Weeks of tension at several points along the Sino-Indian border broke into deadly clashes this week in Eastern Ladakh’s Galwan Valley area. Alongside an unknown number of Chinese casualties, at least 20 Indian troops were killed in a major brawl between the two sides. Although details of the incident, which took place on Monday night, remain closely guarded, the deaths mark the first along this border in at least 45 years. The intensity of the violence is the most serious going back to at least 1967.
The violent clash, which early Indian reports suggested did not involve the use of any firearms, took place just days after reports in the Indian media suggested that the two sides had come to an agreement on a partial disengagement and had moved their armed forces back at several points along the border. According to the Indian Army, the clash took place during what was described as a “de-escalation process” in the Galwan Valley area.
“During de-escalation process underway in Galwan Valley, a violent face-off took place yesterday night with casualties,” the Indian Army noted in an initial statement. “The loss of lives on the Indian side includes an officer and two soldiers. Senior military officials of the two sides are currently meeting,” the statement continued. The statement was later amended to note casualties on “both sides.”
Hours later, a second Indian Army statement revised the death toll on the Indian side up to 20, citing environmental factors. The second statement, released Tuesday night, noted that 17 Indian personnel that had been injured in the initial clash and had been “exposed to sub-zero temperatures in the high altitude terrain” and “have succumbed to their injuries.” It’s unclear if the death toll on the Indian side may still grow.
Supplementing the Indian Army’s statement, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs also put out a statement on Tuesday commenting on the sources of the clash. The statement, while confirming ongoing talks between the two sides to de-escalate the standoff that has been ongoing since early May in the area, suggested that the violent clash was a result of “an attempt by the Chinese side to unilaterally change the status quo.” The statement said that India support the “resolution of differences through dialogue.”
On the Chinese side, the most detailed official reaction comes from the Western Theater Command of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The Chinese statement accused India “of going back on its word” and “violating commitments.” The commitments were the ones made earlier this month at high-level military talks at the corps commanders’ level. Zhang Shuili, a spokesperson for the PLA’s Western Theater Command added that the Indian Army “violated its commitment and crossed the Line of Actual Control (LAC) again, illegally and deliberately launched provocative attacks, triggered fierce physical confrontation between the two sides, resulting in casualties.”
Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that China had taken action and “lodged strong protest and representation with the Indian side.” The Indian Ambassador to China also met with China’s vice foreign minister, Luo Zhaohui, on Tuesday. None of the Chinese statements officially confirmed whether China had taken any casualties. India reports, citing anonymous official sources, noted that the PLA had taken casualties in the clashes.
The site of the latest melee is Galwan Valley — a flashpoint from the 1962 India-China war that has reemerged as a point of contention between the two sides starting in May this year. Located in Eastern Ladakh, along the Line of Actual Control that separates the Indian and Chinese-held sectors, Galwan Valley, like most of the terrain along the LAC in this sector, is at a high altitude and inhospitable.
The Long View
Reported fatalities as of this writing make clear that this is the most serious incident along the Sino-Indian border since 1967, when the two sides last had a major skirmish resulting in scores of deaths. It remains unclear if any firearms were discharged; normally, patrolling units along this border do not use firearms, resulting in fistfights with the occasional rock thrown. The last time firearms were used along the border was in October 1975, during a little-remembered incident along the Sino-Indian border in the Sikkim sector.
Suffice to say, the ongoing summer 2020 standoffs have blown far past the 2017 Doklam standoff in terms of their severity. By any measure, this week’s violent clashes stand as a “watershed” in India-China ties, as M. Taylor Fravel, an expert on China’s borders, put it. As the 2017 Doklam standoff demonstrated, the mechanisms that have existed between India and China for more than two decades, going back to at least the 1993 Agreement on Peace and Tranquility Along the Line of Control, are fraying.
New Delhi humored Beijing’s interest in reconciliation and “resetting” bilateral ties after the 73-day Doklam standoff. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Chinese President Xi Jinping for two seemingly congenial and frank summits. But the latest border clashes have raised the profile of the Sino-Indian border—the major outstanding dispute between the two countries — to the top of the agenda. Monday’s clashes may mark a 21st century tipping point, in a way: one that will require both sides to revisit the existing agreements between them and lead to the emergence of a new understanding.
In the coming hours and days, it’s likely that more details will emerge about the severity of Monday’s clashes, with possible upward revisions to the Indian death toll and more clarity on Chinese casualties as well. In the meantime, one of the primary effects of Monday’s clash will be that the domestic discourse within India on the border situation will likely transform. The Indian political leadership spent weeks messaging restraint and underemphasizing the severity of the ongoing standoffs, despite multiple reports in the Indian press suggesting serious Chinese incursions onto territory that New Delhi claimed. That will likely no longer be possible.
India’s Modi government may also find itself with few credible — or desirable — options to retaliate against China. Despite having established a reputation for resolve vis-a-vis its other major rival, Pakistan, where the Indian government authorized a prominent cross-border strike in 2016 and airstrikes last year, the potential for costly inadvertent escalation is much greater with China.
The small silver lining this week is that the immediate instinct for both India and China, despite this once-in-a-half-century violent paroxysm along the border, was to resume dialogue through military channels. That doesn’t suggest that the broader strategic questions that led to this dispute, including moves by the PLA to grab what could be as much as 60 square kilometers of previously Indian-held territory, will be resolved. But what it does suggest is that neither side is looking for an excuse to repeat these clashes.
As one Indian report notes, despite having artillery and firearms available on the Chinese side of the LAC, the PLA troops involved in the altercation brought “iron rods and stones.” The Indian side, too, is armed and equipped to escalate. The risks of this crisis continuing to spiral are real, as a result.