On June 15, 2020, Indian and Chinese troops were engaged in a brawl near the Galwan River, which led to the death of 20 Indian Soldiers. This marks a startling culmination of years of disputes between both countries. Clashes along the China-India border have been commonplace since 1962. In a nutshell, this ongoing territory dispute is about three sections: the western sector along with Kashmir, also a region where India and Pakistan frequently have conflicts; the eastern sector along southern Tibet, and the central sector composed of several pieces of territory. This article will mainly focus on the western section.
Three boundary lines
The border issues between China and India could be traced back to the period of British India. Three boundary lines were drawn by a British colonial officer: the Johnson Line, the Macartney-Macdonald Line, and the McMahon Line respectively referring to the western, central, and eastern controversial sectors. At present, the main border disputes and contradictions between China and India are in the western and eastern sections. Since the area covered by the central sector is relatively small and it is dominated by India, there is essentially no disagreement or conflict in this area for now.
The Sino-Indian border war in 1962 started in the western and eastern section at the same time, with the eastern section as the main battleground. The war continued for one month before China called a ceasefire. It also announced a withdrawal since the Chinese official military claimed that the war has achieved its policy objectives of securing borders in western sector, as China retained the control of the Aksai Chin. For India, after China’s withdrawal, it retained the eastern sector.
The importance of Aksai Chin
The disputes along the China-India border in the western sector probably would be the focus for China and India, at present and in the future. More specifically, the region Aksai Chin is the core area that both sides are fighting over. Located high in the Himalayas, covered in snow with extreme temperatures even in summer, this region is obviously too cold for human habitation. Then why is this place still so important for the two countries?
As far as India is concerned, Aksai Chin is actually less easily accessible from its side while the opposite for China. This could be seen when China started to build a road connecting Xinjiang and Tibet during 1950, as India was unaware of the construction until China showed it in its map. And since Aksai Chin is located at high altitude and is close to New Delhi, the territorial sovereignty apparently would have a direct impact on the security of India’s capital. Another aspect that cannot be overlooked is that Aksai Chin is connected with Kashmir, the region where India and Pakistan constantly have tense confrontations in. Considering the relations between China and Pakistan, if the wars were to break out between India and Pakistan, Aksai Chin would be strategically and geographically essential for China to lay pressure on India.
For China, the importance might be more self-evident. As mentioned earlier, Pakistan is partly involved in this game as well. In terms of the economic concern, China has invested more than $70 billion so far in the Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor project, which is also part of the Belt and Road Initiative. This economic corridor intends to strengthen the cooperation between China and Pakistan in the fields of transportation and energy to promote common development. It stretches from China’s Xinjiang to Gwadar Port of Pakistan. Therefore, securing Aksai Chin is like a counterbalance to the instability in Kashmir region, which will affect the economic corridor between China and Pakistan. Moreover, the construction of Gwadar Port is critically important since it will change the route that China imports oil and natural gas. Currently, 51% of China’s oil is imported, passing through the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea, and takes almost 120 days to reach China. With Gwadar Port, the time would be reduced to 28 days. And by then, Pakistan would become a pivot of China’s economy and a hub for global trade, directly leading to India’s decreasing weight in South Asia.
Will we see the partial war in the future?
Geographically, there is not so much room for further conflict in the western section. The place of the recent confrontation in Galwan Valley is a low plateau, which means people can move very easily. But the weather, altitude, and complicated terrain along the border makes everything tougher.
Economically, both countries currently put economy development as the priority and tend to avoid military escalation. As the conflict in June 2020 was eventually solved by a high-level talk, in the short run, we might see both countries conforming to the “peaceful solution”. But in a long run, the likelihood of this standoff being fixed in the end does not seem to be likely, so we may still see a long-running dispute.