India-China Border Dispute: De-escalation will Depend on Geopolitical Dynamics

SACM Assessment
July 20, 2020

While the entire world has been reeling under the COIVD-19 crisis since the beginning of this year, South Asia has witnessed a spike in border disputes, besides facing the rapid spread of the pandemic itself. Although many of these disputes existed before the COVID period, the Chinese claims of territories in India and Bhutan and Nepal’s claim of three disputed territories which India has traditionally claimed to be it's own has brought a new dimension to the security discourse in the sub-continent. In an incident that claimed heavy casualties in the Indian side, around 20 Indian Army personnel were killed in a surprise attack by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) personnel while crossing the Line of Actual Control (LAC) into Indian side on June 15 in the Galwan Valley.

History of dispute

China-India border dispute is one of the oldest border disputes in the Himalayan region dating back to the 1950s when China occupied Tibet, which was long considered a geographical and cultural buffer between India and China. This sudden geopolitical change in the Himalayan region dragged India into a border dispute with China, which was not a signatory to the McMahon Line as per the 1914 Simla Convention between British India and Tibet.  While the Republic India inherited British India land and accepted the McMahon Line as the legal border, the same was rejected by China stating that Tibet was never independent. This has resulted in frequent crossing and transgression of the LAC by the PLA into the Indian side. The other factor that weighs heavily on the Chinese aggression time and again towards India has been the presence of Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile in India. Off late, the growing cooperation between India-USA and construction of border infrastructure by India are the primary concerns of China.

Complete disengagement

The May 2020 transgression by the PLA in the Ladakh region came as a surprise to India because the PLA violated the existing bilaterally agreed border patrolling protocols.  The PLA prevented border infrastructure projects in Ladakh sector of the border by crossing the LAC. The PLA also wanted to change the status quo in the region unilaterally. The situation in the area deteriorated after around 250 Chinese and Indian soldiers engaged in a violent face-off on May 5 and 6. A similar incident followed the incident in Pangong Tso, this time in North Sikkim on May 9. Both the sides agreed to deescalate the tension after holding talks at the Major General level as per the existing bilateral mechanisms the first Major General level talks happened on June 6, and both sides agreed to disengage from their actual positions.

Despite that, the Chinese did not implement the June 6 decision and continued its troop presence in the Galwan Valley, which was a strategically vital point to neutralise Indian dominance in that region. In a surprise attack by the PLA, 20 Indian Army personnel, including a colonel, were killed in the Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh on the night of June 15. However, China has been silent on the casualties suffered by the PLA in that incident.  

Following the standoff in eastern Ladakh, official sources have claimed that the two sides have deployed additional troops along the LAC, the de-facto Sino-India border, in North Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh in the last few days. After the standoff in early June, the Indian military leadership decided that Indian troops will adopt a firm approach in dealing with the aggressive posturing by the Chinese forces in all the disputed areas of Pangong Tso, Galwan Valley, Demchok and Daulat Beg Oldie.

Despite four rounds of Major General rank officers’ level talks since June 6 and one round of telephonic conversation at the NSA (National Security Advisor) level in July, the tension at the border continues. The Indian side has been asking for the restoration of status quo ante and immediate withdrawal of thousands of those Chinese troops from the areas that India considers presently on its side of the LAC. In the last meeting on June 30, both sides reportedly agreed to mutually move back their troops in flashpoints by up to 2 km in the Ladakh sector to bring down chances of a confrontation. However, the Chinese Army has been gradually ramping up its strategic reserves in its rear bases near the LAC by rushing in artillery guns, infantry combat vehicles and heavy military equipment (India Today, June 17, 2020). In Pangong Tso, the Chinese are still holding the ridges in finger 4. Also, the Chinese troop is yet to vacate areas between Finger 5 and Finger 8, which India claims is its territory (Deccan Chronicle, July 17, 2020). 

New Delhi appears concerned that the second phase of disengagement between India and China is going to be tough and will need more negotiations. In this regard, the China Study Group (CSG) headed by NSA Ajit Doval met on July 15 to review the emerging situation in Ladakh and how to proceed ahead with China. The CSG, which is the apex policy advisor to the government on China, discussed the outcome of the 4th Corps Commanders meeting between India and China. The meeting was followed by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s visit to the forward areas in LAC and LoC in the Ladakh region on July 17.  Earlier, on July 3, PM Modi visited Ladakh to review the ground situation.


Other than the military aggressions, China has also used India’s smaller neighbours to put pressure on India not to alter the status quo in the Ladakh region. The Global Times on June 18 said, “India could face military pressure from China, Pakistan or even Nepal if tension along the border [India-China] continues to escalate”. Moreover, the Chinese tactics to build pressure against those countries with which it has territorial disputes is quite well known. It tries to put pressure on Indian leaders during negotiations while being fully aware that the elected government would come under pressure at home from media on the border issues.

While India wants China to completely disengage from Pangong Tso and Depsang plains besides reducing its troop’s strength from LAC where China has amassed tanks, artilleries, radars and jammers, China seems unwilling to compromise. It has taken a rigid position mainly due to three emerging situations. First, China wants to send a message to India to distance itself from the US led Indo-Pacific Strategy and the US' demand for sending the WHO medical team to investigate the source of coronavirus to Wuhan province. Second, China feels that India’s border infrastructure development in the Ladakh region could pose a risk to the CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) project.  Third, there is a Chinese perception that the depending bilateral relationship between India and the US could be used against it. In that case, India-China border dispute escalation and de-escalation would be determined more by the future global and regional politics rather than being settled by the existing bilateral mechanisms. 

Author Note
This is part of South Asia Conflict Monitor, July 2020.