Bakerwal nomadic herders cook lunch as their sheep graze in a valley between Zoji La and Kargil along the Ladakh highway on June 21. India and China agreed on June 17 to ease tensions at their disputed Himalayan border even as they traded blame for a brawl that left at least 20 Indian soldiers dead. (Photo: AFP)
In the high Himalayan ridges, India and China have come face to face for the umpteenth time at their border, which is neither delineated on a map nor demarcated on the ground.
As tension continues between nations with two of the world's largest armies, peace is threatened for millions in the region, not just their citizens who together form 2.7 billion or one third of the world’s population.
Meandering rivers, vast lakes, voluminous snowcaps and deep valleys make the Himalayan terrain prone to shifting. Technologically advanced communist China has outfoxed democratic India in the fortification of the poorly demarcated 3,440-kilometer border, called the Line of Actual Control by both countries.
Border patrols often bump into each other, as happened on June 15 in the upper reaches of the Himalayas in the Ladakh region of Kashmir.
Since the use of firearms is banned under a 1996 treaty, the latest clash involved brutal hand-to-hand combat with crude weapons including hammers, rocks and sticks embedded with nails. The battle left 20 Indian soldiers dead and 80 injured. China did not admit any deaths but said it had casualties in the bloody fight. Lives were lost on the border for the first time in 45 years.
Political leaders in New Delhi and Beijing warned each other for making exaggerated and untenable claims. Hawks in India brayed for retaliation and belligerent Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “Their [soldiers’] sacrifices won’t go to waste.”
Thousands of Indian troops were moved to the front lines in the porous mountain ranges in the Ladakh region, which is directly under the control of the federal government.
Anti-China jingoism in India was fueled by electronic and social media. Half-baked truths and slogans were heard such as “teach them a lesson,” “ban Chinese goods” and “2020 is not 1962.”
India’s Ministry of External Affairs said the violent clash “happened as a result of an attempt by the Chinese side to unilaterally change the status quo there [Ladakh].”
US President Donald Trump reiterated his earlier offer to mediate in the conflict, which has enormous geopolitical consequences involving the two most populous nations on earth.
However, on June 19, a mellower Modi told an all-party meeting: “Neither has anyone intruded into our frontier there, nor is any intruder there, nor are any of our posts occupied by someone else.”
Modi mentioned neither President Xi Jinping nor China, whose economy is five times bigger than India’s and whose roughly 320 nuclear warheads are more than double India’s 150, according to defense experts.
Top-level ministers and the military brass were engaged in talks for a peaceful solution. Backroom diplomacy was pressed into service as both countries feared a fully fledged war while also facing the Covid-19 pandemic.
The two countries have fought only one war so far, in 1962, with India suffering a humiliating defeat. However, both China and India have become nuclear powers since their previous conflict.
By all conventional war norms, China outmuscles India. Beijing’s defense budget surpasses New Delhi by a factor of four to one, according to experts.
India’s exports to China were a mere US$16.7 billion during the 2018-19 period, while imports were $70.3 billion, leaving a trade deficit of $53.6 billion.
To offset this imbalance in power, India has been nestling into the US military camp in recent years, with Washington calling New Delhi a “major defense partner.”
India has joint military exercises with the US, Japan, France and Australia. China’s joint military endeavors, on the other hand, remain comparatively limited in scope with the notable exception of Pakistan and Russia.
Nevertheless, India has never tried to antagonize China, and PM Modi has met President Xi twice informally without any aides in the cozy atmosphere of Chennai and Wuhan since a 2017 flare-up in Sikkim on the edge of the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.
Stone throwing and fist fights between the two militaries take place along difficult terrain from Aksai Chin in Ladakh to the northern Indian state of Sikkim due to the pursuit to build border infrastructure.
The border dispute goes beyond the Ladakh region. China claims about 90,000 square kilometers of territory in India’s northeast. New Delhi also claims Beijing occupies 38,000 sq km of its territory on the Aksai Chin plateau.
Of late, China has made huge investment in the region with the big-ticket $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and an ambitious Belt and Road Initiative project near Karakoram Pass on the Indian side of the Himalayas.
Technology helped the Chinese to move to the inaccessible border regions first and erect a well-oiled border infrastructure, which started in the 1990s. India was a late starter.
China side sees Indian efforts to erect sophisticated border infrastructure as muscle flexing, affecting the status quo.
The uneasy peace between the neighbors will not last until a demarcated map is put on paper and agreed.