A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Death in the Himalayas


A bloody border clash exposed how tensions are building between India and China. With Europe reassessing its own relations with Beijing, it should pay more attention.

© picture alliance/ZUMAPRESS.com/Idrees Abbas

On June 15 of this year, the armies of India and China clashed in the Galwan valley region of the Himalayas, resulting in the death of 20 Indian soldiers. While India and China share a long and contentious border, this clash was of vital importance for a number of reasons.

First, this was the first time in decades that the India-China border has seen this level of violence, as well as an increase in the buildup of Chinese troop numbers at multiple points along the border. Second, the clash shattered trust between India and China built carefully over years through agreements dating back to 1993, confining “the entire border architecture to the heap of history.” Third, while India continues to be a secondary concern in China, public opinion in India has decisively shifted to viewing China as a major security threat. Many in New Delhi believe this crisis reflects an inflection point that will fundamentally change the trajectory of India-China relations.

A Pattern of Border Tensions

India and China share an extremely long border running more than 3,000 kilometers, which is divided into sectors—western, middle, and eastern. After the last major boundary war between India and China in 1962 this border wasn’t clearly defined but a Line of Actual Control (LAC) was established. There are several disagreements and the LAC is vague, but both India and China agreed to not alter or re-define it unilaterally.

It was in the western sector in the remote mountainous region of Ladakh that Chinese and Indian soldiers clashed in the Galwan river valley on June 15th. This violent attack was unprecedented, even on this contested border, representing the first violent deaths on the border since 1975 and the most fatalities in the region since 1967.

This begs the question why now and why this area? This region is strategically important to both countries. As Dhruva Jaishankar of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) notes, in the 1950s China constructed a vital highway through the region claimed by India to connect to the critical regions of Xinjiang and Tibet. For India this region is important for supplying Indian forces along the disputed border with Pakistan, thus making the area critical for Indian security and “the geopolitical balance of power across a large part of Asia.”

Over time both sides have been building critical infrastructure including roads and airfields in the region, which have led to an increasing number of incidences—at the Depsang plains in 2013, then again in 2014 when Chinese troops crossed the border at Chumar coinciding with President Xi Jinping’s visit to India, and finally in 2017 at Doklam where Chinese troops entered a region they had “only patrolled sporadically before.” Galwan differs from these incidents not only because of the scale of the violence, but because this time Chinese troops “came in larger numbers, amassed troops and artillery ranged all along the boundary in Ladakh.” While both sides have blamed each other for sparking the incident most analysts conclude that China unilaterally altered the status-quo on the border by stationing a large number of its troops in the region.

The implications of this incident are bound to be significant. First, whatever the motives, it is evident that China is making more aggressive territorial claims in the region. Second, trust between India and China is at an all-time low. Since 1993, India and China had negotiated a series of agreements and operational procedures to prevent such skirmishes, known as the Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement but that has now essentially been voided. Most observers in India believe this was a pre-meditated and well-thought-out action on China’s part, making it very difficult to rebuild trust between the two countries and definitively turning the tide of public opinion against China.

An Inflection Point

While in the short-term, India’s priority will be the restoration of the status quo at the border, in the long term a rethink of India’s China policy seems imminent. Former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon argues that “the reset of India-China relations is now inevitable and necessary,” while C. Raja Mohan, director of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, writes that any illusions Indian policy makers might have had about Asian and anti-Western solidarity with China have now been crushed.

This shift has certainly been accelerated by the border crisis, but it has been a long time in the making. As India and China grow in economic size and geopolitical ambition, a clash in policy between the two was in some ways inevitable. For example, Menon notes that freedom of navigation in the South China Sea has become an important issue for India just as China started doubling down on its claims in the region. Tanvi Madan, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, points to other long standing problems in India-China relations—the widening trade deficit, limited market access for India, the growing proximity between China and Pakistan, China’s increasing activities in India’s neighborhood, and Beijing working against India at international forums such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

While a reset is certainly being called for, realistically in the short-term India’s relationship with China will take three parallel tracks—cautious engagement, internal strengthening, and external balancing. India’s engagement with China will continue but with some clear differences. Military balance on the border will be a crucial factor in determining how India-China relations evolve. But as both countries continue to build border infrastructure and roads, such clashes are bound to increase. In economic terms, there are growing calls for India to “decouple” from China. This would be difficult to implement since China is currently India’s largest trading partner, and second only to the US once services are added. Chinese economic investments in crucial sectors like start-ups and fintech in India are estimated to be around $26 billion.

