India and China are once again involved in a military incident over disputed borders.
Since the 1962 Sino-Indian border war, Indian and Chinese troops have been patrolling the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which has become the theatre of occasional tensions and border skirmishes between the two sides in the past five decades. Although soldiers are under strict orders not to use force against each other, the close presence of adversarial military personnel in disputed sectors of the border often results in one or both sides reacting to what they perceive as an “intrusion” of the adversary into their own territory.
The current Sino-Indian standoff originated when, on May 5, several Chinese and Indian military personnel scuffled at Pangong Tso lake, in a disputed area in the western sector of the unmarked Sino-Indian boundary. The lake lies at a critical juncture on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between theIndian-administered area of Ladakhand the Chinese-administered territory of Aksai Chin (see Figure 1 below). Although in early June senior commanders on both sides reached an agreement to de-escalate tensions, on June 15 Chinese and Indian troops clashed in the Galwan River Valley, where 20 Indian soldiers and an unspecified number of Chinese troops were killed. Although no firearms were used, this is arguably the first deadly military incident between the two countries since 1975.
Episodes like this one can be extremely dangerous in adversarial relationships characterised by low levels of mutual trust, where each side tends to assume the worst about the other’s intentions. The risk that current military tensions might escalate into a second minor Sino-Indian border conflict is therefore high. So far, however, Indian and Chinese leaders have proved to be able to transform their occasional bilateral crises into great opportunities to take small, incremental steps towards a final settlement of the border dispute.
Take, for example, the 1986 Sino-Indian border incident, in which Chinese and Indian troops found themselves face-to-face on the banks of the Sumdorong Chu river on the eastern part of the disputed boundary. In a standoff that lasted almost two years, neither side withdrew troops from the area and the soldiers remained ready for a second border conflict. However, the then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi took the crisis as an opportunity to normalise relations with China after decades of hostilities. In a historic visit with China’s top leaders Li Peng and Deng Xiaoping in December 1988, he pushed for the creation of a Sino-Indian Joint Working Group (JWG). Since then, the two sides have held annual high-level talks with the aim of finding a political settlement of the boundary dispute, paving the way for two further breakthrough bilateral agreements: the 1993 “Agreement on Maintainance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control” (LAC) and the 1996 “Agreement on Confidence Building Measures in the Military field along the Line of Actual Control.”
Similarly, in the late 1990s, Chinese and Indian decision-makers successfully managed to overcome atemporary setback in bilateral relations after Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee named China as India’s main threat in justifying India’s Pokhran-II nuclear tests. The Indian and Chinese Foreign Ministers, Jaswant Singh and Tang Jiaxuan, engaged in extensive face-to-face talks that culminated in the initiation of a bilateral security dialogue and in the first maps exchange exercise to demarcate the LAC. Soon afterwards, Vajpayee himself visited China. During this visit, he formally accepted Chinese claims over Tibet – while his Chinese counterparts recognised India’s sovereignty over Sikkim – and set up the “Special Representatives” mechanism to speed up border talks.
In both cases, the crises were defused because the two sides demonstrated a political will not to escalate tensions and engaged in high-level talks with the purpose of restarting dialogue. During these talks, Indian and Chinese leaders used the occasions to transform the bilateral crisis into an opportunity to devise mechanisms to speed up the process of negotiating a solution to the ongoing border dispute. Will Narendra Modi, Xi Jinping, and their governments be able to do the same?
Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, said on June 17 that India and China are ‘in close communication on resolving the border issue through diplomatic and military channels’. On June 23, it was reported that during cordial talks between corps commanders the day after the two countries reached a mutual consensus to disengage. Meanwhile, Wang Yi and his Indian counterpart, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, demonstrated their commitment to a peaceful resolution of the dispute by attending a virtual trilateral meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Such an ongoing political and military dialogue might prepare the ground for India and China to further discuss the state of negotiations over their disputed boundary and, once again, transform the crisis into an opportunity to speed up border talks.