How can India lead China

China and India are fighting in the Himalayas over a border that never existed

The tensions on the Sino-Indian line of demarcation are greater than they have been in a long time. 20 Indian soldiers are dead. Why are China and India fighting over an area made up of rocks, glaciers and salt lakes?

The course of the conflict in the Galwan Valley high up in the Himalayas is not entirely clear, but the Indian media describe it as follows: Indian troops cleared a tent camp that the Chinese had set up on the Indian side. The Indians later encountered a patrol of over 100 Chinese soldiers, whereupon a scuffle broke out. The soldiers apparently fought with stones and with sticks that were tipped with nails and barbed wire. The showdown is said to have taken place on an abyss over which many of the soldiers fell into an ice-cold river.

It is the first time since 1975 that soldiers have been killed in the disputed border region. At least 20 members of the Indian army died, and there are also said to have been victims on the Chinese side. Accordingly, the tensions between the two nuclear powers are greater than they have been for a long time. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised in a short televised address on Wednesday that the sacrifice made by Indian soldiers would not have been in vain. On the same day, the foreign ministers telephoned and accused the other side of having provoked the fatal clash.

The confrontation takes place at over 4000 meters above sea level, in the east of the Ladakh region. People never settled in the area in large numbers, once caravans of yaks trotted through a barren landscape of rocks, glaciers and salt lakes. Today military vehicles roll along strategically placed streets, Chinese and Indian soldiers set up outposts. They are trying to create facts on the "Line of Actual Control" (LAC), a demarcation line on the course of which the two countries never agreed.

Managed by China, claimed by India
Ruled by India, claimed by Pakistan
Unclear status between India and Pakistan
Ruled by Pakistan, claimed by India

China and India claim the area for themselves

There was never an official state border in the regions over which the two Asian giants quarrel. Instead, there were several lines that bear British names because they were drawn by the colonial rulers in the 19th and early 20th centuries: According to the Johnson Line from 1865, Aksai Chin, the region east of Ladakh, would be part of India. According to the Macartney-MacDonald line, which the British drew on paper in 1899, the vast majority of Aksai Chin would be Chinese. Both China and India claim the whole area for themselves.

In addition to this scene in the west, there are two other controversial sectors: a middle one in Sikkim, in the triangle between China, India and Bhutan, and an eastern one in Arunachal Pradesh. China claims the Indian state as "South Tibet" for itself. India, on the other hand, insists on the McMahon Line, a border laid down in an agreement between the British and Tibetan authorities in 1914. The line is still the de facto state border in the region.

The unresolved border issues became a conflict in the 1950s. India had gained independence in 1947, and the Chinese communists had won the civil war in 1949. The People's Republic claimed that the colonial borders were null and void. India held on to them.

In 1959, Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai wrote a letter. He proposed a "Line of Actual Control" to his Indian counterpart Jawaharlal Nehru. The border would run along the McMahon Line in the east, while Aksai Chin, the high plateau difficult to access from India, would be Chinese. Nehru refused.

Last dead in 1975

War broke out three years later. In October 1962, Chinese troops invaded the disputed area. They pushed back the poorly equipped Indian troops both in Ladakh and in the east, and after 32 days Zhou Enlai declared a ceasefire. For the Indians it was a humiliating defeat. The People's Republic had drawn a borderline by military means which it had been refused diplomatic channels.

The LAC was a fact no matter how displeased Indian Prime Minister Nehru was: “What is this line of control?” He wrote. "Is that the line you created through your aggression?" It was not until 1993 that India formally recognized the concept of the LAC, and to this day the two countries have not agreed on the exact course. Not even over the length: for India the LAC is almost 3500 kilometers long, for China around 2000 kilometers.

The last open fighting before the current one took place in 1967 at two passes in Sikkim: over 150 Indian soldiers and over 300 Chinese were killed in combat. In 1975 four Indians died on the eastern demarcation line, the last dead on the border for 45 years. There were always incidents. At the beginning of 1987, Indian soldiers and Chinese soldiers faced each other in the eastern part of the border, and foreign diplomats were expecting another war. But the troops only shouted at each other over the loudspeaker: The other should withdraw immediately.

In the nineties the situation eased noticeably, both states found themselves in an economic upswing and tried hard to let the border conflict rest. In 1993 the countries signed a border agreement, later they agreed not to shoot each other at the LAC.

Actually, since then, several protocols have stipulated how the patrols should behave if they met. For example, it is forbidden to pursue an opposing patrol. When two patrols meet, there is a kind of ritual: Both sides wave their flag and tell the other soldiers to leave the area.

In fact, there are always border violations. In 2017, the situation on the eastern border worsened because Chinese engineers and soldiers built a road on the Doklam plateau in the triangle between China, India and Bhutan. Indian troops drove them out, weeks of negotiations ensued, India wanted to withdraw, China let the infrastructure project rest. Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping wanted to meet regularly to defuse the border conflict.

Modi and Xi met twice, in 2o18 and 2019. And both sides continued to build their military infrastructure along the border.

660 border violations in 2019

According to the government-affiliated Indian think tank Observer Research Foundation (ORF), the Indian authorities registered 660 border violations by the People's Liberation Army in 2019, over 50 percent more than in 2018. It is not known how the border violations were counted. A study by the think tank says that only a fraction of the border violations by the People's Liberation Army even make it into the Indian media - unlike incidents on the Indian-Pakistani border, where a pigeon recently crossed the border made national headlines because the bird was in Suspected of flying on behalf of Pakistani spies.

The lack of media attention has to do with the inaccessibility of the site, but also with the government's secrecy. For weeks it was said that the current conflict was well on its way to a solution and that talks had taken place in early June. On Tuesday, the government reported three dead soldiers; hours later it was twenty.

Prime Minister Modi has been careful not to let the border conflict escalate for years. Modi otherwise likes to strike a nationalist note; when it comes to the LAC, he has so far remained noticeably calm. Several politicians from the state of Arunachal Pradesh have reported Chinese border violations since 2018; they have received no support from Delhi. The Indian government has no interest in annoying China unnecessarily, India is dependent on Chinese imports. But last year, Modi declared Ladakh a union territory; the area had previously been part of the province of Jammu and Kashmir and was largely autonomous under the constitution. This move by Modi could have been understood as a threatening gesture in Beijing.

After the escalation at the beginning of the week, the Indian Prime Minister is in an uncomfortable situation. A hesitation about China could be interpreted as a weakness. China has long been undermining India's claim to leadership in the region: The Chinese are supporting India's archenemy Pakistan in the construction of a dam in Kashmir on an area claimed by India. The dam is part of China's Belt and Road Initiative, and Pakistan is an important partner. China is also gaining influence in Nepal.

According to the latest developments, analysts speak of a turning point in the border conflict. India wanted to freeze him as much as possible. This tactic failed. China, on the other hand, could move its line of demarcation bit by bit towards India.