The Galwan River Valley of Ladakh, a region claimed by both India and China, has been facing increased tensions over the past year. After more than four decades without any bloodshed, the region was the scene for a bloody skirmish that began on June 15, 2020, according to World Politics Review. At least 20 Indian soldiers were killed by “fists, stones and nail studded bamboo,” CNN reports. The Chinese have not confirmed nor denied any casualties they undertook because of the June battle. Although talks took place over the following months to de-escalate the region, conflict broke out again. Lacking mutual trust and transparency, the talks accomplished little.
For the first time since 1975, warning shots were fired into the air at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in early September, according to Foreign Policy. Following the Sino-Indian war of 1962, several agreements were signed, including one in 1996 in which both countries agreed to bar the use of guns and explosives at the LAC. According to the BBC, this agreement has not prevented clashes at the LAC.
Who fired first in September remains unclear, with each side accusing the other of escalating tension. In breaching the agreement of 1996, the firing side would be in violation of international law. Regardless of the moratorium on gunfire, both sides have accused the other of violating provisions of other agreements. The Wall Street Journal reports, that India claims Chinese troops occupy strategic positions that “violate agreements about how the informal border should be manned.” Conversely, China accuses India of crossing into territory China claims for itself. China, on the other hand, asserts that India is “building infrastructure, such as roads and airports, that alter the strategic balance in the area.”
The precarious understanding between China and India has been threatened by actions on both sides, leading to distrust between leaders. In the past, there were certain policies and protocols that both sides respected. The Economist reports that “firearms were forbidden, patrols that bumped into one another should not follow one another and heavy weapons should be kept to a minimum.” Yet, with recent interactions, these past safeguards have been ignored by both sides.
It is clear that even before the warning shots in September, both sides have been preparing for long-term occupation of Ladakh. The brutal Himalayan winters usually subdue military activity, and border disputes are minimized. However, “sky-high tensions are likely to make this year different,” as reported by experts and security officials in The Wall Street Journal. The Indian army has been fortifying its outposts and camps with provisions for winter, such as increased essential supplies, arctic tents, and prefabricated huts. Indian military officials reported to The Wall Street Journal that aviation fuel, kerosene, and diesel have been relocated as well.
China claims that actions such as these are what have caused high tension and have resulted in the mobilization of Chinese troops along the LAC. However, The Wall Street Journal reports that “China has been building roads, encampments, helipads and other defensive positions across the disputed Line of Actual Control.” Satellite images confirm construction in regions neighboring the LAC.
Amid the rising military tensions between India and China, India appears to be retaliating through diplomatic and economic means. Following the June border dispute, India banned 59 Chinese apps, including TikTok and WhatsApp, as reported by The Economist. World Politics Review reports that India cancelled a “major railway contract won by a Chinese firm,” and is pushing for the use of non-Chinese equipment in various projects. As of September 2, India banned an additional 118 Chinese apps, according to The Economist.
The role of the media in the conflict has also been a factor amidst the escalation. The lack of reporting from the front lines has created an atmosphere where facts cannot be made clear. This has led to national media outlets echoing government statements and calling for action, leading to a spur of nationalism in both countries. With national support, neither China nor India appears willing to backdown in Ladakh.