While decoupling is not an option, India will limit Chinese investment in critical infrastructure particularly 5G, telecom, power grids etc. Huawei being included in India’s 5G infrastructure is now certainly out of the question. India recently also banned 59 Chinese apps stating security concerns. The more difficult task is for India to build its domestic capacities and resilience, which would need sweeping policy reform, something that is often difficult to implement in an electoral democracy. For example, to strengthen its economy India needs to be better aligned with the global economy. However, protectionist tendencies run deep, and the Modi government has not delivered on promises of economic reform despite having a clear majority in the Parliament. Similarly, India’s defense sector is in desperate need of reform, but progress has been slow so far.

Diversifying Partnerships

As India aims to bridge its massive economic and military asymmetries with China, it will continue to follow a policy of external balancing by building “issue-based coalitions” with a number of partners. Stronger US-India ties are a prime example. In this crisis the US provided India with “rhetorical support, diplomatic cooperation, the use of military equipment acquired from the US and, reportedly, intelligence sharing.” While India is wary of becoming a pawn in US-China competition, aiming to forge closer ties with the US is part of a broader policy of diversifying its partnerships. It is important to note that over the last few years India’s relationships with Japan and Australia have strengthened tremendously—two partners who have also followed a policy of cautious engagement with China. As part of its broader Indo-Pacific policy, India has also increased security and economic engagement with Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia and other ASEAN countries. In this new constellation of partnerships while India-Russia ties might seem to have taken a backseat, they are still important as most of India’s major weapons platforms are Russian, and that is unlikely to change in the short term. As part of this logic, India’s approach towards Europe has also shifted, though India-France ties have been the biggest beneficiaries. It is important to note that the China question also figured prominently in the recent EU-India summit which took place in July 2020 and instituted dialogues on 5G, connectivity, maritime security, and on deepening the Europe-India trade relationship.

Lessons for Europe and Germany

The Galwan valley border crisis didn’t make headlines in Europe, partly because of the confusing topography and history of the LAC but also because the conflict is essentially seen as far away. However, this isn’t one isolated incident. Over the last few months, coinciding with the coronavirus crisis, China has engaged in military intimidation towards several countries in the South China Sea, Taiwan, and Japan. It introduced the national security legislation in Hong Kong. It has issued threats of economic retaliation in response to domestic debates in Australia and New Zealand. These moves are important to note as they give an indication of what kind of international actor a rising China wishes to be.

Europe is in the middle of a debate on its new China strategy. Under the German Presidency of the EU Council, Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has called for a unified European approach to China. A new approach and strategic assessment of China will not be complete and effective if it doesn’t take into account how China behaves outside of European borders and with Europe’s partners. Especially because, while Europe doesn’t face a territorial threat from China, on a number of questions of economic security and political interference the dilemmas faced by Europe are the same as many countries in the Indo-Pacific. India, Japan, and Australia are all reconsidering their dependence on China in strategic sectors, in many ways mirroring the debate in Europe.

Second, while the conflict might seem far away, Europe has a stake in the security of the Indo-Pacific. The EU is the largest trade and investment partner of many countries in the region including India. The dynamic economies of the Indo-Pacific will continue to be extremely important for export-focused countries like Germany. In the wake of coronavirus crisis as Europe looks to diversify supply chains, this region will be central. Hence keeping an eye on the security dynamics in the region, which could quickly disrupt supply chains and have an impact on European economies and security, is crucial. And finally, as Europe is diversifying its partnerships beyond China, and strengthening relations with India, Japan etc. it cannot forever stay on the sidelines of these conflicts and developments, refusing to take positions. Political agnosticism has its costs too.

In the past, border crisis between India and China have had two kinds of outcomes. They have either derailed the relationship significantly, as seen in the aftermath of the 1962 war. Or they have served as an opportunity to reset and revitalize the relationship. The latter looks increasingly unlikely especially since altering and questioning territorial status-quo seems locked into Chinese foreign policy choices—whether in the South China Sea or the Himalayas.

Given the geostrategic importance of this region, border tensions are not going to go away. Recent reports show the conflict is still very much active and de-escalation hasn’t taken place. This crisis also comes at a time when India is already struggling to grapple with another external shock—that of the coronavirus pandemic. In a speech last year, India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar noted that these disruptions in the past have led to a rethink and start of new phases in Indian foreign policy and that India has advanced its interests most “when it made hard-headed assessments of contemporary geopolitics.”

By all current assessments, unless Chinese behavior changes or there is a framework for de-escalation agreed upon, the path of engagement seems more constrained and India will focus on making issue-based coalitions and diversifying its partnerships to strengthen its internal and external position vis-à-vis China. These tensions will remain and external players like Europe will no longer be able to ignore these in their foreign policy calculus.