While the world awaits the next steps in the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, there is another border dispute that is not as widely discussed. India and China share a 2167-mile border, which the two countries have disputed for over 80 years. The two countries went to war over this border in 1962, ending with a standoff that continues to today. Although a tense standoff, both countries claim to be committed to avoiding another war. This dispute is increasingly important given that both countries are emerging superpowers with modern militaries and nuclear weapons. Further, the two countries account for 35 percent of the global population and 21 percent of the global GDP.
The border itself is divided into three sections and constitutes one of the longest contested borders in the world. The first section stretches east of Bhutan, where the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh is claimed by the Chinese to be part of southern Tibet. The second section is a narrow 50-mile stretch of land that spans between Nepal and Bhutan. This border region is small but strategically important to India in that it connects India’s far eastern states with the bulk of the country. Parts of this region is claimed by Bhutan in addition to China and India. The third section runs north of Tibet and borders the Indian territory of Ladakh and the Chinese region of Aksai Chin.
China and India dispute the location of each of these borders. The border region is especially mountainous, resulting in poorly defined boundaries, so accidental incursions are common. Furthermore, similar to other borders drawn during the colonial period, the Sino-Indian border had little consent from the two countries, especially China. China claims to share historical and cultural ties to the people on the Indian side of the border. Also, the Ladakh region is the base for the Tibetan-independent movement and potentially provides China a more direct pathway to Pakistan.
India and China engaged in a short war over this border in 1962. This war was precipitated by the 1959 Tibetan uprising, which subsequently resulted in a series of violent border skirmishes between the two countries. India established a number of outposts along the border; meanwhile, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) were commencing patrols into Ladakh. War broke out in October 1962, with the PLA pushing Indian forces back. Following international pressure to end the war, the countries established a ceasefire in November, and China withdrew to the “Line of Actual Control” which now forms the current border. The casualties from the war were unclear, with both sides understating their own losses while inflating the other side’s losses.
The border region was relatively quiet until 2017 due to a series of agreements between India and China that maintained the peace. However, in recent years there has been an increase in cross-border violence and disputes, with both sides fortifying their sides of the border. In 2017, the PLA extended a road into the Doklam region by Bhutan. India responded by sending troops into the region to halt the construction, but by August of that year, both sides had withdrawn their forces.
In May 2020, Indian and Chinese troops engaged in a series of skirmishes along the border, spurred on by an Indian road construction project in the Ladakh region. While most of these skirmishes merely amounted to face-offs and taunts, a large melee fight broke out in mid-June, resulting in the death of 20 Indian soldiers and an unspecified number of Chinese soldiers. The fight only involved hand-to-hand combat and did not include the firing of weapons. However, a few months later, both sides began exchanging sporadic gunfire across the border.
In the subsequent year, both sides continued to build infrastructure along the border, supporting their claim to each territory. India sent 12,000 workers to develop Indian roads and infrastructure along the border, including a road infrastructure project in Ladakh. Meanwhile, China has been building villages along the eastern portion of the border, some of which are in Indian-claimed and Bhutan-claimed territories. Both sides continually claim that the opposite countries are amassing troops along the border and building defensive positions to fortify their claims to the regions. The issue is further complicated by the accusations and bold statements being pushed out by government officials and state-aligned media outlets from both countries.
Despite these developments, there should be little concern for a war between India and China. Quite simply, neither side would have a substantial benefit from a war. Fighting in the Himalayas is challenging and would rely heavily on dismounted operations. The terrain and weather would make logistics difficult, while also destroying soldier morale. Moreover, neither side has a definitive advantage in technology that could provide them an edge in a war. It would be a gruesome battle of attrition, which both sides would naturally want to avoid.
Although the overall outcome of this dispute is uncertain, it will likely continue for some time. Both sides appear to be using this border dispute to create a sense of nationalism and restore faith in the federal government, following poor responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Media agencies in both countries are pushing out questionable reports about the actions of the opposite country and glorifying their own responses. China has elevated Qi Fabao, a PLA commander injured at the melee with Indian forces in 2020, to being a national icon, including carrying the Olympic torch. Meanwhile, the Indian film industry has launched several television shows and movies centered around the 1962 Sino-Indian war.
Furthermore, both countries are vying for dominance in the region and do not want to appear weak. The border dispute provides both countries the opportunity to flaunt their military and economic strengths. This is critical for both countries given India’s relationship with Pakistan and China’s relationship with the West. Chinese media has reported numerous cutting-edge technologies being fielded to the region, including exoskeletons and armed robots. While both technologies provide little tactical value for this situation, the dispute provided an outlet for advertising these technologies. Meanwhile, India is showing that it will not be pushed by China, responding to the border dispute by deploying troops into the region. They have also responded politically by sanctioning numerous Chinese apps and skipping the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics held in Beijing.
The border dispute between India and China is one that is very important, given the role that both countries play in the region and globally. The combination of mistrust, a desire to exude dominance, and an ambiguous border has the potential to eventually lead to a war. However, in the meantime, India and China will likely maintain the standoff with little resolution.