Cooperative Security, Arms Control and Disarmament By Herbert Wulf  |  21 March, 2023

Military Skirmishes in the Himalayas

Image: Omri Eliyahu/Shutterstock

In the shadow of two major geopolitical crises, the competition between China and the USA in the Pacific and the Ukraine war in Europe, a showdown between India and China is taking place in the Himalayas. The two most populous countries in the world have not been able to agree on a common border in the Himalayas for more than six decades. There are often dangerous military skirmishes, with the risk that the conflict will spiral out of control.

During the Jawaharlal Nehru and Mao Zedong years, the countries were friendly neighbours and allied. But a war in 1962 resulted in severe losses for India. This war was fought about territories more than 4000 m high that had hardly any economic relevance. Three border regions are still disputed today: in the western sector in Ladakh the area of the so-called Aksai Chin, in the eastern sector the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China refers to as South Tibet, and the relatively quiet middle sector with Sikkim.

Although India and China have negotiated a "Line of Actual Control (LAC)", the actual border remains fiercely disputed. It is not clearly demarcated throughout and neither of the two adversaries is prepared to cede even one square metre of the territory it claims. They don’t agree even about the length of the disputed border of almost 4000 km, let alone about the respective territories. Both sides are expanding their infrastructure and military presence along the border. The disputes are a colonial legacy, as Britain left the disputed territories as an "undefined border between China and India" when India gained independence in 1947. Since then, there have been dozens of border incidents, some with fatal consequences, the last major conflict that caused a stir in India's public was on 15 June 2020. Twenty Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers were killed. Several clashes and skirmishes have occurred since then.

Now the border conflict is also being driven by geopolitics. The two major geopolitical crises mentioned above play an important role in today's Chinese-Indian competition. India is pursuing a policy of equidistance in both crises. Critics in Europe and the US are pushing India for a clearer position, calling India's stance a seesaw policy. Sushant Singh, an Indian strategy expert and former Deputy Editor of the respected English-language daily Indian Express, calls India's policy toward China "cautious, confused and contradictory."

India, along with the US, Japan and Australia, is a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), which was formed in 2007 but has only been revived in recent years, especially by the US, as an instrument to contain China's influence in the Pacific. Unlike Australia and Japan, India is not a formal military ally of the US. For a long time, the US sided with Pakistan, but made a fundamental shift in foreign policy in 2005. The US recognised, if not formally, India's de facto status as a nuclear power. The US wants to draw India into its own camp and has approved far-reaching agreements on the sale and production of US weapons in India. The Narendra Modi government in New Delhi maintains good relations with the US but does not want to be harnessed to American interests. It is very cautious about America's China and Russia policy and is trying to walk a diplomatic tightrope.

At the same time, despite efforts to forge privileged relations with the US, India plays an active role in the BRICS grouping (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). This club, which pursues the common interest of its members, has set itself the goal of breaking Western dominance in international organisations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund through reforms. As after the occupation of Crimea in 2014, BRICS behaved ambivalently in the Ukraine war as well. It could not be expected that an organisation would condemn one of its member countries. The transition to a multipolar world, which BRICS demands and promotes, accommodates India's policy of independence.

In the Ukraine war, too, India keeps its distance and has not changed its policy because of diplomatic anxieties of the US and EU countries. It abstained from voting to condemn Russian aggression in the United Nations. One reason for India's reluctance is also due to India’s reliance on Russian and Soviet-made weaponry. Although the government diversified the sources of its weapons imports by buying more from the US and France, the Indian army is still dependent on further arms cooperation with Russia. This cooperation dates back to the 1960s after the war with China, and was intensified during the 1970s when the US sided with Pakistan in the conflict between Pakistan and India over Bangladesh's independence. In 1971, the USSR and India signed a 25-year “Treaty on Peace, Friendship and Cooperation”. Today's Indian policy of equidistance or the propagated multiple alliances are shaped by these historical experiences. It fits well into the concept of non-alignment, long pursued by India.

India's government does not want to be drawn into the systemic conflict between democracies and authoritarian regimes propagated by the Biden administration. As most other states of the Global South, India does not accept this framing.  India is often referred to as the largest democracy in the world and is therefore automatically a member of this community of democratic values. But the Modi government, with its domestic hard-line policy and emphasis on Hinduism and nationalism, has significantly restricted some civil liberties. The government is probably uncomfortable putting its own democratic record to the test.

Today's geopolitical situation results in a complicated situation for the Chinese-Indian relationship. On the one hand, the Indian government is interested in containing Chinese influence in Asia. On the other hand, however, it is trying not to provoke China under any circumstances. New Delhi, for example, has not commented on Chinese repression in Hong Kong, nor has it criticised China's opaque COVID-19 policy.

The government is also pushing for moderation in the showdown on the border. India is neither in a position to push back China militarily in the Himalayas, nor to persuade it diplomatically to reach an agreement. The two sides cannot even agree on what needs to be negotiated. Given the unsolved and protracted border conflict, continued border skirmishes in the Himalayas are likely in the near future too – despite the establishment of 16 working groups to settle the border conflict, and despite agreements on confidence-building measures in 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2013. Even after a few bilateral meetings between Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping, the atmosphere remains frosty.

Nevertheless, a dense web of economic relations has developed, which created certain dependencies of India. Despite this tight economic net, New Delhi claims it does not want to return to normalized relations until the border dispute is resolved. Beijing, on the other hand, says: This dispute should not burden the rest of our relationship. China's former ambassador to New Delhi, Sun Weidong, said in August 2022 that the border situation overall was stable. A month later, both sides de-escalated by agreeing on a limited troop withdrawal. But in December 2022, the next dispute arose over the Chinese occupation of a key height in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.

New Delhi believes China is exploiting global crises to advance territorial gains, as in 2020 during the pandemic in eastern Ladakh. In India, it is still remembered that China started the war in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the attention of the USA and the USSR was drawn to the showdown there. Shortly after the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis, China declared a ceasefire.

The Indian press sensationalizes every dispute in the border region and speaks of Chinese "incursion", “intrusion or "violation". The government does not approve of the aggressive Chinese policy but calls Chinese border activities "transgressions" to de-escalate the conflict and preferably does not want to use the armed forces. The Indian dilemma remains. Its militarily is inferior to China and hardly any progress has been made diplomatically for more than six decades.


Related articles:

India’s Stake in the Ukraine Conflict  (5-minute read)

Internal Drivers – The Nexus Between Domestic Politics and Bilateral Relations: Exploring India–Pakistan, Pakistan–China, and China–India Dynamics  (20-minute read)

Herbert Wulf is a Professor of International Relations and former Director of the Bonn International Center for Conflict Studies (BICC). He is presently a Senior Fellow at BICC, an Adjunct Senior Researcher at the Institute for Development and Peace, University of Duisburg/Essen, Germany, and a Research Affiliate at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago, New Zealand. He serves on the Scientific Councils of SIPRI and the Centre for Conflict Studies of the University of Marburg, Germany.