India-China Standoff: What, Why and Why Now?

Tension has hit one of the worst points in decades between India and China, accusing each other of violating the Line of Actual Control(LAC).

In a deadly clash between the Indian and Chinese troops in Galwan Valley in Ladakh on Monday night, soldiers on both sides have lost their lives. 

Tensions between the two sides have been building over the last months, but this is the first incident with fatalities in more than four decades.

What is the Line of Actual Control?

India and China share one of the world’s longest unmarked border, called the Line of Actual Control(LAC). 

LAC is a 2,100-mile-long stretch that separates Indian-controlled territory from Chinese-controlled territory in the Indian union territory of Ladakh and Chinese Tibet Autonomous Region.

The Line of Actual Control was the result of a war between the two countries that never resolved and ended with an uneasy agreement in 1962.

It’s not that this is the first-ever escalation since then, but every time there is one, diplomatic dialogues were enough to resolve it.

Reason behind the ongoing standoff

Tensions have been ongoing between the countries for decades but were intensified in recent weeks after a fistfight took place in May.

The current standoff started due to a road that the Indian Army is building to assess a remote airbase. Military analysts say, even though the airbase is on the Indian side of the LAC, the Chinese side has been trying to frustrate these efforts by the Indian Army to try and upgrade, and build up its military capabilities in that area.

Satellite image of India and China troops at the Pangong Lake in Galwan Valley. Credit: Planet Labs / Reuters

Meanwhile, China has accused India of a provocation, says, an Indian troop first violated their promises and crossed the Line of Actual Control and deliberately provoked an attack.

There were no shots fired, but the troops fought with iron rods and stones, as the de facto code at the border is not to use any firearm. The altercation lasted for two hours.

It’s a very significant escalation because it marks the first loss of life since the border war in 1967. 

1967 was the last time that a face-off between India and China escalated into a bloody firefight along the LAC. The border flare-up that lasted for more than two months eventually left 88 Indian and more than 300 Chinese soldiers dead.

The recent clash came as a surprise because both sides had held several commander level meetings to try and resolve the issues. Both sides reached an agreement on June 6 to work towards the process of disengagement.

India, in its statements, has confirmed 20 soldiers have died, but China has not given any official confirmation. However, the editor of the state media “Global Times” cited casualties

The Global Times editor said the reason China is not disclosing the number of casualties is that they do not want a comparison of casualty count between the two countries.

Why is the India-China standoff happening now?

Analysts say Chinese President Xi Jinping believes that the pandemic is an opportunity in disguise for China to expand its influence. Jinping, in a recent talk with a university audience, said, “Great steps in history have always emerged from the crucible of major disasters.”

Recently China pushed for strict new national security law for Hong Kong under cover of the coronavirus. Critics say the Chinese government is moving to exert more control over Hong Kong and would target anybody protesting against China’s communist govt.

Not only Hong Kong, in the last two months, China has also targeted Vietnam. Chinese vessels have attacked several Vietnamese ships near the Paracel Islands, a Chinese-claimed archipelago in the South China Seas.

During the pandemic, China has intruded into Taiwan’s air defence zone in several instances. In the recent incursion on Tuesday, the Taiwanese air force gave the Chinese jets verbal warnings and drove them away.

Accusations on both sides

The Ministry of External Affairs has accused China of departing from their consensus to respect the Line of Actual Control(LAC) in Galwan Valley.

It said, “The violent face-off happened as a result of an attempt by the Chinese side to unilaterally change the status quo. India is very clear all its activities are always within the Indian side of the LAC.”

China’s foreign ministry though insists that there were incursions and have demanded that India does not stoke the situation any further.

Zhao-Lijian, spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry in his statement said, “The sovereignty of the Galwan valley area has always belonged to China. The Indian border troops flip-flopped and seriously violated our border protocols on border-related issues and the consensus of our commander level talks.”

India-China relationship after the current standoff

After the last border flare-up in 2017, Indian PM Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping met twice in 2018 and 2019 where the two leaders had agreed to maintain close contact on matters relating to India-China relations.

However, the latest incident is a massive setback following the significant progress that was made between the two leaders.

Indian Ministry of External Affairs has talked about the need to maintain peace and tranquillity and to work on the issues via dialogue. That suggests that India does want to move towards a peaceful resolution.

China, on the other hand, has not issued any official statement regarding the current issue.

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