PLA soldiers and tanks disengage along the LAC at the India-China border in Ladakh

Both sides paid tribute to their soldiers who fought each other with clubs and rocks along the disputed border. Risk of conflict persists, charged by misunderstanding and bad sentiment, observers say

NEW DELHI: China and India offered tributes this week for the soldiers who died a year ago in a clash over the two countries’ disputed Himalayan border.

In India, the army released a video with a song commemorating the 20 Indian soldiers killed in the confrontation in the Galwan Valley. In China, the Xinjiang military region, which oversees the western border areas with India, arranged a low-key remembrance of its four casualties as part of centenary events for the Communist Party.

While the first anniversary of the deadliest encounter in decades between the Indian and Chinese forces was a chance to remember the lives lost, defence and international relations analysts said it was also time to work together to prevent a recurrence of the incident. But for that to happen, trust needed to be rebuilt on a number of fronts, they said.

Chinese and Indian forces have gradually disengaged from the Galwan area since the soldiers attacked each other with clubs and stones a year ago.

There were signs that Beijing was trying to avoid further friction, particularly around the anniversary, said Zhou Chenming, a researcher from the Yuan Wang military science and technology institute in Beijing.

“The low-profile memorial indicates that Beijing doesn’t want to incite national hatred between China and India, a vulnerable wound that has lasted for decades,” Zhou said. “Provoking national hatred will only lead bilateral relations to a dead end.”

However, the risk of conflict persists, according to Deependra Singh Hooda, a retired lieutenant general and former Northern Army commander of the Indian military.

In an article published on the Indian news site The Quint to mark the anniversary, Hooda wrote: “About 100,000 soldiers remain arrayed on both sides of the [Line of Actual Control, the disputed border], viewing each other with suspicion and mistrust.”

The presence of that mistrust is something that analysts in both countries agree on.

Zhou Bo, a retired Chinese senior colonel and senior fellow at the Centre for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said the Galwan clash changed the atmosphere surrounding relations between the two countries, destroying trust that had built up.

Nevertheless, both sides would abide by agreements reached between 1993 and 2013, limiting the number of troops and weapons deployed to the border areas, he said, adding that this was a positive sign.

One of the problems to overcome is the belief among many Indian researchers that the People’s Liberation Army planned the Galwan clash to give India a lesson, according to retired Indian diplomat and former ambassador to China Vijay Nambiar.

Nambiar’s view, delivered during an online forum organised by Tsinghua University, was supported by Gupta Yogesh, a former Indian ambassador to Denmark and a specialist in China-India relations, as well as Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy, an adjunct fellow at the Institute for Australia India Engagement.

“Of course it was pre-planned. The PLA went in for normal routine exercises in Xinjiang in early March, 2020 and then deceptively occupied the above territories taking advantage of India’s fight with the Covid-19 pandemic,” Yogesh said.

But both Zhou Bo and Zhou Chenming rejected the claim, saying China would not initiate any border problems because Beijing did not want to divert its attention from the ongoing competition with the United States.

Chaturvedy said prospects were further damaged when Changan Jian, a social media account linked to China’s Communist Party, posted an image online of a rocket launch in China alongside a photo of funeral pyres for Covid-19 victims in India.

“Mocking deaths in India using cartoons severely damaged sentiment which was already against China,” he said.

“The nature of [India-China] relations has changed. The damage is done already. It will take time to heal.”

Wang Dehua, an expert on India at the Shanghai Municipal Centre for International Studies, said there were also outdated views in India about China that had added to the misunderstanding.

“I’ve had exchanges with Indian researchers over the last decade, and found that some still believe that the Indian military has a stronger air force and mountain divisions than their PLA counterparts,” Wang said.

He said the two nuclear-armed countries could not afford to go to war against each other.

“I think the best and ideal option to maintain peace along the [LAC] is to withdraw all [Chinese and Indian] troops by about 20km on both sides, which was suggested by [late premier] Zhou Enlai in the aftermath of the skirmish in 1962 to create a peaceful [buffer] zone,” Wang said.

In the four-week 1962 conflict with China, India was dealt a humiliating defeat, with more than 1,300 dead and nearly 1,700 missing, along with some 1,000 wounded. About 700 PLA soldiers died and 1,400 were wounded, prompting both parties to reach a temporary truce along the unofficial LAC without specific border lines.

Zhou Bo, who has represented the PLA at various regional security forums such as the Shangri-La Dialogue, agreed that both sides could take a further step to establish buffer zones in the most dangerous areas along the LAC.

“I would say that it’s good that we haven’t shot at each other … China and India should set an example of how great powers could coexist by the [border] problem,” he said.

According to Hooda, the time is now to find an answer.

“If the Galwan incident teaches us a lesson, it is that local incidents have a life of their own and can spiral out of control. Both India and China need to give an impetus to find a quick resolution to the ongoing stand-off,” he said.