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China and India were both looking to back down from a border crisis. Then soldiers died.

Keeping calm has helped defuse previous tensions

- June 16, 2020

In June 2020, for the first time in 45 years, Indian and Chinese soldiers engaged in fatal, localized skirmishes along the more than 2,000-mile disputed boundary between the two countries. It’s a significant escalation of tensions between the two Asian nuclear powers, who have been engaged in a sometimes-violent standoff since early May, though one that had until this week not led to any deaths.

The situation had already attracted considerable international concern, with President Trump on May 27 offering U.S. diplomatic assistance to India and China to help resolve what he called at that earlier stage “their now raging border dispute.”

What has happened so far?

As M. Taylor Fravel explained in the Monkey Cage on June 2, this current crisis was already different from other recent Sino-Indian skirmishes because “China is simultaneously putting pressure … in multiple areas in the western sector” of the disputed border. Indian and Chinese troops have generally avoided clashes along the Line of Actual Control, or LAC, the de facto border since the 1962 Sino-Indian war. In at least 23 places, the location of the LAC is itself disputed.

China appears to have seized some small portion of these disputed zones, perhaps out of concern that Indian road and bridge projects in the area might have made it harder for China to maintain its claims if it did not move first. This type of “fait accompli” is common in interstate land grabs, but there’s a risk. Dan Altman, in his 2017 study, finds that about 1 in 3 initial land grab attempts trigger a retaliatory land grab by the aggrieved country, while a similar fraction erupt into wars.

One path to war may be public pressures — what political scientists call “audience costs” — that make it difficult for leaders to de-escalate. Since this current crisis began in early May, the government of India has been exceptionally vague in official statements about where Chinese troops are, how many of them are involved or even how many clashes have occurred, in an apparent effort to maintain space for negotiations.

One location that has been subject to intense scrutiny in press reporting and social media is the Galwan River Valley. India views the LAC near this valley to be undisputed, so Chinese troops crossing there would be an enlargement, in India’s view, of the extent of China’s claim, though there is evidence that at least some precrisis Chinese maps claimed almost all of the valley as Chinese territory.

The two sides appeared to be backing off

Many pro-government analysts in India had argued for weeks that there had never been a substantial or sustained incursion in the Galwan River Valley. These same analysts admitted to an incursion along Pangong Lake further south, where there was a known disagreement about the LAC’s location. One of these analysts stressed, however, that “China has not ‘captured’ any Indian territory” — presumably, if China had done so, India would have to do something about it.

On June 13, the Indian army signaled that while the standoff at Pangong Lake continued, “both sides” were “disengaging in a phase manner” in other areas, notably in the area of the Galwan River. Then on Tuesday, the Indian army admitted, “During the de-escalation process under way in the Galwan Valley, a violent face-off took place yesterday night with casualties.”

At least 20 Indian personnel have died, including a colonel, and social media rumors suggest a higher toll is possible. While there were also reports of Chinese casualties, the number or severity are not known. China’s People’s Liberation Army Western Theater Command issued a statement claiming, “The sovereignty of the Galwan River Valley has always been ours,” and accused India of “provocative attacks” leading to Monday’s clashes.

The fact that these fatalities occurred in or near the Galwan River Valley, during the ostensible disengagement process, seems likely to lead to further recriminations about whether the Indian government can be trusted to inform its public about the scope and scale of the Chinese incursion.

What happens now?

The Indian government’s playbook relies heavily on lessons learned in earlier Sino-Indian crises. Former national security adviser Shivshankar Menon observed there was a formula for peaceful outcomes: “keeping public rhetoric calm and steady, displaying strength, and giving the adversary a way out. … It was not tweeting or whining in public, brandishing our nuclear weapons, or threatening war.” That playbook may no longer be tenable.

That would be a worrisome development, because public pressures have exacerbated Sino-Indian conflicts in the past. In 1959, as skirmishes worsened between Indian and Chinese forces along the frontier, the public criticized the embattled government of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru for having withheld facts about the severity of the dispute. Nehru began releasing all official Indian diplomatic correspondence with China to assuage growing parliamentary criticism. Rather than give Nehru credibility from which to negotiate, as Tanvi Madan observes, “agitated public opinion became a potential veto point in India’s decisionmaking on China.”

Backing down in public — for either side, but especially in democratic India — is always much harder than making quiet concessions in private. Those public pressures led Nehru to pursue a risky “forward policy” of trying to maneuver and push Chinese troops out of the disputed areas, eventually triggering the 1962 Sino-Indian war.

With the full scrutiny of the Indian media focused on the dispute, and China now having publicly stressed its sovereignty over the Galwan River Valley, it’s not clear how the two sides will stand down. The deaths of Indian and perhaps Chinese soldiers, though, raised the stakes beyond just fisticuffs and injured pride.

Whether countries seek diversionary conflicts during times of domestic troubles or instead avoid costly conflicts when facing problems at home remains a topic of debate among by political scientists. With both India and China juggling coronavirus pressures and economic recession at home, that proposition will be tested in the high Himalayas.