Things along the Indian-Chinese border in the Himalayas have rarely lacked interest, notably along the secretive, heavily patrolled 3,488 km Line of Actual Control. Neither China nor India have ever quite sorted out their differences on that front, plagued by territorial claims over unclearly demarcated boundaries. The administration of Narendra Modi might well have wood global governments, but China's Xi Jinping has remained cool. Old habits die hard, and memories of India's disastrous defeat in 1962 against its populous neighbour remain vivid.
Early last month, soldiers from both armies engaged in a fistfight of sizeable proportion akin to a large kindergarten brawl. The encounter at 14,000 feet was followed by further confrontations at points along the border of approximately a thousand miles apart. These were not marked by gun fire but a generous use of hands, clubs and rocks. A muscular Chinese response ensued: the appearance of dump trucks, excavators, troop carriers and various armoured vehicles with artillery pieces, some of these, according to Indian analysts, positioned on Indian territory. Such encounters reminded Sunanda K. Datta Ray of Ian Fleming's Goldfinger – "Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time is enemy action."
The list of grievances between the countries is vast, a thick dossier of resentment. The traditional eye-sore remains India's north-eastern Arunachal Pradesh state, or "South Tibet", as Beijing prefers to term it. But to that can be added the novel coronavirus spread (blame on that front has been rich), inefficient responses due to insufficient safety equipment, the Silk Road project, trade competition, information technology and the PRC's growing influence in Africa and Asia.
The issue with personal protective equipment has been particularly testy. In April, a consignment of 170,000 PPE kits from China, including donations for the use of health care professionals dealing with COVID-19 sufferers, were tested by the Defence Research and Development Establishment in Gwalior. The results were not good; around 63,000 were found to fall short of the necessary quality deemed appropriate by the DRDE. None of this was good news given orders placed by Indian companies and government bodies for 15 million PPE kits from the PRC that month. As India's ambassador to China Vikram Misri described at the time, "We are in the process of, or have already completed, contracting for 15 million PPE kits, consisting of gowns, masks, gloves, goggles, etc. and nearly 1.5 million rapid testing kits of all kinds, some of which have already been delivered."
On Monday, the kindergarten brawling had moved beyond sticks and stones. In eastern Ladakh's Galwan Valley, the tension of 40 days between the troops of both countries exploded. Initial word came through on Tuesday from the Indian army that an officer and two soldiers had been killed. By the evening, figures were revised: 17 troops had been critically injured at the standoff location, succumbing to their wounds at sub-zero temperatures.
The diplomats were mobilised. India's External affairs ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava explained that the Monday encounter in Galwan Valley occurred when Chinese soldiers "departed from the consensus to respect the LAC (Line of Actual Control)" in an attempt to "unilaterally change the status quo". The ministry's assessment was short on detail in terms of how the PLA supposedly attempted this challenge, though suggestions have been made to the establishment of a Chinese observation post on the Indian side of the LAC that was whisked away by Indian soldiers.
The Chinese account was shaped by a different script. "The clash," the PRC Global Times stated gravely, "took place after Indian troops crossed the border to conduct illegal activities and launched provocative attacks against Chinese personnel, leading to top physical defence measures from Chinese troops that reportedly caused the deaths of one Indian Army colonel and two soldiers."
According to Senior Colonel Zhang Shuili, spokesperson for the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Western Theatre Command, "China has always maintained sovereignty over the Galwan Valley region, and the words of Indian border defence troops are inconsistent and seriously violate agreements both countries have reached, seriously infringe upon the consensus made in the army commander-level talks and seriously harm the relations of the two militaries and the sentiment of the people in both nations."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian was also pointing the finger at a serious challenge to the alleged "consensus reached in the two countries' commander-level talks on June 6", with Indian soldiers conducting unspecified "illegal activities" and assaulting Chinese personnel on two occasions. (The talks on this supposed consensus had been conducted at two locations along the LAC, with brigadier-ranked officers taking their cue in Galwan Valley and Colonel-ranked officers meeting in Hot Springs.)
The deaths mark the first fatal encounter between the two powers since October 1975, when an Indian patrol was ambushed in Arunachal Pradesh's Tulung La sector, leaving four dead. But both powers have a way to go before reaching the levels of bad blood brought out by the 73-day standoff in 2017 at Doklam, a territory both China and Bhutan claim. On June 18, 2017, 270 Indian troops ventured into Doklam from Sikkim with the express purpose of halting the PRC's extension of an existing road from Dokala southward to Zornpelri, site of the Bhutan Army camp near the Jampheri Ridge. The successful construction of the extension would have given the PLA room to approach the strategic corridor in West Bengal known colloquially as the Chicken's Neck. Tensions spiked; confusion reigned and, on August 28, the soldiers of both sides were withdrawn.
Despite the furious huffing from Beijing and New Delhi, the world's most populous countries are set for more brawls, contained by the slimmest understanding that a broader conflict would be calamitous to regional and global stability. From an Indian perspective, 1962 remains unavenged, though politicians such as Congress leader in the Lok Sabha, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, are clear in their warning and assessment: "China has clearly twisted the crisis into a strategic opportunity by taking advantage of the geopolitical distraction." Fine as it might be to preach the virtues of peace, but not "at the cost of our territorial integrity."