The most violent encounter in decades between the Chinese and Indian armies arrayed along a disputed border high in the Himalayas did not involve any exchange of gunfire. Instead, soldiers from the two nuclear-armed nations fashioned weapons from what they could find in the desolate landscape, some 14,000 feet above sea level. Wielding fence posts and clubs wrapped in barbed wire, they squared off under a moonlit sky along jagged cliffs soaring high above the Galwan Valley, fighting for hours in pitched hand-to-hand battles. By the next day, 20 Indian troops were dead. It remains unclear if there were Chinese casualties.
One must ask what Beijing’s motivations are. The initial reaction, particularly from China-watchers in the United States, has been to tie Beijing’s moves along the LAC to a broader set of assertive measures, including recent measures to further erode Hong Kong’s autonomy. Beijing, they argue, is exploiting a leadership vacuum in Asia as the United States reels from the coronavirus pandemic, signaling to its neighbors that it is emerging as the region’s dominant power.
In fact, there are indications that China is responding in part to U.S.-backed Indian unilateral measures made last year. Last August, the Indian government revoked the nominal autonomy of the broader Jammu and Kashmir region, annexing the disputed region which had the status of a state according to the Indian constitution. New Delhi then divided the former “state” into two separate territories: “Jammu and Kashmir” and “Ladakh,” the latter being both the location of recent Chinese ingresses and home to territory claimed by Beijing.
We have informed both India and China that the United States is ready, willing and able to mediate or arbitrate their now raging border dispute. Thank you!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 27, 2020
Indeed, it appears that both New Delhi and Washington have severely miscalculated how Beijing would respond to the annexation of Kashmir last year. Additionally, the United States, and the State Department, in particular, offered its tacit endorsement of India’s annexation of Kashmir, suggesting that the move could promote economic prosperity in the area and deflecting congressional scrutiny over the draconian lockdown imposed by India over the region. U.S. policymakers see India as a benign power in South Asia and view its extraterritorial actions and unilateralism in recent decades as exceptions to a policy of restraint. But that view is not shared by many of India’s neighbors who have a historical memory of Indian aggression. As a result, they are turning to China to balance India.
Indian officials often speak of a two-front war with China and Pakistan. And though such a scenario is presently unlikely, India’s Hindu nationalist government, emboldened by the United States, risks veering into one in the years ahead should it fail to revisit its current regional policy.