India and China Tussle on the Roof of the World

The snowbound winter is a deep freeze. The wind is icy. All work stops, including the fighting. Everything is compressed into the thawed late spring, summer and early autumn … including the fighting. It is here that the Indian and Chinese armies face each other over a historically uncertain border. The troops are fractious.

Such is the situation on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, which itself is high enough to be known as the roof of the world. The confrontation between the world’s two most populous nations, both nuclear-armed, reached a crisis point recently. Relations plumbed a nadir when during a heated meeting of officers to resolve immediate issues a hand-to-hand fight broke out resulting in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers. The Chinese have yet to announce the figures for their losses.

In this surprising encounter the weapons of choice appear to have been nail-studded clubs now displayed on Indian news sites. Why the officers were not carrying firearms goes back to previous attempts to resolve disputes along this 2500 mile long colonial-era border.

Known originally as the McMahon Line and agreed upon by British India, China and Tibet, a line of demarcation was drawn up and accepted by the three parties. Implicit in the agreement incidentally was Chinese suzerainty over Tibet. So it was that the Chinese had written backing for their claim when they annexed Tibet in 1951, putting it under direct control.

After numerous border incidents in the next four decades, Indian prime minister Narasimha Rao decided to accept the de facto border giving up some territory on the western half in exchange for peace. Signed September 7, 1993, and called the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas, it was a bold political step for the prime minister as India had not been able to get over its humiliating defeat by the Chinese in the month long war of October 20 – November 21, 1962.

The 1993 agreement was followed by others to buttress the original treaty. In 1996, the two countries drew up further clauses aimed to prevent actual hostilities. Article VI Section 1 bans the use of firearms against one another. It also bars explosives within two kilometers of the Line of Actual Control on both sides. While the soldiers have arms at their border posts, the long standing practise has been for them to be unarmed during any fact-to-face meetings. Hence the brawl that degenerated into medieval combat leading to the deaths of the aforementioned 20 Indian soldiers and so far an unnamed number of Chinese.

To reinforce the previous agreements, the two countries signed another in 2005 expressing their continued willingness to abide by the 1993 and 1996 treaties. But now Narendra Modi has come into office. His muscular stance on the border has been of concern to the Chinese. If India has been building new roads and bridges to facilitate troop movement, the Chinese have moved a substantial force, advertising in their media its prowess and that of special armoured vehicles designed for use on the high Tibetan plateau.

Meanwhile, the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar have discussed the situation via telephone to lower temperatures and adhere to the signed agreements. And military representatives have taken over the task of disengagement. It looks like India’s new road (completed last year) from the Ladakh capital, Leh, all the way to the Karakoram pass has become a fait accompli.

There it stands. Neither side really wants war for rational economic reasons but then it seems neither side is truly happy with the current peace. It was to prevent an accidental flareup that the 1996 agreement restricting the use of firearms and explosives was signed. Rationality would predict it will hold although danger always lies in the accidental and the irrational … just like the brawl.

Arshad M. Khan is a former professor who has, over many years, written occasionally for the print and often for online media outlets.