On the night of June 14-15, 2020, the Indian Army and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) engaged in deadly hand-to-hand combat in the Galwan Valley in Ladakh in the western sector of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto border between India and China. Soldiers attacked each other with iron rods and clubs, resulting in the death of 20 Indian soldiers and at least four Chinese troops.
The face-off was a turning point in Sino-Indian relations. It was the first time in 45 years that a clash along the LAC culminated in fatalities. China-India relations, which had been improving since the 1962 border war, were severely ruptured.
The Galwan clashes came amid growing scuffles between Indian and Chinese soldiers at the LAC in the preceding months. On the night of May 5-6, 2020, Indian and Chinese soldiers clashed at Pangong Tso in Ladakh. Another skirmish followed four days later at Naku La in Sikkim in the eastern sector of the border.
The scuffles emerged amid China’s attempts to unilaterally alter the status quo along the LAC. Beginning in early April 2020, the PLA had been massing tens of thousands of soldiers along the LAC in Ladakh. Backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers, these soldiers then crossed into Indian-controlled territory at several points, including Galwan Valley. In early June, amid rising tensions, military commanders of the two sides agreed to pull back to create a buffer zone at Galwan Valley.
Late on June 14, when Indian soldiers went to check if the PLA had indeed withdrawn, they came under attack from Chinese soldiers. The bloodletting that night has cast a long shadow on bilateral relations.
Three years after that night of savage violence, relations remain strained, not only because the main issue underlying the attacks that night – i.e., Chinese intrusions since April 2020 into territory under Indian control – is yet to be resolved but also because the fallout of mutual suspicion is creating new cycles of tension.
For instance, the two governments have been engaging in a tit-for-tat war over journalists. On Monday, the Chinese government ordered the last Indian journalist stationed in Beijing to leave China by the end of the month. In April, two Indian journalists were barred from returning to China as their visas were “frozen.” The visa of another journalist was not extended, and he left on Sunday. With the exit of the fourth journalist at the end of this month, India will be without media representation in Beijing.
China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin said that Beijing’s decision to bar Indian journalists from reporting from Beijing was “appropriate action” against India’s “unfair and discriminatory” treatment of Chinese journalists. New Delhi had not approved new visas for Chinese correspondents in India since 2020, Wang said, pointing out that it had resulted in the number of Chinese journalists reporting from India dropping from 14 to just one.
The media row is a symptom of the sharp deterioration in relations between Beijing and New Delhi since the bloody face-off at Galwan Valley three years ago.
Efforts are on to defuse the crisis along the LAC. Diplomatic, political, and military talks have been going on over the past three years. These talks have been partially productive. Troops have disengaged from the Galwan Valley, the north and south banks of Pangong Tso, and the Gogra Post-Hot Springs area.
However, disengagement from the strategic Depsang Plains and Demchok is yet to happen. Worryingly for India, China is unwilling to even discuss these two areas, claiming that these are “legacy issues” – meaning they predate April 2020 and therefore do not come under the ambit of the current talks.
How the two sides are projecting the situation at the LAC differs. Beijing has been pushing the narrative that the situation at the LAC is normalizing. “The China-India border issue is now gradually shifting from a conflict and a standoff to a normalized management phase, and the situation on the border is expected to become steadier and calmer in the future,” Qian Feng, director of the research department at the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University, was quoted by Global Times as saying. Speaking on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization defense ministers’ meeting in New Delhi in March, China’s Defense Minister Li Shangfu described the situation as “generally stable.”
This is not how India views the situation.
India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has been describing the situation at the border as “very fragile” and “quite dangerous.”
Indeed, the PLA has continued to ingress into Indian-controlled territory, resulting in violent scuffles and injuries to soldiers. On December 9 of last year, for instance, the two sides clashed near Tawang in the eastern sector of the LAC, following a “planned attempt” by Chinese soldiers to take control of a 17,000-ft peak in the area.
The situation in Ladakh is particularly unstable. Despite the two sides disengaging their troops from some “friction points” along the LAC here, mutual suspicions continue to run deep. Not only are the two armies not reducing their troop presence at the LAC – each side maintains some 60,000 troops in Ladakh, even during the bone-chilling winter months – but also, they are building up their deployment of heavy weaponry and equipment. Additionally, they are improving over land and air connectivity infrastructure not just in Ladakh but along the entire LAC.
It is apparent that neither side is lowering its vigil.
How the two sides view the way forward is different too. China wants India to set aside the border issue and focus on building the broader relationship. “The two sides should take a long-term view, place the border issue in an appropriate position in bilateral relations, and promote the transition of the border situation to normalized management,” Li said.
For India, however, “peace and tranquillity in the border areas is a sine qua non” for the normalization of bilateral relations.
India is calling for the restoration of the status quo of April 2020 at Ladakh, a demand that China has refused to concede.
The disengagement from “friction points” that has taken place so far has not resulted in Chinese troops moving out of areas occupied since April 2020. Rather, the two sides set up buffer zones in the areas of disengagement. India has lost more territory than China to the buffer zones.
China’s declaration that the situation in the border areas is normalizing is aimed at concretizing its unilateral alteration of the LAC since April 2020.
Indian analysts have been drawing attention to India’s rather pusillanimous response to China’s land grab along the LAC. “India’s inability to move beyond rhetoric and diplomacy” in dealing with China could embolden the latter “to initiate a fresh land grab along the LAC,” Jabin T. .Jacob, associate professor and director of the Centre for Himalayan Studies at the New Delhi-based Shiv Nadar Institution of Eminence, wrote in Deccan Herald.
Three years after the brutal assault on Indian soldiers at Galwan Valley, the possibility of another face-off cannot be ruled out.