The border spat could accelerate existing trends of geopolitical and economic divergence between Beijing and New Delhi, with far-reaching consequences for the region too.

In a major setback to recent measures to de-escalate rising tensions, on Monday evening a deadly brawl took place along the Himalayan border that separates India and China.

The result of the bloody hand-to-hand combat, which took place in the picturesque Galwan valley, ended with at least 20 Indian troops being killed. 

China confirmed casualties on its side as well, but the facts remain vague (China is usually reluctant to publicly report losses). 

India and China both have well-developed mythologies of national martyrdom in war, and the Indian soldiers who died are already filling that role

As indicated by the lack of media coverage, Beijing seems to be playing down the situation and keeping its options open.

The clash is the latest in a long-running contest over the precise location of their Himalayan border – a 3,500 kilometre-long disputed frontier known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC) – which is neither marked in real life nor delineated on any maps shared by the two countries.

Chinese and Indian patrols on the border customarily go unarmed to avoid escalation – but both sides turned to improvised weapons such as clubs, stones, and iron rods. Given that the fighting occurred in the mountains of Ladakh (literally, “the land of high passes”), there might have been fatalities due to the altitude, too.

Col. Zhang Shuli, a spokesman for the Chinese military, said there had been a “fierce physical conflict” and accused India of crossing the unofficial border between the two countries to “launch a provocative attack.”

Meanwhile, India blamed the fracas on China’s attempt to “change the status quo” in the area.

After his silence on Tuesday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally responded on Wednesday, indicating that India would not compromise on its “integrity and sovereignty”.

“The Indian government has focused on projecting India’s strength, so it will be difficult for India to back down. Perhaps China will unilaterally ‘withdraw’ but if not, it is certainly possible to see the situation escalating,” said Gareth Price, Senior Research Fellow at the Asia-Pacific Programme in Chatham House.

But an escalated crisis doesn’t have to mean full-blown war.

“It may be that, as has happened between India and Pakistan, both sides may produce their own narratives of ‘victory’ but the present disconnect with the positive statements from Beijing and Delhi and events on the ground is deeply concerning,” Price told TRT World.

While the flashpoint has thrown a fragile balancing act into question, the two sides find themselves at this precarious juncture after frayed bilateral relations over recent years have continued to intensify. 

More reverberations on the security front could soon follow. 

“Both countries are likely to invest more in security in their positions along the LAC,” said Rohan Mukherjee, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale-NUS College. “The LAC itself is likely to become the site of more chance encounters between Indian and Chinese patrols, and perhaps more frequent violent clashes as well.”

“At the same time, it is unlikely that the current clash will spiral into a larger conflict in Ladakh given the challenges of terrain and altitude,” he added.

Geopolitical (under)currents

While the two countries have long had their differences, a constellation of geopolitical gambits combined with the pandemic seems to have intensified nerves – and revealed longer-term ambitions.

Beijing has taken a series of actions in recent weeks to flex its economic, diplomatic and military muscle. It has seized new powers over Hong Kong, confronted Malaysian and Vietnamese vessels in the South China Sea, and twice sailed an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait.

With political uncertainty rising in China, a new aggressive form of “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy has emerged to counter criticism of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

For India, Chinese encirclement in the subcontinent has become a concern.

China backs Pakistan in its disputes with India and has enlisted it as an economic partner; it has growing stakes in Nepal and Sri Lanka; and it has made considerable infrastructure investments in Bangladesh.

India’s decision in 2019 to revoke the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, which carved out Ladakh into a separate federally-ruled territory, upset China. Beijing controls the northwestern part of Kashmir called Aksai Chin, an area which New Delhi claims to be part of Indian-controlled Ladakh.

As the latest round of tensions escalates, there is likely to be an economic impact.

In response to last month’s clashes, anti-China sentiment stirred calls to boycott Chinese goods. India’s Google Play Store had “Remove China Apps” topping its downloads before it was banned.

“India may decide to take steps to limit trade and FDI from China as a form of retaliation for the border intrusions, though the economic devastation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic will make it difficult for India to stray too far from low-cost Chinese manufacturing,” said Mukherjee.

New Delhi’s anxiety over Beijing’s growing political and economic footprint in recent years has seen it draw closer to Washington. 

In February, India signed a $3.5 billion arms deal with the US. It has also ramped up military ties with China’s rival Vietnam.

With the US’s increasing disengagement with the international order under the Trump presidency, India has become an important part of Washington’s offshore balancing strategy against Beijing.

Meanwhile, the US has become key to India’s grand strategy when it comes to economic development, regional security, and influence in global institutions.

Mukherjee noted that the robust US-India relationship will grow on the side of defense commerce: “The US and its allies have been supplying India with high-tech defense equipment for many years now, and India may increase these imports especially in the area of technologies that can help surveillance and reconnaissance along the LAC.”

Both Indian and American policy planners have long expressed alarm over China’s significant naval expansion in the Indian Ocean.

In one of its overtures to serve its broader strategic interests, India joined an emerging Indo-Pacific consultation framework – the “Quad’ – comprising the US, Australia and Japan. New Delhi views this alliance as a way to deepen its maritime alignments in the Indo-Pacific and accrue power multilaterally.

A prolonged boundary confrontation between India and China is likely to only accelerate these trends.

One of the immediate security concerns and military advantages that the border dispute brings into focus are critical resources, like water: 1.4 billion people depend on water drawn from Himalayan-fed rivers.

Added to that are a number of bilateral conflicts across the northern border with various competing parties: India and China, of course, but also Pakistan, Nepal, and Bhutan.

When considering this delicate bilateral question, along with China, and India’s hyper-nationalist government and jingoistic press, prospects for a long-term solution do not appear very promising.