In a remote corner of the Himalayas, Indian and Chinese soldiers are engaged in fistfights and are hurling stones and abuses at each other. These low-level skirmishes in eastern Ladakh have taken place at Galwan River Valley and near Pangong lake, raising fears of a major border conflict between the two Asian giants. The two countries share a long border known as Line of Actual Control, or LAC, running from Ladakh to India’s northeast. Both the countries contest the actual length of this border — India claims it is 3,488 km, while China says the border is only around 2,000km long and the two sides disagree on the precise location of the LAC in 13 places.
So far, the two sides have avoided escalation of the border dispute, and local commanders have dealt with the fistfights. However, media reports suggest a disturbing buildup of troops and equipment and the latest round of tension may continue until the end of summer. Media reports said around 5,000 Chinese troops have gathered while India is preparing for a long haul at the border where soldiers are facing off at four different locations in Galwan.
Border disputes are seldom settled at the lines of control and require the intervention of the political leadership.
This is a disturbing development as India is battling a growing number of coronavirus cases and a struggling economy. China too is recovering from devastating effects of the pandemic. Escalation of a border dispute between two economic giants is the last thing global community would want when resources are required to protect public health and save economic systems from collapsing. Tens of millions of jobs are being lost in several continents, and India and China are no exception.
Despite this decades-old border dispute, Indian and Chinese leaderships have demonstrated remarkable ability to discuss and resolve complex trade and border issues across the table. In October last year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping sipped coconut water, warmly shook hands and posed for photographs in the backdrop of historic Hindu temples in the seaside town of Mamallapuram. The summit was highly symbolic as this port town was a major trading hub between India and China 2,000 years ago.
The latest round of border skirmishes, however, threatens to disrupt this bonhomie. Local army commanders in Galwan Valley may not be able to resolve this crisis or stop their men from escalating it. Border disputes are seldom settled at the lines of control and require the intervention of the political leadership. Modi and Jinping must step in and tell their commanders to back off from the border.