines. Neither side wants large-scale conflict.
In the weeks and months ahead, the Pangong Lake area may serve as a useful barometer of the overall level of bilateral border tensions. In terms of its use as a military theatre, it is relatively self-contained geographically and both sides’ moves since August are in previously unoccupied (though patrolled) areas. This means that any strategic signalling by either side is more clearly discernible.
India’s action on 29 August stands out for its unprecedented ‘pre-emptive’ public justification against China. It may be seeking to establish a strong ground position ahead of any future border negotiations, as it reportedly did in 2013, 150km north, in the Depsang Plain. It could also be intended as a statement of its commitment and capability to better deter any future Chinese encroachments.
But after at least two decades of common rules-based border management and given China’s overall military superiority, the introduction by either side of pre-emptive justifications for troop movements, along with any readiness to use firearms, could increase the risk of miscalculation, misunderstanding and unintended military escalation. Officials’ acknowledgement of the risk at hand is rare.
Is this the start of a more crisis-prone, new normal?
The 4 and 10 September ministers’ meetings demonstrated a commitment on both sides to keeping high-level communications open, despite the low expectations of any meaningful diplomatic breakthrough. The 7 September firing incident took place as Chinese and Indian brigadier-level talks resumed, and further interactions between corps commanders are possible. The November G20 leaders’ summit in Riyadh, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping would normally attend, could be an important opportunity to defuse tensions.
However, given the broad slide in political ties, as well as aspirations in India to decouple its economy from China’s, current levels of diplomatic achievement do not adequately reflect the risks on the border, which look set to endure beyond the winter and well into 2021.