A deadly brawl between Indian and Chinese troops in a disputed area of the Himalayas has been another blow to Beijing’s international reputation and could have far-reaching global repercussions that will complicate President Xi Jinping‘s many strategic ambitions in the Indo-Pacific.
The bloody fracas at the Top of the World — which, according to Indian accounts, left 20 Indians and 12 Chinese dead — has been described in some reports as medieval barbarism. It took place in a remote, 4,300-metre-high valley surrounded by glaciers on part of the poorly defined de facto border that divides the two countries.
The battle, which Indian media portrayed as a “trap” and an “ambush,” provoked fury and humiliation in India. It will almost certainly push Delhi further away from its traditional non-alignment posture and deepen growing security, intelligence and trade ties with other democracies such as the U.S. and other western countries.
Aside from accusing India of “deliberate provocation,” China has been mostly silent about what actually transpired on the night of June 15 on the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
Though the troops on both sides were armed with rifles, the two nuclear powers used fists, stones and clubs to slug it out in the dark for five hours. Some of India’s dead were said to have fallen off cliffs into the Galwan River in sub-zero temperatures.
So far, the only details about the first major military engagement in 58 years between the two countries have come out of India. Citing official sources, journalists there reported that the battle began on the night of June 15 after China went back on its word to take down two tents that it had erected on Indian territory about one kilometre from the LAC. This led to an argument and an initial skirmish. When the Indians tried to dismantle the tents a couple of hours later, they were attacked by a Chinese force that Indians estimated was 10 times larger.
Aside from the great harm that has been done to Sino-Indian relations by the vicious clash in the Galwan Valley, this highly unusual military engagement begs the question: how many countries can Beijing offend simultaneously and to what diplomatic purpose?
Tokyo has been on alert this month because China sent a submarine to poke around inside its territorial waters for several days, following similar air incursions. The Chinese navy and coast guard have bullied much smaller Vietnamese, Filipino and Malaysian vessels to force them to leave waters in the South China Sea that an international tribunal has ruled do not belong to China.
There has also been a sharp uptick in Chinese navy and air force exercises around Taiwan and growing dissent in Hong Kong that Beijing intends to suppress with harsh new laws restricting freedom of speech and giving the mainland much more control over the territory’s judiciary.
Sweden, among other European countries, has a list of business disputes with China, many of which are related to security and human rights concerns. The U.K., France and Germany have also been distancing themselves from China.
Closer to home, China is threatening drastic economic sanctions against Australia, including a ban on sending students or tourists there, after Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanded an international investigation into whether Beijing misled the world about what it knew about the coronavirus and when.
Canadians are sadly familiar with China’s kidnapping of two Canadians in December 2018, which its ambassador to Ottawa has linked to the detention of the Huawei heiress, Meng Wanzhou, pending a British Columbia court decision whether to extradite her to the U.S. to face serious fraud charges. The dispute escalated last week when the Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, were charged with spying.
Delhi is already a member of the so-called Quad, the intelligence-sharing group that includes Australia, Japan and the U.S. Those ties were further strengthened last week when it was agreed during a virtual summit between Morrison and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that Australian warships and warplanes can refuel and receive other logistical support at India bases. The deal is similar to a military logistics pact signed between India and the U.S. in 2016.
With a wary eye on China’s growing relationship with India’s longtime enemy, Pakistan, and the influence that Beijing has bought by making huge infrastructure investments in neighbouring Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, India has been buying many billions of dollars of military gear from the U.S. The purchases include maritime spy planes, Apache attack helicopters and 11 massive C-17 military cargo aircraft.
That does not change the fact that China’s economy is five times larger than India’s and that it has been investing far more money in warships, fighter jets and other military kit than Delhi has. However, if India’s forces continue to become more closely aligned with those of western Europe, Australia, the U.S. and Japan, as well as half a dozen small Asian states rattled by China’s constant military bullying, and if trade between India and all those countries was to grow, the military and economic equations in the Indo-Pacific would change.
WATCH (Aug. 3, 2017): China, India embroiled in border dispute
(Canada is not mentioned here because it has put close relations with China ahead of those with India. Links with India worsened after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ill-fated costume drama during a visit there. Other factors that have made Canada a western outlier have been its lack of interest in joining the Quad and its ambivalence about growing trade or military ties with Delhi).
Though it did not provide its own explanation about what happened last week, China was not shy about denouncing India. The frequently jingoistic Communist Party-controlled Global Times said Monday that if Indian border forces launched a border war they “must be taught a good lesson.”
“Front-line Indian officers must keep in their minds that whoever fires the first shot will be wiped out by the PLA,” the paper said.
Whether more trouble is imminent in the thin air of the faraway Himalayas, because of what happened there, strategic calculations in the Indo-Pacific are undoubtedly being hastily re-examined and recalibrated.