Making sense of what led to the crisis and how it will impact Sino-Indian relations.
On Thursday evening, the Chinese Army returned 10 Indian soldiers from its custody, including four officers, that were involved in Monday’s violent face-off in the disputed Galwan Valley.
The return of the soldiers came on the back of frenetic negotiations between the two sides, including three rounds of talks at the highest military levels from Tuesday to Thursday, The Indian Express reported.
The Indian Army stated that both sides had disengaged from the site of the clash.
However, both continue to retain a large number of troops in the Galwan area following the build-up along the border after the violent scuffle at Pangong Tso on May 5 and the standoff since.
According to Indian officials, the incident on June 15 took place in the area between the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and junction of Galwan and Shyok rivers to the west. Sources say that fighting was triggered by a row over two Chinese tents and observation towers that India claimed had been built on its side of the LAC.
India’s concern over China’s build-up along the LAC, following mutually-agreed de-escalation on June 6, was conveyed by Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar to his Chinese counterpart Wangi Yi in a phone call on Wednesday.
The deadly border clash in the mountains of Ladakh, which resulted in the killing of 20 Indian soldiers and an unconfirmed number of Chinese casualties, was an unprecedented escalation between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.
It had been 45 years since there were combat fatalities along the LAC, their disputed and poorly defined 3488-kilometre border. Prior to that, a violent showdown in Sikkim ended with the deaths of more than 80 Indian soldiers and 300 plus Chinese soldiers in 1967.
Both countries claim vast swaths of each other’s territory along the Himalayan border, with some disagreements rooted in demarcations by British colonial rule in India.
What caused the crisis?
Named after Ghulam Rassul Galwan, a 19th century Ladakhi adventurer who accompanied European explorers in the region, the status of the Galwan Valley has changed over the years and has now become a flashpoint between New Delhi and Beijing.
Galwan is a remote and inhospitable area, where some soldiers are deployed on steep ridges. It is considered strategic because it leads to the disputed Askai Chin Plateau, which is claimed by India but administered by China.
While India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has accused Beijing of trying to change the status quo in the area unilaterally, the Western Theatre Command of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) blamed India, claiming that the Galwan Valley is Chinese territory.
The claim of Chinese sovereignty over the Galwan Valley comes as a surprise to India, which considered the issue settled. Galwan was never listed as one of the 23 contested areas identified by the government over the course of multiple bilateral exchanges since India first accepted the LAC in 1993.
Multiple reasons have been put forward to explain the timing of the conflict.
Most frequently cited is that China objects to the Indian construction of border roads close to the LAC.
More specifically, the 255-km Darkbuk-Shyok-DBO (DSDBO) road, which runs parallel to the disputed border and is aimed at narrowing an existing infrastructure gap with China along the LAC. It also provides India with all-weather access to its airfield near the Karakoram Pass.
While the road has long been under construction, India recently started building feeder roads and bridges from DSDBO to areas further along the LAC.
Observers on both sides have suggested the Indian government’s decision in August 2019 to revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomous status could also be a factor.
The bifurcation of the disputed state converted Ladakh into a centrally governed union territory – one that included contested Chinese territorial claims – and provided an opening for Beijing to initiate a standoff in eastern Ladakh.
It’s likely that China remained unconvinced that the move was driven by domestic political priorities and not intended as a way for India to reassert its claim on Chinese-controlled Aksai Chin.
As analysts try to piece together the precise circumstances that led to the conflict, along with disputed claims from both sides, satellite imagery has begun to shed light on the days leading up to and after the border clash.
Images from Tuesday, a day after soldiers engaged in hand-to-hand combat in the freezing Galwan Valley, showed an increase in activity from a week earlier.
The satellite pictures, taken by Earth-imaging company Planet Labs and obtained by Reuters, show signs of the landscape of the valley being altered by widening tracks, moving earth and making river crossings.
It also indicates that China brought in pieces of machinery, cut a trail into a Himalayan mountainside, and even dammed a river.
