India and China’s Border Crisis Drags On

by Michael Kugelman

India and China have been embroiled in a border crisis in the mountainous region of Ladakh for nearly two years. It began in May 2020, when Chinese troops made incursions into territory controlled by India, and it reached a peak that June with deadly clashes that killed 20 Indian soldiers and four Chinese soldiers.

Many months later, the crisis has not yet ended, thanks in great part to political considerations and strategic calculations in both countries. On Wednesday, Indian and Chinese military officials held talks to try to resolve it—the 14th round since June 2020.

Indian officials described the talks as “constructive.” But officials failed to reach agreement on a key agenda item: troop disengagements from the Hot Springs area, where up to 50 troops on both sides have hunkered down for another winter. (Previous rounds of talks have led to some disengagements from other areas.) Both countries still have thousands of troops along the border in eastern Ladakh.

The India-China border, known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC), extends for nearly 2,200 miles and is not demarcated. The two countries have engaged in many border spats, including a war in 1962. But they don’t typically last so long. The most recent major crisis, in 2017, went on for two months. That the Ladakh crisis has continued for two years reflects domestic politics in both countries, regional geopolitics, and the nature of the crisis itself.

Both China and India are led by deeply nationalistic governments, and neither side has a strong domestic political incentive to back down. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s nationalism has played out in foreign policy through an aggressive pursuit of Beijing’s interests abroad, including its territorial claims. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi expresses nationalism internationally by taking hard lines against India’s rivals. After the 2020 clash in Ladakh, he curbed commercial cooperation with China, although bilateral trade volume still crossed $100 billion in 2021.

Before the border crisis, India-China tensions already ran deep, thanks to an expanding Chinese presence in South Asia through the Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing had grown concerned by increasing U.S.-India security ties and New Delhi by deepening China-Pakistan relations. More recent developments, such as the momentum of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and U.S. and Indian criticism of China’s handling of COVID-19, have further poisoned India-China relations.

Finally, the Ladakh crisis was no run-of-the-mill dispute: Border spats between India and China are rarely violent, much less deadly. Troops don’t carry heavy weapons while patrolling; in June 2020, Indian soldiers were reportedly beaten with nail-studded rods and thrown to their deaths into a freezing river. Some died from asphyxiation and hyperthermia. The intense violence was inherently escalatory, generating anger and mistrust that won’t be easy to overcome. Each side has many steps to climb back down to de-escalate.

India and China appear to be digging in for the long haul. According to a South China Morning Post investigation, both countries are building infrastructure along the border, including airstrips and garrisons. They’re conducting surveillance and staging drills. Chinese forces have deployed a long-range rocket launcher closer to the border. In October, Indian Army chief M.M. Naravane didn’t mince words. “If they are there to stay, we are there to stay, too,” he said of Chinese forces.

Kyle Gardner, an India-China border expert, warns that such activities point to a “sustained, broader militarization of the LAC” and highlight the heightened risks of small-scale conflict. Given what happened last time, a fresh standoff could easily turn bloody. With each side seeking to protect itself, the long-standing protocols on the use of firearms may be discarded.

More weaponry raises the likelihood of more violence and increases the risk of extended hostilities between Asia’s two nuclear-armed giants. Each of these developments shows why continued dialogue is essential; it hasn’t put an end to the last crisis, but it can still head off the next one.