For the first time since 1975, the long-running Sino–Indian border dispute has turned deadly, claiming the lives of at least 20 troops. For decades, the two sides have avoided active military hostility, despite occasional brinkmanship. While China and India appeared to be pulling back in recent weeks, the deaths could reignite the border stand-off that started in early May.
“During the de-escalation process underway in the Galwan Valley, a violent face-off took place yesterday with casualties on both sides,” the Indian Army said in a statement Tuesday. An Indian officer and two soldiers died in the clash, and another 17 Indian troops later succumbed to their injuries due to the sub-zero temperatures of the Himalayan border region.
The editor of the Global Times, a Chinese state-run newspaper, said that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had also suffered casualties, but did not specify whether any of its troops had died. “I want to tell the Indian side, don’t be arrogant and misread China’s restraint as being weak,” Hu Xijin said in a tweet. “China doesn’t want to have a clash with India, but we don’t fear it.”
On June 6, the two sides agreed to a de-escalation plan in commander-level talks. The agreement reportedly included a roadmap to disengagement from three of the four stand-off points in the disputed border zone, according to Dhruva Jaishankar, the director of the Observer Research Foundation’s U.S. Initiative. In the ensuing days, officials in the border region conducted further dialogue to facilitate de-escalation.
Now, each side is accusing the other of having violated the agreement.
On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian accused Indian border patrols of crossing into Chinese territory and “provoking and attacking Chinese personnel.” The Indian government responded that the face-off “happened as a result of an attempt by the Chinese side to unilaterally change the status quo” in the Galwan River Valley. While the situation on the ground is unclear, the failure of bilateral diplomacy raises the specter of a protracted confrontation.
The proximate cause of the renewed hostilities is the construction of a road in the Galwan River Valley by the Indian Border Roads Organization in May. The road extends up to the “Line of Actual Control,” which loosely demarcates the disputed border, and gives Indian border patrols access to the Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) airstrip, a strategically vital supply point. China, which has long maintained military superiority in the remote Himalayan region, sees India’s successful infrastructure program as a territorial threat — especially given the Galwan River Valley’s proximity to a highway between the Chinese regions of Xinjiang and Tibet.
On May 5, Chinese and Indian troops engaged in fisticuffs and stone-throwing on the banks of Pangong Lake, and on May 12 a similar clash broke out in the Naku La region near Tibet. In the subsequent days, the PLA mobilized at least 5,000 troops to the region. According to Ajai Shukla, a former Indian colonel, the PLA also deployed artillery guns in six locations in Ladakh.
The mobilization of artillery violates protocols that effectively demilitarized the border in 1993. Two subsequent agreements that solidified those protocols have helped limit casualties in the long-simmering conflict. While the last death in the region occurred in 1975, confrontations have periodically flared up since Xi Jinping rose to power in China eight years ago. Most recently, in 2017, China’s construction of a road through Doklam, near Bhutan, set off two months of brinkmanship, ending with a Chinese retreat and heightened caution on both sides. Before that, the Chinese twice encroached on Indian territory in Ladakh, in 2013 and 2014.
Monday night’s fatalities mark a turning point in the conflict, calling into question the ability of military protocols to prevent hostilities. While the skirmish did not include the use of weapons, the recent military buildup has positioned both sides to escalate the situation rapidly. Jaishankar says that Chinese and Indian leaders frequently point out that they have “found a way to be responsible and make this a peaceful, if unsettled, border.” But that uneasy status quo may no longer be sustainable.