India-China Relations: A New Normal of Competition and Conflict

Since May this year, India and China have been involved in a serious confrontation along their disputed boundary known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC). China has pushed its version of the LAC further westwards at multiple locations in the Western Sector of the dispute in eastern Ladakh/Aksai Chin. This is in clear violation of existing bilateral agreements. Chinese troops now occupy vast swathes of territory previously falling within Indian control. While a full-fledged India-China conflict is unlikely, peace and tranquillity along the LAC are well and truly things of the past.

On the night of 15 June 2020, 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers lost their lives in a fierce and brutal physical fight at high altitude in the Galwan Valley. The casualties are all the more notable because the clash involved not firearms but an almost medieval-era array of clubs and assorted weapons. These are the first casualties on the disputed boundary since 1975 and brings to a close an era of relative peace guided by a series of bilateral agreements on confidence-building measures and protocols on troop behaviour along the LAC.

The beginning of the end of this relatively peaceful phase of India-China relations had begun some years ago with an increasing number of Chinese complaints about the build-up of Indian physical infrastructure along the LAC. This Indian build-up was a response to the superiority of already existing Chinese infrastructure and advantages of terrain the People’s Liberation Army enjoyed. As of today, Indian troops still have not caught up with their Chinese counterparts in most areas along the LAC.

However, in the Western Sector, the Indian build-up had created capacities sufficient enough for its troops to counter existing Chinese advantages. Indian troops were able to both observe and block Chinese troops patrolling across the Indian determination of the LAC, leading to a number of disputed pockets emerging in recent years. And increasingly, troops on both sides seemed to ignore carefully laid-down drills about what to do when patrols ran into each other.

In one particularly egregious incident in August 2017, widely shared on social media in India, a violent altercation involving iron rods and flying kicks was recorded in the Pangong Tso area. Notably, this incident came in the midst of an ongoing standoff at Doklam in Bhutan between Indian and Chinese troops. That standoff, while protracted — lasting over 70 days — passed off peacefully without physical confrontation. Then Foreign Secretary (and now Indian Foreign Minister), S. Jaishankar described the incident at Pangong Tso as ‘very unusual’.

However, as early as the Depsang incursion of April 2013, also in Ladakh, when Chinese troops crossed the LAC, pitched tents and refused to move for several weeks, I had predicted that the Chinese troops were beginning to change their behaviour along the disputed boundary and that such incidents would become the new norm. Subsequently with Doklam in mid-2017 and now, the latest stand-offs in eastern Ladakh, it is undeniable that India-China relations not just on the LAC, but in general, have entered a new normal.

In April, following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Indian government had announced restrictions on Chinese FDI. It was following a global trend of mitigating against potentially predatory Chinese acquisitions. However, in the wake of the Galwan Valley incident, it was New Delhi’s turn to lead the global trend by banning nearly every major app of Chinese origin, including Tik-Tok. New Delhi has also shown greater gumption by proactively engaging with the Quad as well as pushing for other minilaterals in the Indo-Pacific, such as the first senior officials’ dialogue with France and Australia.

The India-China bilateral relationship is about more than just the border dispute. It is increasingly clear to New Delhi that Beijing is only focused on the border dispute and unwilling to consider the broader bilateral relationship. For Beijing, India’s opposition to the Belt and Road Initiative and its unwillingness to acknowledge China’s pre-eminence in Asia, alongside New Delhi’s readiness to stand with the West on matters of international law and good behaviour, especially in the South China Sea, seem to be the more consequential issues.

It is, therefore, unlikely that the ongoing talks between the Indian and Chinese military commanders will lead anywhere. In fact, the Chinese military seems to be signalling that disengagement and de-escalation are out of the question if reports are to be believed that it has begun the rotation of troops at Pangong Tso.

For the moment, the confrontation has been limited to only the Western Sector of the dispute, but confrontations elsewhere cannot be ruled out. While a full-fledged India-China conflict is unlikely, peace and tranquillity along the LAC are well and truly things of the past. The new normal will see troops sitting at inhospitable heights throughout the year, regular physical confrontations, and casualties from both weather and adversary actions.