Nathan Ruser, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, published the first detailed satellite analysis illustrating the approximate reality on the ground.
Ruser’s analysis refutes claims like the incursion of 10,000 Chinese soldiers that crossed the LAC and camped in Indian-controlled territory. He also concluded that evidence “strongly suggests [PLA] forces have been regularly crossing into Indian territory temporarily on routine patrol routes.”
Based on images and media reporting, Ruser suggests that the bulk of casualties were the result of soldiers falling during hand-to-hand combat along the steep terrain that marks the LAC.
Until May, images confirm that the PLA didn’t have any positions within the Galwan Valley.
“However, due to recently established Indian positions closer to the LAC, and the construction of a road to supply these positions, appears to have promoted the PLA to establish a number of significant positions and move up to 1,000 soldiers into the valley,” Ruser said.
He also pointed out that over the past month, Chinese forces have become an overwhelming majority in the disputed areas, with significant construction – around 500 structures, fortified trenches and a new boatshed – being forwarded in the LAC.
What comes next?
The current crisis is likely to impact the trajectory of broader India-China relations.
Notably, the confrontation takes place in the wider geopolitical context of India warming up to China’s rivals the US, Japan and Australia, which New Delhi views as a balance against China’s rise.
Some have observed that the LAC encounter coincides with a broader pattern of assertiveness by Beijing in the region.
Many believe this crisis will have a profound bearing on India’s Indo-Pacific strategy, deepen its relations with the US and foster greater cooperation with other allies to balance out its power asymmetries with China.
Domestically, the current crisis could harm Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image as a nationalist strongman, which has been cultivated in rhetoric and military action. This image had been bolstered during the 2017 standoff between India and China in Doklam.
Modi’s initial silence this time around received significant pushback. Statements from the Indian defence minister prior to the clash sought to underplay the severity of the crisis and emphasise disengagement. Political opposition has begun to question the government’s handling of the crisis.
If diplomatic channels are exhausted, then retaliation would come at the price of greater escalation, while restraint would appear weak.
It remains to be seen whether India’s relationship with China develops into a focus of domestic political discourse as with Pakistan. Public perception of China in India has already sharply deteriorated as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and is likely to worsen following the present crisis.
Calls for economic boycott have also grown louder. Amid tensions, Indian Railways yesterday scrapped project contracts awarded to multiple Chinese companies.
However, India’s trade imbalance with China, in addition to significant Chinese FDI, will prevent any straightforward economic decoupling from taking place.
For China, its next steps might not be as clear.
According to Yun Sun, a scholar at the Stimson Center, “South Asia is not China’s primary theater” and it is not in China’s interest to engage in a large-scale conflict with India.
The lack of reporting on the issue in the Chinese press indicates that Beijing is refraining from using the conflict to whip up nationalist sentiment.
However, Beijing is firm in pressing its claim to the Galwan Valley and appears likely to maintain a troop presence in the area. As prominent “Wolf Warrior” diplomat Zhao Lijian essentially declared, the PLA are there to stay and if India wants to avoid conflict it's up to New Delhi to restrain its forces.
What makes the Galwan episode different from other LAC standoffs between India and China is that it mirrors a similar situation at Kargil in 1999, when Pakistan took India by surprise by moving into the mountains surrounding the town in Kashmir.
Taken aback and fearing public backlash, the Indian government was forced to take action to expel Pakistani forces despite the risk of escalating war with another nuclear-armed neighbour.
Some have now framed the current crisis as an outright seizure by China of Indian territory rather than a neutral standoff.
Repeated confrontations along the LAC in the past few years have signaled to many Indian and international observers that China’s activities in the region are an example of “salami slicing”.
Reports in the last few days suggest that New Delhi has ordered the military to step up preparations on the frontier and at sea, where India’s navy could prepare to veto Chinese ships in the Indian Ocean or the Malacca Strait.
For the moment, it doesn’t appear that a reciprocal de-escalation will take place anytime soon.